SINGAPORE – One interesting thought experiment during the wake of the AWARE saga is whether the perpetuators behind the AWARE takeover are entitled to their right to free speech? This came on the heels of the events during the 2 May AWARE Extraordinary General Meeting when the crowd effectively drowned out the voices of Dr Thio Su Mien and her mentees. It definitely didn’t come as a surprise that Thio complained about the rowdy crowd.
Hence, the question is whether religious extremists deserve their right to free speech? Much will perhaps depend on the nature of the group’s agenda and its modus operandi. For instance, if such a group does not believe in public discourse and try all possible ways and means to influence the country’s ruling government to implement its agenda in a top-down approach, i.e. forcing its views down everyone’s throat without much of a debate, then is the public supposed to accord such a group the space to have its voice heard?
When Thio unveiled herself as the group’s mentor, the agenda behind the takeover became all too clear, the sexuality education curriculum was out of line of the group’s conservative view on sexuality. Hence, this led to their drastic action to try changing the syllabus of AWARE’s sexuality education program through a takeover. Lest readers may get the impression that this article revolves around homosexuality and LGBT, well it is not. The main question that the group should answer is whether they believe in a democratic resolution to this issue? Specifically, are they willing to tolerate conflicting viewpoints on this issue? For example, if another organization happens to be a vendor like AWARE and use similar materials for its sexuality curriculum, will Thio and her group tolerate this organization? Or they believe that everyone should just subscribe to their viewpoints, i.e. force down from the top the viewpoints the group wants to preach down everyone’s throat?
It has been argued that if Thio and her group wants to adopt an approach befitting of the practice of free speech, they would have set up another society and organize a public forum that debates on their disagreements with AWARE’s sexuality curriculum. However, that point is now moot. Rather, the pertinent point is whether a group that doesn’t practise free speech should be accorded its right to free speech by the public. The Ethic of Reciprocity comes to the fore. It generally exists in two forms – positive and negative. The positive form is epitomized by this quote:”do to others what you would like to be done to you”, while the negative form is epitomized by this quote:”do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you.” Thus, if a group acts in a way that denies the right of others to have a voice, insisting on shafting their views hook, line and sinker down the throats of others, then the public by the same regard is not entitled to accord the right to free speech demanded by the group. If we adjudge using the negative form of the Ethic of Reciprocity, a group that denies others their right to voice their opinions will find itself being denied of its right to voice its opinions. In short, if it doesn’t want its right to free speech taken away, then it shouldn’t take away others’ rights too.
When these groups don’t get their way in the public, i.e. getting shut out and up by the public sphere, they naturally complain. Thus, such a group needs free speech to publicize its agenda and win supporters, but itself is not interested in extending the right to free speech, especially by people whose views are different from them. Hence, free speech becomes a means to an end for such a group. To illustrate with a hypothetical example, consider a group with ideals similar to the anti-homosexual, anti-islam and anti-opposition Norsefire regime we see in V for Vendetta. This group hopes to win support and needs space through free speech to do that. However, it is only interested in pontificating its views and will go to lengths to shut out opposing voices. This group also has plans to dominate an entire state with its ideals and practices. Thus, the big, big question is whether the society as a whole should deny this group its demanded right to free speech? It is now apparent that free speech (accorded to the Norsefire-like group) must be curtailed to protect free speech (if not the group will take away the rights a la the Norsefire regime if in power). If Sutler (one of the antagonists in V for Vendetta) was denied his right to free speech, he wouldn’t have been able to rise to the position to control London (become Chancellor Sutler) and do away with free speech.
Of course, we tend to be idealistic at times, and in an ideal world, free speech should be accorded to everyone, including bigots. However, when a group, who doesn’t believe in free speech and has designs on dominating everyone’s thoughts, practices and lifestyle with what it advocates without any due respect for diversity, is denied its right to voice its views by the public and comes complaining about its voice being taken away, it doesn’t deserve any ounce of sympathy. The Ethic of Reciprocity and the fact that denying this group its right to voice its views will protect the status of free speech in the long-run justifies the public denial of this group the right to voice its views.