4.4.6 Free Speech in a Pluralist Society

Although free speech in a pluralist society is highly desirable, it is sometimes in tension with the need to show respect to others.

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.  Reaching an appropriate balance between free speech and hurting other people is an important part of the socially acceptable behaviour needed to live together peaceably (4.4.2).

One 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.  It appears quite often in casual conversation, or in the media, and is sometimes defended as ‘free speech’.  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….”

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.  This 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 following sub-sections examine different aspects of resolving the tension between need for free speech in a pluralist society and the need for mutual respect:

●  Free speech is essential, as a way of negotiating and increasing mutual understanding between different cultural groups (

●  There is limited scope for trying to convert other people to one’s own way of thinking ( Missionaries were not always welcome, and forcible conversion is totally indefensible.

●  There are risks in trying to criticise or satirise other groups ( The Danish Cartoons incident is examined in detail as an example of the problems.

●  There are dangers in using broad labels to criticise, belittle or demonise an entire ethnic groups ( It is careless, sloppy thinking: for example, the actions of one Israeli government cannot be blamed on all Jewish people.

●  The use of divisive language should be criticised ( It is not legitimate to claim the right to free speech when inflicting harm on another person.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/446.htm.