Freedom of speech without freedom of thought: Fake news, alternative truths and polarised opinions

Monday, 11 June 2018 15:45
Alicja Gescinska

Alicja Gescinska is a Belgian-Polish philosopher and novelist. 
In 2017, students at VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) blocked the entrance to the building where Secretary for Asylum and Migration Theo Francken (from the Belgian N-VA party) was scheduled to hold a lecture. In 2017, students at VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) blocked the entrance to the building where Secretary for Asylum and Migration Theo Francken (from the Belgian N-VA party) was scheduled to hold a lecture.

The fact that nothing occurs, can sometimes be quite an occurrence. The recent lecture of NV-A politician, Theo Francken, at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) is a case in point.
The lecture proceeded as planned; nothing really happened. It was an uneventful event, while it was feared that students would try to obstruct it, just as they did a year ago, when access to the lecture room was blocked and the lecture had to be cancelled. This time, however, the VUB asked the students and its staff members not to obstruct the lecture, though at the same time it did not forbid protests either.

These student protests make sense. As expressions of freedom of speech they are meaningful, as long as the students don’t mean silencing ideas they oppose. To stifle the voice of a politician, with whose views one fundamentally disagrees and believes should not be heard at a university, implies a hollowing out of what universities should be about: places where ideas can be expressed and discussed.

Express and develop

It is not the first time that protests like this have taken place. All across the world, students try to silence someone whose view they are strongly at odds with. And as often is the case, on such occasions everybody espouses the importance of freedom of speech. Some, like the rector of the VUB in this instance, stress the importance of universities in safeguarding this freedom of speech. But what very often lacks in these debates is the mention of another kind of liberty. That is freedom of thought. It is intimately interwoven with the former freedom, though it’s good to reflect on the differences between those two rights.

Most people know freedom of speech is guaranteed by several international treaties and declarations. What is less known, is that freedom of thought too is explicitly distinguished as a fundamental right. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example guarantees not only the freedom to express one’s views but also the freedom to develop one’s views.

Foundational freedom

Being free and able to develop one’s own opinions is not less important than having the right to express those opinions. If we fail to acknowledge the importance of freedom of thought, there is a chance we won’t sufficiently cherish and foster it. Many other liberties depend on the freedom of thought and speech: even to such an extent that other freedoms would make little sense without them. What’s the value of freedom of religion, freedom of education, freedom of press without the freedom to develop and express one’s views? Let us therefore take a closer look at the freedoms of speech and thought, because without those two all other freedoms are mere shams.

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The declaration of human rights was adopted by the third UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 in Paris. It was voted in with 48 in favour to none against, with 8 abstentions.

Subtle curtailment

Freedom of speech is generally seen as a passive human right; though the term “negative right” is perhaps more appropriate. Freedom of speech requires the absence of external constraints and impediments. There is more of the former, when there is less of the latter. Of course, there are, apart from prohibitions, subtler ways to curtail the freedom of speech.

Group pressure, stigmatisation and ridicule can very effectively force a person to keep his views to himself. If you know expressing a certain belief will cause mockery, insults and social exclusion, self-censorship will limit your freedom of speech perhaps even more effectively than a ban or a prohibition.

Polarisation

In this sense, there is a case to be made that internet forums and social media – where opinions flutter freely and nearly every form of expression seems to be permitted – increase and restrict the freedom of speech. In our polarised times every opinion – even the reasonable and nuanced ones – can quickly cause a tsunami of insults and imprecations. As a result, many people withdraw from those media, and certain news websites have been forced to cancel forums of discussion altogether. What in principle could be an asset to the public debate has in reality also proven to be a liability.

Meaning without thinking

Often, while scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, I would think of the words of John F. Kennedy, who many years ago already suggested that people have too many thoughts but don’t think enough. “We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,” he said in his commencement speech at Yale in 1962. Whereas opinions should be based on facts, people all too often adapt facts to reinforce their opinions, Kennedy claimed. Eventually, people become immune to truth itself.

What JFK said back then seems as relevant as ever, in our times of alternative truths and fake news. The political devaluation of truth in recent years and the polarised state of public debate, in which people all too often seem stuck in their own beliefs, increase the reasons to worry about the freedom of speech and thought. Sometimes people only need to see a clip on the internet or read a dubious online article to feel their opinion is once more confirmed. There is an abundance of opinions, but a lack of reflection. If there is something that characterizes the times we live in, it is perhaps the proliferation of opinions.

Freedom of thought

A lack of critical thinking, a lack of discomfort of thought, undermines not only truth, but also freedom – at least the freedom of thought. Freedom of thought is characterized by the openness with which one examines the views of others and the scrutiny with which one questions one’s own. A person who only knows his own truths is very likely to be living a lie. Without self-reflection, without critical thinking, no opinion is truly free. The effort made in developing an opinion is the true measure of its freedom.

Flying without wings

Contrary to freedom of speech, freedom of thought is an active, positive human right. Cultivating a critical mindset and developing one’s ability to absorb and analyze information require great effort. The mere absence of constraints and prohibitions does not suffice guaranteeing such freedom. Freedom of thought requires exposure to a variety of views and the examination of all sorts of facts.

Therefore, we should stimulate dialogue and critical thinking and embrace divergent opinions, rather than constantly combat different views. Only if we expose ourselves to beliefs that are a source of discomfort, can we enlarge our freedom of thought. And that is of paramount importance, regarding both to what we think and what we say. For having freedom of speech without freedom of thought, is like having the freedom to fly without any wings.

By Alicja Gescinska
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