Freedom of speech that hurts other people's feelings

Five liberal activists, including poet Salman Maqsood had each gone missing separately since Jan. 4.

While the disappearance has raised many discussions on popular media and human rights activist on the state of freedom of speech in Pakistan and international community, it seems some human rights commentators here confuse freedom of speech as synonym of the right to offend.

Free speech is a crucial part of democracy; but this freedom necessitates respect and responsibility. Simply because we can say something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.

We should consider more carefully what ‘freedom of speech’ actually means in context. Despite popular belief, free speech is not absolute, even in the United States, the UK and other developed countries that are considered global champions of Freedom of Expression. The US Supreme Court has made this clear through a number of cases. The government can regulate speech in certain instances, with exceptions for circumstances like ‘fighting words,’ or incitement to imminent violent action.

In a democracy with freedom of expression, one must tolerate scorn, mockery and ridicule. Religious and cultural pluralism are core values that democracies should aspire toward. But, pluralism, according to scholars like Harvard University’s Diana Eck, goes beyond tolerating diversity to actively seeking to engage difference through mutual dialogue. This kind of pluralism is impossible if we deliberately use free speech to provoke, demean or injure others – stereotyping a certain section of society, a set of religious values or an institution.

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Friday 20 January 2017

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