After the recent Malaysian 14th General Election, many of its citizens are anticipating changes and one of them is freedom of speech. The Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) has promised to abolish laws that impede freedom of speech which is an important element for a country that functions as a parliamentary democracy. Ever since I was born into this country, I’ve always been told how its people were being silenced. This doesn’t matter in which form the opinions or thoughts were being expressed (movies, books, electronic media, etc). Especially with regards to politics and social issues, people were reluctant to express their opinions because of the laws that limit freedom of speech. However, as we are going into this aspect of reform, are we, as the citizens, prepared to face the social, economic, political consequences that might entail from various expressions of freedom of speech? This is my personal view of how we should view, practice and respond to acts of freedom of speech.
A society that practices and values freedom of speech is a society that knows how to be objective and critically evaluate, perceive, and receive (whether to accept of decline the idea) of what is being said and not let irrationality get in the way of their judgement. As the receiving end, opinions or ideas tend to be offensive towards certain groups of people but not towards other groups of people. It might even be hate speech. What is offensive is actually subjective to the individual that hears it. This does show the negative side of freedom of speech but if we are to allow freedom of speech to be exercised in this country, we’ll have to accept the fact that hate speech is a form of freedom of speech. Being able to hear all kinds of opinions, even the ones that we don’t like is an integral part of being a member of society. We have to be willing to debate and discuss the issues and come to an understanding on both sides, even if there are still disagreements in the end. Agreements and disagreements is part and parcel of a society that has differing opinions as each individual human has his/her own interest and needs to be protected. Be objective about disagreements. Be objective (and stay calm) about the opinions or ideas that’s been put forward even if it is offensive to you. How? An idea or opinion is offensive to us because our existence, values, and personal conviction go against and contradict to what was being said. So, in order for us to respond and reply in a positive manner, one has to temporarily detach oneself from personally associating with the idea. I believe when we mentally switch to this mode, we will be less offended and react to the opinions in a less negative manner. This is of course easier said than done. We just need mental training.
When it comes freedom of speech, we can all forget about being cautious and sensitive to the reactions of certain groups of people. One of the roles of freedom of speech is about raising sensitive issues and bring them into a civilized discussion in order for us to understand the issue. If sensitive issues were not being discussed, isn’t it actually an insult to the intelligence of the society? It implies that a society couldn’t handle sensitive issues. If it’s senstive, then there should be a need to discuss it, provided that we have an appropriate way of responding to it ( ie. peaceful demonstration or civilized discussion). This is a more progressive step rather than silencing people whenever sensitive issues were being raised. A society that aspires to be progressive should be more than willing to openly discuss sensitive topics.
When discussing openly about certain topics (especially senstive ones ie.: religion, race, politics) provide arguments with subtance and do not succumb to ad hominem attacks. Besides, a discussion is a platfrom where freedom of speech is allowed to be expressed. The quality of of discussion is determined by the arguments that’s been put forward as well as being aware of logical fallacies when presenting arguments. Take learning into account. Other than that, we have to be held accountable for what we say and bear the responsibilities of the consequences. Remember, our actions and words will always have consequences.
However, absolute freedom of speech can be detrimental to a society which is why we should still have laws to prevent people from inflicting harm upon other members of the society which could be the result of the ideas and opinions being expressed. No one should die or be physically harmed in the process or their rights being taken away. Based on my understanding of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s book ‘The Social Contract’, as we have free will, humans have the tendency to be corrupt. As the practice of freedom of speech the result of free will, we can overcome this corruption by invoking our free will to reconstitute ourselves politically, together with democratic principles, which is beneficial for us, both individually and collectively.
Society has the right or power to express their opinion without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty. However, as with our tendency of being corrupted, a bit of legal retraint shouldn’t be a problem as long as it benefits the society as a whole especially when they have an essential function to provide the ruling government with check and balance as well as to give birth to more critical and progressive thinkers which is also for the benefit of the nation.
‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death of your right to say it.’ – Voltaire