Freedom of expression was a topic at the center of one of our earliest debates at Intelligence Squared U.S. At the time we presented the debate, in 2006, the motion seemed like an effortless win for the proposers, with more than 83% voting in favor of the motion. Must freedom of expression include the license to offend?
My opening remarks framed the debate, as follows:
“At first blush, tonight’s motion seems like a slam-dunk for the proposers. 95 percent of the pertinent quotations I looked at were ringing supports of free speech. But there were a couple of more sardonic observations that are perhaps truer to our real attitudes. Here’s Heywood Broun: ‘Everyone favors free speech in the slack moments, when no axes are being ground.’ Louis B. Mayer: ‘I respect my executives who disagree with me…especially when it means losing their jobs.’ Well, it’s amusing, but we do indeed live in a world where jobs are lost because of speech. Larry Summers, for example, lost the presidency of Harvard because of remarks offensive to women. Senator George Allen may well lose his because of a highly arcane ethnic epithet. So, given the heightened sensitivity of so many groups in American society to demeaning speech, we should hardly be surprised that speech offensive to Muslims elicits so strong a reaction, as appalled as we may be by the associated violence.”
Lives, not jobs, were lost defending the freedom of expression after the attack on the satirical newspaper Charie Habdo. As debater Phillip Gourevitch resolved in his conclusion: “Who is to judge, who is to decide, how are we to restrict their ability to license our ability to offend? In other words how are we to restrict their ability to restrict us? At what point does this admittedly slippery slope immediately become this greased precipice, and we fall off into a very dangerous situation?” These questions are even more powerful today.
Recommend reading: Gourevitch’s column in The New Yorker continues where the debate left off. The transcript and complete video available here explore every argument surrounding the debate.
I hope you’ll join the debate and continue elevating the level of public discourse through civilized discourse.