Language, Rights, and Responsibilities

by George Hatjoullis

Language is popularly understood to be the expression of thought. In philosophical circles it is also seen as an action, and active in creating thought. You think what you say and what you say has material consequences. This is becoming apparent to even the least thoughtful. Political narratives are creating ways of thinking and resulting in material actions and consequences. The process was applied with great effect by what is popularly known as the ‘political correctness’ movement in changing behaviour and perception to new norms (I am not going to waste time with illustrations. Some readers appear incapable of grasping the concept of an illustration. More important, if you don’t know what I am alluding to by now…). The alternative-facts movement is using the same technique to push back the achievements of the PC movement. Narratives are important, they do things, and they form thoughts.

One of the established human rights to which everyone pays lip service is the right of freedom of expression. It is article 10 of the European Convention. It is popularly understood as people can say what they want. Not so! The second section of article 10 refers to duties and responsibilities necessary in a democratic society that accompany this freedom. Causing offence is not sufficient reason to stop the freedom of expression. However, it may be necessary to restrict freedom of expression in “…the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”. In effect, if the language threatens the existence of the system that guarantees the freedom of expression then there need not be a right to freedom to express it.

Let us look at some statements by the POTUS on Twitter in light of this:

Because the ban was lifted by a judge, many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country. A terrible decision

What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?

The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!

How does this language maintain the authority and impartiality of the US judiciary? What is the POTUS trying to do with this language? For what is he preparing the US citizenry? Answering these questions leads down some ugly paths.


Language that promotes racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and/or homophobia clearly falls into the legitimate area for constraint of the right of freedom of expression. It certainly threatens the safety of some of public, threatens public order, reputations and morals. Religious intolerance falls into the same category and also breaches article 9. So when Milo Yiannopoulos is denied a platform I do not find myself concerned about his right to freedom of expression. It is forfeit. I can think of many others who could usefully be denied a platform without a breach of article 10.