It was Second World War and German war machine was inflicting heavy losses on the Allies. Aneurin Bevan, a Labour MP, criticized Churchill while commenting, “The Prime Minister wins debate after debate and loses battle after battle. The country is beginning to say that he fights debates like a war and the war like a debate”. One of the many internal challenges Churchill had to face was a motion of no-confidence tabled by John Wardlaw-Milne in 1942. He had offered Churchill to withdraw the motion. However, Churchill revealing the strength of character and confident of his mandate, wanted the matter to proceed to its logical conclusion. Churchill gave a ninety minute reply to the motion and stood vindicated. Even in the face of mortal threat, debate was not suppressed. Instead, dissent was heard and engaged with.

Freedom of speech is one of the most cherished rights in any pluralistic society. Pakistan does not stand well when it comes to guaranteeing the right to free speech. Free speech is curbed under the garb of patriotism, state security and religion etc. The mere big number of private news channels and newspapers do not, ipso facto, mean that freedom of speech exists. According to 2019 Press Freedom Index, Pakistan’s ranking is 142. However, the situation has taken a turn for worse under the present government. One has witnessed many troubling events like, to name a few, interviews of leading politicians being taken off air, rallies of opposition leaders being blacked out, the programs of anchors critical of government and establishment being shut down and censorship being imposed by media on itself. The current political environment has become claustrophobic for independent thinking minds and dissent is being trampled upon in the most egregious manner. This article discusses why dissent is important for any society and why the celebrated right of freedom of speech must be protected.

Firstly, freedom of speech is necessary to establish the marketplace of ideas. This rationale holds that truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in a free and transparent public discourse. The rationale is traced to the works of John Milton, an English poet and scholar, and has also been developed by John Stuart Mill in his philosophical treatise. The idea is that there will be competing ideas and opinions in any pluralistic society. The only way for truth to emerge is if society allows these ideas to compete with each other. Overtime, solid and research backed opinions will triumph over the ones which are shallow and superficial.

Secondly, free speech is essential for a functioning democracy. The link between freedom of speech and democracy is clear from the fact that freedom of speech exists in advanced democracies like United States, Britain, Australia etc. and is absent in dictatorships and sham democracies like China, Pakistan, North Korea etc. Though direction of causation is not clear, but one thing is true for sure that free speech and democracy cannot survive without each other. In a real and true democracy, free speech is guaranteed across the political spectrum. All political parties and politicians should be able to express their views on anything and everything under the sun. If free speech is not allowed by the ruling government, citizens will not gain access to different points of view. As a result, citizens will not have a complete picture and would not be able to form an informed opinion. The elections conducted in such an environment would be far from being fair. Moreover, ruling government can improve its own performance if it allows dissenting opinions to be expressed instead of crushing them. Sometimes vision gets a little blurred from the high echelons of power and criticism by the opponents and general public might lead to self-reflection and improvement.

Thirdly, if state does not allow dissent to be expressed, this will eventually lead to intolerance among the people. Modern nation states are composed of people of different races, ethnicities, languages and religions etc. In order for such states to survive and thrive, people should be allowed to express their thoughts and grievances. The intolerance exhibited by the state might trickle down to people and this will lead to stampeding of different minorities by the majority. Such nation states are always fragile and different fault lines will be exposed and abused by one state or the other.

A cursory look at the history reveals that societies which allowed dissent to be expressed and compete with the established authorities were able to advance in different fields of life. The battle between religious orthodoxy and scientific attitudes which panned out in the West is one such example. Also, there are variety of instances where dissenting judicial opinions actually became the majority opinion some years or decades later. Therefore, states must not be scared of dissent. Instead, dissent should be cherished, celebrated and protected. This urge by the state to conform everyone to a single narrative, that it approves of, must be resisted. Conformity, among other things, will lead to boredom of worst kind.

The writer is a Lahore based lawyer and has an LLM from the University of Chicago. He tweets at @ShakohZ.