Features, Free Speech, Right of Reply

Deliberation Not Boundaries: A Reply to Wessie du Toit

In a Quillette piece entitled “Does Free Speech Need Boundaries to Survive?”, writer Wessie du Toit presents a case against what might be called free speech absolutism; that is, the position that no boundaries should ever be imposed on expression. In what follows, I will make a radical case for free speech absolutism, that goes beyond merely defending the principle. Let’s begin with du Toit’s own arguments. He makes a compelling case as to why we might have reached, or at least be approaching, the point at which liberal institutions are threatened by free speech:

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.

He further explains how this poses a problem for free speech absolutism:

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

It would be misguided to simply brush this claim aside. There’s evidence, at least in Europe and the United States, that polarization is rising. At the same time, it’s clear that people are increasingly isolated from opposing views. We now know that liberals and conservatives get different pieces of information in their Facebook feeds. Online, the Left and the Right can form isolated communities with nothing but self-reinforcing worldviews. On the Right, there are message boards like 4chan and 8chan which have become breeding grounds for alt-right ideologues, as Angela Nagle described in a piece for Jacobin. For the Left, there are communities like Leftbook: a cluster of Facebook groups where the cultural Left (to borrow du Toit’s phrase) gather. This has led to further polarization, and there doesn’t seem to be a reversal in sight.

Du Toit views the boundaries imposed by rituals found in social gatherings, or the rules of print magazines as desirable kind of limits. But he doesn’t seem fully unsympathetic to State intervention, as he mentions the increasing appeal of “a Hobbesian authority to step in with a clearly defined notion of what is true and what is right.” This, in addition to the fact that he considers the rules of social media weak, suggests that some authority needs to be involved in regulating some kinds of speech.

One might counter this with the civil libertarian argument of defending the principle of free speech as the only credible way of preventing progressive encroachments on our liberties. While I don’t disagree with this view, I wish instead to propose a more radical defense, founded on the principles of deliberative democracy. In his introduction to Deliberative Democracy, political theorist Jon Elster defines it as a form of democracy where our preferences aren’t simply aggregated by the ballot box and turned into policy, but one in which we constantly re-evaluate them and shape them by means of discussion with fellow citizens.1 As he points out, the idea of deliberative democracy is as old as the idea of democracy itself: discussion in public fora was the way in which Athenian democracy was conducted.2

The foremost contemporary proponent of this idea is philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who has devoted a considerable amount of his work to the theory of communicative rationality, which underlies his argument for deliberation. Habermas has specific conditions for what effective argumentative speech requires. Among these are basic requirements of logical reasoning, consistency of meaning, and that speakers state their beliefs clearly and exclusively, among others.3 These may seem like unrealistic conditions, but they are useful at least as parameters with which we can judge speech, and for which we should strive.

Speech on the internet, with its relative anonymity and multiple layers of irony, certainly isn’t close. But regulation would be prohibitively difficult. What if, instead of attempting to set boundaries, we actually removed the ones that we currently have? By this, I mean bring the most radical forms of speech down from the internet and into mainstream discourse. We would have to be prepared to accept the consequences. This would mean giving more of a voice to the racists and misogynists du Toit mentions. So how could we even consider something like this? We have to bear in mind that while speech may be completely unregulated, it is also extremely confined. Most people will live their lives blissfully unaware of what goes on in 4chan’s /pol/ board, and I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that, to a large extent, the lack of mainstream acceptance is a factor that pushes people into these chaotic echo chambers.

Of course, bringing extremism into mainstream discourse doesn’t mean we have to endorse it or leave it uncontested, but I do think exposure is fundamental, and even socially beneficial. In trying to look more closely at Habermas’s arguments, Political Theorist Diana Mutz examined quantitative data which provides an insight into the effects of exposure to opposing views. Two findings from Mutz’s book are particularly striking. First, that political participation and activism are best fostered in a context where views are constantly reinforced by like-minded voices.4 Second, that exposure to opposing views does have an effect on people’s way of thinking. Exposure to opposing viewpoints, for example, can lead people to identify the reasons why someone else might hold such views.5

Let’s break down Mutz’s findings further. Her analysis of the data shows that awareness of legitimate reasons for opposing views nearly triples with exposure to contrary positions. Furthermore, people who were exposed to disagreement became aware of almost as many legitimate arguments against their own views, as they had for them.6 This is a crucial finding because it shows that people don’t simply ignore opposing arguments when confronted with them. It’s fundamental to stress that this effect is not applicable to any type of discussion – it must involve opposition. In fact, the data show that discussion with like-minded individuals actually reduces the awareness of legitimate reasons against one’s own views.7 This helps explain why isolation breeds polarization.

So, what would letting extreme voices into the mainstream actually mean in practical terms? The initial reaction of many, I suspect, will be to think that this will only make things worse. Why might we want people to identify reasons for holding racist or misogynist views? One answer is that identifying such reasons is the only way we can begin to produce persuasive counter-arguments. But the more important issue is that communication is a two-way street. No one has good reason to listen unless they are also given a voice.

However, availability is not the same as engagement, and it is the latter that we should aim for, if we take deliberation (and Mutz’s findings) seriously. So, giving someone a platform isn’t enough, it’s fundamental that such a platform will result in engagement, otherwise people with opposing viewpoints can simply choose to ignore it. We may, for example, learn from the ancient Athenians. Why not hold regular town hall meetings, on controversial issues facing the public, and make it clear that all views are welcome? This is just one option, and one that draws from the most traditional forms of deliberative democracy, but there’s no reason that we can come up with other types of deliberative spaces.

By doing this we would be giving those who hold extreme views a platform, but also reasons to see why others hold views opposed to their own. Of course, it is naive to assume that we can get all white supremacists to abandon their ideology, but that should not be the goal. Rather, we should aim for deliberative processes to reach those who may sympathize to some extent. It is they who need to be made aware of the reasonable reasons for contrary views, and who might otherwise just be drawn into an echo chamber. We should also be confident that if our views are rational others will see that, as the empirical data suggest.

Because activism is fostered in like-minded environments, opposing viewpoints can result in lower levels of political participation. Interestingly, Mutz laments the fact that we can’t have both and sees decreased enthusiasm as a downside of the deliberative model.8 However, in the current climate, such a side effect might even be positive. Finally, the larger the audience, the better a position has to be articulated, so if anything, this might drive us closer to Habermas’s conditions. My answer, then, to the problems currently posed by free speech, is that we need more speech, not less.


Néstor de Buen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He enjoys political philosophy and ethics. You can follow him on twitter @nestor_d



1  Jon Elster, “Introduction” in Deliverative Democracy, ed. Jon Elster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 1-3.
2  Ibid., 1-2.
3  Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1990) 86-8.
4  Diana C. Mutz, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 3.
5  Ibid., 74.
6  Ibid., 74.
7  Ibid., 73.
8  Ibid., 125-6.


  1. DiscoveredJoys says

    Of all the ways of dividing people into two groups (a practice I am wary of!) one of the fundamental ones appears to me to be one group who believe ‘man’ is perfectible and the other group who believe people can be flawed and good.

    In the ‘perfectible’ camp are those who believe that there is only one way to be perfect and that people who depart from this standard should be limited and controlled. This sometimes results in battling religious sects, violent political rallies or counter demonstrations, and a desire to limit speech so that only ‘approved’ speech is allowed.

    In the flawed and good camp are those who understand that there are many ways of being good, and many ways of being flawed. This sometimes results in fierce individualism, like minded crowds, violent political rallies or counter demonstrations, and a desire to ensure absolute (individual) free speech.

    My own view is that the polarisation between approved free speech and absolute free speech is an emotional oversimplification. I’d prefer a position ‘in between’ those two extremes, and strip this back to essentials and many jurisdictions do allow for free speech unless it crosses a specific legal boundary, such as slander or incitement.

    So Progressives who characterise everything other than their own views as hate speech may be extremists and wrong. Reactionaries who insist on the freedom to say whatever they want in whatever the circumstances may be extremists and wrong.

    How do we reduce this polarisation? Deliberative Democracy is a great idea, but I suspect it is doomed to failure. The deeply tribal will ignore it, the indifferent will pay no attention, and the motivated clique will take it over.

    I guess we’ll just have to keep muddling on, encouraging everyone express their opinions within the law and resisting the slide into either absolute or only approved speech. We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  2. Carl Sageman says

    I’m assuming this is a straw man for absolute free speech. It suffers from some fundamental issues. I say that as somebody who firmly believes in free speech.

    1. The author is divisive. On three occasions, he refers to racism and misogyny (in lieu racism and sexism). This article enforces the notion that sexism doesn’t exist, only misogyny. The author most likely doesn’t realise this view is extreme in itself, but, it is pervasive (especially in mainstream media) and a particularly destructive generalisation about biology. Supposedly, only men ar sexist and female the only victims are women. Oh, the irony of the author’s statements,

    2. The author has a strong left leaning view when representing the conflict. Are white supremacists really that prevalent? Are KKK rallies huge? I don’t visit 4chan much. The one time I did, it was researching the origins of PEPE and Kekistan. I didn’t see this “misogyny” or racism. I saw a series of goofy kids. I did however, see a mainstream media vilifying them with outrageous claims of misogyny, hate, naziism, etc. after spending 1/2 a day researching this one topic across the net, I came to the conclusion it was more “fake news” from the mainstream media.

    Conversely, when I heard about the extremist leftist behaviour (which was not mentioned once in this article), I found a lot of irrefutable evidence almost immediately. However, I have observed that some of it is being prioritised down by a rather large search company.

    Examples include intolerant university culture (eg, Berkeley/Yale), media prejudice (antifa and James Damore) and flash mobs on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention social networking manipulation (eg. Twitter’s hypocrisy on blue ticks).

    Berkeley riots. Who initiated the riots? According to the mainstream media, Milo Yiannopolous did because he dislikes Muslims and feminists, so, the only possible response to him talking was extreme violence (including assaulting police). Why did the media blame the talker rather than violent thugs? More extremism. Is milo racist? In my opinion, yes. Sexist? I’ve never heard him criticise women collectively, only feminism (and I 100% support that distinction, even the factual feminist criticises modern feminism for its extremism).

    Another example of extremism overlooked was safe spaces, racism, sexism, a lack of reason and logic on university campuses. Yale is one of many such examples. Go to YouTube and type silence u part 2. This used to be easily found (until being buried by Google). You now have to type “silence u part 2 we the internet”. It contains some appalling behaviour (racism and sexism). Yet, this didn’t even make the papers. Why? More progressive/left extremism. It’s a lack of representation and disregard for the truth.

    The last example that needs to be given is how imbalanced the media (collectively) are. The Berkeley riots were played down or caused by a speaker showing up (not the violent thugs doing the damage). James Damore universally condemned by the media and repeatedly misquoted. However, all expert analysis (see Quillette article and Jordan Peterson) agreed with James Damore. How is such a wide-spread disconnect of truth vs media possible? It keeps on happening.

    This is what the author mischaracterises. This isn’t a free speech issue at it’s heart. The issue is the extreme imbalance of the media and of academia. It’s the blatant lies. When free speech protesters were attacked when holding peace signs in their hands in a one-sided fight, they were still demonised by the media and the violent “Antifa” praised for stopping the “neo nazis and white supremacists”, there was not one nazi flag or any racist remarks. It was extremism that endorsed unnecessary and unfounded violence.

    This is where the issue lies. Society is significantly out of balance. People are being beaten up with bike locks on chains for talking about free speech. Groups like “by any means necessary” and who are violent are given a free pass by the media. It’s insane! The whole thing is insane and it’s across almost all newspapers and TV.

    Lastly, the author doesn’t do nearly enough to discuss the real flaws with unconditional free speech. Libel, slander, state/government secrets, inciting violence, sales of cigarettes to young children. There are obvious limitations, but, the mainstream media uses an extreme and marginal view like “white supremacy” to undermine free speech.

    Where we have a challenge today is that Facebook and twitter quickly devolve into angry/uninformed mobs. These mobs generate mass hysteria based on fake news, continually. They repeat fake news and force public perception without fact. The factual feminist recently said that she wasn’t getting any support from women in her campaign of fact (which incidentally targets feminism with corrections of wage gap, male privilege, rape epidemic, domestic violence, etc). In other words, despite being a feminist and working hard on unbiased fact & dispelling myth and seeking truth, she is not getting any female support. Sensationalism > Truth, sadly.

    I’m very disappointed in this article. Not because it disagrees with my view and not because it’s so unbalanced. It included straw man arguments of “white supremacists” and “misogynists” without a coherent argument to change anyone’s mind. It couldn’t even criticise free speech properly. It failed to progress an essential dialog while sounding like more mainstream media propaganda.

    If I agree with one thing, it’s that an open and public forum could greatly benefit society and rational discourse. However, flash mobs and an extremely imbalanced media would see that dissenters of leftist ideology were marginalised. If the media can’t behave itself, open debate is dead. The media bend to the whim of flash mobs on social media. As far as I’m concerned, the mainstream media is not behaving itself at all.

    I respect representation of reasoned argument (all reasoned argument backed with evidence, left or right). This is not such a piece.

    • Néstor de Buen says

      Carl, you’ll notice this article is a reply to another piece here. The terms “racist” and “misogynists” were taken directly from that piece, again, because this is a reply. The argument, however is made in such a way that you can replace “racists” and “misogynists” with any other kind of extremist behaviour and it wouldn’t change. This is an argument about procedures, not substance. That’s concerning your claim that “[i]t included straw man arguments of ‘white supremacists’ and ‘misogynists'”.

      Now you claim that your disappointment is not based on how “unbalanced” the article is, yet spend almost the first half of the comment talking exactly about that. But again, this isn’t about substance, it’s a defence of deliberation. The issue of whether the extreme behaviour comes from the right or the left is entirely irrelevant, because all I’m saying is, let’s openly discuss extremist ideas. Nowhere do I imply that only the right has them.

      I’m a little baffled by the claim that “[i]t couldn’t even criticise free speech properly”, because I’m not sure how did you arrive at the conclusion that that was somehow part of the article, or that it was necessary to make the argument, when it is actually the opposite. If you read the original article to which I am replying, you’ll notice that one actually criticises free speech and even suggests that we need some boundaries. You also claim that it ended up “sounding like more mainstream media propaganda”, but that is actually inconsistent with your previous claims. In the first few paragraphs you criticise the mainstram media for being extremely quick to demonise any kind of right-wing demonstration even if it’s completely non violent. I am doing exactly the opposite: I’m saying let them speak in a public forum. I have no idea how that could, in any way, be interpreted as mainstream media propaganda.

      Finally, I don’t know how you got from my usage one word, namely “misogynists” that “only men ar sexist and female the only victims are women.” (sic) That is an actual strawman argument. Again, feel free to replace “misogynists” with “sexists” and any other term I used with whichever form of extremism you prefer, the argument remains the same.

      Right-wing extremism is not just a bunch of goofy kids. True, there’s a lot of that, but there is also actual violence. Here is a study from the US Government Accountability Office from April which found that in the course of the year, there had been 106 deaths in far-right attacks: http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/683984.pdf (pages 29-32) and here is an infographic with information on islamic and far-right violence by the University of Maryland: https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_ECDB_IslamistFarRightHomicidesUS_Infographic_Feb2017.pdf

      • He didn’t say that right-wing extremism is just a bunch of goofy kids, he rightly pointed out that 4chan is mostly just a bunch of goofy kids but has been branded “nazi/right-wing” by the biased media outlets who picked up some blogger’s talking point, most likely, without actually going to look. You know, the same way anyone that voted for Trump is automatically a serial sexual assaulting fascist white supremacist seeking to lock women into forced baby factory cells.

      • Taupe Pope says

        Nestor de Buen, your source for the extent of right-wing violence indicates 106 victims from 2001 to 2016 not in 2016 alone. It’s less of a problem than you’ve made it out to be.

    • James says


      To focus in on one aspect of your comment, I think that your lack of research into 4chan, 8chan, Reddit and other online forums prevents you from understanding their role in spreading and normalizing extremist ideology and mobilizing it against other groups. To understand the pivotal role these websites play in radicalizing people, especially younger men, I would look at research done by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Here is one of their reports mapping the ecosystem of the ‘new’ extreme right throughout Europe and the US: https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/The-Fringe-Insurgency-221017_2.pdf

      On Unite the Right: “4Chan’s /pol and the /The_Donald subreddit hosted various threads that endorsed the event: the discussions between users from across the ideological spectrum were instructive for understanding the reasoning and appeal of coalition building projects such as Charlottesville. A tendency to stress common grounds and downplay differences between different movements crystallized. For example, one user on /The_Donald urged others to participate despite his disagreement with National Socialism and ethnonationalism.”

      The tactics that ISIS uses to attract young men to their cause isn’t isolated, and these far-right extremist groups utilize the same techniques. It is frightening to see you completely disregard Gamer Gate (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamergate_controversy), which was a complete misogynistic troll doxing campaign against women gamers, which was orchestrated on sites such as 4chan. Memetic disinformation campaigns are also orchestrated on these sites, which played a huge role in the Trump campaign. I am not saying what they did is wrong, but memes are extremely misleading and provide no informational context and are extremely useful in manipulating a population. They have “meme factories” on these sites for the sole purpose of influencing the public. We need to have a society that is more technologically affluent as to not be manipulated by these campaigns.

      I am glad that you can see the individuals on 4chan as goofy, but many people, like minorities (Muslims, African Americans, Jews) and women that are often on the front lines of trolling campaigns, have to deal with the constant online abuse and terror that comes from these “goofy kids”. I personally have been privileged enough not to face one of these and I hope you have as well, but they leave lasting negative impacts on the victims. So I have to side with Nestor is saying that, not only is far-right extremism dangerous, it has also become more palatable and influential through online forums such as 4chan.

      • Jabronis the anon says

        >making an argument about Gamergate
        >by citing wikipedia
        no wonder you get trolled constantly, being so gullible

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