Free speech: where should the limit be?

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Paris – The infamous American comedian Jon Stewart left the satirical “Daily Show” earlier this year. Stewart was far from being consensual. His jokes were, at times, not to say often, mean spirited; and they did not stop at any predictable limits. During his run on the show, he was funny, intelligent, and highly opinionated. And he was liberal beyond any conceivable frontiers with regard to free speech. he did not seem to believe that anything were a taboo or that he should control his shock doses.

The corrosive combination of his character, his talent, and his political opinions made the success of his show, which launched the careers of other similar comedians, like Stephen Colbert, now the star of the “The Late Show” on CBS. When he stepped down, South African comedian Trevor Noah was picked as his replacement. Noah, who has big shoes to fill, debuted on the “Daily Show” with a couple of provocative jokes, one about AIDS and the other about the death of Whitney Houston from a drug overdose.

Over the past few decades, shock and provocation have been increasingly used in comedy. Noah was not the first one to make a joke about the deadly frightful disease that is AIDS. The show “South Park” did that years ago. Nonetheless, the subject of deadly diseases is sensitive. And one can hardly imagine ordinary people making such jokes in polite company. ButT the tendency toward joking about the things that frighten us most might, at times, lighten their effects on our  hearts. This is a coping mechanism. The problem is that AIDS and drug overdoses kill people. It ensues that joking about a deadly disease or drug induced death is something to be avoided, out of respect for the sanctity of human life, if not for the gravity that they involve.

We need to cope with our fears. But we also need to keep intact our perspective when it comes to threats to our survival. This is where such provocative jokes are most dangerous. Perspective, decency, and moral values still matter in our lives despite the social revolution of the 1960’s and despite the societal transformations that have been operated in the West over the past three decades. Together with socio-economic factors, such deep changes have resulted in a total loss of moral and spiritual references for the West today.

When he started his career, Elvis Presley, who was a religious man, was considered a danger to public decency because of his singing and his dancing styles. Later in his career, he said that he had been “tame” compared to the entertainers who came after him.

When the show “The Simpsons” started out, it stirred controversy to a degree where President George H. W. Bush commented on it by speaking of making American families “a lot more like the “Waltons” and a lot less like “the Simpsons””. Now, if we compare the “Simpsons” to “South Park”, which came years after the “Simpsons” itself, we may easily say that the “Simpsons” has been “tame”, just like Elvis Presley said of himself, in comparison to those who came after  him.

It is often the case in popular culture that artists stir controversy, willingly or unwillingly. Some are tempted to hamper the progress of those whom they consider to have crossed a line. And, many would say that Trevor Noah did cross a line on his debut. It is, indeed,unthinkable that Whitney Houston’s loved ones would smile at his joke. To the contrary, they must have felt deeply hurt by it, like those among Noah’s audience who might have lost a loved one to a drug overdose most probably have. This leads us to the question: should we set limits to free speech in order to protect our sensitive beings?

Seldom has any civilization given as much attention to human sensitivity as do today’s Western civilizations. Yet, there is a paradox in Western cultures: while we do uphold the value of respect, we have gotten used to extreme sarcasm and deprecation. This paradox is further aggravated by another value that is upheld by the West: freedom. In this situation, we find ourselves in the face of a philosophical conundrum: should we limit freedom of expression?

Quite often, limits are set on freedom in order to protect public interest. This is the logic behind speed limits, for instance. But to what extent should we limit our freedoms? Expression is key to the development of any society. Had the age of the Inquisition lasted until today, Western civilizations would surely have taken a significant delay in comparison to the world’s other civilizations, if not wiped out. The number one reason why Western civilizations have reached their current leading positions in the world over the past few centuries is their cultural development. That development would have been unthinkable without free speech.

Many rights  that we hold for granted today are the results of fights against the prevailing conventional wisdom of the past; and they are equally  the fruit of struggles for free speech, the right to express one’s ideas regardless of their potential popularity, of their orthodoxy, of their perceived sense, objectivity, or coherence. There once were people, in the heart of the Western world, who had to hide their ideas and their beliefs for fear of retribution. Today, such an environment is unthinkable. This progress was made possible by thinkers, philosophers, writers, and ordinary people who braved the prevailing mentalities around them. The contributions of the likes of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Socrates to human progress, to the human quest for the meaning of life, would never have been made had they practiced self-censorship in order to avoid trouble and to please their societies.

Cultura & Società