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Real Free Speech

Entry 1932, on 2018-08-29 at 16:30:02 (Rating 4, Politics)

It seems that the "most important issue of our time" changes for me every few months. At some times it might be religious irrationality, at others science denial, and at still others, political dishonesty. But at the moment I seem to be stuck on the issue of free speech. I have said this is the defining issue of our time, but I guess that is probably over-stating the case a bit. But it is, at least, one of the significant issues at this particular time, and that is unlikely to change.

The latest round in this battle involves a speaking tour, here in New Zealand, of controversial whistle-blower Chelsea Manning. This follows on closely from the Canadian "alt-right" speakers, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, and controversial "libertarian" Don Brash. The Canadians didn't get to speak here and Brash was severely criticised, but now the tables are turned because Manning represents the left, while the others were clearly right-oriented.

So it is a bit hypocritical for the right to demand that Manning not be allowed to speak here when they criticised the left for trying to (and succeeding in) blocking speakers from the right. There is one justification they could make though: that is that Manning is a convicted criminal, where the others aren't. I personally think free speech should be ranked above a highly contentious criminal committal, but it is still a fair point.

If you are not familiar with the case, I should reiterate it here. Chelsea Manning underwent a sex change while in prison and was previously Bradley Manning. He was in the US military and leaked a lot of sensitive documents to Wikileaks. This offence was discovered and he was found guilty and imprisoned. Barack Obama commuted the sentence just before leaving office. Now, as Chelsea Manning, she is speaking about the incident.

Manning claims she either attempted to bring her (she was a he at the time - this is so confusing!) concerns to the attention of the authorities and media, or she realised any attempt to proceed through official channels would result in her persecution and the evidence being buried.

So whether Manning is a hero or a villain is open to question, but the bigger question is whether she should be able to discuss her case, and make money out of speaking about it. It is particularly relevant in this case, since distributing information is the issue both now and then.

There are several possible ways to look at this: first, she did something wrong and for the wrong reasons; second, she did the wrong thing but for good reasons; and third, she did nothing wrong and should never have gone to prison.

The fact that Obama commuted her sentence tends to indicate 2 is the best interpretation, but a lot of people would suspect Obama's motives on this, so it's still open to question.

But if Manning is guilty she has legally served her sentence and should be free to continue her life. And if she never really was guilty then that's an even better reason for her to make the details public.

So, in the same way I supported free speech for Southern and Molyneux, I also support it for Manning. But that does not seem to be the way it is for many others. Many people on the right are suggesting Manning should not be allowed into the country, even though they supported the Canadians. And the opposite applies to some on the left.

Kate Hawkesby (someone who I don't hold in the highest esteem, but occasionally makes good points) made the following statements in an opinion piece for the Herald...

First, "Isn't this just both sides arguing against what doesn't suit their own political leaning?" Well yes, it certainly seems that way, although there are plenty of people staying out of the debate, or appearing to remain neutral.

Second, "I don't see how you can cherry pick it." Apart from the debatable point about Manning's criminal record, the two sides do seem equivalent, and preferring one or the other is basically arbitrary.

Third, "Otherwise it's conditional free speech only, based on what we deem fair or not fair, based on our own political viewpoint - which suddenly doesn't sound that free at all." Exactly. How can free speech be free it it relies on some approval from whoever happen to be the current arbiters of what is considered decent and moral?

Fourth, "You either have free speech or you don't." I tend to be fairly absolutist when it comes to free speech, so I also agree with this. If free speech leads to some bad outcomes in the real world, such as violence, then deal with that, but don't assume even quite extreme speech is bad in itself.

In summary, I would be very happy to hear what Manning has got to say, just like I would be interested to hear what Southern and Molyneux have to say (in fact, I do know what they have to say, but see my next blog post which will be about this exact subject). In fact, I am interested in every opinion, especially those of the most controversial people. And if these controversial opinions change my mind on something, that is great. In fact that often happens, which maybe explains why I have such balanced views on so many subjects.

Everyone needs to have a more open attitude like this. We need more open minds, and we need more real free speech.

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Comment 1 (4934) by theitinerary1 on 2018-08-29 at 16:52:28: Great post

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Comment 2 (4935) by OJB on 2018-08-30 at 12:00:11:

Thanks. Maybe because it was one of my shorter recent posts?

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Comment 3 (4938) by Derek Ramsey on 2018-08-30 at 22:41:35:

A blogger I follow put it this way: all other freedoms flow from the freedom of expression. This implies freedom of consequences (from expression). You canít have one without the other.

Manning, in the view of many Americans, is a traitor deserving of a worse punishment. Yet any punishment would be for actual crimes, not for expression. There is no justification at all blocking Manning from speaking, for there can be no consequence merely for expression in a society that values freedom.

The recent censorship of nutjob Alex Jones parallels this case. The large social media sites (and Google) have been censoring and, for the most part, getting away with it, violating freedom of expression time and again.

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Comment 4 (4939) by OJB on 2018-09-01 at 15:23:49:

Yes, I think all speech should be free, unless it specifically negatively targets an individual. For example, a person should not use free speech to tell the whole world the password for my bank account, but they should criticise any groups I belong to (such as atheism) as much as they want.

I avoid criticising individuals on my blog and in comments on social media, unless they are a public figure which makes individual attack OK, but I would still limit my criticism to issues with a public interest, so I wouldn't give away their bank account numbers!

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