freedom of speech

Restating the case for freedom of speech


One thing that’s becoming clear in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is that when it comes to mockery, a lot of politicians and spokespeople have the backbone of a paramecium.  All these people trying to defend us against the insensitivity of mockery have missed something vitally important: Not only is there usually nothing wrong with mockery, there is, in actual fact, often something very good about it – because mockery is frequently a powerful tool for highlighting the absurd and the inane. In such instances the reason mockery usually cuts so deep to offend is that it is exposing some absurdity or inanity in the belief held. To silence mockery is to be in danger of suppressing the wit that exposes the kind of beliefs that can only be held by surrendering the mind to reject evidence and rational enquiry. If we rightly endorse free speech as one of the great human necessities, we should insist the same kind of endorsement for mockery too. Free speech is one of those issues about which it is difficult to say anything original. It has been written about so well by people like John Milton, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine and George Orwell. John Milton's Areopagitica is perhaps the best of all works on this - being acutely perceptive not just about free speech but about the need for a free press too.

Alas, even though these great men make it difficult to say anything original on free speech, if what they've said has been forgotten by modern politicians to the extent that the qualities they propounded are gradually being eroded away by our ever-increasing nanny state authorities, there will always be the need for a reminder.

The general wisdom that has been distilled from these great writers on our liberty of free expression is that we will not agree with every opinion being proffered, but we should defend everyone's freedom to proffer those opinions. We should do this not just to protect the right of the person with the opinion, but also to protect our right to hear opinions too. In other words, in denying someone the right to voice an opinion, we at the same time deny ourselves access to that opinion, so we decline the opportunity to hear something that may differ from the consensus or challenge widely held viewpoints.

We may not agree with everything we hear, and some of the things we hear may be vile, controversial or damn stupid, but we do ourselves an injustice if we fail to hear the dissenting voices, because even the most discordant and discrepant opinions may contain within them at least a grain of truth. Therefore we should be impelled to consider them carefully, for in doing so we force ourselves to question how we know what we do and whether the sources from whence our knowledge came were reliable and verifiable.

When it comes to free speech and mockery, then, so long as no threat is being made, or slanderous or libellous lie about a person being told, or employer/employer protocols breached, it is in our best interests to have complete freedom to say/write/draw whatever we wish, however controversial or repugnant.

Sadly, it becomes ever more apparent nowadays that these important principles regarding free speech are being gradually forgotten, or in some cases deliberately eroded away, by the kind of charmless busybodies who would call for the arrest of a Tweeter or the sacking of an MP or journalist or the condemnation of a satirist who says, writes or draws something they don't like. As is evident to anyone with even the sketchiest understanding of human nature and basic philosophical familiarity, the more censorious we become the more we become prisoners of our interference.

Freedom of speech in a free society


Some people might be deeply shocked by the words, images, arguments and ideas that are sometimes put forward in a free society. But in a free society, we have no right to prevent free speech and block other people’s opinions, even if we all disagree with what is said or find it offensive or immoral. There is certainly a case for curbing language that incites people to violence against others, or that recklessly endangers life and limb – like shouting ‘Fire!’ in a theatre. And there is a case that children need special protection too, which is why we have age classifications on movies and games.

That is very different from preventing particular words, images, arguments and ideas from being aired at all. There can be no such censorship in society of free individuals – for then they would not be free.

There is a practical case for free speech too. People must understand the options available to them if they are to choose rationally and try new ideas – ideas that might well improve everyone’s future. Censorship closes off those choices and thereby denies us progress.

Nor can we trust the censors. Truth and authority are different things. Those in power may have their own reasons–such as self-preservation–to forbid certain ideas being broadcast. But even if the censors have the public’s best interests at heart, they are not infallible. They have no monopoly of wisdom, no special knowledge of what is true and what is not – only debate, argument and experience determines that. And censors may suppress the truth simply by mistake: they can never be sure if they are stifling ideas that will, eventually, prove to be correct. Some ideas may be mostly wrong, and yet contain a measure of truth, which argument can eke out, while the truth of other ideas may become obvious only over time.

The way to ensure that we do not stifle true and useful ideas is to allow all ideas to be aired, confident that their merits or shortcomings will be revealed through debate. That means allowing people to argue their case, even on matters that the majority regard as unquestionable. Truth can only be strengthened by such a contest. It was for this reason that, from 1587 until 1983, the Roman Catholic church appointed a ‘devil’s advocate’ to put the case against a person being nominated for sainthood. It is useful to expose our convictions to questioning. If we believe others are mistaken in their views, those views should be taken on and refuted – not silenced.

From Socrates onward, history is littered with examples of people who have been persecuted for their views. Such persecution often cowers people into staying silent, even though their ideas are subsequently vindicated. Fearing the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church, Nicolaus Copernicus did not publish his revolutionary theory that the planets rotated about the sun until just before his death in 1543. His follower Galileo Galilei was tried by the Inquisition and spent his remaining days under house arrest. Subsequent scientific endeavour and progress in Europe moved to the Protestant north.

Ideas that cannot be challenged rest on a very insecure foundation. They become platitudes rather than meaningful truths. Their acceptance is uncritical. And when new ideas eventually do break through, it is likely to be violently and disruptively.

Certainly, it can be unsettling when people say things with which we fundamentally disagree, express ideas we believe are profoundly wrong, do things we regard as deeply shocking, or even scorn our moral and religious beliefs. And in a free society we are at liberty to disagree with them and to say so publicly. But that is not the same as using the law, or violence, to silence them. Our toleration of other people’s ideas shows our commitment to freedom, and our belief that we make more progress, and discover new truths faster, by allowing different ideas to be debated rather than suppressed.

Adapted from Foundations of a Free Society.

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Why we stand up to bullies


Bullies succeed by making their victims fear them. The bully may be stronger than the victim, but he does not constantly use force against them. It is the fear of violence or humiliation that makes victims act in the way the bully wants them to. Once it has been established that the bully can hurt the victim, the threat is enough. Maintaining that threat is relatively cheap for the bully and for a sadist this may seem like a good deal. This might also seem cheaper for the victim, because the costs of direct confrontation may be very high.

When we tell children to stand up to bullies we do not expect that they will turn out to be stronger or more popular than them, though this is what usually happens in fiction. We assume that standing up to a bully will cause the victim to be hurt or humiliated. But it does make it more expensive for the bully to maintain his power over the victim.

Standing up to the bully means that his actions may not have the long-term effects that make them profitable. And it is good to have a general social agreement that bullies are bad, and should be stood up to. It discourages people from trying the tactic in the first place.

Terrorism often operates in the same way. Very few terrorists could ever hope to win in a full-scale war against their victims, so instead they do shocking, frightening things. Yesterday’s attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices was a very significant example of this, because the terrorists’ apparent goals (‘avenging the Prophet’ for blasphemous cartoons) seem ridiculously trivial compared to the lengths they were willing to go to to achieve them.

It is now clear that Western journalists who blaspheme against Islam may be murdered where they work. And most Western journalists don’t really want to blaspheme against Islam anyway. It’s rude, and it’s rude against a group that does not have much power in the West.

What’s more, that kind of wilful rudeness may drive moderate Muslims away from Western liberalism towards Islamic extremism. On the other hand, I’m not sure a person whose respect for free speech ends at a blasphemous cartoon was much of a moderate to begin with.

But if a bully tells you not to do something, sometimes you should do it even if you didn’t really want to do it anyway. Defiance of the bully is very important to rob him of his power over you, and – just as important – to show to others that bullying is not effective.

Simply talking about how unafraid we are of terrorism is an empty, weak reaction. Cartoons that show the power of pencils are worthless. No Jihadi is disturbed by any of this. What disturbs them is to show in our actions that they do not have the bully's power over us. The cost of rudeness is real, but it is insignificant compared to the cost of letting bullying work.

Plus ca change, c'est la meme chose


A little bit of interesting history. We used to have, here in the UK, an official of the Royal Household who determined what might be shown to us proles on the stage. The Lord Chamberlain's office included the responsibility to:

so that he could only prohibit the performance of plays where he was of the opinion that "it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do".

Of course we did away with all that fuddy duddy nonsense with the Theatres Act of 1968. The Earl Peel now has no such responsibility or power.

Yes, of course we did away with all of that fuddy duddy stuff, there's no one able to limit what the proles may see upon the stage or screen:

Seventies comedies would not be allowed on television screens today because they were so racist and offensive, the outgoing head of Ofcom has said.

Ed Richards, who stands down as chief executive of the media watchdog at the end of this month, said programmes from a previous generation were no longer suitable for today’s more enlightened audiences.

What it is that we proles may be shown seems to have changed a little, the August Personage who gets to decide it seems to have changed, but it does still seem to be that the bien pensants of the day get to decide what may or may not be shown to the populace.

Haven't we all had such a radical expansion in freedom and liberty, in cultural expression?

Not that we're in favour of racism, sexism or whatever, particularly. It's just that we can't help thinking that an actual free market in these things would work rather better. If people didn't like what was being shown then they wouldn't watch it and it would quickly fail and be taken off the air. And at least in the Lord Chamberlain's day they were very clear about this: you may not show these things because people would like them too much. The modern censorship is making the opposite argument: you may not show them because no one would like them. But if that is so then we don't need the censorship, do we, because something that no one likes won't survive. We thus suspect that the censorship survives precisely because those censoring know that the populace does not share their views.

How very liberal, eh?

Do we really want Theresa May to decide who speaks at universities?


We already have a burgeoning anti-free speech movement coming organically from politically active students so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Theresa May wants to chip in as well, seeking the power to pick and choose who gets to speak at UK universities.

New powers for the home secretary to order universities to ban extremist speakers from their campuses are to be included in the counter-terrorism bill to be published on Wednesday, Theresa May has announced.

The bill will also place a statutory duty on schools, colleges, prisons and local councils to help prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, the home secretary said.

She said universities would have to show that they have put in place policies to deal with extremist speakers.

“The organisations subject to the duty will have to take into account guidance issued by the home secretary. Where organisations consistently fail, ministers will be able to issue directions to them “which will be enforceable by court orders”, May announced.

Since we already have laws against inciting violence, presumably these laws will not really help crack down on terrorism advocacy which says 'go and blow people up'; to be useful at all to courts and the government it must have a wider remit. Thus, it seems like more marginal 'extremist' figures will be targeted; not just Muslim clerics the government doesn't like, but perhaps pick up artists deemed to advocate violence against women, or perhaps anti-abortion campaigners (note what the UCSB professor called the poster-holding campaigner).

Practically every political viewpoint of today would have been judged inconceivably radical and/or extremist to almost anyone from 17th Century England. The benefits of free speech come from the free exchange of ideas, a process which often weeds out bad ideas and leaves good ones alive. To guarantee we enjoy their continued benefits we have to stand against even the smallest, least objectionable infringements made—wherever they come from. Even ugly speech must be protected if we are to enjoy these prudential benefits.

Even if free speech ought sometimes to be curtailed in general, to make some areas 'safe spaces' for unprivileged groups who would otherwise be made very uncomfortable, it seems like universities are one place where we are best placed to let it run wild—you would think that they are bastions of smart, open-minded free inquiry.

Theresa May surely realises from her struggles with the European Court of Human Rights that laws can have unintended consequences. It is surprising that she seems so unworried about handing future Home Secretaries the right to decide what speech goes on in our universities.

What's at stake in the social justice debate


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.

The social justice movement sometimes tries to “show the door” to people who say what it sees as bad things. One example was the campaign against Brendan Eich after he was made CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, which makes the Firefox web browser. Eich, who invented the Javascript coding language, had donated $1,000 to the anti-gay marriage campaign in California six years previously. This led to a campaign for a boycott of Mozilla products and calls by Mozilla employees for Eich to resign. Ultimately, Eich resigned.

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.