Free Speech, Politics

Does Free Speech Need Boundaries to Survive?

 “Opinions,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “are to the gigantic apparatus of social life what oil is to machines. No one goes up to an engine and douses it in machine oil; one applies a little to the hidden spindles and joints one has to know.” Those defending free speech today may recoil from this advice. The idea of society as a machine, which came naturally to the Marxist Benjamin, is a long way from the ideal of free and creative individuals that many of them cherish. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a useful metaphor, if only because of the image it brings to mind of the era we’ve now entered: an engine drowning in so much oil that it has begun violently shaking, sputtering and threatening to collapse.

It wouldn’t be misleading to say that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from free speech itself. In particular, it comes from the sheer volume and chaotic nature of that speech. The current polarization of politics is rooted in an endless, sprawling argument about values taking place online – an argument that is now spilling over into demonstrations, acts of violence, and other culturally charged spectacles. While it is important to resist the calls for censorship coming from campuses, boardrooms, and the op-ed pages of newspapers, it’s also important to realize that these, too, are symptoms of that explosion in public discourse. For it is precisely the sensation of shaking and sputtering that makes people long for society to be handled like a carefully engineered machine.

Countering this need for order is the real challenge facing advocates of free speech, and their conventional manual isn’t offering much help. It demands that the right to express unpopular, or even anti-social opinions must be defended – but given the Internet’s steady drumbeat of racism and misogyny, this stance is easily portrayed as anti-social in itself. Likewise, it’s difficult to argue that toxic ideas are best heard and examined, or that speech is the final bulwark against violence, when men appear on our screens with a swastika in one hand and a protest permit in the other.

In this desperate position, free speech defenders have come to sound like the resentful father who scolds his son for being too soft. “They’re just words!” they insist, “Learn to argue back! This is about facts, not feelings!” These jibes are aimed particularly at the cultural left, whose attempts to remold science, language and thought carries the unmistakable whiff of puritanism. However, the popularity of this agenda reflects a wider desire, especially among young people, for a Hobbesian authority to step in with a clearly defined notion of what is true and what is right. Nor is this surprising, in an atmosphere of pernicious skepticism that makes meaningful consensus impossible.

Therein, I think, lies the ultimate weakness of the free speech position today. It is similarly anchored in a delusional vision of society: that of the rational, truth-seeking forum for debate. The suggestion that there has ever been such a debate – or worse, a golden age where everyone started with the same facts – appears to be a case of liberals drinking their own bathwater. Before the Internet, as one recent blog put it, “exposure to awkward political views were limited to tense exchanges at Thanksgiving or Christmas, when relatives shared their strongheld offensive opinions over the punch bowl.” The business of public discourse, meanwhile, was handled by established institutions, such as the press and media, popular arts and entertainment, politics and academia.

The way these institutions facilitated discussion is worth considering. Since everyone needed access to them, they developed certain norms – or informal rules and rituals, if you prefer – which provided the common ground for different perspectives to meet on equal terms. Thus, adopting the language and trappings of a print magazine, or of popular cinema, or an academic paper, gave an air of familiarity to even radical views. These norms also included unwarranted prejudices and taboos, of course, so discursive institutions have always had a problem with exclusivity. However, since they enabled a measure of free discussion, they could be reformed. There’s a reason we measure social progress by how successfully our institutions have incorporated new voices.

It is the case that everywhere we can argue and disagree without causing lasting hostility – in pubs, at dinner parties, and in families – there are norms regulating our behavior. On a wider, societal level, these become more like moral and aesthetic frameworks, the likes of which were essential in husbanding the growth of public discourse to begin with. Larry Siedentop has detailed how the principles of reason, equality and freedom of conscience could only emerge as a result of the Catholic Church’s firm grip on medieval Europe. Likewise in the 18th century, when The Spectator was bragging that it had “brought philosophy out of closets and libraries… to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and coffee houses,” a new fad was being promoted to make this reading public manageable. It was called “politeness.”

It’s true that social media has its own norms, but they are rather fragile, and generally operate within groups of more or less like-minded people. Indeed, it’s natural that rifts should appear in a space with radically diverse views, and none of the overarching norms that might have made them palatable. In the absence of such common ground, principles like granting your opponent the possession of reason and a free conscience are being eroded. Thus we see a good deal of amateur psychology, with large groups of people being suspected of confirmation bias or motivated reasoning. Even worse, we see paranoia emerging whereby individuals subside into categories of race, gender or social class—and it’s imagined that forces are advancing sinister agendas through ideologically possessed puppets.

Indeed, unfamiliarity and estrangement is the very essence of that machine-like view of society that is so hostile to freedom of expression. Yet there’s little that promoting free speech can do to solve this dilemma, and potentially a great deal it can do to make it worse. John Stuart Mill argued that the whole point of free speech is to interrogate our norms from as many angles as possible, so as to expose any erroneous ideas they might be sheltering. Not all free speech advocates subscribe to this rationalistic ethos, but in the present circumstances, they could end up there by default. At the very least, a commitment to free speech means being skeptical towards normative boundaries, since they are likely to prevent certain viewpoints from being heard. That said, as those viewpoints multiply, you will eventually run out of boundaries to draw.

Ultimately this brings us to a broader problem faced by secular liberalism, whose emphasis on the rights and interests of individuals tends to undermine social solidarity. There have been recent attempts to square this circle, notably by Jonathan Haidt. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt asked those who see society in individualistic terms to “recognise that human flourishing requires social order and embeddedness,” and suggested they acknowledge the “binding” value of beliefs related to sanctity and loyalty. But as the philosopher Thomas Nagel commented, the interesting thing about this theory is where it falls short. Nagel points out that you can’t adopt beliefs simply because they are useful – they are only useful if you really believe them.

There are really no simple answers here. Liberal conventions such as free speech undermine the very social frameworks that they depend upon. But equally, you can’t impose a sense of community on a society from the top down. I’m inclined to agree with Karl Popper, then, when he emphasizes “the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us… to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, to accept responsibilities.” In the long run, maintaining freedom of speech will depend on persuading people to make that effort. But it will be a tough sell, and needs to be done carefully.

13 Comments

  1. DiscoveredJoys says

    “It isn’t really the case that everywhere we can argue and disagree without causing lasting hostility – in pubs, at dinner parties, and in families – there are norms regulating our behavior. ”

    Perhaps so, but the norms are not imposed by some central (often self elected) authority with a political axe to grind. Free speech may sometimes cause offence but I’d rather accept that than a New-speak where nothing negative can be said of any idealised victim. That would be doubleplus ungood.

  2. Jörgen says

    I don’t know the argument Nagel is making so please forgive me if I go somewhat astray, but there is a big difference between believing in something and acknowledging that something is a justified belief. I think what Haidt is trying to say is that we (as in WEIRD people) should acknowledge that there are moral foundations that make sense outside of our own. We don’t to believe in them to do that. His point is that by acknowledging this, we would decrease the level of polarization between the camps.

  3. Opening: “It wouldn’t be misleading to say that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from free speech itself.”

    Closing: “In the long run, maintaining freedom of speech will depend on persuading people to make that effort.”

    Alternative position: The greatest threat to free speech today comes from people who are unwilling to make the effort to have civil discourse.

    Opening: “the era we’ve now entered: an engine drowning in so much oil that it has begun violently shaking, sputtering and threatening to collapse.”

    Alternative position: The failure comes from people who are unwilling to make the effort to form opinions with concern for their fellows.

    Statement: “The current polarization of politics is rooted in an endless, sprawling argument about values taking place online – an argument that is now spilling over into demonstrations, acts of violence, and other culturally charged spectacles.”

    Alternative position: The polarization comes from people who are unwilling to make the effort to formulate self-critical thoughts about their political positions.

    Statement: “Countering this need for order is the real challenge facing advocates of free speech, and their conventional manual isn’t offering much help.”

    Alternative position: The conventional manual requires effort to conduct ourselves with decorum, and maybe the effort goes into churlish behavior instead. We all only have so much effort to give in a day.

    Statement: “It demands that the right to express unpopular, or even anti-social opinions must be defended – but given the Internet’s steady drumbeat of racism and misogyny, this stance is easily portrayed as anti-social in itself. Likewise, it’s difficult to argue that toxic ideas are best heard and examined, or that speech is the final bulwark against violence, when men appear on our screens with a swastika in one hand and a protest permit in the other.”

    Alternative position: When racism and misandry directed at white males is socially acceptable, it is inevitable that some who are not willing to put effort into rational thought are going to behave in anti-social manner. It does not follow that if a behavior is understandable, that it is also defensible. One can simultaneously see the behavior as despicable and indefensible, and understand why it exists. All it takes is a little effort.

    Statement: “….free speech defenders have come to sound like the resentful father who scolds his son for being too soft. “They’re just words!” they insist, “Learn to argue back! This is about facts, not feelings!” These jibes are aimed particularly at the cultural left, whose attempts to remold science, language and thought carries the unmistakable whiff of puritanism. However, the popularity of this agenda reflects a wider desire, especially among young people, for a Hobbesian authority to step in with a clearly defined notion of what is true and what is right. Nor is this surprising, in an atmosphere of pernicious skepticism that makes meaningful consensus impossible.”

    Alternative position: Young people are rejecting the current wisdom and insisting on leadership that supports a greater degree of violence. It isn’t an absence of authority; it is the rejection thereof. People who aren’t willing to put the effort in facts rather than feelings are being given the dominant voice. Perhaps the desire for Hobbesian authority and the lack of effort have a causal link.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop here. This article appeared to me to provide more evidence that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from people who are unwilling to make the effort than the idea that free speech is the problem with free speech.

    My only strongly held position is that we should not remove free speech because people are lazy. This seemed to be the implied conclusion, although this is entirely my reaction to the article and not stated by the author. I have a strong bias against removing rights just because others misuse it, particularly when it comes to free speech.

    It takes no imagination to see the effective result. We already have mainstream media that defines hate groups as anyone who disagrees with the Democratic party. Banning hate groups in the US effectively would ban anyone not reciting the one party line.

    The proper response to the assault on free speech by abuse of free speech is not surrender, but rather to put effort in the defense.

    • Carl Sageman says

      May I recommend NPW critiques free speech next time? This article lacks an understanding of the issues that concern free speech advocates. NPW captures most of the inconsistencies and fallacies and simplifications that most people would have picked up reading this article.

      There are two key points worth mentioning.

      1. There are obvious limitations to free speech that would be acceptable to all parties. For example, nobody likes fake news. Nobody wants national security secrets to be released from their own nation. Assuming anyone wants unlimited speech would be asking for even more fake news. That’s not sensible. I say that as a free speech advocate.

      2. Those that oppose free speech often correlate to those who spread fake news frequently. For example, the Factual Feminist has flagged (many times) about the wage gap myth (as have others committed to facts first). Yet, look at who espouses the wage gap and they often want to censor dissenting voices. Why? Because they don’t deal in fact! The only way to counter fact is with censorship. This fundamental premise wasn’t even spelled out in the document. It’s free speech 101.

      Did the author fail to understand these points? The article watered down the essence of fact and the proliferation of repeated lies.

      If you want to fix the over-oiled machine, expose people who are serial liars on a single topic. I have personally witnessed people in the media being given irrefutable evidence and still propagating the same lies repeatedly. Their modus operandi is that if a lie is repeated enough, it becomes the truth. This only works if the lie can’t be countered.

      I like Quillette very much. Your readers deserve much more robust articles than this.

  4. Bruce Haddad says

    The author says that the greatest threat to free speech is free speech itself. Naturally free speech gives people the freedom to espouse ideas which are opposed to free speech. The greatest threat to free speech is the same as it always has been, ideas that are opposed to it. I don’t think ideas in opposition from free speech come from free speech, free speech facilitates their expression, but the ideas behind free speech share no philosophical origins with the ideas behind collectivism.

    Since the enlightenment, the two greatest threats to free speech have been the ideas of the collectivist right (National Socialism / fascism) and the ideas of the collectivist left (international socialism / communism). This continues to be true today. The collectivist right was morally and physically destroyed after WW2. It has yet to recover. After taking a serious drubbing in the 1960s and 1970s, the collectivist left reinvigorated itself under the banner of post-modernism and is the current #1 enemy of free speech.

    Nothing has really changed. The collectivist left continues to assault free speech and liberty generally. So will the collectivist right if it ever recovers, although they are still so weak that they are in favour of free speech for now. Plus ca change. Free speech has been under attack since the idea arose. There’s no guarantee we win. If Germany could descend into Nazism, our societies can descend into some awful collectivist left nightmare too. Read about post modernism, understand it, confront it.

  5. Randy says

    “Does Free Speech Need Boundaries…?”

    Before reading the article, I wrote this part of my response:

    The question makes no sense. If there are boundaries, then it is by definition not free. If you want to ask a question like this, then you need to quantify the freedom in some way. What you’re really asking is something like “Is 80% free speech enough?”

    My solution to the free speech problem is to allow ALL of it, but to respond in certain ways depending on how the speech is labelled. Unlabelled speech could be treated just as it is today. But any speech specifically labelled as “exempt” (by any one, including someone re-transmitting it) should be exempt from any and all laws. A person reading something unlabelled might therefore have more confidence that the statement is true, because it would be subject to defamation laws. By filtering out “exempt” speech, people could experience their government-approved bubble. But there would always remain the option to seek out the obscene, the secret, the incendiary, the hateful, the pirated, the false, the blasphemous, etc.

    After reading, I wrote this:

    I think that all the ugliness we’re seeing is in fact beautiful. For decades, we have been told that certain people didn’t exist, and that certain ideas weren’t widely held, but I knew this to be false just from observation. We claimed to have sent generations to die in war to support the freedom to speak, but people were still afraid, speaking only spaces presumed safe. Fortunately today they are not as afraid. What we are seeing is a panic in the establishment, as it tries to clamp down ever more tightly on a balloon that is still going to keep inflating no matter what they do. The people who want me dead deserve their right to say it. And frankly, I’d like to know who they are.

    Perhaps what you are failing to recognize here is the division into self-organizing communities can be a good thing, so long as this can happen on a platform that supports everyone with reasonable food, shelter, health, and clothing. It happens anyway along lines of race and sex. And we see it happen along ideas (consider the Protestant “church”). We should stop trying to pretend that the best way for people to live is in a docile undifferentiated mass, keeping our true opinions silent. That’s not what people want. We should be a raucous archipelago, agreeing to agree where possible, and agreeing to disagree without being violent about it.

    • Carl Sageman says

      As a free speech advocate, there are definitely bounds on free speech. National security secrets is one example. What you need to say is that free speech is contained by specific exception. For example, Australia has 18c to stop hate speech, which is subjective and meaningless. However, libel and slander are designed to specifically counter lies. Both libel and slander are very specific and reasonable limitations on free speech (or at least consequences to free speech).

  6. Victoria says

    “… men appear on our screens with a swastika in one hand and a protest permit in the other.”

    That’s what equality under the law and a right to protest look like. Like the “resentful father,” I would counsel by own child to have a sense of emotional control and perspective.

    The fact you’re worried about Nazis, and utterly fringe movement, shows how much you’ve imbibed the left’s propaganda, which seeks above all else to avoid its contemporary tropes and mentalities being linked back to the greater, more widespread crimes of Marxism.

  7. Roses says

    I’m under the impression that in a free society you can do whatever you want so long as you don’t harm anyone else; that maximizing freedom is compatible with (even helped by) limiting the freedom to harm others. Maybe the survival of free speech needs a (paradoxically helpful) boundary too.

    Can we be truly free if we don’t have the right to harm others? Sure. Can we truly have free speech if we prohibit speech that attacks and limits free speech? Discuss!

    If you believe in the value of free speech, what exactly is the value of defending speech that attacks and limits free speech? (Other than to maintain a mindless consistency.)

  8. Bunny Whisperer says

    Here we go again, with boring predictability the author appeal to our emotions, using the buzzwords that will trigger instant agreement from anyone with a high school diploma, “but given the Internet’s steady drumbeat of racism and misogyny,…” How could we resist the charged and negative connotations in such words. But they beg the question, because we can’t know whether someone’s speech is correctly described as “racist” or “misognist” unless we’ve actually heard it. And what if it is (racist or misogynist)? These ideas only cause real harm when no one is allowed to oppose them, or when no one has access to better alternatives, as happens in the kind of orthodox cultures that this author wants to impose.

    • Carl Sageman says

      You will notice that the author purposely narrowed the scope of one of those words to one gender because he doesn’t believe you can marginalise that one gender. That’s obviously a fallacy. However, as others have stated, it highlights the author’s limitations in thinking and reasoning. It also indicates a strong left leaning. This was later confirmed when progression was seen as better because it has more voices. Does this include pathological liars or ignorant people? That’s the exact fallacy that’s got us to where we are today. Diversity trumps relevance, feeling trumps fact. We used to know that before progressives became so extreme. I say this as an ex-progressive. I left progressivism when feelings were prioritised over fact and intersectionalism became virtuous.

  9. Victoria says

    The deeper fallacy in this piece: what is a “norm?”

    In the post-truth, narrative-driven anti-assimilation character of Postmodern “cosmopolitan” society, there are no “norms.” The author’s sanctimonious remarks seek to suggest that a violation of “norms” is anything that causes friction between identitarian groups, which just confirms the inverse relationship between freedom and multiculturalism.

    Du Toit’s remarks make clear that he views these “norm” violations as a predominantly ‘rightest’ phenomenon. Yet I was just watching a group of blue-checkmark (i.e. Confirmed identity) Asian American commenters talk about being preposterously labelled “white supremacists.”

    That’s just one example of the hateful, abusive conduct of the Critical Race Theory/BLM set. Germany just prosecuted and convicted a journalists for showing a historical photo of the Mufti of Jerusalem visiting Hitler. in other words, engaing reality itself is now conditional on not offending not just identitarian groups based on immutable characteristics, but also certain ideological groups that achieve a favored status with the ruling class.

  10. ga gamba says

    Mr Du Toit asks us to accept the analogy of an malfunctioning engine drowning in oil. Presumably only those experts trained in engine maintenance knowing where the oil must be squirted should be allowed to tinker. Who gets to be the expert? Who writes the training material, approves the applicants, and licenses them? What happens to the unlicenced savant who thinks of modifications to the engine? “Hands off and step back”? And what of the visionary who proclaims the engine is an entirely wrong design that must be scrapped, so we ought to cease wasting the resources of oil and labour on it? I suppose the expert would resist having his position undermined.

    Is this engine an appropriate analogy? Why not a vault in which gold coins are deposited? Presumably we’d want to acquire as many gold coins as possible. Yet a society is neither an engine nor a vault.

    Unlike many I appreciate all the discord of recent times; it’s prompting people to engage and challenge. Sometimes they even use their noggins! But I certainly appreciate the US has a constitutional amendment and a court that’s defended it well from those who’d breach it. I wish many other countries, including my own, that proclaim they cherish and defend speech liberties did so in deed. It is because of the First Amendment and the internet that those of us overseas are able to enjoy expressing our views. If ever Americans choose to relinquish their freedoms, it’ll be a very dark day for those beyond its borders.

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