The Irony of Freedom of Expression

October 3, 2011

Political Theory


Earlier today, I was sitting on the first floor of the UGLI revising my essay for our first assignment. Like most students, this word document was not the only thing displayed on my computer screen; I also had my Twitter application running along with my Facebook page and my Spotify account. All around me I heard buzzing about a protest that had been taking place in the Diag today. In fact, I had even received an email from one of my fellow sorority sisters with the headline “disturbed by the display in the Diag?,” but I did not open it. I was somewhat curious as to what was going on, but I didn’t want to pack my things up and go see for myself. However, this curiosity of mine kept me sidetracked. I started to peruse my Twitter timeline to see if anyone was commenting on the disturbance in the Diag. Although I didn’t find much, there was a comment that read:

“I would really avoid the Diag today if you’re not really into the whole abortion/genocide/child abuse/other-disturbing-and-disgusting-things display situation going on.”

Now I know that all of these situations are constant political debates that people struggle to side with. This struck an interest, so  I opened that email from my friend and read on to find out more about the display. This particular email emphasized the importance of voicing our opinions on politics, such as the issue of pro-choice/pro-life, and to go and vote on it. I found it very ironic how as I am writing a paper in support the freedom of expression, an act such as this completely questions all the ideals of the essay.

This irony gave me the motivation to go and check out the display for myself. Immediately as I walked out the doors of the UGLI, I saw the protest. The entire Diag seemed to be blocked off with larger than life posters upon posters portraying extremely disturbing images of aborted children and genocide acts that have taken place around the world.  As, I approached the actual display to check out more, I noticed things that went against many of my beliefs. Personally, I believe in the statement “it’s my body and i’ll do what i want with it” and am very pro-choice. As I briefly stated previously regarding the first assignment, I am in support with John Stuart Mill in exercising our natural rights to freedom of expression. For this exact reason,  I could not get angry at what was being exercised in the Diag today. However, the fact that I couldn’t be angry, just made me even more angry.

Perhaps it was the reference that the display was trying to get at that hit home for me: abortion is the United State’s form of genocide. Genocide is not something that I take lightly. My family was a part of the Holocaust, a genocide that this particular display targeted often. The protest basically stated that having an abortion is the same thing as massacring 6 million Jews. This statement had me fuming for not only did it relate something I strongly believe to something that hits home for me, but, to me, this statement is very much not true. The Holocaust along with other type of genocide such as lynching and Darfur, are hate crimes. But, abortion is not a hate-crime, it falls under our freedom of choice.This protest is offensive because it  minimizes the planned strategic annihilation of an act of genocide by equally comparing it to a women’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. This protest implies that someone who is pro-choice is also pro-genocide.

This particular protest shared opinions that are very disrespectful towards a lot of different people. First off, it is disrespectful towards the entire female population because it somewhat manipulates them into being pro-life by sharing disturbing photos. These photos, in essence, make all women feel like they are performing an act of genocide if they are pro-choice. This especially targets those women who have had abortions. Abortion, whether you are pro or not, is still a very touchy subject. Those who have had to have one still struggle with it and harbor a lot of emotions as a result. This protest specifically targets those who have had abortions, and is disrespectful towards their choice regardless of their situation. Lastly, this protest is offensive to those who are personally touched by acts of genocide.While it is evident that this protest is offensive on many levels, I don’t necessarily belief that John Stuart Mill would agree. Unfortunately, I do not think that Mill does the best job of expressing his opinion on offensive speech simply because he feels that all opinions, right or wrong, help to improve knowledge and thus should be expressed.

Because I believe in freedom of expression,I would be acting hypocritical if I were to say that this type of freedom of expression is not allowed . However, the protest got me thinking. Is this type of protest a violation of context-based arguments because it isn’t necessarily done in a respectful manner? In my opinion, I think this protest without a doubt is a violation of context-based arguments. Context-based arguments allow us to share any opinion as long as it is done so respectfully, depending on where or when it is done. Just based on location, I do not feel the center of the Diag is the most respectful place to put this protest. When walking to and from class it is very hard to avoid passing through the Diag, something that many people felt they had to do when this display was up. Students should be able to feel comfortable on their own campus, but this display harmed their comfort zone.

At the scene of the protest there was a “Freedom of Expression” board where people were able to share their own feelings in regards to the display. I noticed as I approached the board that people were actually responding to the comments on the board. I can not tell if this action within itself is okay or not. While having the board up there is helpful because it allows common passer-bys to share their response to the protest, if people are responding to their comments it somewhat seems to defeat the purpose of “freedom of expression”.  Obviously, they have the right to respond to such opinions based on freedom of expression, but it seems disrespectful for it tries to prove these opinions as incorrect, causing almost a dismissive dialogue. This is where Mill and I differ on the idea of freedom of expression. While Mill sees arguments as a way to help find a more preeminent truth, I see argument as a violation of freedom of speech and expression since each individual has their own right to express how they feel and what they believe to be true whether or not the majority is in agreement with them or not. Mill predicts that having an argument helps to inevitably create a better truth.When it comes to issues that will never be agreed upon such as  when does life start? or should women be allowed to have an abortion?, Mill gives us a false hope that dialogue will produce an evolution or learning. But, as seeing on freedom of speech wall, such debatable controversies seem to only cause arguments that are very elevated.

Building off of Mill and in regards to the recent essay for this class, how would he respond to such protests? Would he be in support of them simply because what these people are saying support some sort of “truth”? My opinion on this was briefly stated when discussing the offensiveness of relating abortion to genocide of the Holocaust or Darfur or even Lynchings. I feel that Mill wouldn’t necessarily be as taken-aback in the same way that I was. While this particular protest could have had more of a personal affect on me, it bothered me more because the whole display went against my beliefs. However, we can not say that this would be the same case for Mill. Based on his arguments in On Liberty, Mill doesn’t seem to be one to take one side of an argument. He bases the truth to be made up of partial opinions and truths; thus inferring that the argument of pro-choice/pro-life is not simply one sided. In fact, this display did cause a lot of confrontation among students for the days it was in existence; it got people talking. Through the discussion of the protest, people were able to gain knowledge and find more truths. This type of interaction alone could influence Mill to support this specific protest.

It is acts like these protests that make the question of freedom of expression so controversial. In fact, before experiencing this, it was hard for me to see any negative side effects to freedom of expression. But, after experiencing this protest, it made me hate that people are allowed to share such absurd beliefs freely without caring if they are hurting others.If I am to part with one question that would sum this entire protest up it would be: Is Mill’s prediction about what dialogue produce happen when we have such contentious issues, like the one expressed through this pro-life protest?

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7 Comments on “The Irony of Freedom of Expression”

  1. ianbaker2041 Says:

    You’ve definitely got a lot going on here, from the legitimacy of relating abortion to genocide to the validity of Mill’s arguments and whether or not abortion should remain legal. I’ll start with the first one.

    One of my Jewish friends remarked to me at marching band practice the other day that he was very offended by the connection drawn between the Holocaust and abortion, and while I was not offended by this (mainly because I’m not Jewish and thus cannot emphasize with his sentiments), I still do not think that it’s a fair connection to draw. We all know what the Holocaust was-the planned, systematic murder of 11 million humans, 6 million of whom were Jewish. As a potential history major, to even begin to relate something as cataclysmic as the Holocaust to something as private and personal as abortion makes no sense to me. Abortion is a personal choice; the fetus is a part of the mother until birth, and it’s thus her decision to have the procedure done if she so desires. Genocide is most certainly not a choice; rather, it occurs when one group wants to completely exterminate another. Those two are very different. The protest also missed the mark because sometimes abortion is done to save the fetus from a potentially bad living situation. Say the mother cannot afford to take care of a child; how is it better to give birth to that child when the child’s life will begin in a rough spot? Critics will then say “adoption,” but that fails to address the problem, too. If the mother chooses adoption, she must now suffer the emotional pain of carrying a baby to full term only to give it up immediately. Genocide, on the other hand, does not have such positive effects; it serves only to eliminate one faction of a particular society. No benefit comes from Darfur or Rwanda.

    Now we get to abortion’s legitimacy and the protest itself. I usually vote Republican, and I’m proud to say it on Democrat-dominated college campuses. With that said, I do believe that abortion should be a mother’s choice and should not be infringed upon by the government (a socially liberal perspective). The protest seemingly didn’t try to argue against the legality of abortion; rather, it tried to create a gruesome picture of abortion in an effort to guilt trip viewers into opposition. That does not seem to be the best way to go about arguing one’s point. A much better strategy would be to provide some hard statistics (a typical and convincing method of argumentation) that show how abortion has an adverse effect on society then let viewers decide for themselves. The protest itself reminded me a lot of the SPCA ads on TV; yes, I feel terribly for the animals who have been subjected to abuse/neglect, but the ads don’t make an ARGUMENT. All they do is show pictures designed to earn my sympathy, and I don’t find that method appealing. The abortion opponents on the diag should have employed some other method to get their points across.

    I really think that Mill would endorse such protests as legitimate free speech, and while I generally agree with Mill in supporting these civil rights that I personally enjoy having, I don’t think that they should be permitted in all situations. This is one of those places. That protest on the diag, as explained above, lacked any form of true argumentation besides graphic pictures which only serve to harm the common good. Because the interests of the university and Ann Arbor community as a whole were not being furthered by the protest, it should not have been allowed to occur. We see this debate of “rights vs. common good” all the time. I think of the Patriot Act, which allowed the government far broader powers to investigate its citizens and others suspected of associating with enemies of the United States (mainly Al Qaeda and the Taliban). While many have called this a violation of our rights to privacy (which I can accept), the need to protect the country’s citizens AS A WHOLE must outweigh considerations for the liberties of just a few people. In situations like this, a more utilitarian (that is, the most good for the most people) argument becomes necessary.

  2. jacola Says:

    I was so glad to see that the abortion display in the diag was recognized via a blog post. Never had I seen something that has made me feel so violated, disrespected and angry. Similar to how the author of this blog post felt, I had never really had anything bad to say about freedom of expression. Now, however, I have witnessed first hand how people can abuse this right and infiltrate the public with absurd, offensive ideas. I am a big supporter of freedom expression because when the right is used justly it offers tremendous benefits for society. My support for this freedom makes me even more angered by the display in the diag because I cannot argue that they aren’t allowed to express themselves. My anger, consequently, is not aimed at the legislation, but at the individuals who are misusing this right.

    Freedom of expression allows Americans tremendous responsibility and power, and I get personally offended when people misuse this power. It is sort of like when you and a group of people are giving a privilege, but if someone does something to misuse this privilege it is taken away from everyone, even if you did nothing wrong. Not that the display in the diag will take freedom of expression away from all of us, but it reflects poorly on the American public as a whole. There are numerous ways that an activist group can go about expressing their opinions about a certain matter, ways that stay within the respectful guidelines of freedom of expression. When deviating from these guidelines, more pressure is placed on the trust that freedom of expression gives Americans.

    The legislation of freedom of expression allows for ideas to be exchanged freely and trusts that the good ones will prevail. When such one-sided, dramatic ideas are represented such as the abortion display in the diag, individuals can be wrongly persuaded to support bad ideas. Offensive displays as such rely on the American people to be smart and rational about what they observe, so that the bad ideas shared through freedom of expression become nothing more than just simply bad ideas.

  3. ngamin1614 Says:

    Yeah, that protest did bring up some issues. First, let me say I think you hit the nail right on the head when you mentioned partial truths. That was one of Mill’s reasons as to why freedom of expression should be allowed. Opposing sides can learn from each other and progress is only made when we start to realize there are partial truths. Freedom of expression should almost always be allowed according to Mill. There is no doubt in my mind that he would have probably been just fine with it.

    However, someone has no right to just force their opinion on someone else and if the opinion is harmful, then perhaps it shouldn’t be allowed. So, we have to think about whether their opinion was forced on us or if it harmed us in any way. Those pictures were EXTREMELY disturbing. We did not need that stuff on the Diag, the center of campus. I think we could argue that their display did indeed harm people. I heard stories about tour guides who literally would not take their group to the diag because they didn’t want anyone to be offended because the pictures were so disturbing. Furthermore, a lot of my friends and I felt just disgusted and disrespected. I mean, this thing was in the middle of our campus and I simply felt it was not a good image for our university. What will those kids who were visiting last week think? Nobody wants to see those pictures.

    I think that this whole display could have been performed better had they just left out the pictures. Then I would have been just fine with it. It’s okay to discuss with people about your opinions, and I would have been fine if they had just left out all the harmful stuff. This is almost kind of similar to those really religious people who will stand on the diag and tell people about their opinions. I even tend to feel like their opinions are harmful. Screaming at people that they are going to go to hell is something that could invoke fear in people and that is a form of harm. This time, we had extremely disturbing pictures which I think harmed people because it took away some peace of mind.

    So in the end, I guess I would say Mill would be fine with it. He believes whole-heartedly in free expression. I on the other hand think that these were opinions that shouldn’t have been allowed. Although that may sound a bit harsh, I truly believe they harmed people with their pictures. Again, I would be fine with the display had they mentioned their opinions without performing some sort of harm on people. But, in this case, I think some people lost some peace of mind and I think that that is enough to not allow those kind of opinions to be shown.

  4. sarahspath23 Says:

    I think that many people felt the same way about the protest in the Diag: it was horrific and unpleasant to say the least. Even people I know that are pro-life thought it was unnecessarily gruesome. However, if this protest were at a different university, say a religious college or a university that is thought to be more conservative in their views, would the same reaction occur? Maybe, maybe not. I do think that the reaction would be less severe than it was here at the University of Michigan, which tends to have a population with more liberal views and in this sense, I am referring to more Democratic views. My point here is that people tend to view others’ beliefs that are contrary to their own in a negative manner. Many people passing by the Diag and hearing about it, were upset for two reasons: 1) They disagree with the what is being expressed by the protesters. 2) The awful pictures and possibly disrespectful manner in which the protesters’ opinions were being expressed.

    First, I want to focus on what would Mill think of the protest in the Diag. Mill was for the freedom to express all opinions, even if the opinion is in the minority. In this case, I think this is especially relevant because the opinion of the protesters is in the minority at the University of Michigan, or even Ann Arbor in general. I believe that Mill would be for the protesters expressing their opinions even if no one agreed with them because Mill’s whole argument was that whether a belief was right, wrong, or partially right, there is still a need to have the opinion openly discussed. This kind of discussion, even if it is argumentative, can lead to a better understanding of the truth according to Mill, even if the truth is not altered in any way by the discussion. In this sense, the protesters were simply using their freedom of expression to state their stance on abortion.

    However, generally speaking it was not the opinion of pro-life that offended many people. The manner in which the protesters expressed their opinions (through gruesome pictures taking up the Diag and relating abortion to a genocide) is what deeply hurt some people. The only thing Mill mentions about the manner in which people express their opinions is the harm principle where if the expression leads to the physical harm of people, that freedom should be taken away. He does not explicitly mention his opinion on the matter if the expression of opinion emotionally harms another person, which is what I think the protest in the Diag did. Both the pictures and the relationship of abortion to genocide stirred up most of the commotion on the Diag. This protest most likely did emotionally harm women who have choose to get an abortion and people who have close ties to events such as the Holocaust. I also think that this kind of expression was disrespectful of other people’s choices, opinions, and past and hit too close to home for many people. It is extremely likely that this issue will never lead to one common truth because many people have such strong opinions on either side, but freedom of expression is still vital in Mill’s mind because eventually those walls may be broken down slightly to come to at least a common understanding of the controversy and various opinions.

    With such an issue that is so highly debated in the public arena, I can’t help but think that the real issue is one of public versus private. Should this issue even be debated in the public arena of politics or is it simply an issue of a private choice? This is the real issue at hand. Everyone probably has an opinion on the issue of abortion, but that is not really my aim here. My belief is that abortion is just one of the many issues that comprise the debate over whether the government or even fellow citizens should have influence over someone’s private choices such as abortion. Does this private choice affect just those involved or does is affect others who may not share the same belief? This is something that is highly debated and is also interesting to think about in addition to freedom of expression.

  5. danieltarockoff Says:

    I understand where you’re coming from, but at the same time, I have to say I am completely in agreement with Mill here. While I can see how this display had negative effects, for the most part, I think Mill’s predictions of seeking the “full truth” of things really prevailed. What really came of this topic was awareness. Awareness of the people who are pro-life, and those who are pro-choice. Awareness of the degree to which people are pro-life, and the degree to which people are pro-choice. While I actually have similar beliefs to you as far as being “pro-choice” goes, I think you’re missing the good things that have come out of this. Everyone on campus knew about this display by the end of the day. It gained attention. And what it really did, I believe, is emphasized just how crazy these pro-life people actually are. Their own display, in my opinion, diminished their cause and made them look like idiots for relating abortion to the Holocaust, and for several other reasons. This is where I think Mill’s ideas are right on. Through the ability to freely express themselves, they showed the entire campus their beliefs and let others reflect and question their own beliefs on the matter; in the end, I think for the most part people gained a better appreciation for being pro-choice.

    It’s easy to say that these controversial and sometimes psychotic displays are what make freedom of expression bad. But I disagree. I think it’s these displays that actually benefit the 1st Amendment and actually uphold its true value. These are the displays that get people talking. It’s sort of like Hollywood; bad publicity is better than no publicity. There was a similar controversial display of extremist Christians who were yelling at pedestrians telling them all they were going to Hell unless they found Jesus. The response? A bunch of people laughing at them, yelling back, taking pictures, and making a mockery out of the whole thing. So was it insulting for these people to be displaying their beliefs publicly in a rude manner? Yes, probably. But did it open people’s eyes to their crazy ideals and in the end, actually further emphasize the truth behind their OWN beliefs? I think so.

    Another point I feel obligated to make is that, as much as I hate to admit it, we don’t know everything. Sometimes, we’re wrong. Maybe (although I don’t think it applies to strongly to this case) the people protesting their beliefs are actually correct. And if they’re not, they are STILL human. They still have the same rights that we do. We can’t belittle their rights to express themselves just because they hold a belief not accepted by the majority. If i were to go out in the Diag with an entire display signifying my belief that there is no God, I would get a lot of mixed feedback. I may get a lot of people who agree, but I will certainly get a lot of people who feel offended and hurt as well. Am I wrong to display my beliefs just because they’re controversial? I don’t think so. If we never dealt with controversial issues, we would never be able to move forward as a society. So yes, you could view freedom of expression as having its downsides, and perhaps it does. But the way I see it, it can only lead to good, and I completely agree with the preachings of John Stuart Mill.

  6. mjgeis Says:

    You and I had very similar initial reactions to this protest: I was absolutely incensed to see such violent and disturbing images advertised in the middle of our beautiful campus. My first time walking past, I only saw the images of aborted fetuses; a second time walking past introduced me to the genocide comparisons. I thought I would be extremely angry upon seeing this, but I have to admit that I was almost slightly amused (not in a sick way). It took me a moment to step back and marvel at just how ludicrous such a comparison is. Comparing unplanned or unwanted fetuses to a group of “undesirables” that would be the target of genocide is (I am about to exercise my ability of understatement) “a stretch”. The whole thing gives the impression of a bunch of pregnant women getting together and laughing maniacally as they plan to finish off their would-be offspring–a far cry from the fear, regret, and pain that relentlessly assaults mothers who choose to have abortions.

    A particularly striking image, to me, was a picture of a very young aborted fetus juxtaposed to a young Rwandan child that was, according to the poster, “killed with machetes”. In the picture, the fetus was placed next to a U.S. quarter, which was roughly 1/3 the size of the fetus. At this point, I was thoroughly confused as to which image for which I was supposed to feel sympathy. You look right, and see what appears to be a quarter sitting next to a bad drawing of a human baby; you look left, and you see a 9-year old child lying, murdered, on a pile of rocks. It made me want to walk away and find out how to assist the resistance effort to the Rwandan genocide, not pass legislation to make abortion illegal.

    John Stuart Mill would have found this display of limitless value, no doubt: he did say that false opinions grant us “a clearer and livelier impression of the truth”. And this truth that snapped into focus for the entire University of Michigan? There are far, far greater evils running rampant in this world than a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body.

  7. benhenri Says:

    As ianbaker proclaimed, these protestors on the Diag showed these dramatic, and gruesome pictures to get people, especially those who are pro-choice, to change their views surrounding abortion. Hard to admit, however, I fell subject to the protestors’ intentions and hopes. I am pro-choice. But, when I saw the almost formed, yet certainly recognizable, bloody babies I started to wonder if I still should be pro-choice. A mother has a right, yes. But, then again, so does this baby. To live. Like what if that baby had been me? What if my mother had an abortion and I would have never been born? I did not become pro-life, after, but I did definitely reconsider the rules to having an abortion. For instance, I began to think that three months was too much time to still be able to have an abortion. By three months, the baby is has a form and is somewhat lifelike. Therefore, the protestors’ displays did change my mind, at least slightly. Now, I think women should HAVE to have an abortion much sooner than their tri-semester.
    Like most of those who commented before me, I agree that John Stuart Mill would have allowed the protestors’ to display these pictures because he thought all freedom of expression was fine, so long as it wasn’t harmful to others. Also, like most, I fully support freedom of expression. But, in this case, I feel like those pictures were definitely harmful to others. It was offensive and cruel, at least. I mean, children constantly pass by the Diag- they are certainly too young to experience what the pictures display. For this reason, the displays on the Diag are extremely inappropriate! Like ngamin1614 said, these protestors are ruining the calm atmosphere and fearlessness of OUR campus that we PAY a lot of money to!
    These protestors even had a bus that had the same pictures pasted on both sides of it. This made the display of their ideas seem even more obscene. Perhaps, they were simply transporting their equipment, but indirectly they were causing even more pain to more people outside of the university Diag.
    Also, because these protestors’ displays were supposedly comparing the Holocaust to abortion, the matter becomes very religious. The Jews during the Holocaust genocide were murdered because of their ethnicity. When these protestors are making the abortion matter into something religious, I draw the line. I am agnostic, but leaning towards atheism. Therefore, I always believe in secularism, or the separation of church and state (in this example, “state” would represent the students and faculty of the University of Michigan campus).
    On a side note, I also agree with danieltarockoff. The protestors were able to gain acknowledgement on campus, even if they were not able to change the minds of others or, in fact, made the opposite occur. The opposite actually happened a lot more than not. One of my own friends, in fact, posted a picture of himself on Facebook, laughing, his thumbs up next to the man on the Diag that consistently holds up the sign that reads “you are going to hell.” Here, my friend is obviously mocking the man and the views he outwardly speaks about on campus, similar to the views the protestors displayed with their pictures.

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