At a time when freedom of speech and particularly freedom to criticise is being threatened by a pervasive climate of suspicion and rejection of the liberal press in western democracies, a much respected British journalist, Timothy Garton Ash proposes ‘Ten Principles for a Connected World’ in his latest essay, ‘Free Speech’, published by Atlantic Books, in 2016. The Internet revolution has unleashed a nonstop flow of unlimited information but also myriads of unvetted spurious opinions, ranging from thumb-up positive reactions to libellous assumptions and in some extreme cases, crude incitement to violence and retribution. Our cyberworld is a far cry from the atmosphere of the Platonic dialogues with their strict code of verbal ‘engagement’ and their priority given to well-considered arguments and judgements.
Garton Ash proposes a clear framework to our fractured societies and a possible template for a pacified ‘connected world’, inhabited by open-minded, tolerant web-users. He remains fully aware that he cannot, single-handedly, legislate for billions of networked individuals but what he is bringing to the table is a set of workable precepts, based on well-oiled norms and practices. His approach clearly derives from the Enlightenment belief in rational discourse and from the theory of ‘communicative action’ developed by the German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. The latter sees in the quasi free circulation of ideas, throughout eighteenth-century Europe, the rise of an open ‘public sphere’ as opposed to the ‘culture of representation’ carefully controlled by fading monarchical regimes.
The French jurist, Baron de Montesquieu, in ‘The Spirit of the Laws’, published in 1748, expressed his deep admiration for the British system of ‘checks and balances’ which, in his view, guaranteed the freedom of every British subject. Since then, a ‘fourth power’ has emerged, along with the traditional executive, legislative and judicial ones. Originally confined to newspapers, social media have, in the course of a few years, superseded the central role played by the press as a reliable source of information and a truthful reflection of public opinion. An alien recently arrived on planet Earth would be hard pressed to make sense of the sheer cacophony of ideas and opinions, available on the Net.
The Age of Enlightenment was open to non-European cultures and although Islam was judged through the deceptive prism of tyrannical Turkish sultans, China, on the other hand, was a source of endless curiosity as Jesuits’ travelling accounts described local customs and analysed the latest scientific discoveries. However, ‘philosophical’ interest does not always translate into the total acceptance of the ‘Other’ and the promotion of a generous multiculturalism. Garton Ash, himself, admits being astonished by the contradictory reactions of multicultural audiences confronted with the challenging assertion:’We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of their belief.’ In order to ensure positive dialogue between individuals holding incompatible views, he pleads for ‘the most informed, imaginative effort of which we are capable to see the matter from the other person’s point of view, and to understand the culturally embedded meanings of terms they use.’