I believe there to be a common misconception regarding what enables freedom in democratic countries, how democracies prevent the oppression of minorities and the role that especially freedom of speech plays in enabling the potential to continuously reconfigure how to react to new societal challenges.
It is important to realise that a free society is dependent on much more than being democratic in its most basic meaning. That is to say, it is not just having elections that make a government fair and just. An election result should never be too important in deciding the fate of people’s welfare. Because if that is the case, then certain parts of the population will simply not be able to accept certain electoral results peacefully.
That is why it is indicative of troubling times if elections become too interesting. A functioning government that creates peace, prosperity and freedom for the people enables this by relying on much more than just elections.
The societies of all democracies have agreed on certain fundamental rights and laws that ensure that that fundamental agreed upon rules cannot be broken – or are unalienable. In that environment then do we decide who our political representatives will be that than within the rules or laws that we have created make decisions on the margins. This point is incredibly important to keep in mind as the fundamental laws that societies agree upon collectively are integral in enabling democracies to work for the benefit of society, without discrimination.
Further, Democracies are not meant to be the most efficient form of government. If anything, they are specifically designed to be inefficient in making laws and going about political decision making. If we imagined the most efficient form of government, it would probably be some autocratic structure in which decisions are quickly formed and directly implemented and enforced. This bears obvious irreconcilable risks. The decisions that are made might favour certain people more than others. The decisions might have horrible unintended or even intended consequences that could have been presented through deliberation.
Hence, it is important to divide the powers within government to ensure that multiple veto players are created that effectively control each other’s behaviour to ensure that new rules and actions of the government and outcomes of the rules in place are as fair as they can be. Let me repeat that: It is not desirable to have a government in which decisions are made rapidly and have drastic effects. A good rule of thumb is that it should not matter too much whether your leaders, bureaucrats and judges are the best conceivable person you can think of or insane psychopaths. We can all dream up a structure in which we have a benevolent dictator that gets things done quickly and with the benefit of the people in mind. But that is not how reality works. For one, there is no will of the people. We are individuals who wish to go about our lives in different, distinct ways. And we have every right to do so. Therefore, we need a system in which these different wishes are accounted for.
Now you might remark that a democratic system in which you vote for your representatives might create exactly that. However, merely ensuring that political decisions have a minimal majority of the population backing them is not enough. Is it just if most of a population decides to sacrifice a small part of the population for the common good? Why don’t we just take all the money from a small part of the population and distribute it amongst the rest? I am sure there would be a majority in many democracies around the world for such a policy. So while we are at it, why don’t we just take all rights away from this small demographic group, round them up in labour camps, make them work for our benefit, and euthanise them once they cannot work anymore, take their property and distribute it amongst ourselves? Surely this must be beneficial from a utilitarian standpoint?
You can see how even in a poorly designed democracy, with an overly powerful executive power and insufficient basic rules of conduct, despotism and genocide are just a few thought experiments away.
It is therefore that the basic human rights and basic rules of governmental conduct we agree upon are so incredibly important for all of us.
One of the basic rules that essentially all western democracies seem to have at one point agreed upon is freedom of speech. We all want to be able to think whatever we want – it is a chilling and Orwellian thought to imagine a world where that wouldn’t be possible. And I think almost everyone can still agree that we should also be able to say whatever we want. I mean who is the government (everyone else, through the power of their representatives) to tell me what I can and cannot say.
When considering freedom of speech and debating whether recent debates about it have been overblown – it is necessary to remind ourselves that the basic rules that we all agree on probably matter more than the specific democratic government that we elect. Therefore, I do not believe that these kinds of discussion should ever be held lightly. It is so crucial what these rules and laws are that will always be of importance regardless of who is in power that any changes to these laws should be made with incredible caution and prudence.
Freedom of speech ensures that society is able to openly discuss whether there are rules that need to be changed – or any other grievance in society for that matter. The freedom to discuss any idea ensures that nobody can constrict people’s ability to discuss, debate, and ultimately demand change in whatever area of life they deem fit. This basic rule is so important because any constriction of your freedom of speech ultimately limits how far you can legally think. It thus warrants extreme caution to put in place any rule or law that narrows the extent to which you can debate certain topics.
I think that another good rule of thumb here is to consider that you should not advocate for exceptions for freedom of speech that could be taken and used against yourself. If you believe that you should have the power to keep someone from saying X or make someone say Y whenever you want to – then consider this: This rule sets the precedent to establish a similar rule that can be used against you, further silencing debate.
Also, consider this: You have just made it more important who is in the position to make the changes to the rules. Once you have established a rule that is able to silence people -what keeps me from taking over the government (in peaceful and democratic manner) and expanding the areas to which the rule you advocated for should be used for?
You do not want to enact laws that can be used against yourself.
Therefore, it is so important to clearly define what laws exactly mean and in what circumstance they can be used.
You might think that a law like “You should not be allowed to insult anyone” – is a good rule. But who decides what insults mean? If this was a law, then a bad judge might be able to use this law to get you into prison because he doesn’t like you.
Again – we want the setup to be so that it does not really matter who enforces the rules. Because if we have far-reaching rules and strong power that can dramatically impact peoples lives and actions, then we better make sure that “our person” is the one making the decisions. And that quite frankly is the best way to a civil war.
For election results to be accepted by the loser it must be clear that your economic and physical welfare is guaranteed, that it is not up for debate. Therefore, it makes sense to err on the side of freedom – but to ensure that people’s integrity is secured.
Hence my freedom to extend my arm ends where your face begins.
At this point, it probably becomes clear that freedom and security are in some ways at odds with each other. I have a freedom to say whatever I want, but you have a right not to be insulted (as that is considered part of your physical welfare). This is a point in which tension between our fundamental rights occurs. And this tension irrevocable leads to the need to continuously discuss and re-evaluate where my freedom ends and your right to freedom starts. Many get frustrated about this – but understand that this is human systems we are talking about – this is not some perfectly calibrated machine where everything integrates perfectly. No, society is a human construction with constant friction, opposing interests, and the need to make compromises.
Hence freedom and integrity are the pillars of a free society -and to uphold them we need to foremost uphold an environment in which we can peacefully discuss what the trade-offs in different situations should be. Where does my freedom need to be limited for your safety to prosper, and where does your safety have to budge to my freedom? There is no definitive answer to this question as it entirely depends on the specific situation you apply it to. Hence, we need to be able to re-evaluate every situation repeatedly. And then in two years, when something changes, or we become aware of something we had not thought about before, we need to do it all over again.
These discussions are what democracies are about and what gives them the biggest advantage over any other form of human organisation. WE oversee deciding how we want to live together. And to do that we need to be able to freely and openly discuss how we want to do that. Democracies ensure that this process is possible by electing political representatives that lead the discussion over what our rules should be. But they are also necessarily constricted by the division of power in government, as well as the necessary respect for the fundamental rules that guarantee that no new government can create entirely new rules disrespecting societies commitment to basic human rights and codes of conduct. Thereby, democracies ensure that elections can work and do not enable the majority to oppress and potentially live at the expense of the minority.
Therefore, it is essential to ensure that rules are not imposed but rather the result of compromise after open dialogue, because the alternative- is going into a direction you do not want to go as a society- that way lies the death of freedom, the suppression of dissent, the burning of books, and ultimately the question of where it all went wrong.