Freedom of speech: n. the legal right to express one’s opinions freely¹; the right to express opinions without government restraint or government censorship²
Imagine you live in a country where the government bans people from verbally expressing their opinions. What could happen as a result?
To find out, let us examine together briefly Nazi Germany, where the government, led by Adolf Hitler, banned German citizens from saying what they wanted to say. The radio stations and newspaper outlets promulgated Nazi ideas, such as antisemitism and German pride, and shunned anything contra-Nazi.
Combined with political and economic instablity in 1920s-1930s Germany, that action facilitated the spread of Nazi ideas. It allowed Hitler to make the German people his puppets. He pulled their strings and used them to try to fulfill his vision: Germany as the head of a new world order. Fortunately, it did not come to fruition.
It is unsurprising that the Nazis outlawed freedom of speech. They realized that speech, which involves language, influences thought. Thus, they refused to let the German people harness its captivating and revelatory power. They perceived critics of Nazi ideas as a threat and executed them as a result.
The idea that language influences thought stems from the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis³. While the definition above is oversimplified, this theory seems reasonable and there is even a TED Talk⁴ about it. For instance, you read a negative story in the newspaper and may initially think negative thoughts. Someone may think they can achieve anything after listening to Barack Obama’s Yes We Can speech.
Our thoughts dictate our actions, inactions, and behavior. Since language influences thought, it is fair to conclude that language can control what we do, don’t do, and how we behave. When we lose our freedom to speak, then we may lose our power to act and think according to our own interests.
Also, language shapes thoughts about who we are and who we strive to be. When we are free to say what we think and feel, it can prompt discourse that includes ideas that may help us actualize our desired identity. Forbidding us from sharing what is in our hearts and minds may prevent that. It allows ideologues to influence us with their ideas and rob us of self-awareness too.
Additionally, if a government can control speech, then what else can it control? It seems unwise to grant the government-a group of people capable of wrongdoing- much power and control. The Founding Fathers of the United States of America knew this, so they included freedom of speech in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution-not in the 2nd or the 3rd. It is as if they saw the enactment of this freedom as the first step towards limiting the power of the U.S. government and ceding power to the American people. Nonetheless, the government could censure speech that disrupted peace or caused violence⁵. Too much of anything, including freedom, is a bad thing.
In short, if you live in a country that grants freedom of speech, be grateful. Do not take it for granted. Losing this freedom may mean you lose your autonomy and independent will. Even worse, it paves the way for the atrocities in Nazi Germany to potentially occur again in your country.
#What’s on my mind (WOMM)
- Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Freedom of speech. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/freedom%20of%20speech
- Editors, H. (2017, December 4). Freedom of Speech. Retrieved from HISTORY: https://www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/freedom-of-speech
- Comrie, B. (n.d.). Language and Thought. Retrieved from Linguistic Society of America: https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/language-and-thought
- TED. (2021, December 20). How language shapes the way we think | Lera Boroditsky [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKK7wGAYP6k&list=WL&index=63&t=9s
- First Amendment. (2020, March). Retrieved from Legal Information Institute [LII]: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/first_amendment