• Undoubtedly, it is widely accepted that there must be limits to public discourse.
• What, however, changes over time and place is what those limits to free speech are, who sets them, on what authority and why.
Galileo was an Italian physicist and astronomer. In 1581, as he was studying medicine at the University of Pisa, he discovered he had a talent for mathematics.
He subsequently pursued this line of learning and later became a professor of mathematics.
In 1609, he heard about the invention of the spyglass, a device that made distant objects appear closer. Galileo used his mathematics knowledge to improve upon the spyglass and built a telescope.
Later that year, he became the first person to look at the moon through the telescope and make his first astronomy discovery.
He discovered that the moon was not smooth, but mountainous and pitted just like the earth. He also discovered that all other planets revolve around the sun.
Most people in his time believed the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the sun and planets revolved around it.
The Catholic Church was a very powerful institution in Galileo’s day. Its doctrine strongly supported the theory of a geocentric or earth-centred universe.
After Galileo began publishing papers and advancing his theory and belief in a heliocentric, or sun-centred universe, he was summoned to Rome to answer charges on what the Church declared to be heresy, a crime punishable by death.
Although Galileo was cleared of heresy charges, he was ordered to abstain completely from publicly advancing, discussing or defending his heliocentric theory.
However, the more he continued to study, the more Galileo made his pronouncements public and even published a book about them.
He was once more summoned to Rome, and this time he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1633. He died in 1642.
It has been close to about 400 years since the Catholic Church censored Galileo and denied him a platform for his arguments, a theory today considered entirely uncontroversial, and indeed, a part of our understanding of the universe.
And four centuries on, we are still in the pursuit of criminalising free speech and seeking to throw in jail those who propagate doctrines that cause us discomfort and threaten our status quo.
Our lawmakers are mulling criminalising the hustler versus dynasty narrative by seeking to have it classified as hate speech.
The National Assembly Security Committee wants the National Cohesion and Integration Act amended to include any and all public political sloganeering of the hustler versus dynasty narrative, as a basis for incitement and discrimination. I
n their submission, they claim this narrative has already begun causing splashes of violence and has the potential to plunge the country into chaos.
Undoubtedly, it is widely accepted that there must be limits to public discourse.
We cannot have unfettered freedom of expression, neither can one claim a right to knowingly utter a false statement, slander or perjure, nor shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre. This is a universally accepted position.
What, however, changes over time and place is what those limits to free speech are, who sets them, on what authority and why.
Free speech is not about defending opinions you agree with. It is about defending the rights of others to express opinions you disagree with.
Because without free speech, there is no liberty. And sadly, despite being right, Galileo found this out the most painful way.
The hustler versus dynasty narrative may not always be ill-intentioned, but it illuminates deeper socio-economic problems that have bedevilled the country.
However, given the nature of our divisive politics, the narrative can and has been propagated to inflict insult and injury to innocent Kenyans.
Begs the question, is the cure to criminalise the narrative? Did condemning Galileo to life imprisonment debunk his heliocentric theory?
I submit that terming the hustler versus dynasty narrative as hate speech is totally subjective, and making it a crime is incompatible with a free society.
To criminalise the narrative is the laziest approach towards finding a solution to a very complex problem.
What we should be having instead is a deliberate and purposeful national discourse on why we are likely to have this class warfare, if it is not addressed.
Social order is often maintained by domination and power, rather than by consensus and conformity.
Those with wealth and power, aka the bourgeoise, try and hold onto it by all means possible by maximising more of it, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless, aka the proletariat. And this creates perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources.
And the solution to this is not to criminalise the class that achieves consciousness and solidarity of their collective interests.
The solution is to implement and enforce approaches and policies whereby the bourgeoisie and the proletariat can legally exploit the scarce resources with dignity and liberty, through the free exercise of their human rights.
But let us suppose for a moment that we manage to criminalise this narrative. It would be incumbent upon our imperfect police force to arrest those who commit this crime, our imperfect lawyers to defend the offenders and our imperfect courts to try them.
Will abdicating to an imperfect state the responsibility of determining what is, and what is not objectionable, lead to a harmonious society?
How can one imperfection be used to correct another? Plus, I thought that a harmonious society is what BBI is touted to cure. But then again, they tell us that there are several ways to skin a cat.
There are many rational people who dislike the way our politicians conduct our politics, who find our democracy not credible and who object to the brutality and coercive excesses of those in political power and their cronies.
But yet, their default solution to most of the problems that we experience nationally, without exception, is to delegate more power to the state.
Hence proposing this bill is a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that is hard to reconcile rationally.
There is a symbiotic relationship between economic development and free speech, where the populace is informed without bias or intimidation.
A World Bank study in 2014 found that countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that maintained higher levels of free speech, were at a lower risk of political instability.
The study found that free speech reduces information asymmetry, and that closing the information gap between authorities and the masses, incentivises those in public office to act accountably in the interests of the people, through adherence to a process of checks and balances.
This improves administrative efficiency, respect for the rule of law, all of which lead to the pathway of improved human and economic development.
It is the free dissemination of ideas and opinions that creates a social process in which truth competes, and eventually wins out over falsehoods and propaganda.
This process should be treated with respect, never dismissed without thought or reason, and should never be feared.
Finally, my unsolicited advice is to the sponsors of this bill. The true test of leadership is not the number of people coerced into submission or intimidated into silence.
It is how far people will follow the leader out of their own free will because they resonate with his opinions.
When free speech is silenced, the pursuit of ignorance by design begins. That is why smart leaders respect freedom of expression even when, especially when, it causes them discomfort.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear - George Orwell