Friday, May 24, 2013

BOOK | Freedom of Expression : An Analysis of Its Veracity

We go through our lives not noticing the ambiguities of social realities. For instance, demonstrators who rally and picket in every corner of our university would argue that it is their right to exercise freedom of expression, moreso of speech. But if we think about it, the freedom of expression that people exercise is not out and out. Our constitution holds that like other rights, the freedom of expression is not absolute. It should be exercised within the bounds of laws enacted for the promotion of social interests. Certain types of expression are penalized because they impede social interest. The question now is this: In interpersonal level of communication, is there really such a thing as the concept of "freedom of expression?" Do humans really have that freedom to express what they want?

Given that freedom is not absolute, humans are then limited in expressing thoughts and ideas. Freedom to express lies on the merit that as responsible agents of communication, we are liable to uphold integrity and make sure that we take other's well-being in consideration. German philosopher Emmanuel Kant believed that any time we speak, we have a moral obligation to tell the truth. He wrote that "truthfulness in statements which cannot be avoided is the formal duty of an individual to everyone, however great may be the disadvantage accruing to himself or another." From Kant's perspective, there are no mitigating circumstances. We tell a lie every time we say something with intent to deceive. Lying is wrong all the time. He held that "a conflict of duties and obligations is inconceivable." Ethical requirements are never contradictory. Kant arrived at this absolutist position through his categorical imperative, a term that means "duty without exception."He stated that the categorical imperative as a universal law is, "an act only on that maxim which you can will to become a universal law."

Meanwhile Augustine believed that those who sincerely desire to follow God will discern truth telling as a central tenet of the divine will. Speech was given to humans by God so they could make their thoughts known to each other. To use speech then for the purpose of deception and not for its appointed end is a sin. Nor are we to suppose that there is any lie to do service to another. Augustine's essay On Lying makes it clear that he agrees with Kant in telling the truth, no matter how painful the consequences may be. Yet unlike Kant, Augustine recognized gradations in the seriousness of lies. For example, lies aimed at helping others aren't as bad as those that aim to hurt.

Although we are compelled to tell the truth that would void the premise on the freedom of expression, David Buller and Judee Burgoon explained using their Interpersonal Deception Theory that people often find themselves in situations where they make statements that are less than completely honest in order to "avoid hurting or offending another person; to emphasize their best qualities; to avoid getting into conflict; or to speed up or slow down a relationship." At root, deception is accomplished by manipulating information whether through falsification, concealment or equivocation. Liars use words to accomplish their ends. Buller and Burgoon judge a deceptive act on the basis of the deceiver's motives, not on the act itself.

In this case, people are still not free to express what they want because they are restricted by the possible outcome of their act. We try to be careful not to offend the other by selecting and encoding messages that would fit the situation. However, Jurgen Habermas imagines an ideal speech situation in which participants are free to listen and speak their minds without fear of restraint or control. This freedom of speech that advocates no constraints  on what can be expressed is necessary to achieve emancipatory communication which would then transform society so that the needs of the individual can be met. Haberma's proposition however is far fetched because it would cause chaos if everyone is to tell whatever he wants without any constraint.

The ambiguity on freedom of expression is best settled through Aristotle's Golden Mean principle. Aristotle saw wisdom in the person who avoids excess on both sides. Moderation is best. This middle way is the "golden mean." That is because out of the four cardinal virtues- courage, justice, temperance and practical wisdom, temperance  is the one that explains the three others. Aristotle would warn against the practice of telling people only what what they want to hear, pandering to the crowd or wimpering out by not stating what we really think. He would be equally against a disregard of audience sensitivities, riding roughshod over listener's beliefs or adopting a take-no-prisoners, lay-waste-the-town rhetorical belligerence. The golden mean would lie in winsome straight talk, gentle assertiveness and appropriate adaptation.

To cap this analysis, it is important to note that in viewing freedom of expression we must remember the concept of social contract. According to Steven McCormack, we have an implied social contract that all of us will be honest with each other- a mutual agreement that our messages will reflect reality as we know it. Thus, freedom of expression is not really being free to say what we want but it is about expressing things that shall not inhibit or violate other people.


From my old file, Communication Theories 140, September 19, 2006

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