“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell
Freedom of expression is indispensable. It is a doctrinal system that advocates the liberty and freedom of an individual or a society to enunciate, articulate, propagate and expound their considerations, ideational ethos, identities, philosophies, grievances, emotions and expressions without having a fear that their emphatic and vigorous demonstration and communication of natural rights can invoke the wrath of government censorship, or can cause retribution, or elicit legal or illicit sanctions and restrictions. The worldwide celebrated institutional regimes such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law by the United Nations have accorded the right to freedom of speech its deserving and justifiable place by making worldwide recognition of the right as a human right or natural right. A gamut of countries has appreciated the utmost significance of the right by codifying laws concerning the freedom of expression and embodying them in the constitutional order. In political discourse, free speech has assumed greater importance because legitimate and rightful freedom of speech is a potent and effective tool in articulating individual or community-specific ideas, values and legit discontent coupled with making government much more receptive to the aggrieved, disgruntled and dispossessed classes of society at large.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights enshrined in Article 19 that everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without (political) interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. It is unquestionably infeasible and impracticable and thus unworkable to extend the absolute and unqualified right to free speech out of the legitimate and cogent concern that uncheckered and unbridled freedom of expression leads to the arbitrary and unwarranted flouting of the legalized right. This was the well-founded and plausible disincentive of why The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) has trammelled and curbed the unreserved liberation of the right to freedom of expression.
John Stuart Mill in his distinguished and notable book propounds justification for the curtailment of individual rights. ‘Harm principles or offensive principles are the well-known epithets which have been deployed to propose a tenable vindication for speech limitations, struggling to explain the restrictions, limits and restraints on expressions believed offensive to society.
Freedom of expression breeds a wide spectrum of benefits including the most admired and cherished one is that it cultivates, buttresses and promotes pluralism in a society marked by assorted cultures, divergent norms, distinct moorings and disparate beliefs systems. Most nations can be characterized as heterogeneous or inhomogeneous because of their socio-politico and demographic composition. In such variegated and motley societies, the most prevalent and persistently-nagging problem is striking a balanced and sympathetic chord with their multicoloured and diversified people. It has been consistently noted that in societies where there is a lack of homogeneous and kindred nations, there exists a pre-eminent elite class that is intolerant, bigoted, narrow-minded and provincial in terms of their beliefs, mindsets, and ideologies and consideration. They ceaselessly pester and persecute other classes which they found out of their fraternity cohort.
The dominant class does not allow the less-privileged or relegated communities to enjoy their religious, political and economic rights out of the apprehension that if they are allowed to partake in the national political discourse, then, over time, the relegated and disgruntled class would supersede them and establish their hegemony which would be inimical to the interests of the existing elite class. It leads to vitriolic competition among different groups of the same society. It deters pluralism, discouraging the evolution of a pluralist dialogue that would have assisted in dispelling the irreconcilable perspectives.
In addition to the absence of a cross-cultural dialogue, the repression or diminution of the right to free speech has another greater consequence, namely, political polarization. Political polarization is an unedifying situation where the social fabric of a nation is challenged and besieged by a system of politics where cultural, ideational, communal, value-based and ethnic differences are too explosive and detrimental that a cross-culture dialogue is unthinkable, thus resulting in a situation where societies and political system are divided along partisan and narrow ideological and ethnic lines. Political division or polarization results in a societal fragmentation into irreconcilable and clashing pieces. This fault line engenders a ceaselessly confrontational atmosphere between government and opposition.
This divided and disunited political apparatus works to the detriment of an otherwise united and coherent nation made up of disparate and divergent sub-national clusters. This fragmented and disjointed system undercuts the quintessential ethos of democracy as well as economic and political stabilisation. This polarity defines the contours of the political system as all the more ferocious and combustible. The take-no-prisoners approach is too inflammable to bring any potent political middle ground that would have helped to make reconciliation of their discordant perspectives and belief systems. It also rules out the possibility and prospects for bridging the divide. Extreme partisanship and insular mindsets of politicians make the functioning of the political system impossible.
Furthermore, intolerant and prejudiced politicians permeate the political landscape with polarizing tendencies, rendering democracy dysfunctional. It flounders the democratic consolidation. Intolerance denudes the democratic system of essential ingredients such as accommodation, conciliation, tolerance, confidence-building and consensus. This is a major catalyst for democratic backsliding in a number of countries. Polarised politics injects a toxic and virulent characteristic into the political conversation.
Likewise, a nation devoid of free speech harasses and at times prosecutes human rights champions, lawyers, and journalists for condemning and criticizing government officials and policies, and makes the society unlivable for liberal, broad-minded and metropolitan activists. Authorities instrumentalize draconian and counterterrorism statutes to squelch dissent, civil society groups, and organizations critical of the government’s distrustful and unjustifiable policies and actions.
Strikingly, there is a certain class that confronts disproportionate and lopsided persecution, violence and discrimination, namely, transgenders, human rights apostles, women, and religious and ethnolinguistic minorities. The perpetrators and miscreants enjoy impunity. Enforced disappearances, untenable torture, and extrajudicial homicide are the straightforward consequences of lax natural rights.
Slack enforcement of speech rights is a strong instrument in the hands of authority to prosecute and harry political opponents. In developing countries, the political atmosphere is fraught with extreme polarization, woeful education index, flaccid civil society and efficacious and fully-functional legal and constitutional framework. These undesirable elements are responsible for an educated middle class that is responsive and receptive to unfair stimulus. The political or governing elites fully capitalized on the regressive and backward condition of their people by instituting unjustifiable restrictions on free speech. These laws are tools for the established elite to squelch the dissent in order to perpetuate and consolidate their vested interests.
Therefore, efficient and forceful legal and constitutional order is a sine qua non for a country where a façade of democracy prevails rather than a deeply-rooted and consolidated democratic dispensation. People have to educate themselves so as to come to grips with the political elite dedicated to perpetuating and reinforcing their vested interests.
In the same vein, there are other miscellanies of detriments of a political system lacking speech rights. As we know that civil society is an indispensable and consequential institutional structure in terms of doing grand works for a society by highlighting the excesses of political and other legally institutionalized classes or organizations such as the police, other law enforcement agencies and the military. This institution works as a middle ground between the government and the public. Civil cities make genuine efforts to integrate the most marginalised and disposed section of the society into the mainstream section.
Because civil societies work for common people or the public, and for many counts to the detriment of the established elite that is self-centred and cannot permit any intruder or messiah to challenge their power structure, they are a frequent target of the elites’ violence, persecution and discrimination. They harry and pester them just because they work for the community, and their social activities are many times inimical to the established elite’s interests. There remains a diversion of interests between them, they often find themselves in a mutually exclusive relationship.
Together with the above-discussed objectionable and repellent flouting of the right by the political establishment, religious persecution is carried out on an individual or a group of individuals out of their affiliations, associations and belief systems. This is organized and systematic maltreatment of a religious class. This is a recurrent theme in the political history of human beings that a dominant class has over time suppressed or alienated different subgroups or subcultures as a means to perpetuate and reinforce their vested interests.
Religious dogmatism, extremism and fanaticism are the common triggers that engender a narrow-minded, provincial and parochial atmosphere where pluralism, cross-culturalism and ethnic mosaic are debased to a level that it becomes inconceivable to breed a culture of tolerance, impartiality, evenhandedness, and equity. The contributing factors that we discussed above such as political polarization, intolerance and vested interests of political elites constitute a symbiotic relationship and these individual factors feed into each other, resulting in a society that is unlivable because of the prevalence of zealotry, fanaticism, bigotry, fundamentalism, violence and discrimination.
A religious community debases and denigrates the values, credos, affiliations, philosophies and expressions on unsustainable grounds. Religious persecution sometimes escalates into incitement to genocidal proclivities. Religious bigots are the perpetrators of dehumanization because they make their lives trouble-ridden. Religious bigots foster an unfair and prejudiced disposition which leads to the disownment of the inalienable human rights of a suppressed and persecuted class.
Apart from the consequences given above, the dispossession of children’s rights is also an outcome of the violent and partial suppression and persecution of the social activists and apologists who bring such unscrupulous conduct to the limelight and make an endeavour to make them answerable for their wrongdoings and iniquities. Child protection embodies protecting them from the unpalatable ramifications of family breakdown, separation from their parents, regressive cognitive development, social orientation, gender identity, national origin and disability. Freedom of speech, Freedom of thought, Freedom from fear, Freedom of choice and the right to make decisions, and ownership over one’s body are some inviolable rights.
To safeguard children against the ferocity of the expropriation of these sacrosanct rights, freedom of expression is a sine qua non. Social activists and revolutionaries raise their voices propounding the infringement of children’s rights. They also become victims of the political elite’s wrath as the accumulation and concentration of power by the political establishment leads to the emergence of an iniquitous, unfair, inequitable and unbalanced society where the disenfranchisement of the inalienable and non-negotiable rights by the power elite feeds into the misery of ordinary people.
In addition to these challenges, women’s rights or the institutionalised entitlements for women are also in jeopardy in the face of the suppression of free speech. Women are not entitled to equal status in many societies of the world, they are not empowered enough to select their spouse, to enjoy social mobility as a man enjoys as they have to suffer from unsustainable discrimination and prejudice in profession, the amnesty International has highlighted women discrimination in all its possible permutations ranging from direct discrimination when unambiguous discrimination is made between disparate groups of individuals on the indefensible grounds, for example certain law can make women-specific provisions demanding some prerequisite for getting a job, and such provisions are not applicable for men; and indirect discrimination when a certain group does not enjoy a certain level of education because of the socio-economic barriers, but they are legally required to measure up to certain qualification as a means to get a job, they would be incapacitated and other groups will replace them because they enjoy disproportionate privileges in a society where though laws and legislations are not explicitly skewed, but they still have adverse reverberations; to intersectional discrimination when a set of law institutionalizes discrimination against a specific group such as discrimination and violence against different ethnolinguistic groups.
Toxic and virulent rhetoric is deployed by political leaders or demagogues across the world. Women are subject to demonization.
A host of persecuted and marginalised people have to brook displacement out of the well-founded dread of persecution and violence by the authorities in their home countries. These asylum-seekers have to endure the vagaries of life in the form of untenable and unwarrantable violence and maltreatment and harassment. A country suffering from the menace of free speech deprivation finds itself in a quandary because they are incapacitated and helpless in front of a powerful political authority to do tangible and valuable activism. Social activists are unprotected and defenceless, and this defenselessness feeds into the marginalization of a certain community.
Not to mention the scourge of forced disappearances. This is a strategic and tactful tool in the authorities’ hands as it is exploited to spread terror in a society that if the dissents will not bring their action in tune with the political elite’s interests, not only the dissent but also his intimate relatives will have to suffer the concomitant sufferings and miseries of enunciating the right to free speech.
Now it’s time to shed light on the significance and weight of the right to free speech.
Firstly, the process of the democratization of a political system cannot be consummated if the system abominates the inalienable right to freedom of expression. Amnesty International has reiterated the assertion that countries, where the infringement of free speech is prevalent, have abysmal and woeful rankings in democratic, social empowerment and discrimination-free indices. These are all the perverse and obstructive ingredients in the process of the democratization of a political system. In other words, free speech is a vital spark for democracy. It is unquestionable that free speech breeds pluralism an essential constituent for the evolution and consolidation of democracy.
Open and transparent public discussion and debates are the factors responsible for democratic consolidation. The absence of these constitutive elements results in a system denuded of tolerance, consensus, confidence-building initiatives and transparency.
The right to free speech facilitates proper consideration of assorted interests and values. This culture is at the heart of the consolidation of democracy. A society that denigrates and debases a pluralist dialogue and abhors incorporating the diversity into a system made up of heterogeneous colours finds itself embroiled in a quagmire of bigotry, fundamentalism, chauvinism and unfairness. For a democratic system to reach its efflorescence, it is indispensable to permit the positive development of remotely cultures’ interactions and intermingling. This yields highly positive and desirable results by making them broad-minded and liberal who are determined to co-operate and co-ordinate instead of squabbling and battling on unsustainable grounds of the ethnic mixture.
It eases the process of pluralist and cross-cultural negotiation that leads to consensual policies. The untrammelled flow of expression, ideas and beliefs fortify the community. It motivates and galvanizes the process of pluralistic, multi-ethnic and liberal dialogue.
Freedom of expression also underpins other equally important rights and permits them to flourish. Right to information or accessibility to information plays a decisive role in the maturation of a society that treasures the ethos, values and principles of pluralism, democracy, tolerance and evenhandedness. These are the values that make society and community tolerant and liberal who are galvanized by broad ideas; and serves their nation without getting trapped in the insignificant discussions of polarization, division, secession and parochialism.
In addition to that, freedom of expression fosters and facilitates the maturation and growth of knowledge. Enlightened knowledge disparages those who try to acquire knowledge through a monolithic approach; enlightened and progressive knowledge becomes elusive and distant to those who are selective because of their prejudice to other cultures, values, and ethos. Sophisticated and illuminated knowledge can only be gleaned if a man is liberal, open-minded, and ready to accept his foibles and embrace others’ cultural, educational and religious paramountcy. Embracing the freedom of expression with an open heart leads to the eradication of evil forces such as fundamentalism, orthodoxy and dogmatism. Cultured knowledge acquired from liberal and metropolitan minds furnish us with productivity tools that will help humans to further advance in the field of science, technology and ideas. These all constructive and fruitful profits cannot be garnered with a parochial and provincial mind.
To conclude, it can be arguably asserted that freedom of speech is a sine qua non for a society aspiring to become enlightened, advanced and pre-eminent. Espousing ideas such as free speech and pluralist dialogue erodes the entrenched ceiling of bigotry, parochialism, sectarianism, dogmatism and chauvinism. It helps to facilitate and galvanize a political system where every individual has an inalienable right of making articulate his preferences, beliefs, ideational ethos and values, resulting in a vibrant, coherent and homogeneous community. They may have discordant and disparate affiliations, ideologies and belief systems but they are not bigots and fundamentalists who are opposed to a pluralist and liberal environment where every person has a sacrosanct right to articulate and expound what he desires. Such societies are internally consolidated and reinforced, making it challenging for endogenous powers to exploit the schism and polarization that would further exacerbate the degraded and deteriorated condition.
Democratic consolidation or democratic imperatives are unthinkable in an atmosphere where pluralist dialogue, conversations and discussions are squelched; in a number of countries, degenerated and decrepit democracy is a straightforward consequence of depreciation and diminution of the right to freedom of expression. The apologists for the unalienable right to freedom of expression have become a target of those political establishments whose vested interests are threatened and jeopardized by the articulation and enunciation of expressions, disgruntlement, and indignation. A toxic and combustible political atmosphere resulted from rights infringement totters and stumbles democratic maturation. The transgression of entitled rights harries and pesters ordinary people, particularly the sub-groups of society. These sub-communities suffer indiscriminate violence, discrimination, contravention of their rights and the elite’s wrath. They became marginalised, disenfranchised and relegated groups of society.