How Much Should we Tolerate?

Henrik Syse presents his book on the topic of this article: “Det vi sier til hverandre – Om tanke, tale og toleranse“. Photo: Iver Kleiven, PRIO

In his New Year’s Eve speech last year, King Harald used the expression “We should say kind words”. Some weeks later, many of us were saying “Je suis Charlie”, expressing solidarity with a periodical that published satire that many people certainly found was not kind at all. Can we reconcile these sentiments? Yes, I believe so.

Where we stand in the debate about freedom of expression and the responsibility that comes with that freedom will often depend upon which side of the debate we are arguing from. A person who is fearful that freedom of expression is under attack in our society, may point easily – and unfortunately – to examples of public-sector employees being gagged; controversial opinions being suppressed through self-censorship; or attempts at pressuring film makers to hand over source materials. A person who fears that we are insufficiently critical of freedom of expression may point just as easily to the witch-hunts, bullying and insults that flourish online; threats and calls to extremism; or to people being branded as idiots because they have said something controversial or simply dared to be themselves.

Can we both defend a broad freedom of expression and fight for a better culture of expression, without the one destroying the other? I strongly believe that we can and must — because a good and open discourse within society is arguably dependent upon society’s ability to accommodate both of these goals. We must defend a broad freedom of expression and not least understand why that freedom is so important, and at the same time struggle tirelessly for a civilized, open and inviting debate, preferably one where people don’t go home in tears after an exchange of opinions – or in which they quite simply don’t dare to participate.

Let me attempt to formulate four hypotheses concerning this difficult balancing act. Perhaps they are to some extent contradictory, but nonetheless together they comprise a whole.

Firstly: Terror and coercion must not be accepted as means to demanding “decency” and “responsibility” in people’s exercise of freedom of expression. We must not allow those who threaten violence to define which expressions are permissible. This may sound obvious, but in practice, it requires courage, solidarity and a clear and well-thought-through awareness of the principles underlying freedom of expression, and why those principles also in fact protect unpleasant points of view.

Secondly: We must educate our children and each other to tolerate a certain amount of harsh language. This may sound emotionally cold, but interpreting everything another person says personally and in the worst possible way, and more or less cultivating the experience of being insulted, is a recipe for a life lived according to the premises of the one who insults. Just as many other people involved in public debates, I have had to learn to let harsh words just bounce off me. It is not always easy – and sometimes, of course, those harsh words may even have something to teach us. Nonetheless, it is important not to give the angry voices too much power. If you are met with biased, insulting words, be especially careful not to reply in the same vein. Feel free to use humour. Seek out allies, concentrate on the issue rather than the person, and show that you don’t allow yourself to be controlled by hate-filled speech and insults.

Thirdly: Despite the benefits of tolerating harsh language, freedom of expression must never become an excuse for not criticizing and standing up against pure bullying and a culture of expression that is simply destructive. We must counter such mud-slinging with the help of clear attitudes and unequivocal signals about our opinions of this type of behaviour – and we must also have an open debate about what actually constitutes mud-slinging and what, quite to the contrary, are important and legitimate expressions. We must defend in speech those who are unjustly attacked. And not least, debaters who themselves have strong and what some would see as extreme opinions have a special responsibility for contributing to the struggle for a healthy debate culture. In the same way that the strongest and toughest football player is the one who must take special care to abide by the rules and ensure fair play, the debaters with the most rash style and the strongest opinions must also do a little extra to engender respect for others’ opinions and integrity, and to ensure that debates about issues do not become witch-hunts about individuals or groups.

And finally: Let us be good “moderators”, both on our own behalf and for others. Moderators, both metaphorically and literally, play an enormously important role in society. In a good debate, a fair moderator functions as its guardian. The moderator allows space for contributions from all sides, and can and should allow even sharp, jeering and strongly critical comments. But she should step in when someone has said too much, when it is time to allow someone who has been attacked to respond, and when someone who hasn’t been given time to speak at all must be allowed to contribute. A good moderator will also stop a debater who is indulging in unnecessary and unfair bad language and in endless smears and insults, not because swearing and insults are illegal, but because they destroy healthy exchanges of opinion. Let us also remember that different debate arenas require different rules. In some places, the moderator should stay in the background, in others she should maintain a stronger presence. But in any event she should ensure freedom and diversity. In our many everyday conversations, each and every one of us may have to act as moderator – sometimes even for ourselves and our own statements.

Building on these hypotheses and exhortations, I believe that ethics and responsibility do not stand in any real contradiction to freedom, openness and criticism. Some people seem to think that the desire for responsibility and ethics in public debates and discussions equate to an attack on the freedom of expression. I see where this worry comes from, and we must take it seriously. But I believe that a robust freedom of expression that provides space for even the most unusual and unpleasant of opinions will be strengthened by a society where one is also concerned with respect and ethics. Such is the case with the Ethical Code of Practice for the Norwegian Press (known in Norwegian as Vær Varsom-plakaten). It provides and defends a broad freedom to those who publish, and fosters a wealth of genres and opinions. But side by side with this freedom, it insists on both ethical rules and the importance of self-criticism. This balance is of vital importance in a democratic and open society.

  • This text was published in Norwegian in Dagbladet 11 November: “Hvor mye skal vi tåle?
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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