Free Speech Does Not Mean Speech That Costs Nothing

August 9, 2013
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Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 9th August 2013

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One of the ongoing stories this summer has been the emergence of a worrying pattern of abuse through social networking sites. There was the intimidation of a classics professor, and threats against women campaigning to have Jane Austen’s portrait on banknotes. Most worrying by far has been link made between one site, based in Latvia, and the suicides of four children, two in Britain, two in Ireland. The reason many feel this site is dangerous is that it allows people to post hurtful and hateful comments anonymously. More than 60 million young people use the site, posting thirty million messages a day, so some are going to be vicious, and some recipients are going to be vulnerable. All in all, it’s a new chapter in the world’s oldest story, the use of words as weapons by people seeking to inflict pain.

New – because in the past most communications were face to face, and set in some kind of social context, in which parents, teachers or friends were aware of what was going on and could intervene. There were the occasional anonymous letter writers; but at least the pain they caused was private, not public the way social networking messages often are.

By allowing people facelessly to make threats or be offensive or spread false rumours, the new sites are offering the demons of our nature the maximum of temptation combined with the maximum of opportunity. Greek myth told the story of Gyges’ ring which made whoever wore it invisible, so he or she could get away with anything. The internet comes pretty close to being Gyges ring, allowing people to hide behind a mask of invisibility, and even the service providers can usually escape by relocating beyond the reach of regulation.

The technology is new but the moral challenge is old. Judaism’s Sages were eloquent on the dangers of what they called evil speech, by which they meant derogatory, demeaning or offensive words. They called this a cardinal sin and said that it destroys three people, the one who says it, the one he says it against, and the one who listens in. Words injure; they hurt; they wound. And every new technology that allows us to share words more widely calls for a renewed insistence on the ethics of communication.

Free speech does not mean speech that costs nothing. It means speech that respects the freedom and dignity of others. Forget this and free speech will prove to be very expensive indeed.