Limits to the freedom of expression

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The terrorists attacks in Paris and Copenhagen earlier this year, perpetrated by Islamist extremists and precipitated by cartoons deemed insulting to Mahomet, have brought freedom of expression under scrutiny. In France there is a true, almost hysterical, obsession with affirming the limitless freedom of expression, the sacred legacy, as the French say, of illuminism and the lay nature of the State. Freedom of expression is absolute.
To the contrary, and with good reason, the prophetic bishop Don Pedro Casaldaliga asserted: «other than God and hunger; nothing is absolute in this world, everything else is relative and limited». Extending Gödel's theorem beyond mathematics, one can affirm the insurmountable incompleteness, and limitations on everything that exists. Why would freedom of expression be different? Freedom of expression does not escape the limits that must be recognized. Otherwise, we would give free rein both to all is good, and to vendettas. The French idea of freedom of expression implies unlimited tolerance: everything must be endured. We assert that, to the contrary: tolerance always has ethical limits that preclude «all is good» and the disrespect for others that erodes personal and social relations.
The exercise of freedom that involves offending others threatens people's lives, and even the entire ecosystem (indiscriminate deforestation). Violating what others hold sacred should have no place in a society that considers itself even minimally human. But there are French people (not all the French), who want a freedom of expression immune to any restriction. The result of this position sadly has been seen: if freedom is absolute, then it must be absolute for everyone and under all circumstances. Certainly, that is what the terrorists thought who killed the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, and those who killed other people in Copenhagen, in the name of that absolute freedom. It is pointless to claim that legal recourse exists. Once evil is accomplished, it cannot always be repaired, and can leave indelible scars.
Freedom without limits is absurd and philosophically indefensible. To counter the excesses of freedom, we often hear the phrase, considered almost as a truism: «my freedom ends where yours begins».
I never saw anyone question this belief, but we must do so. In light of its underlying assumptions, we should submit it to a more careful critique. It relates to the typical freedom of liberalism, as a political philosophy.
Let us explain it better: with the fall of socialism as it actually existed, as Pope John Paul II recognized at a given moment, certain virtues were lost that socialism, for better or worse, had promoted: the idea of internationalism, the importance of solidarity and the emphasis on the social, over the individual.
When Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan assumed power, liberal ideals and capitalist culture returned in full force, without the socialist counterbalance: the exaltation of the individual, the supremacy of private property, purely representative democracy, diminished as a result, and the freedom of the markets. The consequences are visible: there is far less international solidarity and concern for changes that favor the poor peoples of the world. What predominates is a perverse competition, and a lack of solidarity, that eliminate the feeble.
The phrase «my freedom ends where yours begins» must be understood with this background. It is about an individualist understanding of the I alone, apart from society. It is the desire to be free from the other, rather than exercising freedom with the other.
It assumes that for your freedom to begin, my freedom must end. For you to start to be free, I must stop being free. Consequently, if for any reason the freedom of the other does not start, that means that my freedom knows no limits, it expands freely because it encounters no limits in the freedom of the other. It occupies the whole space and inaugurates the empire of egoism. The freedom of the other is transformed into freedom against the other.
That understanding underlies the current concept of territorial sovereignty of national states. Up to the borders of another state, it is absolute. Beyond those borders, it disappears. The result is that solidarity no longer has a place. Dialogue, negotiation, seeking convergences and the transnational common good, are not promoted, as has been clearly shown in the different gatherings of the UN on global warming. No one wants to give up anything. That is why no form of consensus can be reached, while global warning increases daily.
When there is a conflict between two countries, the diplomatic path of dialogue is normally invoked. When dialogue is frustrated, force is considered as a means of resolving the conflict. The sovereignty of one crushes the sovereignty of the other.
Lately, given the destructive nature of war, the theory of win-win has appeared to overcome win-lose. Dialogue is established. All parties appear flexible and ready for concessions and adjustments. All wind up gaining, maintaining the freedom and sovereignty of each country.
Therefore, the correct phrase would be: my freedom only starts when your freedom also starts. This is the lasting legacy of Paulo Freire: we will never be free alone; we only will be free together. My freedom grows to the degree that your freedom also grows, and together we create a society of free and liberated citizens.
Behind this understanding is the idea that no one is an island. We are beings of coexistence. We are bridges that link one another. Therefore no one exists without the others and the freedom of the others. We all are called to be free, with the others and with freedom for the others. As Che Guevara expressed well in his Diary: «I will only be truly free when the last man has also won his freedom».
- Leonardo Boff, Theologian-Philosopher / Earthcharter Commission
Free translation from the Spanish by Servicios Koinonia, Done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.
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