The most interesting cultural debate of modern times is about the free expression of ideas.
The main instigators of this debate are the social justice movement. It champions people who lack or are seen as lacking social power, like women, racial minorities and transgendered people. It does this by criticizing people who say and do things that hurt or reinforce the powerlessness of these groups. An example may be the ‘misgendering’ of a transgendered person – that is, referring to someone as a man when they identify as a woman.
Opponents of the social justice movement are numerous but intellectually disorganized. In this post I hope to draw the lines of battle as fairly as possible in order to make the fundamental argument clearer to both sides. I will try to make a case for the side I prefer in a future post.
Another recent example is the (comparatively muted) reaction to TV presenter Judy Finnegan’s discussion of a rapist footballer on Loose Women earlier this week. Finnegan argued that because the rape was not violent and the victim was drunk at the time, the footballer should be able to return to playing football after he had served his time. This has prompted calls for apologies and so on.
The Eich case is significant, the Finnegan case is not. But both are essentially skirmishes in the debate over what we can say in public and what we can’t. Note that I disagree with both Eich and Finnegan – I support gay marriage and I don’t think ‘non-violent’ rape is any less bad than violent rape (except the obvious additional injuries and trauma associated with any violence).
But the crucial issue is not whether these beliefs are good or bad, it’s whether they’re acceptable to say in public. This is what distinguishes the social justice movement and makes it interesting: its aims are to discourage the expression of certain bad beliefs, not to correct or rebut them. It’s not about whether Eich or Finnegan’s beliefs are right or wrong, it’s about whether society should tolerate their expression at all.
This is very important. Much of the content of the social justice movement’s beliefs is either right or trivial – gay rights are good, acceptance of transgendered people is good, etc. The idea that makes the social justice movement special is the idea that some ‘words matter’ so much that we need to stop them from being said through social and consumer pressure.
For the most part, the debate is not about legislation on either side. Most social justice advocates want to boycott firms that employ people with bad beliefs and socially shun people with bad beliefs. Some have sudden conversions to ‘thin libertarianism’ when opponents say they are undermining free speech, claiming that the only kind of freedom of speech worth caring about is that affected by the state.
But this is silly. Private actions can impose costs on others to an enormous extent. If being a Muslim in Britain meant losing your job and losing your friends, it would be a significant and meaningful limit to your freedom to be a Muslim. To the extent that this happens, it is a meaningful limit on Muslims’ freedom. The consequences are what matter.
Members of the social justice movement might point out that words do indeed have consequences. Eich’s donation helped the platform of people who want to restrict gay rights; Finnegan’s beliefs may lead to greater tolerance for rapists and hence, at the margin, more rapes. And almost everyone thinks that some words should be restricted: harassment and threats can ruin people’s lives and it is for the best that certain kinds are illegal.
What’s more, lots of people who think it’s bad to boycott a firm for employing a transphobe think it’s right to boycott a firm for employing, say, a racist. And virtually everyone thinks it’s OK for a firm to fire an employee for being rude, obnoxious or dishonest.
But this may go too far. Even if words can have bad consequences, they can have good consequences too. A utilitarian justification for free speech is that we need it to discover what’s true. Many beliefs that once seemed untrue to almost everyone later became very convincing to almost everyone, like heliocentrism and equality for non-whites. We can never be sure of practically any of our beliefs, but we do seem to have the ability to gradually sort bad ones from good ones. A competitive ‘marketplace of ideas’ may be a good way of helping that to happen.
I suggest that opponents of the social justice movement should organize around this kind of principle. The onus may be on us to prove that losing the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is worse than the hurt and/or powerlessness that its existence exacerbates.
The question is about the costs of freely discussing ideas that may indirectly lead to bad things. In a future post I will try to argue for a very extensive form of free speech that would require us to tolerate the expression of virtually any concept or idea, if it’s done so politely and honestly. But to understand why we should value a ‘thick’ definition of free speech we must first understand why people want to curb it.