In Reply to: “The freedom of independence”

by Patrick Visser, an American student reading BA War Studies at King’s College London.

This post is a response to our previous article: “The Freedom of Independence”.

I don’t understand. You simultaneously state freedom of speech is important while suggesting that it is not appropriate for certain cultures. Then, more worryingly, you attack the very idea of free speech with statements such as: “It doesn’t matter if our words create chaos or violence”.

First, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “even the most stringent extension of free speech would not protect a man shouting fire in a theatre for the purposes of causing a panic”. Second, subject to the above restriction, freedom of speech is pretty much an all our nothing affair. You have to take the rough with the smooth. If mere words can cause “chaos or violence” then there are clearly deeper underlying social problems that go beyond people being able to speak their mind. Linking us to…“It doesn’t matter if we offend anyone” you’re damn right it doesn’t.

Nowhere in the social contract does it give you the right not to be offended. If something I say pisses you off, by all means debate it with me, ignore me, or even get really mad. But do not use your anger as a crutch to get me to stop talking. If we limit the freedom of speech because it might hurt someone’s feelings or not be politically correct then the whole concept is meaningless.

Re: “As if no country prefers to keep certain topics from the public realm” – Yeah, many governments would prefer to keep certain topics from being debated. I’m sure Bush would have loved if criticism of his administration could be silenced. The difference is it wasn’t. In Singapore it was. The fundamental and key difference between what a government would prefer to happen and what actually happens cannot be overstated. Indeed the very essence of free speech is that an overbearing government cannot silence dissent when it wants to.

You then go on to straw man the Reports Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Drawing a faux comparison between Singapore’s press restrictions and Myanmar’s massacres, which have nothing to do with each other. Nor is it the place or purpose for Reporters without Borders to give weight to Myanmar’s massacres when determining where to place it or Singapore on the World Press Freedom Index. The fact that Singapore is 150th on the index is just that. A fact. It is not normative, not tainted by any pro-western bias but measurable and quantifiable according to the complex metrics used in the creation of that database. The same goes for the statement “Dissent – and political opponents – were ruthlessly quashed.” That happened. Whether the reader draws parallels to a “demonic, autocratic society” (they would in fact be wrong, as you point out) is irrelevant. You cannot wish away a crackdown on political liberty just because it had positive results in the long run.

I’m not arguing on the plane that Lee Kuan Yew was a ruthless dictator or a tyrant. The essence of leadership is to make hard choices for the benefit of your people. By all accounts Singapore is better for having had Lee Kuan Yew as a leader and I personally also feel and he was strong, effective, the right man to guide Singapore through a potentially disastrous point in its history and a good man with the best interests of his people at heart to boot. That doesn’t mean that we should whitewash that his success was bought at the cost of a major loss in political freedom. Maybe that cost was worth paying but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. What makes your piece all the more baffling is that the BBC article gives dues credit to Lee Kuan Yew’s success in building a modern and prosperous Singapore. You seem to take issue that the article highlights criticism of him at all. Furthermore, surely you wouldn’t argue with the article’s criticism that, while perhaps necessary at first, Singapore’s continuing press restrictions are a bad thing?

Look, I understand the tendency to lionise one’s nation’s founding fathers. We in the US are more guilty of it than most. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t criticize Thomas Jefferson for being a slave owning adulterer or Henry Lee for being a slave owning racist just because they wrote the Constitution and brought forth onto this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men a created equal. Nobody is perfect; there are no sacred cows in history.

The underlying assumption of your article is that freedom of speech is a Western value. This is preposterous. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human value. It works just fine in places as varied and Argentina, South Korea and Japan. The fact that South Africa is higher on the index that the United States is embarrassing for my once proud nation, but belies the idea of press freedom being a cultural export. Free speech protests in the Red Square in Moscow or Tiananmen Square in Beijing demonstrate the undeniable truth that people like being able to speak their minds and covet the right to do so when this is denied. The insinuation that some cultures are not compatible with or ready for this freedom is orientalism at its worse. To say that freedom of speech is important for us but not for them comes with the snide assumption that we are more developed, more advanced as a society. This is unequivocally, absurdly and completely false.
This is about freedom of speech and cultural dimensions be damned.

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