This week’s Two Voices asks: are there limits to free speech?
Jean Cohen says…
The issue is not ‘Are there limits to free speech?’ but, ‘Should free speech be compromised?’ My answer is a resounding no. Recent events – such as the Charlie Hebdo satirists paying for their commitment to free speech with their lives or when allegedly Islamic State-sympathising gunman targeted a ‘Draw Muhammad’ event in Texas – illustrate how free speech is literally under attack. Documents such as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented an attempt to create a shared global agreement regarding universal rights and freedoms, but violent culture clashes between fundamentalist beliefs about blasphemy and secular beliefs about democracy and freedom of speech are perceived as inevitable in today’s polarised world.
Would it be better to compromise free expression for social harmony? That reasoning puts violent extremists in charge of what we get to speak about.
‘The But Brigade’ is what Salman Rushdie dubbed those who proclaim their love for freedom of speech only to qualify it moments later by denouncing those with whom they disagree. “The moment somebody says: ‘Yes, I believe in free speech, but…’ I stop listening,” Rushdie said. “The point about it is the moment you limit free speech, it’s not free speech. … You can’t slice it up, otherwise it ceases to be freedom.” Being offended is a small price to pay to live in a free society.
Jean Cohen is a member of North West Surrey Shul
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers says…
I am committed to the ideal of freedom of speech – not just for people with whom I agree.
Perhaps this is because Jewish law is built around conversations that record minority opinions, not only final decisions. It’s also rooted in the power of speech. In Judaism we are reminded to use speech carefully, to keep calm in the face of others’ evil speech and avoid gossip and negativity. The power of words is easily underestimated; with freedom comes responsibility and the need to be considerate of the feelings of others and the impact our speech can have.
I have found it draining to be around those who poison the air with their words. But it is up to us to determine how we respond to such language, and how much power we allow it in our life.
Words can become toxic and damaging, or can be uplifting and inspiring. Words alone are never enough power for me. In the morning some of us pray wearing tefillin. When I was taught to put them on, my teacher explained that we bind our arm as a constant reminder through our prayers that we must not stop at words, we have to make them a reality through our actions in the world.
Words are only truly powerful when they are followed by positive action and words that offend must never be met with violence.
Debbie Young-Somers is Reform Judaism’s community educator