The answer to fake speech is more speech, not suppression

Alwyn Lau
·3-min read

MARCH 15 — That’s according to Louis Brandeis, a former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

He declared that the constitutional remedy to “false speech” cannot be cancellation or State laws curtailing the freedom of speech. Instead, it must be a healthy explosion of more and better and truer speech.

Malaysia could certainly heed Brandeis’ counsel, especially in light of the recent Emergency (Essential Powers) (No 2) Ordinance 2021, an “anti-fake news law” ostensibly meant to curb misinformation relating to Covid-19 vaccinations and proclamation of Emergency in the country.

Even on the assumption that combating fake speech is the key priority of this new law, such an act would only have the opposite effect.

Information and news is — especially on highly controversial topics — anti-fragile. Not unlike how chopping off one head of the hydra will result in more heads growing, the more authorities seek to snuff out sensational ideas, the more sensational said ideas become.

As Tommy Thomas’ memoir confirms, the best way to get readers interested in a book is for powerful people to attack it. The truth or falsity of any given document will, over time, prove itself and is not amenable to repression.

If a particular idea corresponds to reality, the Lindy Effect will help it win over people eventually. Like KFC’s enduring popularity in Malaysia, time will be the deciding factor in the vindication or erasure of any controversial claim, theory, argument, etc.

(The Lindy Effect refers to an idea that the older something is, the more likely it is to be around in the future.)

Suppressing freedom of speech, not unlike “cancel culture” in general, will be counter-productive in that no amount of legislation or calls to ban a person or an idea will prevent a community’s interest in said subject.

And ultimately the authorities (be they a government or Big Tech or media or whoever) will eventually reap the whirlwind of public opinion.

The columnist opined that suppressing freedom of speech will be counter-productive in that no amount of legislation or calls to ban a person or an idea will prevent a community’s interest in said subject.  — Picture by Hari Anggara
The columnist opined that suppressing freedom of speech will be counter-productive in that no amount of legislation or calls to ban a person or an idea will prevent a community’s interest in said subject. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Enter Habermas

Jurgen Habermas is a German philosopher, one of the few living great thinkers today, who believes that society can and should be ordered by the widespread employment of rational and public discourse which is fully communicable and transparent across all parties.

He held that orderly discourse can be a vehicle whereby conflicting interests among various political stakeholders can be laid out logically and “thrashed out” rationally and amicably in order that human emancipation and fulfilment be achieved.

Put simply, if everybody came together and spoke honestly and logically, contesting opinions will find a convergence and human societies will flourish. The less we rely on “experts” and political “secrets”, the better off everyone will be.

Which goes back to the original thought from Brandeis: We need more speech. To counter bad or fake speech by some people, we need good and true speech by more people.

This is what I hope Perikatan Nasional, and every future Malaysian government, will strive for.

We must give everybody a chance to voice out what they believe with the mutual understanding that opinions (not least those which affect national interests) must come with defensible premises, the willingness to listen to the other side and the commitment to not arbitrarily shut down any voice deemed dangerous.

Let’s keep the articles and blogs and podcasts flowing; let’s counter opposition to our views with a stronger presentation of what we believe.

It should never be a crime to share an opinion.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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