People often forget that the right to free expression was introduced in the West long before the establishment of the welfare state. Back in the eighteenth century, what people wanted was the right to speak their mind without fear of prosecution by the state. And this they eventually got. However, what they didn’t ask for was state protection from the worst consequences of their speech. This was something that they would bear for themselves. They would try to get the measure of their targets, but then know how to defend themselves in case of blowback.
Americans should especially appreciate this point. It is no accident that the first two amendments of the US Constitution, the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights, is the right to free expression and the right to bear arms. They were meant to be two sides of the same coin. Moreover, in the past this is how those who spoke truth to power normally understood matters: They always put their lives on the line, and sometimes they were forced to pay – and rightly became ‘martyrs’ of free speech.
However, an unfortunate episode like the killing of the Charlie Hebdo journalists makes one wonder just how seriously we take the idea that people are willing to die for freedom of expression. So much of the discussion surrounding these killings is about whether the journalists had been given adequate protection, with the French government promising to step up its security measures.
That today’s democratic states are expected not only to allow and facilitate — but also to protect –freedom of expression is admirable on its face. But as a policy, it is affordable only if very few people end up being as offensive as Charlie Hebdo, notwithstanding the sea of selfies proclaiming ‘Je Suis Charlie’. For example, one wonders what would have been the British taxpayer’s attitude toward protecting free expression had a fatwa been extended beyond just Salman Rushdie, who required around-the-clock security for ten years.
None of this takes away from the overriding importance of free expression as a fundamental human right. However, those who wish to vindicate Charlie Hebdo by proliferating strategically offensive expression may be in for a surprise, especially if they manage to hit their targets. The state will no longer be able to afford to protect them. Thus, people who wish to exercise their right to free expression will be forced to bear the cost of their own security, perhaps through private insurance or – the American way – licensed gun ownership. The US Founding Fathers would be amused.
Steve William Fuller (born 12 July 1959) is an American philosopher-sociologist in the field of science and technology studies. He has published in the areas of social epistemology, academic freedom, and the contentious subjects of intelligent design and transhumanism.
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