Many people think that it is a reasonable limitation on the freedom of free speech to prohibit someone from yelling ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded theatre – provided, that is, that there is no fire.
That little caveat – provided that there is no fire – is often forgotten by those who wold consider this to be a reasonable limitation of free speech. This, indeed, is not surprising – failure to recognize real warnings of danger and simply treating unpopular statements equally, whether they are true or not, is symptomatic of the individuals who most loudly profess that this limitation on the freedom of speech is somehow ‘reasonable’.
According to these people, giving a warning of a real ad present peril (like, say, a fire in a crowded theatre) is worse than letting everyone sit complacently until they burn to death.
I must admit, there was a time when I was persuaded that if there indeed were no fire, then shouting a warning of it ought not happen. OK, I still think that it ought not happen – but not because there are laws against it.
To explain my change of mind, I have to digress a little bit to some examples on utilitarian morality from philosophy. Not that I am particularly versed in philosophy – my ideas are mostly self-reasoned, but a little education has made me widen the scope of my reasoning.
There is that classical moral dilema question: if you see an uncontrollable train going down some tracks where it will hit six people, but there is a lever you can pull that will divert that train onto another set of tracks, where it will only kill one person, should you pull the lever?
Most ‘utilitarians’ will say that yes, you should, because one death is less tragic than 6 deaths.
I don’t think this is anywhere near as clear cut.
If the train stays on its original track, you (presuming the uncontrollable-ness of the train is not your fault to start off with) are not responsible for the deaths of those 6 people.
If, however, you do pull the lever, you will be the direct cause of the death of that 1 person.
People are not cogs, interchangeable for each other. We are individuals. And, if you pull that lever, you will indeed be guilty of causing the death of that individual. What is more, since you have had time to consider it, that constitutes premeditation. You would therefore be commiting murder.
This means that the question itself is improperly formulated.
Rather, it ought to ask if you could pull that lever and save the 6 people – but in the process murder 1 person, with all the legal consequences this carries, should you still pull that lever?
Because that is the real question: is saving the lives of 6 people worth murdering someone – and, perhaps, spending the rest of your life in prison as a result! After all, real actions have real consequences…
Similarly, the person who shouts ‘FIRE!” in a crowded theatre has not actually killed anyone.
It is the people who act before checking whether their actions are based on fact or not, and those who put their lives above others by trampling them to death to save themselves, who are guilty of, well, the trampling. Not the person who – rightly or wrongly – shouts ‘Fire!’
It is always the tramplers who are the ones guilty of the trampling.
But, because there are many of them, and our moral compass has for too long been corrupted by the profoundly immoral Judeo-Christian doctrine of ‘scapegoating’, of ‘vicarious redemption’, that we are willing to put the blame of the many ‘tramplers’ onto the one who may not, indeed, have done any ‘trampling’ at all!
It is precisely this predisposition we have of shifting the blame for the actions of the individuals who actually carry them out onto a scapegoat who is said to have ’caused’ their bad or immoral behaviour that is going to be the downfall of our society!
It is precisely this scapegoating which is at the heart of political correctness and the erosion of the freedoms which we ought to be able to exercise unfettered.
How have we improved our lot if we have liberated ourselves from Christian religious dogmas, if we permit its worst shackles to still imprison our morality, albeit under the new name of ‘political correctnes’?
So, now, I agree with Christopher Hitchens on this point: