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Freedom of speech in times of unsettlement

If you ask people around the world about freedom of speech, understood as the possibility of expressing without being subjected to any kind of restrictions and harming consequences, most would say that it is one of the greatest things to have.

From the point of view of an observer, when we consider freedom of speech, we have two possibilities:

1) To align to its classic understanding, that thinks of it as part of the fundamental rights we enjoy based on the principles of citizenship. This approach identifies freedom of speech exclusively with the public sphere and hence to the lack of censorship and to the possibility of speaking your mind without breaking the law and being subject to a punishment that could include your temporary suspension of your freedom of movement (another fundamental right).

2) The other option is to consider the following set of questions:

  • Can we keep it as a mere phenomenon that only pertains to the public sphere? Or is it necessary to relate it too to the private one?
  • To what extent is it true that saying whatever comes to us is for us to express free of restrictions?
  • To what extent is it true that saying whatever comes to us is necessarily without harming consequences (for both us and others)?
  • Can we truly consider that freedom of speech is a good thing irrespective of the way people make use of it?

Protecting the possibility of anyone freely ‘speaking his/her mind’ in the public sphere is no doubt praiseworthy in itself. Thanks to it, society makes a clear point that our right to speak is totally independent from our vital circumstances (e.g. it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman, rich or poor, a religious person or not, educated or not, etc.) and has to be upheld no matter what. Yet what we say when we speak is not and cannot be totally independent from our vital circumstances.

It is everybody’s experience that we do not ‘see’ the same, we do not feel the same and, we do not necessarily say the same in relation to any matter. This is only natural and reflects the fact that it is our lived experience that informs and helps to shape the particular angle we bring in relation to any topic that we deliver through speech.

So, although we can isolate speech in the public sphere for the mere purpose of legally protecting it, in reality we cannot truly isolate what we say from life. Expression (verbal and/or written) is at the same time only a part of the whole that is our life (public and private) and a reflection of how we fare in it generally.

Freedom of speech is a public right that is enjoyed and (ab)used by people who, besides a public life have a private one.

Yet the debate on free speech seems to be oblivious of this important fact. Why is it important?

Because when people speak in either their private sphere or in the public one, it is not just their mental process that produces their speeches. We know this fact from our own lived experience. We are not the same, do not say the same things, do not move in the same way, do not react in the same way to others, do not approach others in the same way, do not allow others to approach us in the same way when we feel at ease within our own body compared to when we do not feel at ease at all. If this is true, and it is, how we are living (which impacts how we feel in our own body) has something to do with both what we express and how we (re)act when another person expresses.

When someone is connected to themselves and feels settled (that is at home) in their own body, there are things they would say and other things they would not even dream of saying, simply because our expression relates to how we live. On the other hand, a person that lives in dis-connection to themselves and feels unsettled in their own body will express from that place of disconnection from self.[*]

In this regard, when we consider freedom of speech, the private realm (how people live and what consequences it has) is far from irrelevant.

For good or bad, we cannot say that what people carry from their private realm does not have an impact in how they move and what they express in the public one. Because of that, we cannot really keep freedom of speech as a mere phenomenon that pertains to the public sphere as the mainstream notion proposes.

We tend to think that if anyone can say whatever without being subject to an external restriction it is free. Yet this is just an image of freedom – there is no truth in it.

If you are not settled and feeling at home in the body, when you speak, where are you speaking from? Is it really YOU speaking? And in such case, are you really free? Is what comes through your mouth exactly what would come out if you were free from the unsettlement you are living under?

The truth is that when someone is unsettled, he or she is being governed by that unsettlement. So, even if there is no censorship to what this person may express, the person is not really free. The unsettlement, on the other hand, taxes the quality of the expression of the person. Hence their expression cannot but be restricted. This holds true even if we still insist to call it free expression (in the mainstream view of this matter). Furthermore, what a person who is restricted in his or her expression would call ‘free expression’ does not compare to the expression of a person who is deeply settled in his or her expression in terms of its quality. This is simply just another fact of life. Thus, as the preceding lines make clear, we cannot continue to assert that saying whatever comes to us is for us to express free of restrictions if we are in fact already restricted by how we hold ourselves.

So, we have to come to grips with the fact that an ill-being leads to a restricted expression and that a restricted expression is not free.

We tend to see also freedom of expression as an act that is ‘consequence free’. In the mainstream view, ‘consequence free’ is equated to the lack of a legal punishment.

Yet, what if our expression cements how we feel (the unsettlement) and how we are in the body?

What if an ill-expression only helps to confirm and hence perpetuate our ill-being?

What if a rich, healthy expression helps to confirm and hence perpetuate our wellbeing?

Can we truly say that expression does not have consequences (harming or not) when we express? No, we cannot. Even if it is not legally punishable, expression is not ‘consequence free.’

When we express we have an impact on others as well. We are all aware of this fact. Hence, again, depending on where are we in our own body will have a different impact on others (a clear example is how a baby reacts to us when we speak in anger compared to when we speak with joy in our hearts). The after effects of what is said in the name of freedom of speech can be very different. In some instances, it may mean real harm to others. In other cases, it may bring something good for them. So, can we truly say that speaking our mind (or said better, allowing our body to speak through our mouths) is necessarily without harming consequences for others? No, we cannot.

In spite of everything just said, we live in a world in which freedom of speech provides equal coverage to those that are settled and those that are profoundly unsettled in their own bodies. The fact that there are people all around us on a daily basis that resort to speech as a way to generously share the malaise they live in their bodies forces us to pose the question: can we truly consider that, no matter what, freedom of speech is a good thing irrespective of the way people make use of it? No, we cannot.

Freedom of speech is usually considered as something that stands on its own, unrelated to anything else (other than the other fundamental rights). Yet, the quality of the expression is clearly related to the ill/well ness and the un/healthiness of the lives people are living. In real life, there is a direct link between freedom of speech, wellbeing and public health.

The mainstream view on freedom of speech is not only unsustainable and utterly reductionist, it also provides wide coverage for abuse (both self-abuse and the abuse of others).

This holds true even if the abuse is carried out in the name of something that sounds good and even if it modulates its language to both our fears and what is considered ‘normal’. That is why freedom of speech is often championed by those who choose to abuse and choose to swim and revel in another person’s misery. This remains a truth in spite of the eventual packaging abusers can choose to wrap and conceal what they are really doing.

Freedom of speech requires a high level of responsibility regarding how we live so we can have bodies that can use expression to lift ourselves and others up. Unfortunately, the exercise of freedom of speech keeps us and others in the same frequency we have chosen to live in – it does not help anybody to extract themselves out of it. It does not provide any incentive to do it either if irresponsibility is our chosen way.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. As such, it cannot but be revered and cherished. Yet we have to be aware that freedom of speech can no longer be considered in isolation to what feeds it, what it produces and helps to reproduce. In relation to that, and building towards the future, this article presents the following conclusions:

  • How we relate to this right and use it, is simply a mirror of where we are.

  • Unsettlement in the body is what stands in the way at the present time of the full realisation of the potential of this right (and is the root cause for the perpetuation of abuse under its umbrella).

  • Settlement in the body is the only way to realise its potential.

As the preceding reflections make clear, we need to embrace a clear agenda on true wellbeing, building in the understanding that this is crucial to turn this right into a precious instrument for evolution. Equally important, we have to become fully aware that the realisation of its potential is intimately linked to the realisation of ours.

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The changing definition of well-being

Are we settling for a ‘well-being’ that is not truly well?

These reflections invite all of us to broaden the conversation about freedom of speech and point to a positive agenda to work towards; an agenda that will, no doubt, truly benefit humanity.


  • [*]

    This is not really unique since we can see this at play in other settings; e.g., schools. When people (both students and teachers) are connected to themselves and settled in their bodies, there are things they would not do or say (e.g., bullying others, disturbing the classmates, hitting others etc.) Yet, if this is not the case, we know as a fact that we can expect whatever from them because they cannot contain the malaise they feel in their own bodies that is then‘generously’ shared with the class.

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    By Eduardo Feldman , BA Sociology (Universidad de Buenos Aires) Ph.D. Political Science

    Eduardo is interested in advancing a true agenda of well-being for us all by both further our understanding of where are we socially trapped (so we can let go) and, by helping people to find settlement in their own bodies.