Freedom (of speech) as the founding principle of politics

I recently started getting into an interview show called the Rubin Report. I don’t particularily agree with Rubin’s political (or philosophical) points of view, but I do like his interview style, and am very interested in some of the characters he interviews. Anyway, whether or not you care to watch it, this is the interview which sparked the idea behind this (short) post:

I had a discussion about “Freedom” the other night, and what we had to establish quite early on was that I’m not talking about freedom in general. A political system can never garuntee freedom, because other people exist. The best we can do is try and let people do what they want, so long as it doesn’t affect others. This ofcourse means that the system has to make some calls as to where that line is drawn. This is why I think the nitty gritty of politics will always exist.

However, it’s not so much that kind of freedom that I’d like to discuss, but rather freedom of speech, a term you may hear discussed a lot in the realm of American politics (ceirtainly in the above video, anyway). At first I think the idea of granting complete freedom of speech seems sort of obvious: Words don’t hurt people, so why shouldn’t we be able to say whatever we want? In a given set of ideas, the challenge of new ideas is important to help the system grow: To actualise a type of ideological natural selection, so to speak.

However, there is a difference between letting another speak, and being forced to listen. If somebody setup a speaker in the street, blaring (politically ambiguous bizarre example coming) Mary had a Little Lamb on repeat, I might be justified in taking issue. Just with other kinds of freedom, there needs to be a line drawn somewhere.

However, it’s not so much examples like this that really matter to all of us when it comes to this discussion, but rather other peoples philosophical or moral ideas. Should we be free to discuss the possibility of something morally wrong or abhorrent? You might say we should be, but at some point it goes a bit far. An extreme example could be: A public gathering of people discussing the possibility of mass suicide/genocide. Should we just stand by and let that happen? So even in ideological freedom of speech, there is a line (n.b. I realise my example is not the best, feel free to comment/disagree, I’d be happy to come up with another).

The thing is, when a group of people become sufficiently philosophically distant, a political system becomes impossible. At some point, even democracy stops working. I don’t personally think complete freedom of speech should be the first principle in politics, because I think like all other factors, it has it’s limits. However, I must admit to not being completely made up on this issue, and I ceirtainly have not thought of an adequate replacement first principle!


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