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Free Speech as Disarmament

Free Speech as Disarmament

Other people are wrong. A lot.

Other people have crazy and dangerous ideas. They express horrid and immoral beliefs. They argue for destructive policies, and sometimes sway people into adopting them. We cite scientific evidence; they cite debunked pseudoscience. We express insightful criticism and give powerful arguments; they engage in malicious attacks and put up smokescreens of obfuscation.

Why should we let other people speak, even when their ideas are wrong, loathsome, and hurtful?

The question presupposes our ability to control whether they speak or not. That is, it assumes the power to police speech and silence speech we do not like. Doing that effectively requires certain social arrangements. It requires legal institutions constructed and charged with regulating speech, procedures for reporting or discovering offenses, methods for punishing and silencing offenders. If there are existing rules – such as constitutional protections for free speech – they must be dismantled or bypassed. And of course all this social machinery requires people empowered to do the myriad tasks necessary to keep the system working.

If one wants to make war, one needs to construct weapons, and this is equally so for the battle against bad ideas and hateful speech.

Someone committed to battling destructive speech might well urge for the creation of these institutional weapons. Once we have them, they think, we can finally achieve victory. Sure, we will allow reasonable debate – we’re just banishing the unreasonable ideas of the zealots and bigots. Our rational, moral, humane ideas will have the floor.

Few people are very good at thinking two or three moves ahead on the chessboard. So many of those who enthusiastically call for the creation and proliferation of anti-speech weaponry have not given much thought to what will happen if their enemies gain control over it. What if we aren’t the ones who get to decide what is reasonable debate, and what is unreasonable science denial? What if it is the people who disagree with us who get to make the distinction between an acceptable criticism and unacceptable hate speech?

Consider a recent case from Spain:

A Catalan high school teacher, Manel Riu, appeared in court on Thursday accused of hate speech for his tweets and Facebook posts criticizing Spain, government members and the Guardia Civil police. Over a hundred people escorted him to court in Tremp, west of Catalonia, where he denied any wrongdoing and asked for the case’s dismissal.
The case against Riu includes 119 tweets gathered by the Guardia Civil. Most of them can still be found online in his account (@Mireiagalindo). On November 9, he tweeted: “I don’t believe in God, or in the soul, or eternal life, or heaven, or hell… Actually, I do believe in hell: hell is Spain.”

The article gives us no idea if Sr. Riu has ever taken a position on free speech or on hate speech laws. But one could easily imagine someone in his position having vocally supported punishments for hate speech on the assumption that they would mostly be employed against people who said hurtful things about, say, Muslims or Jews. How shocked would such a person be to find such social weaponry turned against themselves?

Similarly, in a recent interview between psychologist Jordan B. Peterson and British television reporter Cathy Newman, Newman challenged Peterson to explain why his freedom of speech should trump transgender people’s right not to be offended. His response was to point out that her interview had been uncomfortable for him – was she not risking offense with her speech? Newman seemed genuinely taken aback, as if she had not considered that a rule against giving offense could ever constrain her speech as well.

Perhaps many of those who urge for stronger weapons against speech cannot imagine that they, or people who agree with them on every matter of importance, will not be the ones in charge of them. Perhaps they cannot imagine the day will come when their own beliefs are the ones deemed controversial and offensive, or false and heretical. Perhaps they believe it a law of history that only good, intelligent people like themselves get to control the institutional machinery of society. Perhaps they are not that familiar with history at all.

For others, the possibility that anti-speech weaponry might be used against them in the future is enough to convince them that it should not be created in the first place. Despite the strong temptation to use force to silence those people for once and for all, they think along the lines of Sir Thomas Moore in A Man for All Seasons: If you tear down free speech protections in your pursuit of the devil, what do you do when he turns ’round on you? They might conclude that the game of eradicating intolerable speech is like tic-tac-toe or thermonuclear warfare: The only winning move is not to play.

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