Tue Aug 26th, 2008 at 11:07:42 AM EST
It is quite easy to detect formal limitations to freedom of expression. Say in dictatorships freedom of expression is either formally limited by the law or it is dead obvious that you cannot say something without the state interfering with your freedom to do so. Much has been said about those.
There are other ways of limiting freedom of expression which are recognized by all and essentially accepted as "reasonable" in western societies: Freedom of expression at work is curbed a lot. In fact modern workplaces are mostly hierarchical dictatorships. This is known, discussed.
One thing that concerns me a lot is informal but pervasive ways of curbing freedom of expression.
Imagine going to a typical religious (probably creationist) group and defending a evolutionist position? You will probably be labeled as a frickin' nut. Of course you could opt not to go there, but if all your friends, if most of your social life is there, is that really an option? Are you going to leave your community just because of that? Most probably you won't. So you will adapt, adapt by not avoid saying that "sacrilege".
Of course one can abstract the reasoning and replace "religious group" by any other group. Let's say "European Tribune". Is is possible to have a healthy discussion on issues like "race", immigration, science? Can one easily defend here that that, say, immigration is "bad"?
[Don't see this has a criticism to ET (probably one of the few places that I know where this issue is less noticeable), this was just an attempt to have an example that is near (as opposed to impute this behavior just to others)]
Obviously, non-conforming points (to any group) will make the system respond back, that is normal. The problem is that, some responses make people be afraid of genuinely speak their hearts out: You might be fired, or be ignored or not "invited to the party" (social pressure is a mighty deterrent).
This has consequences: first, and sometimes very consciously, you avoid speaking from your heart, but you might still think it. So you might have that "strange" idea about X, but you don't utter it but probably practice it (think catholics and condoms/abortions). Another, probably more damning consequence is that you end up training yourself to think only inside the box. Some thoughts are dangerous if uttered by mistake... The limit becomes "hard-wired": there is no need for formal control of freedom, it is inside you.
This is to be seen in many lefty groups where some ideas are cast in stone: race, environment, emigration, ... . These issues are sometimes called "principles" (a word sometimes used for issues that is not to be discussed - dogmas).
Not only there is the whole principle of freedom of expression and the fundamental ability to be spiritually free, but it is probably also a pragmatic issue, e.g., if there had been space for a candid discussion on immigration in some countries in Europe, there would probably have been less space for the emergence of certain far-right parties. But the truth is, that it is very hard to have a non multiculturalist view on the left without being branded by some with some very bad epithets. This is an example among many.
Living in the UK (and I comment on the UK because it is one of the few examples that I do based on my real experience), I sometimes think that the local politeness/friendliness ends up having precisely the same effect: There is a framework where it becomes very difficult to voice your "strange" opinions (voicing disagreement is very difficult to do without being branded "rude").