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FIRST PLACE WINNER: Edmund Heaphy, Does freedom of speech mean that everyone should get a voice?

What I find interesting about the most captivating ideas of today is not so much that they are brand new, but that they are almost always a provocative restatement of older truths. Mark Zuckerberg's beliefs surrounding the notion of giving everyone a voice seems to be grounded in what is widely regarded as the most universal human right: freedom of speech. Even though it has always been contentious — and that is probably putting it lightly — the concept of free speech has survived more than two thousand years, ever since it was first conceived by the ancient Greeks. And survived it has: the Roman Empire held this freedom up as its most cherished right, and since then it has featured in England's 1689 Bill of Rights, most famously in the first amendment of the U.S. constitution, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. And this is by no means an exhaustive list. Quite often, these restatements serve to redraw our attention to an important truth that we have lost sight of.

Zuckerberg's quote shares certain parallels with the thoughts of many great thinkers, and particularly with a famous quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This featured in Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s biography of the French philosopher Voltaire, putting into words his views about the right to free speech. But even though these quotes share altogether similar concepts, I think it’s safe to say that this is where the similarities end. Zuckerberg’s restatement goes further than earlier versions of this old truth, in that he suggests that “the system” — referring to society as a whole — “usually ends up in a good place”. I'm not so sure Zuckerberg intended to make such a definitive statement in relation to the philosophical concept of power and free speech, but I am sure that it is a stretch to suggest that we usually end up in a good place when everyone is given power and a voice.

Surprisingly, the most prominent contradiction of Zuckerberg’s statement comes from the very system that he created. Facebook gives the most power and the biggest voice to anyone who decides that they want it. And there have, literally, been disastrous results. Anyone with a level head would look at cyber-bullying and come to quite the opposite conclusion to Zuckerberg. I certainly have. Giving everyone power and a voice, especially when it's so easy to use this power and have your voice heard, has led to the most maddening and saddening of consequences. It is the resulting cyber-bullying epidemic that forced the Department of Education to change their bullying guidelines for the first time in two decades.

Bullying has, and unfortunately, always will exist. It seems like it is part of human nature. Yet there is some sort of misconception that bullying comes under the banner and thus the protections of free speech. And this is not the case. There have always been exceptions to free speech protections, and bullying quite often involves some combination of a false statement of fact and an offensive statement. They are not OK.

Yet a browse through many a news feed on Facebook would have you think that they are OK. Zuckerberg’s personal ideals have led to a system where anything seems to go. Bullies feel justified. And everyone who “likes” and “comments” on whatever hatred that a bully has spouted gives further justification to whoever has managed to build up the minimal amount of courage that is required to type some words about someone else into a box. He has created a unique situation where it is OK to “like” something hateful, and very openly at that. And it is how easy it is to be heard that separates the ideals of Voltaire and the creators of the U.S. constitution from whatever concept that Mark Zuckerberg is trying to put across.

While they believed in the right to free speech, they did not ever think it would be so easy to “speak” and reach hundreds of people while sitting in your pajamas at eleven o’clock at night. Free speech in their eyes required a certain courage, a certain bravery — that certain audacity and backbone that used to come with standing up and trying to have your voice heard. Yet this is the power that Zuckerberg is talking about. This is the kind of power that he thinks results in everything just somehow ending up in a good place. And still, I am hesitant to suggest that all these great thinkers thought that even their concepts of free speech, as they stood then — the type that required some guts — did result in the system ending up in a good place. I haven’t found that suggestion anywhere. The idea was not that the system always ended in a good place, but that taking into consideration the positives and negatives, the beneficial and the unfavourable, it was quite simply the right thing to do.

Cyber-bullying serves as an arresting example of how misconceptions about basic rights can lead to the system ending up somewhere that can only be described as anything but “a really good place”. Zuckerberg’s statement is certainly captivating, and it is without doubt a provocative restatement of one of the most steadfastly believed fundamental rights. But by adding in this notion of the system and by restating this old truth, he has distorted the integral message behind one of the most significant concepts of all time. Zuckerberg has drawn our attention back to this old truth, but in a way that I'm sure he didn't expect: it is not his message that we should focus on, but the beliefs of those such as Voltaire that require any notion of free speech to be accompanied by bravery, boldness and fearless determination.


Validity of the argument:

The argument is valid because each of the premises leads to Edmund’s conclusion:

Edmund’s final claim is premised on  the idea that  Zuckerberg’s assertion resonates with one of our core democratic values: free speech [Premise 1], but juxtaposes that noble concept with the notion that the consequences of exercising such values has good consequences for all.

However, the notion of society being in a good place as a benefit of free speech does not immediately cohere with the honoured standard [Premise 2].

Cyber-bullying is evidence that some people do not fare so well in Zuckerberg’s system [Premise 3].

Online bullying does not come under the protection of free speech [Premise 4], though a browse through Facebook news feeds might lead one to conclude that Facebook thinks that online bullying is okay [Premise 5].

The consequences of speaking freely in Voltaire’s time required courage, and being heard was difficult; today, speaking freely seems to have few consequences and requires little courage or effort [Premise 6].

There is no evidence that the champions of our hard-fought right to free speech ever saw it as something that would ameliorate societal differences, inequities and suffering, but merely saw it as a basic human right that should be secured for all regardless of the consequences [Premise 7].

If we are to answer the question Edmund’s title asks, we would guess that Edmund thinks that everyone should get a voice, but that each person should also accept the responsibility that such rights bear.

Soundness of the argument:

The argument is sound if the argument is valid and the premises on which the conclusion is founded are true.

For the most part, we can say that each of the premises that support Edmund's concluding claim is credible. The weakest support is for the notions that Zuckerberg's personal ideas has led to a system where anything goes and that the original champions of free speech didn't share Zuckerberg's conclusion that free speech and equal access to power would result in a system that would land all members in a good place. In the first case, the strength of the validity may be in the appeal to a common perception and, in the second case, the validity of the appeal might be in the fact that many readers might suspect that the original value of free speech is being chucked into the same bowl as the notion of laissez-faire economics, the notion that unregulated markets will take care of themselves.

Perhaps the strength of Edmund's argument lies in his conclusion, his appeal to our nobler instincts and a connection to those who sacrified so much for our freedoms.