Wednesday 31 January 2024

Is there a right to silence?

Silence is often perceived as politically harmful and something that has to be broken. But what if silence can also be politically beneficial in democracies and we have good reasons to protect our right to stay silent?

Specifically, is speech always better than staying silent in situations of compelled speech and possibly compelled lies due to social pressure? Is speech better than silence when the audience might misinterpret or deconstruct what we way?

In our article (open access in Philosophical Quarterly, 2024), Dan Degerman and I address the political importance of being able to hold to one’s silence and we argue that a democratic right to silence can be motivated by politically relevant epistemic reasons.

Generally, the right to stay silent is seen within the legal context as the right one has to protect oneself against self-incrimination. However, we can broaden this and argue in favour of the right to silence as the entitlement one has to stay silent, either by not speaking or by not speaking about something in particular.

The right to silence so formulated can have many benefits, but specifically we can focus on some epistemic benefits silence can bring. The first is that silence can prevent the risk of jeopardising the individual’s credibility and spreading falsehood while undermining the notion of truth. This is the case when someone might be compelled to lie in public. These situations can be present due to political, legal, and social pressure. Cases of this kind are show trials, but we can also imagine contexts related to free speech on the internet or in public spaces. A robust right to silence can allow individuals to adhere to it while avoiding the epistemic harms that can be generated by publicly admitting what is known to be false

The second benefit is the one of preventing the misconstruction of what someone might say when they are faced with an audience that pressures them to speak. This case can be seen in cases of compulsory representation when someone is asked to speak in quality of representing a given minority and whatever is said risks being misinterpreted. The epistemic damage in these cases is not limited to the epistemic agency of the speaker but also that of the group they are taken to represent. Again, in the context of internet and speed news, it is not difficult to imagine a case in which someone’s option might be misconstructed or re-interpreted for given purposes. As we argue, in both these cases silence is a better option.

How can we implement the right to silence? The answer is not simple and many steps have to be taken politically and legally. However, we believe that a first step can be seen in making people comfortable with their right to be silent in situations of pressure or in which their status as epistemic agents might be compromised. And our paper aims to guide them to do so.

Francesca Bellazzi is Teaching Fellow in Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham and Honorary Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Bristol.

Francesca works in the metaphysics and philosophy of science and in applied philosophy and ethics.

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