The Cost of Free Speech

Certainly we can’t allow Nazis to have a platform. Exclusion and censorship seem like reasonable tools when dealing with racism, sexism and bigotry. Faced with extreme hate, even violence might seem justified. But I would argue that violence never has a place in a peaceful society. That hate-speech should be tolerated, because the alternatives are worse. And when we silence those we despise, we lose more than we gain.

Free speech is the right to speak your opinions without fear of government force or violent retorts from society. But if speech is to mean anything it must also be heard. While no one should be forced to listen, we are all better served if we listen anyway.

Some argue that Freedom-of-Speech is only freedom to speak, not a right to be hosted or entertained. That it is also free speech to overwhelm the undesired message with more speech. If they have the freedom to speak then we have the freedom to yell. But there is a delicate distinction between an answering protest and threatening intimidation. The smaller the minority, the easier it can be swallowed by a mob.

The Black civil rights movement may have progressed faster had America listened properly, instead of responding with intimidation, police and violence. The government is there to ensure protestors can speak safely and having enough officers on the scene to providing adequate protection is the cost of a free society. Black civil rights is the proper path, but it is the country’s ability to listen that moves civil rights forward, not our ability to silence.

Mistakes from the past can return to haunt us, as recently shown by white-supremacists appearing in Charlottesville. When we don’t remember history, it tends to repeat itself. But we all do remember the Nazis and we all agree that’s not a good way to go. They are back because we think that remembering the outcome is the same as understanding the origins. An evil ideology that returns suggests we have either forgotten something crucial about it, or it’s something new. Either way, it’s unlikely to be silenced out of existence. Assuming the speakers are not committing violence, we should give them a stage, if only to counter their points directly and maybe convert them through discussion.

Evil and ignorance can look a lot alike. The author, Robert J. Hanlon, remarked “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Someone simply confused deserves the opportunity to correct themselves. Free speech and honest dialog is a chance for that kind of change. The musician Daryl Davis does just this when he befriends members of the Klu Klux Klan, and converts them, using only courtesy. If you expect civility the next time you state your case, you had best provide it to others.

The Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for picketing the funerals of gay soldiers. There have been laws, counter-protests, and numerous threats of violence aimed at stopping them, mostly ineffectual. But when Megan Phelps-Roper left the church in 2015, it wasn’t because of threats, but from civil conversations outside the church. It was because someone was willing to engage that she was able to see her own mistakes. Now she actively speaks out against the church.

A minority with no voice may resort to other forms of communication and history is filled with civil movements that include aspects of violence. Martin Luther King said in a 1968 speech, “[…] a riot is the language of the unheard”. The Watts riot in 1965 started with a single arrest, and ended with 34 dead and over 1,000 injuries. Violence only attracts an armed response, and the government generally has the upper-hand when it comes to using force. In an otherwise peaceful society, a group using violence will discredit and damage their own cause. It is the responsibility of the rest of society to listen properly so that progress can happen without the need for violence.

It’s important that violence remains unreasonable for social change, or we risk making violence required for social change. If we did, then non-violent movements would be regarded as unimportant. The next social movement would have no choice but to use violence to achieve its goals. Successful violent political campaigns tend to use violence to maintain themselves. But continual internal conflict does not make a culture stronger. According to the Global Peace Index report, Peaceful societies are associated with higher individual wealth and more equality as well as greater resiliency to economic and environmental disasters.

Used as part of a larger strategy, violence blurs the line between a positive social movement and destructive ideologies. A group that primarily employs violence as a technique may in fact only wish for a violent world, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference. Ostensibly, Antifa claims to be breaking down systems of oppression, but their primary methods seem to be violence and anonymity. They aren’t known for holding talks, giving speeches, or publishing philosophical solutions to the injustices they claim to fight. Assemblies are often stained with attacks against those with little ability or desire to fight back. They do all this while waving hammer & sickle flags. It’s a wonder that we so quickly recall the atrocities of the fascists, but forget those of the communists. Violence should not be seen as a path to peace because in some cases it is just the desired outcome.

Violent actions largely don’t work. A careful study of 323 violent and nonviolent political campaigns since 1900 show that nonviolent movements are significantly more likely to succeed and persist. This is because violent movements tend to only attract young men while non-violent movements also attract women, elderly and those who don’t want to cause damage or risk themselves. In peaceful societies, police are less likely to open fire on unarmed civilians which might include their mothers and sisters, as opposed to armed groups of masked men. When unarmed groups are attacked, police lose credibility, and a larger supportive response comes from the general public. Governments replaced by violent means are more likely to be themselves tyrannical, while non-violent overthrows tend to result in more stable democracies.

There are arguments to be made for violent resistance in the face of real harm. But within largely peaceful societies, violence should be regarded as a step backwards. In these cases, violence can’t become a marker of legitimate movement, but instead a sign that people are failing to communicate.

Speech isn’t a free-for-all, and America already includes some reasonable limitations. Inciting panic, petitioning a crime, committing slander, misrepresenting a product or threatening someone with violence are all illegal. These are well defined and raise relatively few restrictions on individual liberties.

Regulating hate-speech, on the other hand, is a complex problem. Hate-speech is subjective, as it concerns insult and offense, and is not clearly defined. Laws regarding offense could easily be used against the people they are intended to protect as the subjective nature of offense will tend to benefit the majority. Russian law restricts what can be said in support of LGBT rights. They argue this restriction isn’t to oppress, but to protect traditional family values; that the majority were “offended” by normalizing homosexuality. It’s reasonable to think America would have gone the same way if at one time the majority could have legally claimed offense-based harm (it certainly tried). It could easily be the LGBT advocates that are regarded as offensive. Being legally protected while saying offensive things helped the LGBT community to speak out and become more socially accepted. Today, there are hundreds of annual Gay-Pride events in the US alone. Any proposed laws protecting small groups come with unintended risks, and small groups have much more to gain by keeping speech unregulated.

Speech and thought are closely tied together. When speaking we add clarity and coherence to our thoughts by translating them into words. Speaking something out-loud can surprise us, or reveal what we believe. This phenomenon is captured in the phrases “I don’t know where that came from” and “There, I said it”, uttered after an outburst. When speaking to someone, we get to open ourselves for feedback and they tell us how we’re right and wrong. It’s difficult to think something through on ones own. To think properly, we hold mental battles between multiple opposing ideas. Conversation makes this easier by dividing the work among more people.

Violence is morally and theoretically wrong, and technically ineffective. Speech is not only critical to how people think, but also how societies solve their problems. This is why we draw the line here, without violent actions, but with freedom-of-speech. However speech is more than just speaking, the willingness to listen should be just as important. Done well, free speech creates a robust, vibrant and informed citizenry, but it also demands a heavy cost. If we expect to have a voice, we must hear the voices of others. If we expect to speak our own truths, we must tolerate offense and insult. If we expect to have peace, we must not defend violence. Refusing to accept these trade-offs is not only the failure to pay the cost of free speech, but endangers free society.