Equal rights, Nepal, Pseudoscience, Rationalism, Secular Humanism

Menstrual Taboo: Bleed out the nonsense

Let me begin by telling you all about a compelling process that happens all around the world, constantly. It’s an age-old story without which human and primate existence would not have been possible.

It begins when every month or so the uterus goes through changes in the endometrium, the cellular lining within its cavity, for it to prepare nurture a probable conceptus (fertilized ovum or zygote), which if the odds favor, may turn out to be a human baby one day. But the sad part in this story, with relation to the readily awaiting endometrium, is that the ovum is not always fertilized. So the poor endometrium which used up so much protein and nutrients for it to thicken up, under the influence of hormones, sheds itself and bleeds out through the vaginal orifice. The process repeats itself after almost a month. This, my friends, as you may have already guessed, is the process of menstrual bleeding. Completely natural and involuntary when it comes to the human female body and ends only when women reach old age.

The Ovarian and Menstrual cycle biology simplified
But for many people around the world it’s more than just biology. To some, it’s a culturally inappropriate subject matter, a thing of shame; whereas to others it is just something natural they have to deal with every month or so. To some it is a foul and disgusting curse imposed upon women by some higher power, while to others it is a gift from the same. But all in all, whatever people’s perceptions may be about menstrual bleeding, it happens to women worldwide. A process that is of utmost importance for human reproduction, very natural in its entirety which necessarily should not have garnered any stigma had we seen it this way. However, most of us fail to realize this and the unsettling reality in some part of the world, including mine, is that menstrual stigma and taboo exist for real!

The Urban picture

To start from somewhere, let’s do so from the women that I happen to know. My mom happens to have a bachelor’s degree in economics and social science and my sister is in her first year of medical school. As I live in a privileged part of this country, I come across female relatives, family friends, colleagues, co-workers, nurses and friends in everyday life, all who have been educated beyond high school, many even holding scientific or healthcare degrees. These are well educated women. But if you go on to ask them whether they enter the puja kotha for worship or at minimum even touch the refrigerator during their menstrual bleeds, you’ll be surprised that most of them will admit that they don’t.

A notice in front of a temple in India prohibiting the entry of menstruating women
It’s a frequent debate I have with my mom and my sister as to why educated women like them have to follow such dated and baseless traditions which exist simply out of cultural misogyny? The answers I usually tend to get in defense are ‘our ancestors devised it for hygienic reasons‘ or ‘it’s our period of rest assigned by god, you’re simply saying this because you’re too lazy to work on our behalf‘ and if I push it further ‘don’t you feel ashamed talking to women like this?‘ or ‘it’s my choice, I just don’t want to touch the fridge and don’t want to argue with you for god’s sake‘ or ‘there are offerings to god kept inside the fridge, so I will not dare touch it’ and so on…..

Most of the time, I go on to further explain, that hygiene practices as proposed by the ancients should be considered in light of the fact that they had very limited knowledge about proper hygiene and tampons weren’t even invented then. But why do we need such practices now, in the 21st century, when you can get tampons for prices as low as Rs. 10 (10¢) and women can be simply taught how to look after their hygiene? [Read about Muruganantham, a man who invented cheap tampons in India] I add, that if they need rest, they could very well take any day/time off just like that; why wait particularly for periods and what has rest got to do with an act as benign as simply touching the fridge? And regarding the fridge containing offerings to some deity, for a believer such as my mom, aren’t women considered creations of the same supernatural force in Hinduism? So why would a supposed ‘creator’ ever be angry with her for simply touching the offerings? Here, obviously I get confronted with answers full of ad-hominem; as well as those containing arguments from authority and not to forget, God!

Perhaps it’s due to my constant questioning and maybe even my mom and sister being tuned to urban life, we have over the years become much progressive compared to what we were in the past and also when compared to other average families in the city. This is because except for the fridge and the puja kotha, my mom and sister touch almost everything else for convenience. Different families have different levels of norms when it comes to menstrual taboo in urban Nepal. Especially joint families with elderly members tend to be the most conservative with stricter rules imposed such that the women are not even allowed in the kitchen let alone touching the refrigerator. Another big irony is that I also happen to know many aunts and relatives residing abroad who enforce such taboo onto their daughters who are not even born in Nepal!

One could wonder how and why these practices came into effect in the first place? To that I’d answer; it is partly influenced by religion and partly by a deeply etched culture of superstition and misogyny. This aptly describes the Nepali society, at least in stereotype. In short, women are being discriminated for something that happens to them naturally. To me, it’s as irrational as ostracizing people for defecation or urination, but unlike such semi-voluntary reflexes, menstrual bleeding is not a reflex and definitely not voluntary.

The Rural picture

The picture in rural areas, is quite drastic. The untouchability factor being constant, though greatly amplified. I am referring to practices, such as those in rural parts of western Nepal, as the Chhaupadi (Nepali: छाउपडी). Here, a menstruating woman is known as a Chhau or Chhui which means ‘untouchable’ and Padi refers to ‘cow-shed’. Judging by the name, it’s literally the practice which considers menstruating girls and women untouchables and sends them to live in the cow-shed.

In Chhaupadi, a girl has to sleep out in the cowshed, away from her family for the length of her bleeding. She cannot touch other people in her family as it is believed that doing so will make those people fall ill. She cannot consume milk as it is believed that doing so will result in the cattle or buffalo to cease lactating; she cannot consume legumes or bread as doing so is believed to mar the crops and invite famine. Same goes for fresh fruits and vegetables. So she has to survive only on plain rice, salt and dry fruits; all when during her bleeding she requires more nutrients than usual as she is losing blood from her body.

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A survey report [AWON, 2012] carried out by Action Works Nepal  across different VDCs in Jumla and Kalikot from mid-western Nepal, showed that among the 88 girls interviewed,

  • 77% were following Chhaupadi when they bled for the first time (menarche) and none of them were allowed to stay in the same room with rest of the family members (especially male members)
  • 70% were not allowed into the kitchen
  • 19% said they were restricted from the schools
  • 76% of them reported restriction in eating and drinking milk and other milk/dairy products.
  • 80% were not allowed inside temples
  • 77% were not allowed inside prayer rooms
  • 64% percent respondents reported restriction in eating holy foods
  • 51% respondents mentioned restriction in eating meat and meat products
  • 28% reported restriction in eating vegetables
  • About 20% respondents informed that they never attend school during the menstrual period, because of
    • restriction by parents (28%)
    • self-hesitation.
  • 76% said that Chhaupadi was mostly imposed on them by their parents, priests or traditional healers (76 %).
  • 77% women and girls said they felt insecure during their stay in cowshed
  • 65 % women and girls said they cried in each period, afraid from possibility of sexual abuse, rape, snake and animal bites.

Chhaupadi is a matter of grave concern in terms of social equity and women’s health in a sense that it firstly is deteriorating to women’s health as it deprives them of the necessary nutrients they need during their periods. Secondly because it puts young girls and women at risk of pelvic infections and sepsis due to bad menstrual hygiene practices (as they stay away from their mothers and school and have been known to use the same cloth multiple times out of embarrassment) and lastly because it violates their right to live a free and just life. It’s one cruel ritual, second only to the sati pratha.

Despite the practice being prohibited by the Supreme court of Nepal in 2005, it is still practiced by the majority in rural sections of western Nepal. Strong belief preservation in addition to poor infrastructure as in roads, lack of effective law enforcement, paucity of schooling and pathetic literacy rates (especially that of women) being responsible. Multitude of NGOs and INGOs however, have been actively involved in spreading awareness against such ill practices with an aim to abolish the Chhaupadi tradition, some with good progress and some even without any.

The Chhaupadi may be one of the many extreme forms of Hindu menstrual taboo, but one element stays common to both urban as well as rural forms: The concept of women being untouchable during their periods. So it can be fairly said that it is not sufficient to just educate women as we can witness a significant number educated urban women practicing menstrual taboo regardless of their academic qualifications. I believe it is equally important for us all and especially activist women to make an effort to simply debunk such practices and to question them on a constant basis, starting from the city itself. Then only will it be possible for us to simultaneously take effective nation-wide actions to abolish practices such as the Chhaupadi. This has to be in a similar way as to how our society abolished the Sati pratha altogether, i.e starting from the city and the intellectual elite, such that now it is considered immoral regardless of religious belief.

The Global picture and psychological appeal of humans to purity

It’s not just in Nepal and India where menstrual taboo exist. We can find them in one form or another, more or less trying to depict the same superstition or fears across many different cultures world-wide. Just have a look at the two pictures below.

Menstrual taboo across various cultures
There seems to be a constancy of some sort when it comes to social perceptions about menstruation around the world. Malicious, superstitious or embarrassed perceptions regarding menstrual bleeding are not only limited to less well developed nations and socially backward societies. In developed nations the portrayal in tampon advertising of menstrual blood as blue instead of the actual red, is also an important field of concern to western feminist activists. They claim that such substitution is the result of social stigma associated with menstrual bleeding.

It could be said that menstrual taboo always arise out of misogyny and superstition embedded within the society potentiated by either an inherited culture or religion or both. It may be true to a great extent, but most of the time people tend to leave out one core aspect of human psychology which significantly contributes to preserving menstrual stigma around the world: the psychology of purity and cleanliness.

Menstrual taboo in Nigeria is somewhat similar to what constitutes the Chhaupadi in Nepal
To understand the point I’m trying to make, you’ll have to read this excerpt from David McRaney’s book, You are not so smart, which briefly explains it with reference to a study in the journal Science.

 “A great example of how potent a force your unconscious can be was detailed by researchers Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist at Northwestern in a 2006 paper published in the journal Science.

They conducted a study in which people were asked to remember a terrible sin from their past, something they had done which was unethical. The researchers asked them to describe how the memory made them feel. They then offered half of the participants the opportunity to wash their hands. At the end of the study, they asked subjects if they would be willing to take part in later research for no pay as a favor to a desperate graduate student.

Those who did not wash their hands agreed to help 74 percent of the time, but those who did wash agreed only 41 percent of the time. According to the researchers, one group had unconsciously washed away their guilt and felt less of a need to pay penance. The subjects didn’t truly wash away their emotions, nor did they consciously feel as though they had.

Cleansing has meaning beyond just avoiding germs. According to Zhong and Liljenquist, most human cultures use the ideas of cleanliness and purity as opposed to filth and grime to describe both physical and moral states. Washing is part of many religious rituals and metaphorical phrases used in everyday language, and referring to dastardly deeds as being ‘dirty’ or to evil people as ‘scum’ is also common. You even make the same face when feeling disgusted about a person’s actions as you do when seeing something gross. Unconsciously, the people in the study connected their hand washing with all the interconnected ideas associated with the act, and then those associations influenced their behavior.”

Just like the point I made earlier in this blog on the ancients’ perception of hygiene, people in the past most likely related menstruation and the bleeding associated with it as being disgusting or unhealthy or abnormal. I suspect that it is this subconscious priming in par with people’s tendency towards superstitious thinking (i.e post-hoc reasoning; something happened after this so must be because of this) and misogyny prevalent within patriarchal cultures (majority of human cultures being patriarchal) which is responsible for the perseverance of menstrual taboo around the world and Nepal.

Knowing just this should have given us all the more reasons to cease condoning or conforming to such age-old practices. But at least in south asia, the context can be slightly different and most of the time taboo can be glorified or potentiated especially by educated people who look for profound explanations supporting menstrual taboo, assuming about their explanations being scientific.

Pseudoscience, postmodernism, and belief preservation.

No matter how educated people may be, many constantly find biased explanations and reasons to follow menstrual taboo. Most refer to scriptures and ancient literature such as the Vedas, Gita, Upanishads, Pali Teachings, Manusmriti, Quran and the Hadith in order to justify their beliefs or claims. They tend to think that there are many ways of knowing something other than mainstream science and rationality (which they call western or material). They tend to justify ancient practices which have no basis in reality by conjuring up simplified or complex words or doctrines to describe them. Such type of people are known as postmodernists and postmodernism is nothing but an emotional reaction to any kind modernity by romanticizing about the past.

One such blogger, who ironically happens to be a woman, tries to justify menstrual restrictions by referring to words of random sages and ancient practises such as Ayurveda, goes by the name Mythri. The striking fact is that this author and her organization is actively involved in promoting women’s health across many parts in India. Below are some selected excerpts from her blog, Unearthing menstrual wisdom – Why we don’t go to the temple, and other practices: 

“I realized that most practices arise from a common ground – Ancient Indian Science, which includes Ayurveda, Yoga, Meditation, Mantra and Astrology. The science of Mudras, a part of Yoga, is also important in this understanding.”

“Western allopathic medicine which is a few centuries old is based on external medication and intervention. Whereas Ayurveda which is at least 7000 years old, is a science of life and a natural healing system, with a deep understanding of the human body and its relation to nature. Ayurveda is based on the principles of three primary life-forces in the body, called the three doshasDoshas are the bio-energies that make up every individual, and help in performing different physiological functions in the body. The three types of Doshas are Vata, Pitta and Kapha, which correspond to the elements of air, fire and water respectively.”

“According to Ayurveda, menstruation is closely linked to the functions of the doshas. Menstruation is regarded in Ayurveda as a special opportunity enjoyed by women for monthly cleansing of excess doshas; it is this monthly cleansing that accounts for female longetivity.  There is a build up of energy in the days leading to menstruation as the body prepares for pregnancy. If pregnancy does not take place and menstruation starts, this built up energy gets dissipated from the body during menstruation. During menstruation,Vata is the predominant dosha. Apana vayu, one of the elemental air functions of the Vata Dosha, is responsible for the downward flow of menstruation. Therefore, any activity that interferes with this necessary downward flow of energy during menstruation should be avoided. During menstruation, women are more likely to absorb other energies in their environment. This forms the basis of most of the cultural practices around menstruation in India.”

“the energy during menstruation goes downwards into the earth, (at the puja table, offerings, altar), the energy is going upwards. This can bring discomfort in the body” 

She blatantly states that mainstream science is ‘western’ when empirical observations of nature do not have any cultural affiliations. It’s just because many empirical observations of nature were first noted by westerners that many people out here wrongly associate science with the west. She has given too much room for Ayurveda and ancient scriptures and practices being valid when, in fact, they clearly lack significant rational and scientific elements in their attempts at explaining nature.

Her argument is based from a preconceived bias that the logic behind Ayurveda and Vedas are sound and that they are a ‘different’ kind of Science than mainstream science. But to be intellectually honest, there is only one kind of science: the one that describes nature objectively. Because truth is universal, objective and bears no other alternative.

So I can fairly say that she is wrong.

Allopathic medicine, during the time of Hippocrates also had irrational practices of bloodletting and was based on the principles of ‘humors’, similar to doshas. Chinese medicine also evolved separately and included the concept of ‘energy’ centres similar to ‘chakras’. Contemporary understanding of science and empirical data were poor back then so all cultures had their own ways of interpreting nature, and not all of them were accurate. Allopathic medicine, proved to be the most successful of them lot due to its adoption of logical thinking skills and evidence-based practices. It can be fairly said that allopathic medicine smoothly entered the realm of science to progress when Ayurveda and chinese medicine never did.

Figure summarizing the Ayurvedic beliefs
It is only now that we have been able to gather sufficient information about the human body. We know much about microscopic cells, microscopic pathogens, nano-scale protein receptors on cells, the DNA inside nuclei and actions of various drugs down to the molecular level for us to prove that the concept of doshas in Ayurveda is wrong. Similarly, as we now know that the main source of energy within a living cell comes from the ATP molecules in mitochondria (cells within cells), we are able to reject the ideas of the chakras or mystic energy. Likewise, it is also incorrect and dishonest to call scientific medicine as treating the patient from ‘outside’. Ayurveda, acupuncture and the like may have fallen into the category of ‘science’ at some point in the past, or to those who followed them, but at present they can be said to be obsolete. Justifying superstitious menstrual rituals and taboo by referring to such outdated practices is simply an intellectually dishonest act which misleads genuinely curious people and the concerned public.

As far as menstruation is concerned, it is a natural process best explained by modern mainstream medical science staying in touch with evidence. It’s nothing but the uterus shedding its cell lining in the absence of a fertilized ovum. There can be found no evidence for this ‘imbalance of doshas’ as proposed by ayurvedic practitioners.

She goes on to further explain about her interview with a certain Guruji (Religious leader). Here, according to her, the Guruji explains why women should not enter temples during menstruation.

“To further understand the aspect of not visiting temples during menstruation, our team travelled to Devipuram, in Andhra Pradesh. We found unique answers from Sri Amritananda Natha Saraswati (Guruji), founder of Devipuram, a temple in Andhra Pradesh which is dedicated to the Devi.
He said “What is pure, we don’t touch. And what we don’t touch, we call it a Taboo. She (a menstruating woman) was so pure, that she was worshipped as a Goddess. The reason for not having a woman go into a temple is precisely this. She is a living Goddess at that time. The energy of the God or Goddess which is there in the murthi (idol) will move over to her, and that (the idol) becomes lifeless, while this (the menstruating woman) is life. So that’s why they were prevented from entering the temple. So it is exactly the opposite of what we think”.

Seriously? How does he even know what this energy is? Can we even measure it? If not then why call it energy in the first place and how is it not different from any other unfalsifiable claim in the market? People such as this guru tend to conjure up esoteric and confounding words in order to create circular arguments to justify their means. Just have a look at this particular explanation she provides in the same blog as to why menstruating women should avoid cooking and eating with others during menstruation.

“As told to us by a pranic/energy healer, eating was considered as a spiritual activity. Many orthodox Brahmins even today chant as they cook to ensure that the food has higher and positive energy in it. During the process of eating food, the lower chakras (read explanation at the end of this paragraph) of our body are highly active. It is to change this, that Buddhist monasteries have a practise of reciting the scriptures during meal hours, so that the monks are focussed on higher chakras. So while eating, people expel negative energy all around. In the normal course of things, we would not feel it. But if a menstruating woman who is sensitive to absorb all types of energies around her is in the middle of a group that is eating, she can get affected by the lower energies (as opposed to higher or spiritual energies, which are beneficial). This is probably the reason why menstruating women were told to stay away from others and eat separately.
“As explained by spiritual and Ayurveda teacher Maya Tiwari, in her book Women’s Power to Heal: Through Inner Medicine:

“Asking women to avoid gardening or cooking during menstruation is not due to the irrational thinking that our menstrual blood is unclean, unhygienic or toxic. The cosmic memory of food – that which is derived only from plant life according to the Vedas – is imbued with prana, a rising energy flowing up from the earth towards the sun and the sky. Conversely, our menstrual blood is instilled with apana vayu, the downward flowing, bodily air pulled down from the body by the magnetic forces of the earth. These two powerful sadhanas do not go hand in hand. Plant-derived food is also kapha in nature, full of youth giving energy that nourishes the body; menstrual blood is dominated by Pitta and Vata, which fosters the cleansing of the spirit. It is most unwise to introduce the rising, energizing nature of our food into our blood, or to mix the downward flowing, cleansing energy of blood into our sustenance, either by preparing food during menstruation, or by slaughtering animals and eating them.”

I read her entire essay with the hope of finding at least something worth consideration, but since she has based it entirely on her bias that ancient knowledge (ayurveda, astrology etc) is scientific knowledge, the whole argument falls apart logically for us to even reach an empirical conclusion. She claims to have unearthed menstrual wisdom, but infact she has managed to cover up actual truth with truck load of dirt, is all I can say. I won’t even care to refute her claim of the downward and upward energy in detail because going by this logic, even urinating, sneezing, defecating, spitting, sweating, shedding of dead skin cells could be considered downwards energy and that even the people who sweat should be barred from sacred places and shunned from the society. It is very absurd and definitely irrational.

Such flawed reasonings used to justify menstrual taboo, that too from someone involved (in her words) in a ‘Trust working on various issues pertaining to women and children such as menstruation, sexual abuse and sexual violence against women’, is quite unsettling as well as troubling. It is mostly people like her who pose the danger of spreading misconception in the public and misleading them.

Menstrual taboo flourish along with other kind of superstition and dogma in a society full of misinformed and mislead people because irrationality often feeds on ignorance. Retrospective explanations from authority and tradition such as that given by people like Mythri could be one reason as to why menstrual taboo is prevalent even among the educated in urban areas. And if we cannot expect the educated to see through their preserved beliefs, how can we expect it from the less educated in rural communities?

What can we do to abolish menstrual taboo?

We need to talk more about menstruation and reproductive health. The talking needs to be done repeatedly unless and until our society as a whole starts to take menstruation as something that occurs naturally and is benign, say like sweating. Everywhere, from cities to towns to rural villages, it is important that we display in public (through public, government or commercial advertisements) that menstruation is something very natural when it comes to women.

To spread awareness might be the initial step, but in order to tackle the intellectually dishonest who try to create a benign perception of such taboo, we need to logically and scientifically examine every claim made by every proponent as far as possible.

Feminists and social activists in India launched a ‘Happy to bleed‘ campaign through social media to fight menstrual stigma. Their aim: to show that menstruation is natural and women need not be ashamed when they bleed.

We need to reach out to every girl and every woman. All of us, along with women who are concerned with other women’s rights being violated, should make it an effort to engage in debates and argument in all factions of our society just to answer the inquisitive minds and to break the stigma associated with menstruation. It is vital that we deliver the right kind of thinking skills and teach people (especially the children) both in urban as well as rural areas to search for unbiased information on any matter including menstruation so that they can think for themselves and become less likely to condone age-old practices.

Men also have a great role. People tend to think that menstruation is simply a woman’s problem and so it is best left for the women to fight against or to speak out against; and men need not speak out about it. But that is wrong, men do have to speak out against it more often than ever, and have to actively take part in discussions on menstrual stigma or taboo. This is because at this point in history, we need more rational voices than ever before as many complex forms of irrational voices are trying to silence the righteous.

Only then can we effectively abolish the stigma and taboo associated with menstruation. We definitely need to scrap this file and put it in the archives of history, never to open, alongside that of the Sati. 

So ladies, in the end, all you have to do is work towards shaping a society which accepts and allows you to bleed freely. Moreover, it would be best for future generations, if you could just as well bleed out the nonsense….  

Reference and further reading

  1. Menstrual Taboo: Hibernating but Hindering factor of Women’s Empowerment in Nepal: By Radha Paudel
  2. Chhaupadi, Jumla, Kalikot Action Works Nepal 2012 report
  3. AWON & 5-CP report on Chhaupadi in Kalikot 2012
  4. Blood speaks: Menstrual taboos in Nepal and Bangladesh put women’s health at risk

  5. SC questions practice banning entry of women at Sabarimala temple

  6. ‘We bleed. Accept it and deal with it’: breaking India’s taboo on menstruation – Monisha Rajesh

  7. Periods in Nepal, Turning girls into untouchables
  8. Menstrual Taboo: Huffpost Archive
  9. The ‘Tampon King’ who sparked a period of change for India’s women

  10. The ‘untouchables’: Tradition of Chhaupadi in Nepal; TIME magazine
  11. Culture clash, menstrual taboo and ODF in Nepal
  12. Menstrupedia.com

Fact to consider: [Menstrual cycle is seen specifically in Humans, some primates, some species of bats and shrews. In other mammals, uterine cycles are of varying periodicity and thus known by other terms.]








Equal rights, Freedom of Speech, Nepal, Philosophy, Rationalism, Secular Humanism, Skepticism

Examining Freedom of Expression


  1. Sticks, Stones and Spoken words
  2. No such thing as free speech?
  3. The Harm principle
  4. The Offense principle
  5. Slippery Slope
  6. My opinion
  7. Reference

Sticks, Stones and Spoken words

“Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words can never hurt me.”

– An American proverb

Imagine a society where in a national daily an advertisement shows an artistic image of a young naked couple holding each others’ genitals and yet the newspaper board or the advertisement agency face no complaints nor prosecution from its subscribers or readers. Imagine again in that very society a blogger that seriously condemns and profanely ridicules an established faith system with art, offending a certain group of believers, can live every day without the fear of being attacked physically and can sleep well at night. Imagine that out here movies and documentaries are uncensored and the viewers themselves filter to avoid what they do not want to watch or hear. Comedians can make fun of anything and people simply choose to watch it or not; even if they do watch and not like it they can shrug off and walk away.

Academics and philosophers in this hypothetical society can freely present and exchange ideas on even the darkest of cultural taboo and still not be legally accused of violating moral standards. People here can freely ridicule the government to the point of making anti-national remarks and still not be punished. After expressing their views in one way or the other, no one is harmed, neither legally nor psychologically not at all physically. Two or more consenting adults of any sexual orientation whatsoever can freely have sex anywhere they want to, even on a public park, and they won’t be taken into custody. People here, imagine, have the guts to offend, the strength and courage to withstand offense and the nobility to understand and value the freedom of expression. In such a society the proverb above can be effectively satisfied in practice.

Socrates, one of the first proponents of free speech during antiquity, was sentenced to death for criticizing Athenian democracy and praising Sparta, Athens’ arch rival city, after their defeat to Sparta and its allies in the Pelloponesian war.

Now would such a society ever exist? It’s hard to tell, as any human society is a dynamic model of organization and is in a constant state of flux in one way or the other. We can surely estimate the course a certain model of a society takes, but never determine accurately as to how it will look, say a hundred years from now. Does such a society, with no restriction on speech whatsoever, really exist? In accordance with reality, I’ve got to say: Nope! No society has ever existed in the past nor have they at present, that do not limit expression or speech in one way or the other.

Some may argue about many western nations being epitomes when it comes to absolute freedom of expression and speech. But the reality again, is pretty different.

Even the United States, whose constitution is one of the first in the world to endorse and protect free speech through the first amendment, has exceptions to free-speech when it comes to speech threatening national security, incitement, condoning child pornography, libelous speech, copyright/plagiarism, commercial secrets/speech, and violation of government confidentiality pact and espionage. It’s apt to use the US as an example because both the government and majority of the populace proudly advocate freedom of expression and free-speech. (Evidently as per one Pew research, surveyed US population were the most accepting of free speech on average, when compared to other nations.) 

Many big European nations like France and Germany also support and advocate free speech in theory. France, out of the lot considers itself the beacon of free expression and rightfully so given the rich culture of unrestricted or seldom censored art and cinema the French produce.  But it is fair enough to say that even they restrict speech when it comes to hate speech, libel, holocaust denial and anti-Semitic expressions (take for example the sanctions imposed on footballer Nicholas Anelka when his goal celebrations resembled an anti-Semitic ‘Quenelle‘ gesture). Germany also goes on further to ban baby names such as ‘Hitler’ or ‘Osama Bin Laden’, be it for them to save the child from being bullied or ridiculed for bearing weird names, but it technically still amounts to an act of limiting speech.

Views of Free Expression Worldwide
A spring 2015 Pew research on global attitude towards free speech which shows that surveyed people in the US were more accepting of free speech with relation to the other 37 countries that were also surveyed.

Through this essay, as a consequentialist, I hope to surgically examine the very concept of free speech. To do so, we need to first remove any biases we have both in favor of and against free speech; also in order to encourage a sensible discussion on the topic. I will be discussing whether or not free speech needs to be absolute and whether or not the principle can be said to be another dogma as many of its opponents claim.

No such thing as free speech?

“If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

– George Orwell

Consider the quote above. In the liberal sense, being able to speak and to express oneself without restriction or restraint seems to be the core philosophy of freedom. Typically my secular and liberal friends might argue in favor that it would be better and easier to challenge established notions and belief if speech were to be completely unrestricted. Others might want to doubt this and even go on to say that “too much freedom may not be a good thing”. We can find valid points in both sides of the argument. Coming back to Orwell’s quote above, I think he may even be overstating as most writers in their aphorisms often tend to do so. It may be a good rhetoric to defend free speech, but in a sensible argument may not stand so strong to prove a point as it misses out on the drawbacks completely.  The word Liberty, in my opinion, has been vaguely described by Orwell as it doesn’t consider the possibility of ‘the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’ ending up in harming people. Liberty can be perceived differently by different groups of people. To point out the bias, he very well seems to have perceived it from a liberal western standpoint, one which other cultures may not be able to visualize in a similar manner. So being only defensive, I believe, may not be enough to rationally discuss the very concept of free speech.

Freedom is important, but to what extent? Free speech is an appealing driver of liberal values, but again to what rational extent? How can we make a distinction as to when freedom to speak may amount instead to the freedom to act? It is important that we try and answer these questions and it is equally important to recognize the point where we can draw lines and how we can do so. Keeping this in mind, we first need to realize the fact that when it comes to free speech, it will always be limited in one way or another whether we like it or not. I’ll explain, but it is very important to read the entire essay before reaching towards any conclusion. Leaving it half-way might only help misinform you.

What use is free speech to Robinson Crusoe?

Now consider this open-ended question posed by the sub-heading. What use indeed is free speech to an individual like Crusoe who is stranded on a deserted island all by himself with no human companion anywhere nearby in order to start a conversation? He can shout out all he wants into the ocean, even talk to himself, but for whom to listen?

I’m using this analogy to help me explain that speech always takes place in some social context. Speech is typically made by humans for other humans. Otherwise it could be rendered socially worthless. Speech is constantly influenced as well as dependent on some social situation. It’s very important for us to grasp this concept. Being an essential part of Human interaction and communication, speech is always limited, consciously or subconsciously. Many times beyond our control no matter how much we try not to. At this point however, it is vital for us to not confuse what I’ve just said with subjugating our voice to established social values. Which, of course I personally do not endorse. I’ll clarify later in this essay.

Context of self-limitaions

Here are some minimum situations where speech is always best self-limited (obviously this is not an exhaustive list):

Organized discussions. Whether you are liberal or conservative, whenever it comes to formal debates or legal proceedings, speech will have to be limited for the sake of order. Otherwise the whole setup would become a verbal pandemonium; i.e if everyone started speaking all at once, whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. There would literally be chaos.

Professional disciplines. It would be impractical in any hierarchical organization, say for instance in military, if the institution were to adopt freedom of speech and carry out their free will and not follow orders. Or say in a corporate or the health sector where employee or staff have to follow a chain of command for the company/institution to function systematically. You’d definitely not choose to make an offensive video of your professor or a colleague for a presentation as it would not lead to a sensible discussion in the professional sector but would instead create a diversion not constructive to the professional purpose. You very well can, but you simply won’t. Outside of it, maybe you may.

Courtship. Even if you are an advocate of absolute free speech, you’d often choose your words carefully on a first date! You may notice initially that your partner has an ugly mole on their forehead which you think is disgusting. But you choose not to point that out loud as it may offend him/her, for you to want a successful date night; with the exception of course if you know that your partner wouldn’t mind. So in this particular social context, your intention is usually to impress your date for the purpose of courtship so you chose to restrict speech by yourself. Of course we are not talking about the exceptions in the form of frank relationships.

Confidentiality and Contract. You sign a legal document or a formal pact with a party so as to not disclose a harmless yet vital company/organization plan or recipe for the sake of doing business/work. For example, employees are mostly bound by contract to not leak company secrets, if they do then they may be sacked for violation of a contract. To give another example, doctors usually restrict speech and maintain privacy when it comes to sensitive patient information and patient’s want of confidentiality, only except for the purpose of privileged communication where they can discuss cases with their professional colleagues, maintaining privacy, if it’s a matter of academic interest or is that of a public health concern. Of course both the scenarios may be subject to change if it’s got anything to do with public security, health or collateral damage.

This was to say that speech is as natural to us as we have the vocal cord and we always tend to let it loose or even limit with relation to the social context at hand, usually expecting a certain social response in return. We also need to note that although we always do not speak whatever we want to; we are, however, always free to speak as we like and even liable. We are free to think as we like to and obviously no external force can stop us from formulating a thought inside our heads.

No matter what our thought is, we come to deal with other people only after we express it. Speech, like thought, is indeed free in the biological sense. And unlike most actions, it can technically never be prevented by an authoritative figure. For example, if any authority wants to put a ban on cell phones for some reason they could simply ban imports, take down cell towers, close down service providers and destroy existing phone units. But any authority can never make it practically and completely  impossible for people to speak out their minds. For that they’d have to either suture people’s mouth shut or simply remove the part of the brain responsible for speech and communication! Action is always taken on the speaker, if any must be, only after they have spoken or expressed themselves. They could be punished retrospectively, but never practically in prospect! In simpler words, no one can prevent you from crying out “Fuck” in the middle of a school assembly. However, action may be taken on you only after your teachers have heard you saying that out loud.

Some of the context in which a person is compelled to limit speech against will have been listed below (These are most of the time problematic and are liable to initiate violent conflicts or may result in tragic loss of lives):

At Gun point. If you are kidnapped by an unknown group with an unknown motive and they put you at gun point, then you might yourself choose to restrict your choice of words wisely to try and reason with them as much as possible in order to try and survive. If you mock them and question their courage or provoke them, then maybe you may have lesser chances of finding a way out of it. Here, you have every right to criticize them but you’ll choose not to and limit speech voluntarily if you want to guarantee your safety.

Fear of government/authority imposing sanctions. Many people, even if they feel right, do not speak out their opinions and do not express themselves for the fear of being prosecuted by authority.

Fear of public prosecutions, sanctions, ostracism, and outrage. Many people, even if they feel right, do not speak out their opinions and do not express themselves for the fear of being prosecuted or ostracized (i.e fear of being called and wrongly labelled racist, sexist, ‘islamo-phobic’ or in case of Nepal ‘Anti-Madheshi’ or ‘Anti-Janajati’) by the public or the socio-cultural group of which they are a part of. This can also be called political correctness.

At last, two fundamentals present themselves whenever we come to discuss about free speech.

  1. No one can stop us from speaking, but ourselves;
  2. Even though we can speak whatever we want to whenever we want to, we usually don’t, in relation to the social context at hand.
    • The social context can be those where establishing a positive rapport/relationship is personally important or essential.
    • Sometimes, we limit speech out of fear for our safety and social well-being
      • Fear of the government/authority.
      • Fear of public prosecutions or sanctions.

So far, one thing is almost certain. There is indeed such a thing as free speech, but it seems very likely that there could be no such thing as absolute free speech. Now let’s move on to the next segment.

The Harm Principle

Many philosophers, leaders and lawmakers over several years have tried to provide solutions to the free speech conundrum. One successful figure of them lot is definitely John Stuart Mill through his 1859 book On Liberty. He was an English philosopher, who defended free speech but also simultaneously introduced the concept of the Harm principle. He states:

“If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” [Chapter II, On Liberty]

By this, he clearly defends speech by telling us that it is best if any idea is allowed to exist, no matter how offensive or immoral they may be considered by the contemporary zeitgeist (social time-frame). He further adds:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing (the majority of) mankind.”

He suggests that it is best if we allow even one dissenting individual, let alone a group, to voice their concerns or disapproval. He argues that there could always be a possibility for that one person or the minority to be correct in place of the majority. He believes such is the value of speech that not even one voice deserves suppression as every idea could be precious at some point of time even if not at present. And this notion is to some extent appealing because any kind of social progress definitely means offending or dissenting some kind of deeply held sentiments. We can look back, for example, at the wide prevalence and acceptance in human history of slavery, witch hunts, apartheid, prosecutions of homosexuals, discriminatory voting rights, imperialism and in Nepal’s context dowry and Sati pratha (burning alive of newly widowed women along with their deceased husbands); all of whose value have become next to obsolete at present. Maybe because some people (or person) at some point in the past dared to question them.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

On the contrary, Mill also suggests in Chapter 4, Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual, that there needs to be some sort of regulation on speech within a society for it to function systematically. He recommends putting restrictions on speech in order to prevent harm, to the speaker as well as others.

“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” [Chapter IV, On Liberty]

One famous analogy Mill uses in his book to explain the Harm principle is that of the Corn dealer. He suggests that while it may be acceptable to accuse through media that a particular corn dealer has been starving the poor. It may not be acceptable, however, to make the same claim in front of an angry mob outside the corn dealer’s house who cannot be controlled and are in the verge of storming into his residence and lynching him. This is because the latter statement could very well result in harming the corn dealer. So it is best to limit speech such as in this context to prevent harm. Go back to the part where I had mentioned that at gun point, you are mostly bound to carefully limit your choice of words and thus speech for the sake of your own safety. While that was yourself limiting your own speech, Mill, on the other hand, is advocating for restrictions to be imposed by an authority on such harm-prone speech.

Speaking objectively in his terms, freedom is rationally best limited when it comes to the issue of harm. No matter how progressive we are, when it comes to harming others or ourselves we usually tend to draw a line and righteously we should. But we need to be distinct on whether we are talking about the freedom to commit or the freedom to speak; and also be clear with our definition of the word harm.

Argument on applications of Mill’s Harm principle

It would be fair enough for me to say that the harm principle in itself is not sufficient to regulate speech. Some argue that Mill’s definition of ‘harm’ is very vague and brief, when in fact it should have had a broad array of meanings. Mill does not go into detail to discuss what exactly he means by the term ‘Harm’. His focus appears to be more on physical harm and he tends to leave out economic, psychological as well as legal harm. To counter Mill’s narrow definition of Harm, one could counter his very corn dealer analogy, and say that accusing the corn dealer through media that he starves the poor, without substantial proof, could indeed harm his business and result in harming the corn dealer and his family financially and maybe even psychologically. Mill has failed to recognize other forms of speech such as libel, incitement, blackmail, dishonest propaganda and hate speech that may have the potential to do more harm than good.

So anytime we try to apply the Harm principle to limit free speech it is vital to ask ourselves “what type of speech can actually cause harm?” To improve the argument on behalf of Mill’s harm principle, we could very well broaden the definition and go on to say that any speech or action that is liable to violate someone’s basic human rights could be said to be Harmful. So in this blog, for simplicity, violation of someone’s rights, is considered Harm. In that way we may argue effectively.

Applying the harm principle on Pornography

Pornography is censored or prohibited in most parts of the world as it is considered obscene and immoral by many. This is indeed a very good example for us to discuss and understand Free speech and the Harm principle. Now as morality is a dynamic concept, always on the change, it could be inconsistent with the harm principle to ban pornography on moral grounds as one person’s perception of an act as moral may not fit into someone else’s book of morals and offending someone may not be considered as harm as it may not violate the rights of the viewer. We also need to take into consideration the fact that some speech that is offensive to someone, might be amusing to someone else. Next clause is obscenity. People may find pornography obscene, but pornography is intended actually to cause sexual arousal in the audience or subscribers. And similarly, someone finding it obscene may not amount to harm as per Mill.

Alternatively, one could argue that pornography violates especially the rights of women and maybe even minors who may be forced to have sex before the camera. Categories such as revenge porn, Voyeur and ex-girlfriend porn may also violate someone’s right to privacy. And there are sex slaves and trafficked sex workers who may be forced into the porn industries as has happened in places such as Thailand and India. Rights are violated as people may have been forced, compelled, blackmailed or tricked into porn. So as per Mill, it may be okay to limit porn as it appears to violate someone’s rights in some way. In that sense we could also argue back that it may be better to regulate the industry itself rather than to ban it because there are also individuals who voluntarily participate in the industry as they can see the increasing demands and maybe even good income, and it may be next to impossible to filter out which porn is violating the rights of which actor/porn star and which isn’t.

It is also very true that in places where pornography is strictly restricted by law, the industry has not perished completely but have managed to flourish, although in a criminal manner; therefore giving rise to a vicious cycle of organized crime and human trafficking. It’s a case similar to America’s ‘War on Drugs’ and the debate on whether recreational drugs should or should not be banned [Video by Kurzgesagt]. Regulating the industry may filter the violation of rights gradually while at the same time might provide a safe, healthy, taxable and standardized platform for the interested to take part in and even for those who demand pornographic content.

On the other hand, almost all of us, including liberals, certainly would object to child pornography as it deals with violating the rights of people under the age of consent. But what if there are over-age actors portraying underage characters in porn? What then? Rights are surely not violated in such cases (again it is difficult to ascertain who, what, where, when and how), and the only issue remaining is of such content offending our moral standards. The harm principle applies here only if actual children are involved and not if overage actors playing the part of children are. And to filter wrongdoing, again regulation (as in compulsory regulation by registration of all porn actors, directors and producers), rather than ban seems appropriate.

Based on Mill’s harm principle, people finding such materials offensive, repugnant, immoral or obscene are not considered valid grounds for banning pornography altogether.

Applying the Harm principle to hate speech

After reading through many papers and articles and going through many discussions on free speech, I have come to realize that Hate speech is one tricky area when it comes to discussions on free speech and censorship laws.

It’s difficult to justify against hate speech in a Millian manner because most of the time hate speech may not be associated with direct harm or violation of rights. For instance if some child at school yells out profane and racist insults at another child, then according to the Millian way, it would not be considered a direct harm to the child as the child is physically intact and his/her rights have not been violated. Like I’ve already mentioned above, Mill clearly does not consider the psychological burden of this speech on the targeted child. He does not consider the possibility of that child’s self confidence being hurt by the hate speech and as a consequence, him/her suffering in grades and performance in school.

Many might like to exclude hate speech towards children, from being protected. Simply because such are aimed at people who are not emotionally and psychologically mature enough to handle criticism or insult. In that sense, maybe banning weird baby names in Germany may be for a valid reason, to prevent psychological harm in children by preventing ‘possible’ bullying or harassment. But again in terms of Mill, it may not constitute as harm. (Some may even argue that it would be better if we actually popularized the concept that bullying and harassment is wrong, instead of banning names). It may be the case, if we can clearly show that the child has been harmed psychologically, but how can we again ascertain that for every individual who comes under some kind of hate speech? Not everyone show signs of an upset psyche.

At this point, some may even argue that it is better to teach our kids to face critique and face their problems in a tolerant and rational way than to be emotionally weak and break. But on the other hand, while this way might be effective for many, we also need to acknowledge the fact that not every child is psychologically equipped for this. We could start a whole new debate, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. Unless and until we are able to show that the child’s rights have been violated, the state (in this case school authorities) cannot impose sanctions or punishment on the speaker as per the Harm principle. And even if we do sanction the speaker, it will always be retrospective and the damage already may have been done.

M’Bala M’Bala (center front) posing for his anti-zionist campaign by making a Quenelle Gesture.

So clearly the Millian way may not look like the best way to approach the free-speech conundrum as it may not be able to tackle speech causing harm that is not physical. Critics of the Harm principle usually state that it is too narrow a standard upon which to set limitations to speech.

Let us consider hate speech in the context of stand up comedy still applying Mill’s reasoning. For example in the case of a French Comedian Deudonne M’Bala M’Bala who made a statement that he’ll stuff Quenelle up every Zionist’s backside and popularized the ‘Quenelle Gesture’ (shown above) which many considered to be anti-semitic. Due to his comedic statements, he has now been banned in France from making any sort of public appearance. A simple act of offending a particular group with a gesture has led to this man being barred from performing in the public.

If the Millian principle had been applied here, then M’Bala may not have faced prohibitions as a hand gesture does not necessarily violate rights or cause harm to the audience or property. It just offends a particular audience, in this case orthodox Jews and Zionists, which according to Mill, is not to be considered into the inclusion criteria for limiting speech by authority or government. Here, the argument from the psychological harm clause may not apply as it is not directed at an individual but rather towards a community. But technically, there is a problem in banning M’Bala M’Bala, as Anti-Zionism is not always necessarily antisemitism. This can be seen by the presence of significant Anti-Zionist Jews across the globe as well. So all in all, M’Bala M’Bala’s punishment seems irrational in this sense as clearly, the offense taken was relative.

M’Bala M’Bala’s ban was questionable as not every Zionist is a Jew and insulting Zionists does not necessarily insult Jews.

So we have come to learn, I hope, that the Harm principle as proposed by John Stuart Mill may not answer all the clause and loopholes within the free speech argument, but it sure does help in some scenarios nonetheless. The main point of it all being in order to set an inquiry as to when a government of a free society can take action on an individual for the things he/she have said?

In a nutshell, it could be fairly said that the Harm principle fails to address most of the emotional and psychological aspects of the argument (as in emotional upset such as dejection or offense). Whether this is a good or a bad point is rather subjective.

The Offense principle

Since the harm principle set the threshold for limiting speech too low, another notable philosopher, Joel Feinberg, came up with his own kind of solution to this puzzle. He introduced the offense principle, mostly as a guide for the public to react to various forms of expression and for authorities to decide and set standards as to which kind of speech needs to be restricted. Many may not agree with Feinberg, but let us examine the Offense principle from both the sides just as we have done that for the Harm principle above.

If we consider physical harm like Mill does, then maybe freedom to commit is better limited but it won’t still be clear why would it be reasonable to limit speech? Does speaking by itself harm people? If it does then how do we draw a line as to what indeed is harm and what is offence? If there is harm, what makes up direct or indirect harm? It’s important for us to try and answer these questions. And with the offense principle, Feinberg has at least tried to answer them.

To sum up his principle, he proposes a solution in which he claims that in order for us or the authorities to be able to limit someone else’s speech, some factors must always be taken into account. Restrictions should depend on:

  • Extent of the speech
  • Social value of the speech
  • Motives of the speaker
  • Number of people offended
  • Intensity of the offense
  • General interest of the community at large; or for the ‘greater good’
  • Avoid-ability of the speech; i.e the ease with which it can be avoided, which remains the most important factor of them all

Now these points are surely debatable but they sure do help to solve certain problems and loopholes in the free speech conundrum. At other times, they seem too far-fetched and rigorous when it comes to restricting speech.

Argument on application of the offense principle

Like I have mentioned before, speech cannot be prevented but actions on the speaker can be only taken retrospectively. Now an authority or a society can surely try and make it more difficult for a person to express potentially offensive ideas by imposing sanctions or by simply threatening prosecution. This is usually done with the assumed logic that if we make it difficult for someone to express contrary or offensive ideas, it will be less likely for them or others like them to express offensive ideas or to make offensive public statements.

But history has shown often that imposing restrictions and sanctions on people who express dissent does not necessarily stop them or others like them from expressing restricted but shared ideas. Take for example the various revolutions across the globe for independence from imperialism and colonialism, take for example the Arab spring, the civil rights movement, suffrage movement, anti-apartheid movement, existence of atheists in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh even amidst the threat of severe punishments and death, rise of progressive voices in Iran and the like (and in case of Nepal the fall of Monarchy and rise of the Republic). All happened because the authorities (or the public) failed to suppress speech entirely. That is why ‘avoidability‘ of speech is proposed as an important factor by Feinberg. In a nutshell, if you don’t like someone’s expressed opinions or ideas, simply avoiding it will prevent offense. In this way, the person expressing it is pardoned of prosecution. The person likely to be offended may not be offended if the content can be avoided.

Feinberg elaborates the avoidability factor very eloquently with the ‘book analogy’. He argues that books need not be banned as they are very easy to avoid. If you do not like a genre or a particular writing, you can avoid it instead of calling for the book to be banned, because there is always the possibility that some others might find it amusing or appealing.

But some people are offended just because of the knowledge that this book ‘exists’. But Feinberg has put forth that being offended by something that is avoidable is supposed to be logically less serious than being offended by something that is not avoidable.

Bare knowledge does not seem to be sufficient grounds for us to ban something. We will look into it in detail below.

Applying the offense principle to pornography

Similarly, let us apply the offense principle to pornography. Extent of pornographic material: At this age of the internet, it’s very extensive and widely and easily available. Social value: Not put in high esteem but the audience who ask for porn are usually the audience who want to be gratified by such content and most of the time meaning no harm to others whatsoever. Motive: To cause arousal in the targeted audience. Number of people offended: Many, depending on the context (more people are likely to be offended if porn is displayed out in public hoarding boards). Intensity: Variable. Some porn watchers might consider erotic coupling not offensive while incest or BDSM genres may be offensive to them. Many may consider all of them offensive. Some may be offended by the usual objectification and demeaning portrayal of women in porn as ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’. General interest of public at large: Porn industry when regulated is less likely to do much harm to the public than when not regulated. When porn is banned, the industry may go underground and may be devoid of proper regulations which may possibly lead to surge in organized crime and human trafficking rates. Avoidability: Very avoidable!

So according to the Offense principle, porn need not be banned completely if it is allowed only up to private use and not displayed openly in public. That would avoid many people from being unnecessarily offended; pornographic contents still being legally available for the interested to access in private or in groups of significance. It gives room for effective regulations as well as legalization of the porn industry.

Applying the offense principle to hate speech

Let us take Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, for example. Similar to that on pornography, the question arises whether it should or should not be banned. Taking the Avoidability factor into consideration, it is very easily avoidable. When talking about the speaker, the motives are clearly xenophobic, racist and antisemitic; some may argue that such works will inspire a new generation of Neo-Nazis, but we cannot know that for sure and it may be better left for the readers to decide. There is always the possibility that some want to read it just out of their intellectual curiosity or to simply study about a notorious dictator. And also as discussed above, that bare knowledge is not sufficient grounds for us to ban a book, the Mein Kampf very well should also avoid being banned.

But let us take a scenario when a person keenly dresses as Adolf Hitler and shouts out Antisemitic insults towards the settlers and advertises Mein Kampf through a loudspeaker in a predominantly Jewish settlement. Now let us again consider the above mentioned factors with relation to this case. The extent of this speech is such that it is aimed particularly and specifically at the Jewish settlers. So the offense that is done is more acute even though the number of people affected is relatively low, but the intensity of the speech is high as it deals with propagating direct hate. Social value of this speech is very low, it would be clear that the settlers would not want to hear such speech and that it would not contribute towards a constructive argument. Likewise it’s not of much use when considering it even in terms of the general interest of the public at large as throwing out insults will in no way benefit the public. The Motive behind this speech is clearly hateful. The speaker is intentionally trying to spread hateful remarks.  And lastly when talking about its avoidability, this kind of speech is very difficult to avoid.

When we assess the above scenario from Feinberg’s perspective, it looks better to limit hate speech than to not. So it could be said that the Offense principle allows us to limit something that causes immense emotional and psychological upset and cannot be easily avoided. Avoidability of the expressed content is clearly the backbone of the offense principle.

Slippery Slope

But not everyone is in consensus. There are those who are concerned about limiting speech and those who are concerned about not limiting speech at all. Even though the kind of speech has changed along with our changing moral values, this debate has persisted from the very beginning of the concept of Democracy.

There are those at one spectrum who argue that imposing any kind of limitations on speech will make it easy for a society to slip into censorship, tyranny and fascism; hence they believe there should be no limitations imposed on speech at all. Then there are those at the other spectrum who argue that not limiting speech will lead to an inevitable slip into chaos, anarchy and lawlessness.

Both such spectrum can be fairly said to be ‘slippery slope’ arguments. A slippery slope argument is any such in which people argue that when one idea is allowed to happen then a particular consequence is bound to occur so that idea should not be allowed in the first place. Here at the two spectrum, the idea is either limiting speech or not limiting speech at all.

The problem with such reasoning is that they avoid sensible discussions about the practical issue at hand by diverting attention towards extreme hypothetical situations behind which there seem to be no credible evidence. Because those who do argue from such extremes, at either end, often do not have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that limiting speech will make us slide towards tyranny or either that in not limiting speech we are slipping into anarchy and chaos.

Such argument will never bear any fruit for us to reach towards a solution. It will just stain an otherwise sensible discussion and sway it into an unsubstantiated conjecture. So it is vital to always argue from the middle-ground, not being biased towards any pole.

My Opinion…..

Now where do I stand on this? Frankly, I should say that I do not know!

I wouldn’t want to be too deterministic on this subject matter as a whole. What I can say for sure, after studying about it, is that the debate on whether or not we should impose restrictions on speech (or any form of expression) is not static. Just as our social, moral and ethical values are not static. We can never have a ‘one-time-discussion’ that settles everything.

Personally, however, I’d like to take into equal consideration, both the Harm as well as the Offense principles. There is no ‘one or the other’ logic for me. I think Stuart Mill is able to explain the limitations on speech based only on harm (i.e violation of rights as in physical, legal harm) and Feinberg is able to elaborate on the deficits of the former and to effectively propose a solution in the form of the Offense principle. People do consider these two principles mutually exclusive, for some people it’s either Mill or Feinberg which I think is rather naive. I’d rather consider them two mutually inclusive subsets of the same whole. I’d like to put it this way: If we could compare speech to a democratic constitution, Mill’s harm principle can be said to be one main ‘article’ and Feinberg’s Offense principle could be said to be the necessary ‘amendment’ in order to move forwards.

Another area that is rather tricky when it comes to speech, which I have chosen not to discuss in detail just to shorten my already lengthy essay, is Political correctness. The scope of this essay was indeed just to deal with the debate on whether or not to impose limitations on speech. Sometimes, political correctness may also undermine the real issue at hand, but in this political world, of slick diplomacy and tactics, some may even consider it useful and necessary. This, I think, should be a whole new topic which needs to be examined from both sides and maybe an inspiration for another of my essays. But let us not go into it in detail for the moment.

In the end, I hope I have been able to examine freedom of speech effectively in spite of my professional and intellectual limitations on the subject. Speech is as important to us humans as it is inevitable. Any sanction can only be imposed upon the speaker retrospectively, but sanctions cannot effectively ever be prospective. Consider this quote below.

“The paper burns, but the words fly away.”

~Akiba ben Joseph

I am also clear that it is worthless to have a discussion on the value of speech, if we first do not look at it from a social context. As stated above, a man stranded on a deserted island can have absolute freedom of speech, but when you pick him up and place him in a community full of people, absolute free speech seems less relevant. As I have also mentioned earlier in this essay, speech is always rationally limited in one way or the other depending on the values of a particular society and the time-frame in which it exists.

Another necessary thing is, for this debate to never really end. We should always be able to talk about it openly in an unbiased manner. Some may say that to be able to speak about speech openly, there first needs to be the guarantee of free speech, which I agree with, nonetheless. So my whole essay is void, unless we consider it from a progressive democratic perspective, which would allow such discussions to take place at all. This is to say that the discussions in my essay may not be valid in an autocratic, theocratic, feudal, despotic or a hegemonic society which usually suppress dissenting and contrasting ideas and opinions.

But the discussion here is not only about censorship, it’s also about how to ‘draw a line effectively’ in order to limit or not to limit speech. This ‘line’ we are talking about, is most of the time rather obscure if not vague and constant rational discussions are always necessary to dilute any polarity that may arise if one extreme overpowers the other.

As a skeptic, I would propose that even free speech itself should be questioned just as censorship also necessitates questioning. For me (as I often say through my blogs), no question is a stupid question, no idea is above criticism and no human life is below dignity.

“You can cage the singer, but not the song.”

~Harry Belafonte


  1. Where the world sees limits to free-speech (PEW research Agency)
  2. Freedom of Speech – Wikipedia
  3. Freedom of Speech: Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy
  4. The Diane Rehm Show
  5. Freedom of Speech vs Cultural Sensitivity (Rukshana Khan) IBBY World congress [PDF]
  6. Culture and Self Expression (American Psychological Association)
  7. Shut Up India: Free Speech is failing in the world’s largest Democracy (The World Post)
  8. Why a Free Speech Fight is causing protests at Yale (TIME/US)
  9. Global support for freedom of expression, but opposition to some forms of speech – Pew research
  10. History of Freedom of thought – Critical Thinking Community
  11. Spark Notes: On Liberty
  12. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill: Chapter 2 (1859)
  13. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1859) [PDF]
  14. Truth about porn stars – Live Science
  15. International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN)
  16. Why I am an anti-zionist jew

[Disclaimer: For most of my essay, I have decided to outline my thoughts in a similar style as that in the Freedom of Speech entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This is because I found the structure appropriate and suitable for my effort to explain the arguments surrounding Free speech in my own simplified language. I am also assuming the possibility that my audience may not be well aware of the Harm or Offense principles. You could also fairly say that this essay is a kind of simplification of the SEP one. All thanks to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy team as they constantly try and explain numerous philosophical puzzles, standoffs and hurdles in an unbiased manner.]