Without dissent, there’s no progress

We all know free speech is “good”, but many people don’t know why, or even, have a misconception of what free speech actually means. Others argue that free speech is good in a society, but not on certain communities, like online forums, or technical mailing lists, and are quick to ban the dissidents. I have been called a troll simply for speaking my mind, which happened to be against the established view, but is that really the case? Should everyone that disagrees vigorously be called a troll and be banned? Should dissidence be prohibited? Are there communities where free will is not desirable? Let’s explore.

Dissent is merely defined as a difference in opinion, but more broadly; to actively challenge an established doctrine, policy, or institution[1]. In some cases it’s clear that there’s nothing wrong with dissent, it might be even desirable–as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi opposing the British Empire. In other cases it’s not so clear, or so it would appear judging from the reactions of many people.

If you were a king (before the french revolution) you probably were against peasant dissidence, but if you were a peasant, you would probably be OK with it–in fact, you would think it’s essential for the well-being of the republic and constitute free speech as an inalienable right, as in fact many revolutionaries did, after getting rid of monarchies, dictatorships, etc.

Watch Stephen Colbert roasting George W. Bush in front of his face, and that’s fine–that’s how a modern society is supposed to work.

Is this offensive? Is this demeaning? Of course, but there’s nothing wrong with that; criticism is part of a modern society, even if it’s towards the most important man in that society (in theory), and it should be protected specially in those cases. In the past it would be inconceivable to do this against the king, even in modern societies, as for example against Vladimir Putin. It certainly would be convenient to the Bush administration to just shut up the press, but that shouldn’t happen in a modern society.

And that is something that is often forgotten: free speech laws are specifically designed to protect the weak; the majority of the population doesn’t need a government to grant them free speech. It’s not the majority that loves the king that needs protection to speak against him; it’s the minority that needs it. It’s not the majority that thought slavery was OK in the past, it was the minority that was against the establishment. It is unpopular ideas that need protection.

Free speech has limits, of course; your right to free speech ends when you violate the right of somebody else, like committing defamation. The problem is that a lot of people don’t understand what free speech actually means, and what the law actually says (as in the case of defamation). For example, in modern societies I wouldn’t have any problem saying that Obama is stupid, that Jesus is gay, or that Muhammad the prophet can kiss my ass. Some of this might be false, offensive, and maybe even stupid, but there’s no law that protects people from offense, lies, or stupidity. And there’s a reason for that; it’s not easy to define what is wrong or stupid, and what should be offensive. A king might say that criticizing the king is offensive–very conveniently for himself–and therefore nobody would be safe to throw criticism, and unless the king was indeed flawless–that’s a problem.

Even the UN Secretary-General seems to not understand this, as he tried to push to make blasphemy a crime, probably in response to the increasing violence from Muslims all around the world angry about videos and cartoons that are protected by this very basic freedom in modern societies.

Barack Obama does a pretty good job in explaining why free speech is important.

With foresight it’s easy to see that Martin Luther King Jr. was doing something good in fighting against the establishment, but that was not always the case, many people are considered activists, inciters, and even terrorists, just for speaking truth to power. Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the USA until 2008[2]. History determines, time and again, that people that fought to silence the dissidents were plain wrong.

Julian Assange is an example of a modern dissident that is still in mid-fight, and there’s still people that claim he should be killed, even though there are laws that protect the media from not divulging their sources precisely for that reason; in order for the media to criticize the government efficiently, government secrets should be exposed, especially those who are damming to the government.

Well, this is all well and good, for the freedom fighters such as Gandhi, Assange, Mandela, and you probably share a lot of ideas with them, but what about that annoying guy that criticizes everything, or maybe the conspiracy nut? They also need protection, they also need free speech.

Christopher Hitchens goes to great extents to explain not only why free speech–all free speech–is important, but also what exactly is free speech, something many people get wrong.

Hopefully at this point it should be clear that free speech is good, and dissent shouldn’t be squashed, but yet, one of the first things online communities do when encountering unpopular (or unpleasant) opinions, is ban the messenger. Have we not learned anything?

I have explained before why I think Linux is the most important software project in history, but I forgot one aspect: freedom of expression. Anybody can say anything they want in the mailing list, and they won’t be banned. If you are truly a pest and have nothing to contribute, the worst that will happen is that you will be ignored. Most open software projects don’t do that (to their detriment), and that’s one of the reason why many feel compelled and eventually fork, which would be homologous to a revolution; the old dictator didn’t listen, so we took over–unfortunately, they end up doing the same mistake, and eventually ban people that disagree with them.

So, the next time you feel somebody is annoying, or stupid, or just plainly obviously wrong to the point that you want them to shut up forever with a ban… don’t. Everybody deserves the right to say what they want, but more importantly; everybody should have the right to listen to them. You (and everybody else) have the right to ignore them.

Without dissent, there’s no progress.