The discussion about freedom of expression and its possible limits seem to have no end after the assassination attempt on one of the two editors-in-chief of Dispatch International. At least that is the case in Denmark.
Several interesting points of view have been brought forth. Tuesday – the same day this paper went to print – the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten featured a long opinion piece by one Ejvind Hansen, a research manager in ”journalistic philosophy” (whatever that may be) at the Danish School of Media and Journalism. That is, a man in a position to influence future journalists.
Ejvind Hansen has, in his research, discovered that this freedom of expression is not all that simple. For freedom of expression can be used to undermine freedom of expression. One can speak so freely that sensible people with the correct opinions have to step in and put limits on that freedom.
We know this from situations such as libel, threats, violations of confidentiality and the like. Such limitations are on the books in every civilized country and are usually not a source of problems.
But our philosophical researcher wants to go a step further: “If freedom of expression is used to denigrate others … or in other ways undermine fruitful public exchange, it becomes subversive of democracy.”
Quite obscurely, the chief researcher adds: ”The Danish interpretation [of free expression] is one interpretation among several possible, and nowhere is it written that it has to stand for eternity.” He is quite right about that. In fact, it is written in several places – including some ‘holy’ books and fatwas – that freedom of expression, as we have known it in Denmark, is to be abolished, and people are to be killed if they do not shut up.
As the journalist-philosopher sees things, freedom of expression is to be limited if it is used to speak badly of others. Interestingly, Ejvind Hansen also uses his opinion peace to speak badly of the editor of Dispatch, of the Danish People’s Party and of the major Danish web publication Uriasposten. It seems to have escaped his attention that there is a slight philosophical contradiction here.
Nor does he seem to have noticed that politicians speaking badly of each other is the precondition for democracy as such. If election campaigns consisted of speaking politely of other politicians and their policies, there would hardly be a reason to hold elections or to choose between various political parties.
The Ejvind Hansen Recipe could even make democracy as such superfluous, as one could settle for a “fruitful public exchange” of mutual praise, to the satisfaction of everyone – that is, except for the evil portion of the population who might potentially read Dispatch, Uriasposten or vote for the Danish People’s Party. The government would then consist of individuals with a particular philosophical insight – possibly assisted by the finest women and men from Danish daily Politiken.
It is unclear whether the chief researcher during the course of research has encountered George Orwell, who had lots of bad things to say about many persons.
He also phrased this definition of freedom: “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
But people like Ejvind Hansen naturally do not want to hear that.