free-speech-voltaireThe average American, and also many Australians, believe that free speech is important.

Nevertheless, ‘free speech’ is a theoretical concept. What is it to speak freely? Obviously it implies not being locked up for saying what you believe to be important. We assume this involves standing up against abuses by the powerful, and that speech is therefore a universal good.

But speech is never made in a vacuum. My research into collaboration sees communication as part of collaboration. This means that speech is always in the context of who you are talking to, and what you hope to achieve by speaking to them.

Collaboration is not always a good thing. It depends upon what the people within it want to achieve. Any particular collaboration can be dastardly, corrupt, and evil.

That is why giving primacy to the concept of free speech without context is so dangerous.

We should search for better, more realistic, principles. Principles that can’t be so-easily abused by the powerful.

For a start, lets look at the right to collaborate as being universal. As a component of collaboration, communication requires that people listen to your words. No one is listening to the poor. Sometimes, supervisors don’t listen to students.

Power inequality and a grant system that privileges seniority, may mean that post-graduate students, and even post-doctoral academics, can’t make effective connections. Because they haven’t real autonomy to make decisions to direct their research, their collaborations wither on the vine.

To my mind, this is the true infringement. When a hierarchy, whether incumbent-favouring grant system or resource-hogging professor, affects people’s opportunity to collaborate with one another.

In academia, you can make friends with whoever you like, but with no capacity to direct resources, you’re not really collaborating.

Trouble, significant innovation can occur through these lower-level connections! Junior researchers are hungry for something novel to build a career on, whereas established academics are likely to already have their ongoing projects in motion.

This concept of the right to free speech being less important than collaboration can be extended to the rest of society as well…