Free speech – a democratic supreme value Ruthless Criticism

Free speech – a democratic supreme value

An anti-Islamic video was recently posted on YouTube in which the prophet Mohammed is portrayed as a violent fool and Muslims generally as terrorists. This is going too far, say not only a lot of believers in Islam, but also many opinion-makers here. In unison, it is said that one should not willfully “hurt” religious feelings. On the other hand, however, according to the same opinion-makers, one must also accept that religion does not enjoy an unconditional species protection: the believer may well hold his God paramount, but he cannot demand that all others do so as well – in a democracy, freedom of opinion and expression counts, and it also allows everyone to, among others things, criticize religion and even deprecate it to a certain degree. If Muslims now unleash a storm of protest against the “blasphemy” of the video, they must be curbed because they thereby put their religious “values” above the magnificent achievement of free speech. It is about a supreme value on which “freedom” and “democracy” stands and falls. Here the general public in the west also takes an intransigent point of view, proclaiming a “clash of cultures” and leaving no doubt that in the name of this “culture war” they likewise considers all sorts of violent steps by their state powers to be justified and advisable. The whole thing is somewhat ridiculous: So much fire and brimstone and calls to bravely defend freedom just so that one can smirk at an idol of foreign believers? – But, obviously, it’s about more than that: democracy treats the “value” of free speech as supreme because it is essential for it, because in this country a type of rule – and one especially contrasting to the constitution of Islamic states – is exercised. So a few critical remarks.


Free speech is really a “value” of the highest kind which no one simply spontaneously feels a need for. Anyone who has a thought and wants to express it, who thus has something to communicate because it is important to him to inform others about, wants to do this and not to be allowed to do this; he passes a judgment or announces an interest. He does not merely want to have said something, rather he is interested in a discussion: His counterpart should agree with the judgment or disprove it, thus seriously examine the thoughts presented, and he should support the interest substantiated through the judgment or give reasons for rejecting it. If free speech is celebrated, none of this is the issue – because it is celebrated that one may generally say something. One can only come to the idea that this is something magnificent if it is imagined that a force is standing over one which could forbid the mere expression of opinion. But, at least, one could now say – it is surely better if one may express one’s own opinion, if even this is forbidden. Clearly: If one’s own judgment or interest is practically important, one does not want to be steamrolled in advance. If there really was an authority which already forbids mere expression, then one would have to take up the fight against it – but only as a precondition so that the judgment or interest can then come into effect. It is quite another matter if the point is the right to one’s own opinion. Then it is tacitly assumed that there is a higher authority which is authorized and has the power to confer this kind of right. If one appeals to it to allow this right, then one assesses that the desired freedom only exists insofar as this authority grants it. If then this authority hears the appeal and permits the free expression of opinion, then it has not retracted one iota of the power which it has over its citizens with free opinion. And one gets rid of that in the subsequent fight over insight or never does.


This is the other side of every freedom granted by the state, and not only the right to free expression of opinion: The authority which grants this freedom also reserves itself the right to assess and regulate according to its discretion the use the recipients make of this freedom. According to its discretion, it treats and punishes some expressions as verbal attacks against itself or another interest it judges worthy of protection – and forbids them or makes them a punishable offense. However, the superordinate authority’s command over expressions of opinion is far from the end of the matter: It intervenes in all statements of thought and intent much more deeply, precisely by accepting each expressed opinion as equal. That means, vice versa: The democratic state makes it the duty of everyone who would like to take up the right to freely express his opinion to recognize all other opinions – even those which contradict his – as just as valid as his own. But still, one could say again, at least – maybe with a few exceptions – it is not prohibited. Only: What does one get from it, if one is obliged to acknowledge the contrary opinions of others as just as correct as one’s own? If this proviso means that all statements, whether they express correct insights or complete nonsense, are equally valid as one another, then they are however – like every other – of equal unimportance. The judgment or the interest which a statement wants to convey shrivels before the fact that one may think and say something. So one must be content with the permission to think, as if it would not at all depend on the thing thought, but only on having mentioned that his view is inconsequential.


Needless to say, the supervising and freedom-granting authority is not concerned about the trivial views with which people amuse each other, or the nasty remarks which they make to personally provoke each other. The equal validity in principle – thus the practical irrelevance – of all expressed opinions takes to task the practical interests which are important and socially significant to the affected persons. Clearly: Everybody may say what he thinks of the society and even how he would like to change it. Every idea put forward in this regard has its right to exist, but only if it relativizes itself in relation to every interest posed in opposition to it. That means: the one who expresses an opinion may not presume to press for the real practical validity of his opinion. He may not insist on wanting to come to an understanding with other interested people – in discussing or also arguing – about the correctness or falseness of the stated concerns in order to bring them into effect after the conclusion of this debate. The everyday free thinking citizen who takes free speech to heart mirrors this exactly: Everyone attaches enormous value to their own opinions, insists on their right to be allowed to have them, are offended when someone disrespectfully comments on them – and at the same time they treat their own opinion as practically unimportant when they say in the same breath: “I just think …” or a little more subtly: “In my view / my opinion ….” The social context in which the expressed opinion is situated remains completely unaffected by their opinions. What is controlled and regulated by the authority which grants free speech is and remains assumed by them. It is the state which determines how much the different interests, which are always allowed to come up only as opinions, really count. By defining the practical insignificance of each opinion, thus prohibiting them from crossing over to being carried out in practice, the state follows the interests and calculations which it defines and carries out for itself as valid. Thought through, “free speech” boils down to this: The democratic state power grants all citizens the right to free speech – and just in this way it gets its basic freedom to pass over expressed interests either as mere expressions of opinion or to set them into law in practice. So it obligates all citizens equally to respect the freedom of their state to enforce its interests against all private ones.


Free speech really belongs to the peculiar relation of restrictive recognition in which the modern bourgeois state power stands towards its citizens: it grants them a right to their interest. At the same time, it requires them to relativize these interests; it does not allow them to grapple among themselves with the validity of their individual needs and abilities, to reach agreement on a result and then put this into practice. From the start, the state power expects them to leave the regulation of their social relations exclusively to the supreme power. So the citizens do indeed enjoy “freedom,” but the state power has command over the material conditions of this freedom. It grants its subjects recognition, but in a very abstract sense, namely, under a disregard in principle of what they need, want and are capable of, and thereby emancipates itself from their material interests. This relation that the state takes towards its citizens, this grant of an abstract freedom, comprises the right to free thinking and self-expression – and it includes the measure that the person should consider himself well served by being allowed to spew his thoughts without hindrance. This is what counts as historic progress over relations of rule in which an authority founded on ethnic or religious canons assigns each person a social place or rank, where the recognition of individuals depends on them, in turn, adopting the religious belief of the ruling power and recognizing this as God’s will. One should not forget, however, the extremely restricted reach of this progress: The democratic authority has realized that it is is not only unnecessary for civil obedience, but frequently even a hindrance when it prescribes to its citizens which God they should let command their obedience in the here below. It leaves everybody free to select the God on the market of religious possibilities that they want, whereby it can be said that submission under secular government is pleasing to God. Yes – the summit of freedom – one does not even need to believe in a God, but may choose for oneself the highest principle in the humanistic heaven of values as a substitute, in which one deduces the same thing, namely, that human co-existence is “inconceivable without a state monopoly on violence” …

[Translated from analysis by GegenStandpunkt on Radio Lora Munich, March 20, 2006]