I have to say that ever since I decided that I agreed with David Hume that moral principles are by and large expressions of emotive positions that precede the moral justification for them, I’ve lost interest in discussing issues like free speech.
Now, while I don’t believe that there is a very good rational argument to be made for the morality of absolute free speech, I really like it (as prescribed in the US first amendment) as a working principle. By that I mean I strongly prefer living in societies which adhere to the principle of absolute free speech as far as is possible and which uphold the idea of absolute free speech as an ideal worth striving for even if certain exceptions have to be made for Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes’ “Shouting fire in a crowded theatre”. My personal opinion is that free speech is the single most important value to look for in a society (I agree generally with Orwell sahib who said “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”) Therefore to me, a society like the US which has the closest approximation to absolute free speech in the world is preferable to a society like Western Europe where a combination of historical baggage and a lack of written constitutional principles has compromised free speech somewhat. Both these societies are VASTLY preferable to a society like Pakistan where restriction on free speech based on religious principles is an established norm.
Now this is my personal preference. I am sure that there are some people who value other things more than they value the principle of free speech. For example, there are those who seem to value their right to outrage and irritation at the perpetrators of Draw Muhammad Day more than they value the principle of free speech. To them, it’s more important in a situation like this to express their irritation at the hypocrisy and islamophobia of those involved in this activity. That’s fair enough. An example seems to be Dr. Awab Alvi who, for the last few weeks, seems to have been involved in a campaign to request facebook to ban the “everybody draw muhammad day” page. Dr. Alvi’s argument essentially is that facebook is not a venue for absolute free speech – facebook has shut down pages about holocaust denial and pornography in the past and so for it to not shut down the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Page” is a sign of its hypocrisy.
By making this argument Dr. Alvi is essentially breaking down the argument for free speech as a principle. According to him, since facebook has already displayed a tendency to ignore the principles of free speech, it should make another exception in the case of DMD in order to assuage his offended sensibilities.
Fair enough. Dr. Alvi does not seem like an advocate of free speech. Plenty of people in the world aren’t. Dr. Alvi clearly values his love for Islam and his desire not to be offended more than he values some unattainable ideal of free speech.
But imagine my surprise today when I loaded his blog today only to see that Dr. Alvi was now organizing a protest against the facebook ban by the LHC. It seems like Dr. Alvi was a passionate advocate of a certain limited restriction of free speech but when the LHC built on his arguments and prescribed a solution (based on limiting free speech, a principle that Dr. Alvi surely agrees with), the LHC went too far for him by banning facebook completely.
What are we to take away from this? The Lahore High Court could argue that there is no absolute free speech – just as Dr. Alvi argued when he advocated a campaign to shut down the facebook page for DMD. Now one can criticize the LHC’s ban for being too broad and heavy-handed, but surely that’s a subjective assessment isn’t it? Many people would consider Dr. Alvi’s solution to be too heavy-handed as well. Having chipped away at the principle of free speech and passionately argued that free speech is an illusion and that it’s hypocritical of westerners to value it as an absolute principle, Dr. Alvi has absolutely no leg to stand on when protesting the Lahore High Court’s ban of Facebook. The Lahore High Court ban is simply a larger-scale expression of a million intolerant Dr. Alvi’s self-righteously chipping away at the concept of free speech. The Lahore High Court judgment is the realization of a societal attitude exemplified by Dr. Alvi.
I don’t really believe in morals for the sake of themselves or the value of taking a moral position in isolation from its larger impact on society. To me, individual positions are simply components of larger societal trends. By that, I mean that if you want a particular outcome, you should take a position that makes that outcome more likely to happen, nuances be damned. A country of 170 million individuals each with the attitude towards free speech possessed by Dr. Alvi is exactly the country which makes likely the existence of a set of laws making blasphemy punishable by death. Individual opinions are simply part of a larger collective and the general direction of individual opinions determines the nature of societies that they are a part of. So to me it’s absolutely meaningless when someone supporting the A, closure of the DMD facebook page argues that he never wanted B. facebook to be banned, or that he never wanted C. Pakistani Christians to be victimized for blasphemy. A tiny bit of thought should have shown him that his position on the relatively trivial issue of A contributed to a society that collectively created B and, yes, C. It simply doesn’t matter that he didn’t support B. or C. They were simply the consequence of his choice to support A.
So to Pakistanis who are upset about the facebook ban but preferred to express their outrage at Draw Muhammad Day rather than affirm their support for free speech (even if it offended their religious sensibilities) I have only two words: you’re retarded.
BTW, didn’t mean to single out Teeth Maestro – this article on Dawn blog is pretty much interchangable with Teeth Maestro’s posts.