Monday, 9 June 2008

Freedom of Expression: Where to Draw the Line?

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In a bizarre co-incidence the online blogging community to which I belong erupted this week in protest against “extreme” bloggers, who were allegedly homophobic, racist and inflammatory. Many said the offending thread posters should be better “moderated” by Blogcatalogue. But some jumped to their defence and quite eloquently argued their freedom of expression, saying that individuals could exercise their own discretion and choose to read and respond or not. At the time I got on the highest horse in the virtual land and declared myself a member of the intellectual elite (I am ashamed).

Go back a few days and I was sitting in the World Conference Centre in Bonn listening to Noble Peace Prize winner Dr Shirin Ebadi speak about Freedom of Expression. We heard some horrific tales from her native Iran and when Ebadi argued that the only time our right to freedom of speech should be oppressed is if it inspired a “hated that would lead to conflict or war” there was a murmur of agreement.

In his speech at Berkeley in 1983 Michel Foucault famously said the issue “was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller, or of truth-telling as an activity....” I would disagree with Foucault (dare I?) and say that truth telling activity, is just that - an activity, and that the problem is with the truth teller (or, as if often the case, the lie-teller). If society is sick, then how it expresses itself will be equally unwell. The question is what do we do with our sick? If we gag the extremists and hate press, you can guarantee that they will find another way to express themselves. And, (although it is probably very un-cool to question a Noble Prize winner and Foucault in the same paragraph) I would ask Ebadi who can sit in judgement over what is deemed inflammatory speech? I am sure the Government of Zimbabwe feels it is doing the nation a service by preventing the voice of the opposition. Given a real insight into the truth, its people may come to understand their own oppression and yes, you are right, demand change possibly through violent conflict.

One thing we could do with our “sick” is to educate them. Extreme opinion likely to inspire violence is often born out of ignorance and intolerance. In their academic work on Why Templates for Media Development do not work in Crisis States, Putzel and van der Zwan advocate the establishment of professional associates of journalists, committed to an ethos of "journalistic integrity....which can eventually serve as the conscience". Again, this raises the issue of who judges the integrity of a journalist (or blogger) and gives him a voice? Freedom of expression is gifted to every one of us under international law through Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but its vagueness leaves it wide open to interpretation and its implementation and the use of media regulation in many countries remains patchy at best.

I still don’t have the answer to who judges that expression is vile enough to oppress it. Nor who judges journalistic integrity, but I have a sneaking suspicion it is the increasingly empowered "community". The blogger Woolfcreek blandly suggested that the bad apples on Blogcatalogue would soon "be bored with our middle ground crowd and try to run off to another site". But a far more robust approach was offered by the suitably named “Offended blogger” who said “(Blogcatalogue) has come too far for us to allow hooligans to run amok here, destroying the community. And it is OUR community, so if there is trash in the street we should all pitch in and bag it up”.

I guess it comes back to my theory on personal responsibility. There are undoubtedly grey areas in the Freedom of Expression debate, but if each and everyone of us understands our responsibility and acts with integrity (not just the bloggers and journalists) the world would be a better place. There is no room for apathy (she says, calmly dismounting from her very high horse).


Anonymous said...

Personal responsibility matters. So does a sense of what is actually deeply offensive to others. Some online forums seem to militate against both of these factors. Many people blog anonymously, and many others come into spaces with no sense of what is acceptable practice in a global, multi-faith and multi-cultural context. Instead they just see the forum as an extension of their own little universes.

The examples you cite do give pause in terms of what should and should not be censored, but it's one thing to censor people's blogs and other forms of public expression and quite another to say what can and can't be said in the context of a private website that has a forum for bloggers.

Carl said...

At the risk of appearing to have nothing worthwhile to say on the subject, I'd like to agree with your sentiments.

There is a world of difference between freedom of expression in a free society and consciously or unconsciously promoting hate. The former deserves to be protected, the latter nipped in the bud quickly before it has a chance to fester.

Thanks for your commentary.

Wolf said...

When cultures/philosophies/perspectives clash there are often a lot of truths that are revealed.

I still see the responsibility of those that speak to know of what they speak, and speak with wisdom to a mass, not an individual.

I once hypothesized that the best and worst days of men was when we learned how to communicate beyond grunts and postures.

When the world is solid, we have peace, but as members of the animal world (despite our best efforts to say we aren't) the laws are still survival of the fittest where the strong shall rule, the young shall reproduce and the weak shall perish.

Humans have made the mistake of enlisting world altering utensils to settle our squabbles. We use guns instead of logic, and we use bombs instead of what we were born from...just a body.

Very few other animals use tools in matters of argument or battle. Its a shame that we can't start over.

timethief said...

Along with the right to freedom of speech comes the responsibility to choose the words we use carefully. In order to create a safe and inviting environment so civil and meaningful discourse can take place on the BC fourm we must agree to rules.

I have grown tired of witnessing bloggers at BC post racist, bigoted and extreme religious and political posts to the General Discussion forum under the banner of free speech. Their aim is the antithesis of community building and I am distressed to witness the ill will that they have created. Worse still, I am saddened to see so bloggers who have behaved responsibly choose to leave the BC community.

This site is about BC running a business. That business is founded on bloggers registering for the purpose of promoting their blogs and increasing traffic to them. The purpose is not for providing a platform for the exercise of freedom of speech. That's what blogs are for.

If the BC Admin decision is not to direct hot button religious and political issues to groups but instead continue to allow these items to be posted to General Discussion and, if they decide to continue featuring General Discussion on the front page of BC, as though it is a draw, then I will not be reaching into my wallet to pay for an upgraded account. I'm more likely to choose to follow the others right out the door.

The Offended Blogger said...

Thanks for mentioning me, Nomadic. This is a very touchy subject for a lot of people and I've changed my own stance on it more than once.

I am a die-hard supporter of the human right to freedom of speech and expression, and my blog reflects my personal views that we should be allowed to express ourselves regardless of who it may offend.

However, I own my blog and I do not own Blog Catalog. What the admins decide to do, I will fully support, but I personally do not feel that hot-button topics should be removed from the main discussion boards at all.

What I feel is that those topics should be allowed and we should all work together as a community to learn better ways to express ourselves and to open up dialogue about subjects that are important to us all.

What better way to learn and grow as a community than to allow other's point of views to be presented and debated?

I have, and still do, support keeping trolls from leaving inflammatory, derogatory or otherwise offensive remarks aimed personally at either an individual or group of individuals.

Yesterday, a thread was started about hunting buffalo and the poster used the word MORONS to describe the hunters (a boy and his father) and used the tag words 'moron's galore' for the post.

I waited for a long time, contributed my thoughts on the matter, and watched to see if anyone would notice or draw attention to the word MORON used to open "dialogue" on the thread. Apparently no one did, despite the fact that some of those in the thread were the very same ones who were very vocal about keeping out the instigators on BC.

I finally brought it to their attention, in my unique way, and was surprised at the reasons given for not reporting it.

My fear is that if a select group of people decide to 'clean up BC' and they all have the same political views, the discussion board will become unevenly slanted and threads like the hunting one will be left alone, but ones like the abortion one (which was not posted in a derogatory or bias manner) will be removed.

I don't know what the solution is, but it became obvious yesterday that it will not be easy to come up with a fair solution that fits everyone's desire.

Caroline Jaine said...

Thank you for all your considered responses, which no doubt add to the debate. Clearly the difficulty a commercial website has in simple moderating it's members comments to please all, is not quite the quandry a emerging democracy may have in developing media regulation - but the basis is the same. I would like to take Wolf's point on survival of the fittest and maybe run with it in my next post. I was raised with a "he who shouts loudest gets" attitude, however often he who shouts is an arrogant bigot. I would like to persuade the worlds cuddly wooly liberals that shouting loud can be effective! Thanks again. Nomadic.

Da Old Man said...

I belong to several chatboards. Heavy handed moderation lead to the death of said boards. On the other hand, boards that run amok suffered from the same thing as folks are not only reluctant to speak, they stop showing up.

Running a chat requires the skills of a diplomat and then some.

Anthony at said...

Where to draw the limit regarding freedom of expression never is an easy issue... unless you are the owner of the place where such freedom is going to be exercised.

In the case of Blogcatalog, it shouldn't even be an issue. members are allowed to say what the owners allow them to say. Membership is not compulsory, so if you like it how it is you can stay and if you don't like it, you can leave.

Yesterday I've posted on the thread you are referencing and said that even though BC owners could do whatever they want with their site, I wouldn't recommend banning hot topics because controversy is one of the things that attract people and make them participate. But it (as everyone else's) was just an oppinion and won't necessarily guide BC owners' actions.

Talking about where to draw the line on freedom of expression in real world is a more interesting subject in my opinion.

I don't think that disagreeing with a Nobel prize winner and Mr. Foucault is un-cool. They are just human beings like ourselves (hope that I still fit on that category, hehe) and they not only can be wrong, but also is a fact that throughout history a lot of once widely accepted truths then come to be rejected and vice-versa.

Restriction of freedom of expression when it leads to inspire a “hated that would lead to conflict or war” or when the "trust-teller" is assigned evil or hidden intentions looks like a very legitimate reason... until someone (as you have done) asks who can sit in judgement over what is deemed inflammatory speech.

Who would we trust to be such judge of our sayings? Not the State, for sure and as we start discarding options, the only one that is left is (not surprise) ourselves.

That brings up the issue of personal responsibility (as you already stated, also) and I should add "personal awareness".

What do I mean by "personal awareness"? That besides of responsible speech which means being responsible for our sayings (duh!), we need to be aware of the effects and consequences of what we say in order not to produce undesired damage on others or on ourselves.

The former does not mean that we only should talk "politically correct" but that we should be as much aware as we can (not always is possible to be 100% sure) of which efects our excercise of freedom of expression could produce.

For instance, when we know that what we are going to say will hurt somebody, we can knowingly choose to hurt or not to hurt and take responsibility for whatever we choose. It's not ethic to claim that we are not responsible for the pain we can inflict with our words (even to ourselves).

So, to condense all that I've said, the ones entitled to draw the line on freedom of expression at Blogcatalog or any other private owned site are the owners. On the other hand, wen we talk about public exercise of freedom of expression, the line has to be drawn by the writers/speakers themselves through proper exercise of personal responsibility and awareness.

RainforestRobin said...

There is little I can add to this wonderful post or all the amazing comments. I do feel that we all need to be active in our world and not take a backseat to hate mongers, fanatics, etc. The voice used properly can bring about incredible positive change.

Villager said...

Dayum! Y'all are some serious folks on these topics. I first met Nomadic in the Blog Catalog general discussion. I don't use the general discussion feature often ... but, I wanted to promote my July 2008 Black Blog Rankings post.

My posting was straightforward enough. Yet, I was hit with folks that wanted to report me to the BC owners and others who disparaged me without reading the post or knowing me or my background.

The simple words "Top Ten Black Blogs" were enough to set off a firestorm.

However, the beauty of freedom of express (and patience) is that you often get exposed to unique or different points of view than your own. In this case, I had a chance to meet Nomadic and our joint interest in helping Sudan get its issues solved.

It amazes me how viral the Internet can be at time. My simple five-sentence post yesterday led me to y'all today!

For those in America ... have a great 4th of July weekend. For those outside of American ... have a great 4th of July weekend (smile)!

peace, Villager