How to rhetorically defend ‘free speech’

I saw this post being circulated around Twitter (h/t Ben Southwood). Scott Alexander argues that people who care about ‘free speech’ should stop invoking the concept for unpopular targets, because that unpopularity will make people instead turn against the concept of free speech.

Suppose that some very generally beloved person like the Dalai Lama endorsed some very unpopular person like Kim Jong-Un. On the one hand, insofar as we respect the Dalai Lama, we might be willing to be a little more tolerant of Kim Jong Un. On the other hand, insofar as we hate Kim Jong-Un, we might be a little less tolerant of the Dalai Lama.
In the same way, every time we invoke free speech to justify some unpopular idea, the unpopular idea becomes a little more tolerated, and free speech becomes a little less popular.
This is … worrying to say the least.

Fair enough. I agree that telling people they have to tolerate something they dislike because “free speech is protected” does lead to stuff like this (left).

But, that suggests the principle of free speech is less powerful than we thought. If invoking an abstract principle doesn’t work to defend unpopular ideas — then what does?

To answer this question, we need to clarify what advocates of “free speech” actually want. It’s not about preventing the government from banning stuff (yet). It’s about a pervasive culture of intolerance. The most visible issue — controversial speakers being barred from universities — is merely a symptom of a wider phenomenon, which is stricter moral standards being applied to every area of life. (See my other article for more evidence.)

So, if in 2017, if you are a defender of “free speech”, you are someone arguing for more tolerance, which really does mean more lax moral standards. No surprise that this kind of argument makes you unpopular.

It’s better to acknowledge that there’s a genuine debate about how strict moral standards should be. The extreme edge case of a society with loose moral codes is anarchy where everyone kills each other. And a society with strict moral codes is a totalitarian theocracy — which obviously has it’s own problems. Puritanism is not good for enjoyment and naughty, transgressive fun.

But the reason I ultimately come down on the side of looser moral standards is because of the unfair way the moral rules themselves are decided. Who decides what society deems acceptable? I would argue, it’s those who are in a plurality, meaning the largest group that can organize itself.

The Plurality will write the narrative of how society works, which, in the best case, will end up being somewhat true for many people and significantly false for others. People outside the Plurality — either those in opposing groups, or those with unusual life stories or unconventional backgrounds — are not well-understood by the Plurality, for the simple reason that it’s hard to understand the personalities and motivations of everyone on Earth.

If you’re outside the Plurality, it’s likely the narrative will judge you unfairly. The more strictly the Plurality enforces their moral standards, the worse it is for those who are misunderstood, and the less complex and interesting society will become. And it’s likely the Plurality will drastically underestimate the number of people who are misjudged, partially because of their own overconfidence, and partially because they will be tempted to silence those who contradict the narrative.

If we accept that the narrative told by the Plurality is often going to be wrong, and people are often bad at telling heroes from villains, then it follows that moral judgement — in the form of ostracism, censorship, etc — should be reserved for only the most obvious and clear-cut cases.

The strongest defense of tolerance is that it’s a guard against overconfidence — I don’t judge because I don’t claim to understand yet. We need tolerance because IRL is messy and people aren’t good at understanding each other en masse. Unless you’re lucky enough to be part of the coalition that shouts the loudest, less tolerance means more misdirected stigmatization and suppression from people who don’t understand you.

So that’s the way you defend the softer, cultural version of “free speech” rather than the legal version. Free speech is an important idea, because it’s the distilled wisdom that we don’t have a perfect understanding of morality, and we want to avoid unfairly silencing those who are different. So, even if someone seems bad, ‘free speech’ is a good reason to give them the benefit of the doubt.

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