Not long ago, National Cheng Kung University history professor Wang Wen-hsia (王文霞) compared democracy activist Deng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) to Islamist suicide bombers. The statement attracted a lot of criticism, but in the following discussion it has been said that everyone has a right to their own point of view and we should respect the freedom of expression.
The Cheng Kung University administration is taking a similar approach in its response.
The fact is that every time someone makes a similarly controversial remark, such as when Kuo Mei-chiang (郭美江), a pastor, made discriminatory remarks against homosexuals not long ago, someone will raise the banner of freedom of expression in defense of the remark. While this may seem to be a just and forceful point of view, it is in fact a complete distortion of the meaning of freedom of expression.
First, we must respect freedom of expression, but why should we respect absurd and wrong statements?
The biased position and ignorant arguments in the discriminatory statement against homosexuals by Kuo, or in the statement by Wang comparing Deng — who gave his life in the defense of the freedom of expression — to terrorists, are anti-intellectual and not worthy of our respect.
Whether intentionally or inadvertently, such statements confuse “expression” with “freedom of expression” — two completely different concepts.
Second, responses that are critical of those making such statements do not disrespect their freedom of expression. They have the right to respond to the criticism. True freedom of expression entails debate and criticism; true disrespect for the freedom of expression is what the Chinese Communist Party has displayed in its treatment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) by sending him to jail for expressing views that differ from those of the party.
No one has restricted Kuo or Wang’s right to express their opinions, so how could there be any talk about disrespecting the freedom of expression?
Third, if we were to respect every kind of statement, we would have no standards by which to separate between what is right and what is wrong.
If any kind of statement could be made without any kind of restriction, our value systems would be a mess.
How are we going to strike a balance between guaranteeing the freedom of expression for every single person while at the same time establishing a set of universal values? It is quite easy: Absurd and wrong statements should be allowed, but as soon as they are uttered we should rise as one and expose them to the severest criticism, making such statements a target for public criticism.
This of course means that more people have to speak up and take a stand when they hear absurd statements. It is in this sense that everyone is responsible for protecting the freedom of expression.
Wang Dan is a visiting associate professor at National Tsing Hua University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Translated by Perry Svensson