Thursday, 24 May 2012

Vox Populi

Within democratic political systems, the most central ideal that should be upheld in order for the society to be considered democratic, is that everybody has a voice and that everyone has the right to speak. This is the very foundation of democracy. Therefore, we could arguably say that no society is ever truly democratic, because in all cases there will be a select minority of individuals, sometimes united under a common banner, sometimes due to simple misfortune) whose voices will not be heard by the people. Unless every single voice is heard and duly listened to, it cannot be considered truly democratic.

But this entry is not primarily concerned with whether we can consider democracy as ever being possible or anything like that. No, this entry is concerned with the rights of speech. Basically, I am asking the question: Should everyone have a right to speak? Should free speech be a right that is shared by everyone?

The majority of people who were born in, raised in and currently live in a democratic society would likely argue that YES, everybody should have the right to say what they think and to have this voice heard by the powers that be. However, this is not a view that is shared by everyone, and it is clearly evident that democracy is not a universal political system. However, the majority of people who have aligned themselves with democracy seem to view any alternative system as being either overly authoritarian or overly liberal. Basically, they proclaim their own political system to be the best, when compared with the alternatives. Many would even go as far as to view anything which is not Democratic as being a warped way of thinking.

If we look at this from a philosophical vantage point, we have several different takes on politics, most of which are supported fully on a rational basis, as are many of the non-democratic political systems actively used today in other societies. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a political system presented by a philosopher is that of Plato’s Republic, his view of an ideal society which is outlined in the book of the same name. Plato is considered to be an incredibly influential figure in Philosophy, and individuals such as A.N. Whitehead have even referred to the subject of philosophy as a whole as being a “series of footnotes to Plato”. (Reductionist to say the least, some would respond).

For those of you unfamiliar with Plato’s Republic, the simple idea is that society is a natural, organic, phenomenon and in its ideal state everything would be organised into the same rational order. According to Plato, society should be organised in such a way that every person has a clearly defined role which they must fulfil. This role defines their profession and place in society and is assigned by an elite group of people who were raised to rule, known as the Guardians or the Philosopher Kings. Plato’s ideas also involve the dissolution of our conception of family, with all children been raised anonymously as a group. For those who want to know more about Plato’s society, I will provide some more information at the end of this entry.

So, if we take the ideas of Plato and use them to examine the phenomenon of free speech, we could easily come to the conclusion that Plato would not be a big fan of it, simply because he would see it as allowing the unwise a chance to influence the wise. For Plato, democracy is giving control over to the people and Plato does not seem to have much faith in the people, for it was obvious to him that people are better suited to different roles. It should not be that we simply permit people to do as they wish in terms of their profession, for doing so prevents them from reaching any level of excellence within this profession.

Personally, I can see the strengths of this argument. Having read the Republic and done some research into Plato, I can honestly say that he makes sense to me. This does not mean that I think his society could ever work outside of our thoughts, but it is definitely, for me at least, an ideal way in which we could live. However, if this idea was implemented it would be abused, simply because there are so many people in the world who seem to be corrupt and only out for themselves, as it were.

More to the point, Plato is against free speech in some forms, though there are sections of the Republic devoted to the concept of Censorship and Lying in more detail than I am willing to go into here.

However, I am more of a mind to support the concept of free speech, simply because I think that every person should be treated equally.

Though I would prefer to live in Plato’s ideal state, that is not going to happen, so we should instead aim for something more realistic, which I believe we can find in a democratic system. But I accept Plato’s point about the unwise influencing the wise. So far, democracy has shown itself to be more than a little open to corruption, despite the fact that it places the power in the hands of the people.

People who are corrupt and bend easily before money and who have little character are not wise, and it seems evident to me that only the wise should be allowed to rule. But we all know that wisdom is overly subjective, that it cannot be used to sieve through all political candidates and that it would be generally impractical to attempt to do so. Therefore we have no grounds for changing democratic systems in this direction. 

Plato is right when he says that some people should not be permitted to speak, simply because they could lead other people astray…not all of us can be as wise as Plato would like now, can we? In terms of freedom of speech, I think the main reason that we should accept it and apply it to everyone is because the alternative is too open to abuse. Whereas with free speech you may have some people abusing it to lead other people astray, without it too many innocent, wise and good people would be trapped in silence. We would be moving away from democracy entirely, and into a system which is possibly more open to abuse.

Also, I think that there are several very good reasons for permitting people to speak freely, even when they are encouraging things that are wrong. I think that we can learn something from everybody we listen to, that if we hear people’s messages, we will be able to better ourselves because of it. I am not saying that we can or should agree with everyone, only that even when people are completely wrong, we are able to use them and their viewpoints to better teach ourselves what is right. We can use incorrect views and views we do not agree with as a springboard for self reflection, allowing us to ascertain a greater knowledge of what we view to be right.


To round off this entry, I shall leave you with a quote from the wonderful Winston Churchill:

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – Winston Churchill

Free speech is a good thing, even when it allows people to present views which are wrong.


As promised, those looking for more information about Plato’s Republic should probably take a look here first. There are loads more sites out there which have more information about it too. Also, you could pick up a copy and read it for yourself. Personally I find the writing style really clear and quite easy to read, but then again, it is not exactly bed time reading.

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