A Discussion on Free Speech.

I thought it would be interesting to discuss the attack on free speech that has been happening over the last few years, from a rather unexpected angle.

There is a small but vocal contingent of left-leaning people arguing against free speech because it can offend.

Several governments have passed laws prohibiting certain types of speech, for instance:

  • Panic Inducing. Shout “fire” in a crowded theater or “bomb” on an airplane unless you genuinely believe there is an emergency.
  • Fighting Words. You’re not allowed to directly (I stress the word “directly” because there is an important distinction to make later on about this) incite violence by actively proposing physical violence against a group of people, regardless of their race, gender, or ethnicity.  
  • Private Information. Trade Secrets, Copywriting Violation, Classified Information, Non-Disclosure Agreements, Public Security, etc.

And also a few other limitations around obscenity, pornography, defamation & slander, and the right to privacy and right to be forgotten, and also not limiting the right of others to have free speech…so not using your free speech to deny others that very same right.

But what is extremely important about all the above examples, is that they are limiters on your free speech, not compulsions.

What do I mean?

Essentially, the government is saying, don’t go into that area. They are not saying that you must be in a specific area. Anything that does not fall into the above categories is fair game, regardless of how many people are insulted.

Some governments add specific items to the above list, such as the German government making Holocaust denial a crime, which does actually limit free speech, but can potentially be argued to be a good addition.

Personally, I believe that if someone wants to deny the Holocaust, we should let them use their right to free speech and deny the Holocaust, because they will often pay a significant price for voicing such a stupid and vile opinion, without the need for government intervention.

This is a system, partly justified by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, can be summed up by the following quote:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

So this applied to cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, to calling someone a dickhead, to national newspapers making caricatures of currently-serving presidents or prime ministers. The amount of freedom we have in liberal democracies, compared to historical societies, is staggering.

In other parts of the world, the government is not so tolerant. Recently I heard of a disabled Cambodian man who was arrested in Cambodia for simply writing a social media post that said “I want a new Prime Minister”.

So, one must be very wary of writing laws and giving power to the government. This is because we don’t know who will be in government in four years’ time, let alone in ten or twenty years. This is important, because the very same laws that we want to pass now to protect a small minority, can be used to curtail and abuse the freedoms of the majority.

History provides plenty of examples, such as Adolf Hitler using Article 48 in the Weimar Constitution to give himself dictatorial powers as President. This allowed him to take extraordinary measures via emergency decrees without the prior consent of the parliamentary bodies. This led to eliminating all opposition, a dictatorship, and then the horrors of the Second World War and the gas chambers where millions perished.

More recently, Edward Snowden showed us how quickly the US government went from creating a system to tightly monitor the communication of suspected terrorists to a system that simply monitored everyone, everywhere. I strongly recommend you read his book “Permanent Record”.

The familiar adage of “you shouldn’t object if you don’t have anything to hide” does not stand up to logical scrutiny, as we may not be fully aware of what information is collected or who will be able to view it in the future.

And so, if we return to the point about the current free speech limitations that are limiters and not compulsions, we then see the current problem.

Many on the left, and members of “marginalized” parts of society (such as the LGBT community) want to force things like safe spaces, trigger warnings, and force the use of specific pronouns such as Ze and Zir.

At first glance by the average person, this might not seem such a big deal. If a transgender person asks me privately to use the pronoun Ze or Zir, I may well oblige so to keep a good relationship going.

However, it’s an entirely different matter once we get the government involved and write laws that compel me to say a specific word or phrase.

We then completely overturn the principle of Free Speech from being completely free with certain limitations (i.e. don’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theater if there’s no fire) to essentially being a closed system where the government or other regulatory bodies tell you what can say.

It’s not difficult to imagine future abuses of such a system, and actually, we don’t have to, George Orwell perfectly described this exact type of dystopian society in his book 1984, published in the first half of the twentieth century, where the government had created a language called Newspeak that essentially made dissent impossible:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

The idea is that as a language becomes more controlled and the government creates mandates on how it can be used, the government can essentially control the minds of the people that live in that state.

And remember, we have no idea who will be in power in five, ten, or twenty years from now.

So I think the real question is this:

Do we massively curtail the freedoms of most of society to ensure we don’t offend a vocal minority, or do we upkeep the current freedoms for everyone, at the risk of offending a few people?

The key thing to remember is that offending people, per se, is not illegal and, actually, is most likely required to have a society where civilized free, and open debate can be had. If you’re speaking to one person, it may be quite easy to not offend that one person.

But what about speaking to ten, or a hundred, or a hundred thousand people?

It will be almost impossible to not offend at least one person in a group, especially if the topic at hand is sensitive in nature (which most issues worth speaking about naturally are.)

The trick that’s used by proponents of compelled speech is that, for instance, not calling a transgender individual Ze or Zir is actually an incitement to violence.

There is a wide gap between offense and violence, and refusing to call a transgender person by their preferred pronoun, or drawing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, or by sketching the current President or Prime Minister as a buffoon, are nowhere near incitements to violence. These example do not ask one group of people to physically attack another group of people.

Sure, they may cause ridicule and offense, but that’s the flip side of the coin to living in a society where you can say whatever you want! 🙂

Related Essays