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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912

Abstract

DE BEER, C S. Free speech, responsible speech. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2009, vol.49, n.1, pp. 05-19. ISSN 2224-7912.

Human beings want to be free and that freedom finds expression in freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of action. This is a unique and predominantly important feature of humans. Other unique features like creativity and inventiveness can only flourish at best in a milieu of freedom. Freedom in all respects should therefore be embraced, cultivated and promoted. This ideal of freedom can, however, never be without limits nor can it be absolutised. The reason for this is to be found in the nature of the human being. Humans are not flawless. On the contrary, they are fallible, mortal and finite. These disabilities are manifested in all their actions. All the freedoms they may take are hampered and affected by this fundamental flaw. For this reason freedom can easily be abused and it happens from day to day. Although the right to free speech should enthusiastically be protected and promoted, it should at the same time, with equal vigilance, be protected against itself, against its abuse in one way or another. Free speech is a linguistic activity and for this reason the nature of language requires attention as well for a proper appreciation of the value of free speech. Two dimensions of language, namely the abstract and material dimensions are discussed. The abstract dimension enables humans to communicate in a straightforward manner according to the rules of language, logic and clear argumentation. In this regard language can be used as a tool; it can form part of sets of skills; it can be spoken. The material dimension of language, on the contrary, is loaded with emotion, beyond human control, and cannot be used by humans. In this case humans are used by language; language speaks through us. Humans have to be sensitive and responsive to the speaking powers and forces of language. Freedom of speech and expression is hampered by the same problem. Since humans are fallible they also transfer this fallibility to their use and abuse of language. Although free speech can be creative and capable of building human relations and individuals it can also be destructive of relations and of individuals. For this reason emphasis is laid on the relationship between language and violence with specific reference to the mortal violence to which language can lead. Language can destroy; it can kill. For this reason no free speech can ever be absolute. And for the same reason the notion of responsible speech has to be introduced and kept alert and alive. Responsibility should enable us to utilise language and be utilised by language in a constructive way. This offers the only route towards the creative and inventive usages of this very special quality with which humans are equipped. Certain guidelines are suggested in terms of which free speech can be conducted responsibly: it must be guided by a search for truth, the promotion of sound human relations, noological inspirations must be attended to, the establishment of vital societal networks and links, the continuous search for and configuration of the optimal in meaning. Whenever these guidelines are ignored or contravened free speech will undoubtedly end up in disastrous anarchistic social and political protuberances. The difficulties human fallibility and linguistic competence pose for the free activity of speech that enables humans to engage themselves in what they do not want to say, or, to devote their attention to the neglect of precisely that which they know they should be saying, call forward the notion of "an infinitely demanding ethics of commitment". Human beings are confronted with the never-ending challenge and responsibility to build societies of freedom and peace for all. In the positive response to such a confrontation humans are faced with this immensely difficult ethical challenge. In a culture of rights and demands where people hardly ever contemplate duties and responsibilities as part of their vocabulary, the ethical call to thoughtfulness in free speech requires attention. Thoughtlessness in free speech - a much too sensible word for the stupidity and idiocy that we find demonstrated in "free speeches", as well as "free writing" for that matter, on a daily basis - make possible disturbing titles such as "the violence of words", "words that wound", and "only words". What is required against the empty abuse of dangerous words for ideological effect, as a demonstration of the shallow and thoughtless literacy of the idiot, is a thoughtful literacy that appreciates the wealth of language that should accompany our daily "usage of letters" in full responsibility with regard to every other human being in the rich interhuman dispositions of care and respect.

Keywords : Free speech; responsible speech; human fallibility; abstract and material dimensions of language; the violence of language; thoughtless literacy; thoughtful literacy; ethics of commitment; truth; meaning.

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