As someone who’s always carried in his heart a great dose of curiosity and a desire to hear and express new opinions, I have always felt intuitively drawn to the concept of freedom of speech.
In fact, the political considerations and importance of it only really became clear to me at a later stage in my life. Prior to that, it was my love for ideas that was the source of my commitment to free speech.
Sadly, free speech is increasingly being threatened in the modern world. In fact, to be frank, I am really talking about the U.S. here — most other countries in the world have never quite committed themselves to the principle in the first place. European countries, let alone other non-Western ones, have multiple times shown their willingness to censor speech and shut down minority views. And so my U.S.-centrism in this article is simply the natural result of my beloved First Amendment and the freedoms it protects.
So, this is ultimately why It hurts me greatly to see the onslaught of anti-free-speech arguments circulating in the U.S. intellectual sphere these days. It’s truly a scary thing to witness — how an authoritarian anti-speech ideology is openly advocating for censorship.
The truth is, the arguments given against free speech are not in themselves too surprising. They all basically argue the same thing: free speech is not compatible with comfort, safety or dignity. And historically speaking, this is why virtually all prior and current human societies have always tried to restrict the words people can utter in public. It seems that people are finally realizing that freedom of speech is not a societal free lunch, but rather a nuanced and radical idea. The problem is, many of the radicals today are fast beginning to reject it.
So, what’s so problematic about free speech that people are beginning to question it?
Many see the answer to this question in two words: hate speech. They argue that freedom of speech is not the state of “everybody saying whatever they want”, but rather “everybody feeling free to say what they want, within the limits of human dignity”.
By itself, this political difference is incredibly interesting. It demonstrates how different our conceptions of freedom can be. Personally, I have always seen freedom through an individual lens, so my ideas have naturally gravitated around the former notion above. Yet, clearly, that sentiment is not universal.
Going back to the question of speech, there is something very obvious in the formulation above. One side is positing a simple rule, or rather the absence of rules, as the ideal. The other is trying to reach an optimal equilibrium between the speech of one and the feelings and dignity of many.
Now, there is no question that speech can be hurtful, at least in some psychological ways. Name-calling, mocking, passive aggression, even sarcasm can all be ways to denigrate and attack another’s identity. Moreover, since ideas and identities are hard to disentangle, even heated discussions can be construed as an attack on the identity of the other side. Hearing somebody repeatedly insult your religion, for example, while technically an attack on an idea, will clearly resonate deeply negatively with devout believers.
In some sense, that’s the crux of the problem. Any idea or fact about us can form the basis of our identity. It could be race or gender, it could be being fat or sexually promiscuous or it could be anything else too. To take the idea of never criticizing identities seriously, one must accept the risk of people attaching themselves to ideas so tightly that virtually no speech concerning humans is allowed at all!
The concept of human dignity is only marginally safer from this criticism. What exactly does being a human entail is certainly not immediately clear. Is it only a statement about biology or does it also touch on culture, a conception of human rights (which rights?), etc? Critics of free speech fear that discussing such questions openly is an invitation to the dehumanization of others (a view at least partly informed by history’s atrocities). Yet, one can discuss these matters with the opposite intention too — namely, of expanding and magnifying the significance of being human. Thus, stipulating one fixed idea of humanity for the sake of law is not only controversial and even authoritarian, but also quite possibly willfully ignorant of the many nuances of both language and the wider world itself.
In this light, even if speech hurts, the problem is not necessarily in the speech itself. In fact, it’s hard to see how it could be — words and ideas only hurt us because we identify with them. That is not to completely dismiss the concern — for every one of us holds some ideas sacred — but it’s to recognize that our sacred ideas differ and that the search for truth sometimes goes beyond any single individual’s zone of comfort.
The idea of truth has been central to classical defense of the freedom of speech so it’s worth exploring exactly why. One side of the argument is clearly the curiosity and fascination with the world that I mentioned in the beginning of this post. If people want to keep learning for the sake of it, then it seems fair to enable as wide a range of ideas as possible to be publicly discussed. However, none of that is to suggest that we are to tolerate stressful and “hateful” (by your favorite definition) speech merely for the sake of curiosity (although that’s not to be ignored in any case). If we are to run society efficiently, we simply must never think ourselves in possession of the final truth — the one to be encoded into law and never questioned further. (except, of course, by certain enlightened political leaders in case they would like to see the law changed)
Many dislike the implication that questions of humanity, dignity and identity therefore must remain open to discussion. “You cannot debate someone’s humanity” is always the emotional battle cry against any speech around these topics. But taken literally, that very sentence is itself a statement about someone’s humanity, namely, that it’s undebatable. Of course, it should not be taken literally for it is not a statement, but a declaration of intent and a veiled threat of action.
Speaking of action, one cannot ignore the delicate relationship between it and speech. Most historical atrocities which today give rise to anti-free-speech rhetoric have never stayed in the realm of ideas, but have always taken on a physical form. Free speech advocates would say the speech/action distinction matters and its action that we should police, but never (or rarely) speech. The other side says the distinction is moot. Speech clearly leads to violence in the case of threats, so restricting certain forms of political speech is therefore justified. This line of thinking, along with the physiological effects of speech, are often combined under the slogan “speech is violence”. In other words, your words not only hurt me by inducing anxiety and stress, but they also deny my humanity and will ultimately lead to physical violence. Thus, words are violence.
Personally, I think that reasoning is faulty and is taking everything a step too far. That speech can lead to violence is not the same as speech being violent itself. And that a person can have an painful emotional reaction to speech is not a good enough reason to give up the freedom to speak. For not only is the individual’s ability to express their view on the line, but so is society’s ability to evolve and progress.
Besides, any coherent approach to limiting speech that leads to violence necessarily leads to calls for political censorships. The modern calls to ban President Trump from Twitter for inciting violence by threatening a war with North Korea are a good example of this. What Twitter decides to do as a private company notwithstanding, the underlying sentiment is clear: certain forms of political speech lead to violence so they must not be allowed. The logical next question is: which political speech is allowed then? If the state has natural monopoly on violence in a society, isn’t the role of politicians precisely to judge when violence is necessary and call for its use?
It is such real-world examples that make the anti-free-speech camp dangerous. Their ideas have already led them to call for censorship of political speech. It’s not a slippery slope gone wrong, it’s the natural order of things if you believe words are violence.
Of course, political censorship is the most authoritarian way to rule a society. Whatever the harm in hearing your sacred idea bashed, the harm of losing all freedom under authoritarianism is greater. Few censor in history have openly stated their motivation as a pure desire to force an orthodoxy. Rather, the censorship has usually been justified precisely by appeals of (differing) notions of safety, dignity, humanity, etc.
Speaking of harm and safety, a crucial point when considering these notions is their time-dependency. In other words, while certain forms of speech can be harmful, they are not always harmful at both short- and long-term scales. In fact, there is a good reason why we have the saying “truth sometimes hurts”. Because, indeed, it does. What is harmful now might lead to growth down the line. Thus, limiting speech because it is harmful to hear is not only encoding subjectivity into the law, but also quite possibly counterproductive, at least as far as long-term health and happiness are concerned.
The final point I would like to cover is that of power. We intuitively feel that speaking has almost the magical power to change the world we live through a shift in narrative, worldview, etc. It’s natural then that some consider freedom of speech as a potential threat to the already powerless, i.e. the proverbial “people without a voice”. The criticism is thus: freedom of speech is a tool of oppression for the rich and those with a voice against the poor and those without.
Of course, freedom of speech concerns the ability to speak unafraid of state coercion, not the promise of being heard. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to see how that could be achieved. Short of forcing people to listen to some and not to others, the freedom of association and thought we all enjoy will naturally lead to certain people with a popular message being heard more than others. And while money can buy speech, it hardly buys persuasive one. In other words, concerns about the influence of money on politics are better-targeted at lobbyists or corrupt politicians as opposed to rich people broadcasting a message. Besides, the internet has massively democratized the opinion-forming process and now everyone with a brilliant idea can broadcast it to the world. If the idea takes off, the fact that the messenger is poor will naturally take care of itself too — people are willing to pay to hear exciting ideas.
In any case, limiting the speech of the powerful / rich is an imperfect solution at best. Not only does it deprive the public of certain valuable insights these individuals can offer (and there is a good reason to think that the most successful have something to teach us), but it also means a rejection of individualism (for certain individual are being deprived of their rights). Moreover, it is the rich that are usually the only ones able to exercise effective control over the state’s use of power (if you can pay for good lawyers and defend yourself against the pressure of the state, you are a nuisance we should all be grateful for). As a result, the state will be made even more powerful than it is, hardly helping the poor and the powerless against potential tyranny. And besides, If we limit the rich’s ability to speak publicly, their money might well begin to speak privately (even more so than now). Then the influence of the rich will not have diminished in the least. Rather, it would be our knowledge of it that would have suffered.
None of this is to say that the rich do not have an outsized influence when it comes to having their opinions heard. But limiting speech (or wealth) is hardly a solution we should be cheering for. Freedom of speech is a form of decentralization of power and as such it mostly helps, rather than harms, minorities and powerless individuals. This is ultimately why it still matters to defend it before anything else. Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of political life in the U.S. and all threats against it should be seen as contrary to everything America stands for.
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