In this day and age when being offended has become a perfectly acceptable justification to suppress someone’s freedom of speech, scarce are the people who advocate for the unconditionality of the political right.
I am one of these people.
I strongly believe that freedom of expression can only be absolute. Otherwise, it is pointless. Irrelevant.
As in the words of American philosopher Noam Chomsky:
If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.
So when Leni Robredo ― the person who holds the second-highest public office in the Philippines ― launched a campaign against free speech which she conveniently marketed as “war on trolls,” I was both appalled and fascinated by the sheer irony of it all. The declaration came from the same public official who, just last month, urged the Filipino public to “fight for the right to speak dissent.”
Luckily for her, even hypocrisy and double standards are protected by our political right to freedom of expression.
During her speech, Robredo quips:
The success of our democracy — and the state of our rights and freedoms — will depend on how we protect the truth.
I disagree. Such is an excuse of dictatorial regimes, not democracies. And history is rife with relevant footnotes.
The success of our democracy doesn’t depend on safeguarding an arbitrarily defined regime of truth, it will depend on the health of our political discourse. It will depend on our capacity as a nation to dissect issues and opinions, regardless how grievously they offend us.
The success of our democracy will depend on our audacity to accept and use criticism in molding policies of compromise which are necessary to the governance of a society with a multitude of clashing ideals and opinions. All can be achieved through an unrestricted flow of ideas because no person, no political ideology, no religion has the monopoly of the truth.
Such is democracy.
We live in a country where free speech is enshrined in our Constitution. It is deemed so important to political liberty that even so-called “trolls,” no matter how obnoxious or offensive, are protected by it. It’s the price we have to pay for all its wonders.
Engage! Do not censor.
It is important to understand that just because someone doesn’t agree with our opinion, it makes them a troll. I have seen a lot of cases where someone posts a belief contrary to what the majority espouses, they are flagged as a troll or their page is mass-reported,something the office of Robredo is guilty of.
Such strategy rarely works, nor does ignoring them. Silence is, in itself, a reaction. When a person tries to engage you in a discussion and you pull away, that person wins the argument. They get what they want.
That’s how lies, if they’re indeed lies, become the truth, Leni Robredo. (I believe you mentioned this in your speech.) If you want to keep “lies” from assuming the appearance of “truth,” discuss, do not ignore. Engage, do not censor.
Protect speech at all cost
When we censor speech, when we restrict expression, we do not only hurt those who are censored. We also hurt ourselves in the process. Any form of censorship retards the progress of political discourse. They also bestow unjustifiable overconfidence in unchallenged ideas.
Censorship curtails the possibility of radical change, which is why Irish playwright, critic and polemicist George Bernard Shaw thinks that “the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.”
All opinions deserve the equal opportunity to be heard.
Opinions that are popular usually do not need protection. It is the unpopular ones, or those which are unpopular with the Establishment, that need to be protected. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may have had this in mind when he told the Catholic Church, “I may not agree with your statement but I will defend your right to say it.”
It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to hear. Every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own action.
There is simply no logical basis for censorship, regardless whether it is imposed by a government office or not. It is fundamentally irrational because it demands two tremendous leaps of faith.
That, first, we must trust that all our ideas are inherently, absolutely, immaculately perfect.
And second, that there’s an entity capable of identifying which ideas adhere to this degree of perfection.