Free Speech And Speaking Your Mind

I’ve been tied up with a lot of things recently – work and home commitments, and other things that have taken up a lot of my time. I must try to get back into some kind of regular blogging, but before I do, I thought I would have a look at one of the recurring themes that have cropped up here and elsewhere – the principle of free speech. What is it, and when can it be justifiably said that one’s free speech is being suppressed?

The idea of free speech seems straightforward enough: someone wants to speak out about any subject at all, and that person just says it. Simple, yes?

Actually, whether someone has free speech depends, ultimately, on the law in any particular country. In western democracies, we tend to take it as a right – even what can be called a basic human right. We can promote ideas of our own, or criticise the ideas of others. We can criticise political leaders and their policies; we are under no obligation to join a particular religion, and we can criticise those religions; we can support any way-out idea, or criticise, parody or ridicule it without mercy; in fact, we can speak out about anything with only a fairly basic and reasonable condition, namely that what we speak out about does not cause, or incite others to cause, harm to anyone else.

Independent Thought Alarm - The SimpsonsCompare that with the situation in other countries. There are at least thirteen countries where atheism, for instance is a capital offence. No religious freedom there, then, and you might not be surprised that those countries are all Islamic states. And similarly, criticism of the governments there (and elsewhere) can bring down the wrath of the state, together with the institutionalised brutality that goes with it. It can’t be a happy life for anyone in any of those places who would like to create change by being able to openly question the status quo.

It’s a huge and complex issue, and occupies a whole area of philosophical investigation, with endless books written on the subject, and it also extends into everyday discussion as well as politics in general. It can be argued that even in our modern day and age our free speech is actually under gradual attack from our own governments. I’m thinking here of recent UK legislation that bans any organisation that receives state funding from having any representative speaking to or lobbying any government department about the subject they deal with. Paradoxically, it means, for example, that government funding given to climate research excludes climate scientists from trying to persuade the government to implement policies that are urgently needed to save the planet we live on. That law is pragmatic from the perspective of big polluters businesses who have caused the problem in the first place, and the governments they have paid to install for their own benefit. I find it all a bit annoying, to be honest. More alarmingly, a journalist is being prosecuted right now by the German government for criticising another country’s leader, President Erdogan of Turkey. That is very frightening for all of us.

Anyway, on a more local level, I have in mind not global or even national issues about free speech and what it is, but what people in general think about it, and what they want to do about it. In particular, I’m thinking about what is going on with the promoters of various woo ideas, especially those who promote those ideas whilst trying to stifle any criticism.

I am heartily sick of the woomeisters, quacks and assorted paranormal promoters who take exception to any criticism of their claims; when they are criticised, their first accusation is almost always that criticism of their nonsense equates to censorship, or that if they don’t have their ill-informed comments published on someone else’s blog or website then that is the same as having their right to free speech suppressed. To which I say, cobblers.

The Bad Thinking blog came into being for one simple reason: I found my own right to free speech being censored and suppressed – not by the state, but by a self-professed expert in all matters paranormal that I criticised. My own feeling is that a claim made by such a person should be able to stand on its own merits. If it is correct, then it should be able to withstand any criticism, in pretty much the same way that an actual scientific hypothesis should be able to survive in the face of intense scrutiny by scientific peer review. And let’s face it – in science, a hypothesis that is criticised has to survive that criticism from other scientists. Its validity is decided on the basis of whether it gets past all the tests thrown at it.

The same person I mentioned above has never proven any paranormal or supernatural claim he has ever made, but he has certainly removed criticism of his claims from the internet with threats of legal action against his critics (and bragged about it, too – perhaps as a subtle warning to others to keep their thoughts to themselves). That’s not the same as the state itself stopping free speech, but it is an example of an individual trying to use the civil laws of the state to stop someone else’s right to speak freely. Significantly, of course, the same person has only gone as far as threatening the use of the law rather than successfully suing anyone. Because of the potential costs involved, the threat of legal action is usually enough to shut someone up. The point, of course, is that using legal thuggery to close down criticism is a tacit admission that paranormal and supernatural claims cannot stand on their own merits. That is what censorship is, not the mere criticism of bad ideas.

If fact, we are fortunate in the UK (as in many other western democracies so far) to be able to speak out about all kinds of things. But the fact that people have that right does not mean that people have the right to impose their personal beliefs on others. What I mean is that religious people, for example, have the right to teach their beliefs in their churches, but I don’t have the right to insist that I should be able to intrude on a church service and start to give a lecture about science, and I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. I don’t see that as a restriction on my right to free speech.

In a similar way, religious people do not have the right to insist that science classes should include non-scientific concepts like creationism. That’s an old, worn-out idea about “teaching the controversy.” Except that there is no controversy at all – science agrees that the universe is about 13.82 billion years old, and evolution is a fact. Religion has no right to intrude into science classes any more than science has to intrude into church services. Unless maybe the creationists would like to invite science to teach in their churches, like they themselves want to proselytise in schools, colleges and universities.

No, not really; the last thing creationists want is to allow any kind of dissent with respect to their own faith. And they think that not allowing religion into science classes is somehow a violation of their right to free speech?

On the Bad Thinking blog, I don’t have a problem. I say what I think, and if anyone wants to reply, then I will publish their comments in full; I will, however, reply to those comments. The only comments I am probably not going to publish are those that are clearly libellous towards any third party, or those that are, in my opinion, likely to incite hatred or violence, and comments that are completely off-topic. Then again, I might publish some outrageous comments if they just demonstrate the ignorance and stupidity of the commenter. I have done that several times.

If someone wants to criticise anything I write on this blog, I am not going to accuse them of trying to suppress my freedom of speech. They can’t stop me from speaking out, after all. The fact that my comments elsewhere were deleted was an annoyance, and the fact that my comments on another blog were removed under the bogus threat of legal action against another person was doubly annoying; that did not, however, stop me from saying what I wanted to say. I simply started my own blog. Anyone can do it.

If someone writes a stupid article about alleged aliens, other paranormal claims or wants to assert that exorcism is a viable treatment for what is actually a mental illness, then I will criticise it. If I am denied the right to comment on their website, blog, newspaper site or whatever, then I will use my own blog to do that criticism. The fact that I am not allowed to comment on that website or blog does not mean that my right to freedom of expression is being suppressed, even if someone is trying to shut me up because he or she can’t take legitimate criticism. What constitutes suppression of free speech is a law that prevents it, or when someone uses the threat of a civil legal action to stop me or others from speaking out.

Personally, I can’t imagine myself instituting legal action against someone who has defeated me in a logical argument – you know, the type of argument where your premise has to be supported with testable evidence and the conclusion has to follow from the premises. Aliens are here? If you want to tell me that, then you have to supply the evidence for your assertion; it’s not good enough to say you have the evidence but just aren’t going to supply it. Let’s face it, in a court of law you can’t convict anyone of a crime by saying you have the evidence but it doesn’t get to be examined. The burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim. If you claim aliens are here, but you want to sue me because I want to see the evidence, then go ahead and try it. I will laugh at you. Then try to sue me for laughing at you. And then try to sue me for publicising the fact that you are making claims without credible evidence.

The truth is no libel.

Furthermore, if I criticise your nonsensical claims on someone else’s blog or website, don’t bother to get my comments removed from there under the threat of legal action against someone else; I will criticise what you have to say on this blog. I don’t libel anyone; I just offer honest criticism. If you can’t take that, then don’t waste your time.

Evidence presented for alleged paranormal phenomena always fails the tests of science, and often enough also the test of the basic common sense of an intelligent and rational person. I have the right to point that out.

Even if I am wrong about the paranormal, I think I have the right to question the various claims made. I think I have the right to ask for evidence for the claims that the paranormalists make. I think I have the right to demand that those claims withstand objective scrutiny and analysis. I think I have the right to have those claims substantiated by the people who make those claims.

And I think I have the right to question those claims without being under the threat of legal action for just asking the claimants to prove what they say.

I also don’t want to live in a society where the state could prosecute me or execute me for questioning the status quo. Even worse, somewhere where a mob of ignorant fanatics might hack me to death just for asking for some basic human rights to be extended to minorities that would like to see themselves allowed to follow their own beliefs without fear of irrational and violent retribution.

There is a lot of ignorance in the world, and a lot of ignorant people who seem to be hell bent on keeping it that way. The paradox, of course, is that the more ignorant a person is, the less able he or she is to understand that they don’t know things, and the more confident they are that they are right. And when those people have influence or power, then we are all in trouble. That doesn’t just apply to a political system where vested interests will allow the human race to go extinct through climate change because there are short term profits to be made, but also where religious beliefs are challenged and so the heretics and blasphemers (that’s actually everyone on Earth from every other religion’s point of view) must be suppressed and oppressed, not to mention killed whenever possible. Unfortunately, we have those who would simply like to have science stopped in favour of the irrational.

Sorry, folks, although I can’t personally do anything about the big picture, i.e., politicians misleading and manipulating people for their own personal gain, or the pious murdering innocent people because they believe their particular god wants them to do it, I can, at least, add my own voice to the battle for rational thinking. And I don’t intend to be gagged by those who think they can get their own way through legal threats in lieu of testable hypotheses. We are in what can be called the marketplace of ideas. If you want to say, for instance, that disease is a result of sin, then prove it; that was the medieval answer to why pandemics occurred in the days when no one had any idea about germs, viruses, toxins, etc. In the meantime, I will point out that an antibiotic will cure that disease, but no amount of prayer will do anything at all. And that can be tested and proved, by the way. In those days, there might have been a few lucky people who had a natural immunity to an ailment, so for them prayer “worked.” Hallelujah!

We’ve moved on since then, even if the devout will not accept that fact. It’s incredible that nowadays – in the twenty first century, for crying out loud – there are still people who believe that mental illness is not caused by a malfunction in the brain or just a fault in someone’s personal psychological outlook, but possession by an external supernatural source (a demon or whatever their particular religion deems it to be). A physical brain problem can often be treated with a drug intervention; a psychological problem can often be resolved with a psychological therapy. Sometimes there might be a combined treatment. What doesn’t solve such a problem, though, is prayer, exorcism, or any other form of what is, in fact, nothing more than superstition in the form of wishful thinking.

There is a lot of bad thinking in the world, and it has to be challenged. People have the right to promote their beliefs, but others have the right to challenge them, especially if those beliefs are without substance or are harmful in some way. Free speech is fine – an essential component of a civilised society – but free speech cuts both ways: say what you want, but don’t whine or make threats (legal or otherwise) when someone challenges you.

Free speech is important and has to be defended; I’m not frightened when someone disagrees with me, and I’m not going to use violence or the threat of legal action to stop anyone from telling me they think I’ve got it wrong. I’m not even going to refuse to publish here a logical argument that proves I have made an incorrect statement. I don’t see the need to get upset if I happen to be wrong about something. I don’t mind learning something new: I’m a sceptic, after all, so if I doubt a claim you make, then just offer your supporting evidence. If it holds water, I will probably go along with it. What’s the big deal?

On the Bad Thinking blog, say what you want. You can have your say without being censored just so long as you are not demanding that anyone else has to be censored in your favour.

4 responses to “Free Speech And Speaking Your Mind

  1. I’d be interested to know what people think about how Free Speech has been gradually Medicalised, with alleged experts saying that all you need to know in order to know if someone has a Psychiatric Condition or not, is how they talk.


    • Zak,
      There are too many unqualified people – from the religious to the medical quacks – who think they have a right to pronounce about, and treat, psychiatric disorders. It isn’t a matter of free speech, it is usually illegal for an unqualified person to make any kind of medical diagnosis (and/or treatment).


  2. Geoff Toscano

    I think I recall some of your battles on the paranormal front; possibly the one who thought being a creationist isn’t anti-science.

    Everyone I know, at least with whom I discuss such things, has had at least one ‘peculiar’ experience during their lifetime, me included. One of the more bizarre concerned my brother, who has lived and worked in Africa for years. In summary, he had some reptile he kept as a pet, which lived on live vermin. My brother for some reason ran out of food for it and was getting very worried about how to feed it. As he pondered this a living rat fell from the ceiling, and my brother was able to feed his pet.

    To be fair, my brother is very cynical about things generally, and is certainly atheistic, but this really shook him. When I discussed it with him, however, it became less strange. The house he was living in was temporary accommodation and was known to have rats in the roof. The ceilings were fairly crude, and in normal circumstances such an event would not be abnormal. The only thing that rendered it such was a coincidence of events.

    Coincidence is the emotion that underlies many paranormal, and often religious, claims. We dream perhaps about someone we haven’t seen for years, then bump into them the following morning. Our brain reacts by assuming some connection, hence my use of the word ’emotion’, when the reality is it is purely a coincidence. What would actually be extraordinary would be if there were never any coincidences. Now that really would be bizarre, considering the billions of interactions happening each day throughout the world.

    Ultimately I think people want paranormal claims to be true because it gives them hope that perhaps there’s more to life than what we experience. The trouble is that every paranormal claim ever made is either debunked, has other possible explanations, or is simply not testable. Many cling especially to the latter, with the claim ‘it couldn’t be explained’. The trouble is that these cases usually involve suspect and/or conflicting evidence, exaggeration, and a lack of testable phenomenon. Yes it maybe that we can’t necessarily be sure what caused something, but that doesn’t automatically invoke a supernatural cause. Unexplained is simply that; unexplained.


    • Geoff,
      Like yourself (and your brother), I have had my share of weird experiences. And you’re right, of course: an event that is unexplained does not imply that there is something paranormal or supernatural going on.

      Some people, though, insert their preferred paranormal or supernatural explanation, without evidence, and get upset when people like me (and you, I would guess) ask to see something that might give support to their claims. As my post was getting at, asking for evidence can sometimes lead those people to get upset – even to the point of threatening legal action; it’s not that they have been defamed, but that their ignorance has been exposed. Maybe that hurts the most. But hurt feelings are not really a basis for any kind of legal action.

      If I said publicly to someone who makes money from their paranormal exploits that they were a liar who was making it all up as a cynical ploy to dupe gullible punters, then maybe there would be a legal case for me to answer (unless I had proof of my claims – the truth is no libel, remember). But when I ask for evidence for those claims, and also perhaps point out any logical errors in those claims, I am being reasonable. Those who make unsubstantiated claims about the paranormal have the right to talk cobblers, and I have the right to call them out on it.

      I do, however, have a secret weapon in my sceptical armoury: I am willing to change my mind if anyone can prove the existence of any paranormal or supernatural claim. I am certainly not going to threaten to sue anyone who can prove that there is anything paranormal going on. That would be stupid, and a tacit admission that I was wrong anyway.


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