[This is a re-post of an article I wrote 3 years ago, and which sadly has become increasingly relevant, so much so that one can’t even articulate why it is relevant today without risking being censored for doing so. Censorship is no longer the bad word it used to be, or something liberals oppose on principle. Au contraire! Today, censorship is embraced as an uncontroversial tool benevolent institutions wield in order to protect the rest of us from the influence of darker forces. In the last several days, for example, major social media platforms blithely announced plans to implement sweeping censorship campaigns in the name of the righteous good. But If the presumed good includes plans to silence content that contradicts its own stances, some might question just how wholesome that goodness really is.

There’s that thing where our ends justify our means when fighting the evil opposition, hence the phrase, “by any and all means necessary”. However, we forget that what makes the opposition “evil” is the means they stoop to. Last I checked, double-standards and hypocrisy were not the weapons of the truly just.]


You can have free speech without violence or oppression, but censorship requires force, which means at least oppression, and violence if necessary to enforce it.

[Note: Here I am talking about ideas or arguments as free speech, not slander, malicious gossip, or plans to commit a crime, and not actual crimes such as snuff films, or child porn…]

Free speech is a truce between all the different groups with their competing perspectives, narratives, beliefs, cultures, convictions, and even ideologies. Everyone is allowed to have their opinion, and nobody is allowed to silence anyone else. The biggest risk, of course, is that the most powerful group will silence all opposition as blasphemy, heresy, a threat to the very fabric of society, subverting authority, or an all-purpose condemnation, such as was used to sentence Socrates to death: corrupting the youth. Free speech favors the underdog, novelty, alternative perspectives, and thus progress, which might all be squelched as opposition to the state, the status quo, the standing order, common sense, or whatever ideology or ruling body.

Detail of Death of Socrates, 1785 ~ Jacques-Louis David. Here Socrates drinks the deadly hemlock for the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens (with reason).

The risk of free speech we see recently is that the speech in question is hateful, false, spreads lies, or incites violence. Even in such cases we need to allow free speech because of the element of subjectivity, double standards, hypocrisy, and questionable subjective extrapolations. In other words, one person’s clear hate speech is not another’s, as remarkable as that might seem. This, however, becomes obvious when we step outside of a mono-culture, a group identity, or a single country. In one culture it might be considered an atrocity for a woman to dance in public unaccompanied by a male chaperone, and the punishment might include beating or even worse. In another culture the idea of beating a woman for dancing in public without a chaperone would be considered hate speech and inciting violence. Thus, one might find oneself for or against censorship or free speech depending on which society, culture, or subgroup one is a part of. It’s a great tool for suppressing the enemy, but a horrible tool when the enemy uses it to crush ones own group.

I think we would all agree that violence itself is worse than hypothetically inciting violence. We’ve all been threatened with violence at least once, if we’ve lived long enough, such as when someone inflamed with road rage screams “You’re dead!” when you merge in a lane before them. Better to be screamed at than actually murdered. Even family members will sometimes threaten to kill one another. We can all agree that it’s better to be threatened with being bludgeoned to death than to actually be bludgeoned to death. One could live to be 100 years old enduring myriad threats. We need to draw the line at actual oppression and violence.

Assuming we find someone or some group’s free speech offensive, hateful, or inciting violence, what do we do about it? We can make counter-arguments, we can have debates, we can peacefully protest, all of which are possible without censorship, oppression, force, or violence. However, we may find that their speech is so unbelievably offensive that we need to nip it in the bud. Again, one person’s incredibly, undeniably hateful speech is not another’s, even in a single country such as America. Note that you can’t be a cultural relativist – someone who believes one culture has no authority to judge the morals of another culture – and support censorship. Belief may lead to violent action, but it is the actions that need to be prevented, not just the highly contestable, relative, beliefs themselves.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but free speech will never hurt me.

If argument, debate, and peaceful protest does not defeat the presumed vile rhetoric of the opposition, the enemy, or the offending party, what do we do? This is where some people believe that we must resort to any means necessary to stop the heinous speech. Today we may see protesters show up to a talk literally armed with sticks and stones in order to forcefully shut down the speech. I’m avoiding naming names (which I could do) because I want to discuss the general principles, which could be used in any direction, and avoid partisanship on recent incendiary and extraordinarily polarized incidents. One group who has used force and violence to silence another today could easily be treated to the same procedure used on themselves tomorrow. If group A believes they have the right to use violence and any means necessary to oppose the free speech of group B, why wouldn’t group B adopt the same policy towards group A?

You can not use actual violence in the very present in order to prevent someone from articulating a view which you believe will incite violence in the future. You are committing the very crime you are opposing in theory. The idea of committing violence first, in order to prevent hypothetical violence from another party is the madness of a first strike nuclear policy, and why that which prevents it (among countries with a significant nuclear arsenal) is the threat of mutually assured destruction. The war on Iraq was an example of hitting them before they hit us, which, as it turns out, they were incapable of doing. We can learn from this historical lesson how easy it is to demonize and exaggerate the threat of another in order to justify the use of violent oppression, while the whole time doing so in the name of fighting violent oppression.

What if those exercising their free speech are themselves armed and at very least potentially violent? Now we have a different order of problem. Are they armed because they intend to attack innocent people, or is it because they are anticipating being attacked themselves, or both? If anyone on any side shows up to a speech or protest with weapons, they have crossed a line into anticipating using violence. In my idyllic debate, there would be moderation that could identify logical fallacies such as straw-man arguments, appeals to authority, red herrings, ad hominem attacks, tautologies, and so on. Nothing could be further from the ideal debate than shouting over the speaker, or hitting the opponent over the head with a club. And if one side is peaceful and the other violent, the side which employs violence casts very serious doubt on its true motives, self-awareness, or the plausibility of its cause. This is why it’s better to be peaceful even if the opposition is not.

When it comes to free speech, however offensive one finds it to be, one can fight it with free speech. And if what we are opposing is genuinely heinous and bankrupt, what are its chances of winning in a fair, open, rational, or at least reasonable debate (it is possible to have arguments outside of strict reason)? If we can’t win that debate, we can try harder to do so, do more research, improve our arguments, and so on. Or maybe one side or the other will be persuaded. Bad ideas can be filtered out.

Free speech exists to prevent oppression, from whatever side, and censorship can only exist via oppression, and the probable threat of punishment tantamount to violence, if not actual egregious physical harm. The success of censorship can further lead to vast corruption and large scale violent suppression of people.

On the other hand, just yesterday I was talking to my girlfriend about why America has had so many great inventions: the light bulb, telephone, airplanes, the space program, television, lasers, personal computers… Maybe, just maybe, that American ingenuity comes from the free flow of ideas, and the relative absence of the forbidding of alien, controversial, radical, unusual, or out-of-bounds thought or cognition. The same may apply to the great films, novels, art and architecture made in America in the 20th century, and the comparative lack in societies which openly engage in heavy censorship and policing of thought. Obviously America did not produce the only great scientific, intellectual, or cultural achievements of the last centuries, but something in America’s broad paradigm, including protecting free speech, allowed for the flourishing of ideas and innovation.

Censorship by force is on the rise in America presently, including in unexpected places such as the art world or college campuses, and while this is ostensibly in the name of the greater good, the practice itself is anything but good. Using force to silence thought, speech, or artistic expression is historically the avenue of those who can’t counter-argue, debate, or compete on that level. And while we may all hate and oppose vile speech, any speech we hate and oppose is automatically vile to us.

Can we allow other people to have or express ideas or creations which we are opposed to? The answer has to be yes, otherwise, those same people have the same right to deny our own right to express ourselves. Logically, if we find their ideas offensive, they find ours equally offensive. Do we want to live in a world where contrary ideas exist, or one in which force is used to extinguish all but one overarching perspective?

~ Ends


Addendum: I’m not an expert on this topic, but I think it’s valuable to try to express ones own understanding on an issue. As Socrates famously said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. I’d prefer that my life is worth living.

16 replies on “The Argument for Free Speech & Against Censorship

  1. Good stuff.

    Jordan Peterson has pointed out that people need to talk out loud in order to think, and they need to try out all kinds of thoughts on their way to finding the truth. If we forbid people ever to say anything in error, we are effectively preventing them from thinking and, hence, growing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You may have missed Peterson himself being the subject of attempted censorship and arguments for it, earlier this month. Consider this outrageous headline from the Telegraph, “Publishers are not obliged to give bigots like Jordan Peterson a platform“.

      The writer, Nathan Robinson, essentially argues that it’s not censorship if the content is from a terrible person who is a “crackpot” with utterly reprehensible ideas. He produced a laundry list of accusations against Peterson, each substantiated with nothing more than a link to a source which somewhere contains a cherry-picked, out of context, misrepresented quote, or else a questionable opinion by some authority figure.

      For example, Robinson states that Peterson “has suggested …. that transgender activists are comparable to mass-murdering Maoists.” I followed the link, which was to his infamous interview with Cathy Newman. She accused that he “called trans campaigners authoritarian”. His reply was, “Only in the broader context of my claims that radical leftist ideologues are authoritarian.” This is such a new idea for Newman — that if you go too far to the left you also get authoritarianism — that she doesn’t know how to process it, and gets flabbergasted. She’s the one who tries to connect millions of deaths to trans activists and project that onto Peterson. He just argues that the underlying belief in group identity is a common feature of radical leftist rhetoric.

      What Robinson is really advocating is the double whammy of justifying censorship by smearing the target with slander.

      Of further interest, in the last week, YouTube has declared that it will, “start removing content that falsely allege widespread fraud changed the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.” It has already “removed over 8,000 channels and thousands of misleading election-related videos for violating its existing policies” — Reuters. That’s quite a purge, indeed, and quite obviously politically motivated. Note that alleging widespread fraud is automatically false. I’m amused by the semantic games people play with this. There could be multiple incidences of fraud, for which their is evidence, which cumulatively could have a serious impact, but if there is not a singular, coordinated, widespread conspiracy of fraud, and enough to swing the election, than there is “no evidence” whatsoever. In reality, there seems to be quite a lot of factual findings about fraud, which need to be remedied regardless of political allegiance, in order to insure viable elections in the future. Will credible analysis of actual voter fraud instances be deleted along with more grand claims?

      There are many more fun and fascinating examples of current censorship to choose from. Censorship is now normal and good. We love it!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes, I do hear about these things from time to time, because I patronize the Daily Wire. For example, within the last few weeks someone asserted that even a true news story can be “misinformation” if it appears to serve the wrong narrative. Not sure what can be said to that. It’s kind of a conversation stopper.

        And, ah, yes, the “research” that isn’t. I suppose people who link to things that don’t actually support their thesis, must do “research” as follows: Google something, find a gotcha, shout “I knew it!”, and move on without reading the rest of the article. I know we are all tempted to do this, so I say this cautiously, but if I link to something, I like to have at least read it first and preferably thought about it as well. I honestly don’t see how anyone can listen to even 30 minutes of JP on any subject and come away thinking he is a facist.

        This week, I got told to Google a certain crackpot belief because Google would reliably tell me that it is common IN MY OWN COMMUNITY. I was more tickled than offended.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. ‘even a true news story can be “misinformation” if it appears to serve the wrong narrative.’

          Precisely. The inclination to censor reliably goes hand in hand with the need to silence sound argument and evidence. Just look at censorship in any other country, and “true news” can be the most offensive to the power elite. Sharing facts about a corrupt government can award one an all-expense-paid, one way ticket to disappearing (with a one time bonus of organ harvesting). But in America, why, we only use censorship to turn down the volume on the white supremacist megaphone.

          America Uncovered [a nice YouTube channel whose mission is to actually be non-partisan] just did a good video about YouTube’s new push to censor any challenge to the establishment narrative about the election being the most secure in history (at least until a future election swings in a less desirable direction, in which case stories about loopholes and vulnerabilities will be promoted to the top of searches and recommendations).

          However you slice it, big tech is taking away our freedom of speech for purely self-interested reasons. We are not allowed to think for ourselves. We must be instructed into correct think. OBEY!

          Like

    1. Thanks. Apparently, there’s a bit of controversy over who invented the television. Scottish, John Logie Baird “demonstrating the world’s first working television system on 26 January 1926”.

      However, American, Philo Farnsworth, “is best known for his 1927 invention of the first fully functional all-electronic image pickup device (video camera tube), the image dissector, as well as the first fully functional and complete all-electronic television system.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo_Farnsworth

      It sounds like Baird was first but Farnsworth made a fully operational version.

      Either way, both support my notion that the free-flow of ideas creates an environment conducive to scientific invention, because the contries involved similarly value free speech.

      Like

  2. Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    This well-argued post by Eric Wayne puts the case for free speech and against censorship. The logic is impeccable. Censorship is a slippery slope to all kinds of ills.
    Yet, is this not a polarity ‘free speech-censorship’? Can any society sit right at the free speech end of this polarity? I think not. Are there not acts and images that are just too heinous to entertain in a civilised society, particularly when exposed to impressionable minds? Does society not need to protect itself against such things?
    I think it does, but always with suitable checks and balances.
    Anyway, read on. I like his passion!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Eric,
    Everything you say is clearly very rational. The radical leftists know this as well. The problem is totalitarians don’t care about being right in an argument, they care about their ideology winning the war in the end, by any means necessary. I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep stating your point to people who are questioning the merits of a free society. That is what we have to do to stop the radicals from turning the world into an Orwellian hell, but I wouldn’t get upset when Marxists use the tactics they are trained and indoctrinated in to rile us up. That’s what they want. The thing is there must be a reason why socialism is making such a strong comeback. I think maybe because of the gap between rich and poor is getting so big, and maybe that needs to be addressed a bit, but scrapping the system for one that is clearly way worse for all citizens is not the answer to all of the world’s problems. The person who said, all the problems combined that totalitarianism promises to fix are not nearly as bad as totalitarianism was right. The problem is as Huxley said, The greatest lesson from history is that man doesn’t learn from history.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Matt:

      I agree with Huxley. I often think that science has progressed so much because it necessarily builds on what worked before, whereas socially we appear overly fond of periodically jettisoning history and trying to start over with a radical new vision, in which case, as the saying goes, we are condemned to repeat the worst mistakes of history. Americans tend to associate authoritarianism only with the far right: nationalism and racial/ethnic purity. We thus assume anything in the opposite direction is good, and the further in the opposite direction the better. We believe “radical” and “revolution” are inherently good and progressive things – certainly that’s the case in the art world — and don’t put together the pieces that Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot were far left revolutionaries, all subscribing to Marxist-Leninism, and the noble quest to liberate the peasantry from oppression.

      However you slice it, whether it’s the far left or right variety of authoritarianism, they all practice censorship. It’s a red flag that society is drifting away from individual freedom.

      Like

    1. Glad you appreciated my thoughts on the topic. As you know, censorship has become an even more prominent issue in the last few days. While many are cheering Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook simultaneously banning president Trump in a purge, but for those of us who don’t merely root for our own side, and can imagine for the briefest flicker what it would be like if the shoe were on the other foot, it is chilling. Surely if big tech has the power to erase the president, nobody else can say anything that might upset them, for fear of similarly being expunged. However one slices it, big tech possesses the absolute power to SHUT DOWN anyone they don’t like, or any message that isn’t on point. We are to believe that when big tech acts like the Chinese Communist Party, it is a good thing, because they are exercising the power of unchecked censorship on the right side of history.

      Apparently, we don’t exactly live in a democracy. We live in a hypocrisy.

      Like

      1. Since you mentioned the Chinese Communist party, I’ve seen a video on Candace Owens’ Twitter regarding fact checkers, supposedly one of facebook’s fact checkers is funded, among others, by the Chinese company who owns Tiktok as well. It seems to be true. What business has a Chinese company to meddle in a democratic country’s affairs, it’s beyond me. But yeah, it is serious when Big Tech has such power to ban and silence anyone and anything they don’t like.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. China! I lived there for about four and a half years. The people are fine. But the CCP? I get the impression that for the party making China the global super power is considered such an inherent good that any means justify the ends. They strike me as completely amoral, and as little concerned about who is harmed as I am about my opponent’s pieces in a game of chess.

          I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to live in China, but from what I hear, I wouldn’t want to go back now.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Often times people have nothing to do with the ruling regime or political party of a country. The regime/ party may have a lot of screw lose but the people are just simple human beings trying to do their best to survive. There are many Chinese in my country (here in Europe) and they’re pretty nice, decent people. And who would want to go to China as it is? Sure, for tourism, but otherwise, I too would stay as far as possible.

            Liked by 1 person

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