Tag Archives: free speech
Christopher Eric Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011) was an Anglo-American author, columnist, essayist, orator, religious and literary critic, social critic, and journalist. He contributed to New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Slate, and Vanity Fair. Hitchens was the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of over 30 books, including five collections of essays, on a range of subjects, including politics, literature, and religion. A staple of talk shows and lecture circuits, his confrontational style of debate made him both a lauded and controversial figure and public intellectual.
‘Universities, once the bastions of freedom of thought, the place above all others where one could express contentious views have become beacons of political correctness. Students now need to be warned if there is something in a lecture which they might find difficult. Guest lecturers cancel speeches because students disapproving of their views threaten disruptive demonstrations. If we think the Catholic Church giving Galileo a rough time was medieval what do we think of students, rather than the university, deciding what they are prepared to hear.’ – Amanda Vanstone
Who can say what to whom in Australia? In this six-part series, we look at the complex idea of freedom of speech, who gets to exercise it and whether it is being curtailed in public debate.
The term “free speech” is not ideal. The “free” part skews in favour of those who oppose regulation and the “speech” part puts the focus on the spoken word, even though the discussion embraces wider communication including art, writing, films, plays, flag burning and advertising.
It might, therefore, be better to drop the term “free speech” to highlight that the debate is really about whether or not we should regulate the communication of ideas, thoughts and beliefs.
This analysis, however, is not the place to rewrite the terms of reference. So I will use the term free speech with the caveat that “free” does not mean a lack of regulation, and “speech” covers a variety of activities.
Justifying free speech
It is not enough to say “three cheers for speech!”, because if we don’t know why speech is important we don’t know if it is worth protecting.
John Stuart Mill thought that freedom of thought and discussion (he doesn’t use the term “free speech”) is valuable because it brings us closer to the truth, which in turn promotes utility. Alexander Meiklejohn suggests speech is important because it allows for democratic self-government. And Thomas Scanlon and C. Edwin Baker argue that free expression is justified because it promotes autonomy.
These are the three heavyweight contenders in the debate about why speech is important.
The important thing to notice about all of them is that the justification offered in favour of speech also allows for some limitations. If expression is justified because it promotes truth, we have no grounds for defending it when truth is undermined. Speech that damages democratic processes will find itself unprotected by the self-government thesis. And if the autonomy argument is compelling we will not want to protect speech that undermines this goal.
The heated debate about “political correctness” (a term I dislike), or PC, demonstrates this nicely. The usual claim is that PC stifles free speech. This accusation is difficult to quantify. PC might, for example, limit the speech of white men but enhance that of minorities; I would need more data before reaching a conclusion.
But the complaint itself tells us something about the complex nature of speech. Why complain at all? The usual answer is that communication is being muted by PC. This seems to be an argument that we should oppose PC in the name of free speech itself. To make this claim we need to show why speech is important (enter justification here). Once we offer a justification we again have an argument for why speech can be limited.
Perhaps combining the three justifications discussed above will allow for lots of unregulated speech. This doesn’t seem to work because the three accounts often clash. Justifying speech because it promotes truth, for example, seems to allow silencing many a politician (oh joy!) and hence interfering with political speech.
These difficulties suggest that any persuasive argument about speech (as opposed to saying “three cheers”) has to embrace the fact that speech can, and indeed should, be limited. An even more confronting conclusion is that giving reasons for why speech is important makes us reveal underlying values that seem to be even more fundamental than speech itself.
Which speech deserves special protection?
Having (hopefully) established that speech is not unconditionally good, the next task is to determine what the appropriate limits should be.
This will depend in large part on why speech is justified in the first place. The autonomy account will offer different protections than the truth/utility account which in turn will differ from the self-government justification.
Mill, for example, tells us that truth is best promoted by allowing a great deal of communication. But he is willing to shut down speech if it leads to unacceptable harm. This argument faces difficulties, one being harmful speech might lead us towards truth.
His justification for speech seems to clash with his reason for limiting speech. Mill was a pretty smart guy, but even he struggled to provide a coherent and consistent position on free speech.
The thing to keep in mind is that the justifications we use to defend speech will always prioritise some forms of communication over others, and this will be our guide to picking out speech most in need of protection. This again suggests that speech is not valuable in and of itself.
Should some speech acts be punished?
What should we do with speech that is not protected by our favoured justification? The answer depends on balancing the speech act in question against other values.
If the speech is not causing harm we might want to leave it alone. Others might think that harmless but grossly offensive speech should be punished. If speech reveals wartime secrets to the enemy we might want to put the person in prison.
Engaging in hate speech in Europe can quite possibly lead to the same outcome. Libel will incur civil rather than criminal charges. And Mill suggests that in many instances the appropriate punishment for speech is “social disapprobation” rather than legal penalty.
The reason why the argument over free speech has not been put to bed long ago is that people bring different sets of values to the discussion. The debate does not takes place in a vacuum and arguments have to be assessed against social norms, values and institutions. Speech is a social phenomenon because it requires speakers and listeners to engage with one another. The “problem” of free speech does not exist for the person stranded on a deserted island.
Even people with the same values can disagree on the facts of the matter. They might accept Mill’s argument that speech can be limited if it causes harm but disagree over whether hate speech, for example, is captured by the harm principle.
The topic quickly becomes devilishly difficult. The one thing I can say with confidence is that it is unlikely a one-size-fits-all principle will help us navigate the treacherous waters of free speech.
In Sunday’s Atlantic, James Fallows “Just for the record: anti-Mormonism is bigotry, too.”
To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry. Exactly as it would have been to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity. . .
But for people to come out and say that they won’t back a candidate because he’s Mormon and therefore a “cult” member is no better than saying “I’d never trust a Jew” or “a black could never do the job” or “women should stay in their place” or “Latinos? Let ’em go back home.” Maybe it makes things more “honest” for people to be open about their anti-Mormonism and…
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We who live in Western liberal democracies seem to be in a permanent state of angst about who should be allowed to speak and what they should be allowed to speak about.
This angst is acute at the moment, since low-key voices that once represented extreme views on a range of social issues have recently become louder.
Whether it’s US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump denigrating refugees and talking of banning Muslims from entering his country or Australia’s One Nation leader and senator-elect Pauline Hanson rubbishing climate science and talking of banning Muslims from entering her country, this joltingly aggressive posturing has found traction with voters.
It’s not uncommon to hear people applaud this approach because, after all, they “speak their mind”. But what is so good about speaking your mind if it’s a jumbled mess of self-contradiction?
Even if the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of Trump and Hanson, as two examples, are generally incoherent, could there be any good points worth exploring buried under the intellectual rubble? Either way, should we be listening?
Let me make the case for why these views should be heard, with attention to specific contexts and principles.
You can speak your mind
He highlighted the desirability for those in the public arena, and particularity those holding or vying for power, to spell out their thinking so that we can make up our own individual minds based on a rational analysis of the case rather than a simple appeal to emotions.
A necessary condition of this is that people not only speak their minds, but must lay out the reasoned argument that leads them to their position. It is the argument, not just the end position, that demands evaluation, for only through this process can we establish the credibility of the end point.
This requirement for a common language of rationality is, we hope, what leads to the best outcomes in the long run. It protects us from leaders acting on whims or in their own interests.
It’s also a bulwark against a world where only shouted slogans and appeals to fear make up the substance of public discourse. A world William Yeats glimpsed in his poem The Second Coming when he wrote of a time in which:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Divergence of opinion, in which people can simply speak their minds, and hopefully their thinking, is desirable. But this divergence must be followed by a phase of convergence in which alternative views are evaluated and consequently progressed or discarded based on collaboratively established norms of effective reasoning.
Each time we hear a poorly argued view, it should further inoculate us against accepting that view.
If arguments for particular positions with relevance to public life ought be exposed to public scrutiny, they must therefore be listened to and seriously engaged with by at least some people some of the time.
Listen for only so long
We do not, however, have the responsibility to elevate a view beyond the point it can attain through its own persuasiveness. Nor are we obliged to keep giving it our attention after its credibility is found wanting.
Appeals for another hearing without fresh arguments or evidence have no inherent right to be further entertained. Such is the nature of debate in young-earth creationism, anti-vaccination advocates or climate change denial, wherein the same old constantly refuted arguments come up again for another desperate gasp of public air.
It is fine to insist that an argument be evaluated on the proving ground of public reason. But it is an offence against that same principle to demand it stay on the playing field once it has been effectively refuted. A sure test of this unwarranted persistence is the degree to which reasoned argument is replaced by tub-thumping, fear-mongering and appeals to the status quo.
People are free to keep saying what they like but, as I have written before, they should not mistake the right to speak with the right to be heard once their case has already failed to convince.
The debate is therefore not silenced, but reaches closure through established, socially moderated processes of analysis and evaluation. All else is cheer-leading in an attempt to convince others that you are still on the field. But the rest of us are entitled to just go home.
Who decides what becomes public?
This all sounds quite rational, but who are the gatekeepers of the public arena? This is a complex issue. In an ideal world, the entry ticket would be a reasoned case in the public interest, but too many box seats have been pre-sold to vested interests.
So we see media companies such as News Corp pushing arguments against climate science that have long been discredited. And across the board news items and personalities that are sensational rather than significant are placed front and centre.
Media coverage of those speaking publicly is always a decision, and it’s a decision that exposes bias. Not just for who is heard, but also for who is not heard.
We are not obliged to give someone attention, let alone credibility, simply because they are speaking in public. The Enlightenment principles of public reasoning are conditional, and too often these conditions are not met or simply not understood.
But our acceptance and our rejection of views should always be a reflective practice, measured against long-established norms of rationality.
No one should be silenced, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be listened to.