What Is Freedom of Speech? / A brief history of a perverse form of question

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It seems to me that despite the death of God and the dismemberment of the Truth, we human beings still have a long way before we totally get rid of our religious dogmatism and our spirit of sacrifice. There is absolutely no difference of nature between those who believe in God and the atheists who place their blind dogmatic faith in science, for instance. As there is no difference of nature between the oppressors of individual freedom and a nation that launches wars in the name of individual freedom. In fact, it all comes down to a problem of definition – as it has been since the very beginning of the history of thought; which is why philosophy is far from being a dead discipline that merely explores a chronological history of ideas: philosophy remains deeply current because its most essential questions are still as important, perhaps today more than ever.

What is freedom of speech? What is terrorism? What is the truth? What’s a civilised person?

I would like to examine an old habit that we almost never question: the relevance of the question “what is..?”  In fact, it’s Western metaphysics that have taught us to ask the question of essence in the form of “what is..?” And if we’ve been unconsciously taking this question for a given, we mostly owe it to Plato and Socrates. Because the question “what is..?” implies a very particular way of thinking that is omnipresent in Plato’s dialogues – in which the main protagonist Socrates vehemently rejects any other forms of question. For instance, in Plato’s dialogue Hippias Major, when Socrates asks the question “what is beauty?” and that the sophist Hippias answers by citing examples of things “which are beautiful,” and examples of people “who are beautiful,” we witness a major moment in the history of thought because the political repercussions of such a misunderstanding are substantial. First of all, because the assumed superiority of Socrates in these dialogues is more than suspicious. His method never seems successful: the question is never resolved and most of these platonic dialogues are destined to nowhere. It would be of course stupid to give examples of things which are beautiful and of people who are beautiful when asked what is beauty? because the question aims at finding a necessary essence, an unchangeable substance, the thing itself, and not an example of things or people that contain a sample of that substance as a participative quality. But let us make no amalgams here: the sophist Hippas is not an idiot or a child who’s incapable of getting the nuance between the two questions and who simply answers by which/who when asked what. No. It’s more likely that Hippias thought that the question which/who? was a far better question, one that was more capable of finding the essence. To ask which/who is beautiful instead of what is beauty is not a coincidence: it’s the result of an elaborate method that excludes the existence of a common essence and that leads us to the art of empiricism and pluralism. Meaning, to ask the question which/who is a dangerous thing because it directly leads to the political questions of the point of view: who decides? who sets the limit?

To become aware of this inevitability of empiricism and pluralism is to let go of our dogmatic belief in intangible and eternal essences. It’s to become aware that a single and unique definition of freedom is a lie. That a single and unique definition of terrorism is a lie. That a single and unique definition of truth is a lie. That there is no meaning, but a plurality of meanings that all fight for the right to be the (temporarily) most convincing one. That instead of asking the question: what is freedom of speech? – a question that no one has managed to answer once and for all, – we must ask a question that’s far more interesting, the question of the point of view, the question which/whowho is free to speak their mind? From France’s point of view, it seems, whoever wishes to mock Islam is free to speak their mind, however, those who wish to make fun of Zionism aren’t. From Saudi Arabi’s point of view, men are free to speak their mind, however, women aren’t. Who is a terrorist? From the United States’ point of view, it’s the muslim extremist of Al Qaeda. From Israel’s point of view, it’s the Hamas militant. From Palestine’s point of view, it’s the state of Israel. From the left-wing militants’ point of view, it’s the US politics. Who is civilised? From the Western civilisation’s point of view, it is of course the western model of civilisation that serves as a reference: anything else is barbaric. And so on.

Becoming aware that the Truth does not exist. That there is no unique and radical meaning given to us straight from heaven. That there is no chosen people. That there is no absolute truth that’s revealed to some and not to others. That absolutely nothing is a given. That there is no historical direction. That there is no progress. That there are no good guys and bad guys. That there is no right or wrong. That there is nothing else but interpretation. And that every interpretation is always conceived from a specific point of view. That our laws and definitions are always set from a specific point of view aimed at satisfying the interests of a specific category of people. It is only this type of awareness that allows for a real discussion to happen, and for solutions to be found: away from dogmatism, away from intellectual blindness, away from demagogy, away from populism, away from stupidity, away from exclusion, away from discrimination, away from hypocrisy. And most importantly, beyond any emotional blackmail and self-righteous slogans and campaigns that never do anything but perpetuate the problem.

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