4.4.6 Free Speech in a Pluralist Society

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/446.htm)

Communication, whether written, spoken or visual, is the principal medium of negotiation in the Moral Dimension; it is also the means by which a peaceful society can be stirred up, become polarised, and slide into conflict.

Although free speech is highly desirable, it is sometimes in tension with the need to show respect to others – as part of the socially-acceptable behaviour needed to live together peaceably (4.4.2).  A major problem is racism: the belief that one’s own race is superior and not treating those who are different as equals who deserve consideration and respect.  The Dred Scott Decision, by America’s Supreme Court in 1857, is a famous example:

“… the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, …. had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect….”

Racism appears quite often in casual conversation, or in the media, and is sometimes defended as ‘free speech’.  Even though freedom of speech can be regarded as a human right, it can conflict with the rights of other people to be treated with respect.  The apparent contradiction can be resolved by observing that a freedom to offend is not an instruction to do so (, and we are individually responsible for the choices we make (

The next few subsections examine aspects of this tension and suggest some guidelines:

  • The need for free speech, as a way of negotiating and increasing mutual understanding (;
  • The limited scope for trying to convert other people to one’s own way of thinking (;
  • The freedom to criticise or satirise, analysing the Danish Cartoons incident as a detailed example (;
  • The dangers of divisive language, especially the careless use of broad labels to demonise large groups (;
  • Ways of applying moral pressure to suppress divisive language (



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