[I originally published this in 2017, then again in 2020. Sadly, it’s as relevant today as ever, and probably more so, because the longer we keep drifting towards censorship, the harder it is to free ourselves of it.]
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.
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?
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.