Drawing The Line On Free Speech?
Today, I want to respond to a recent article on Arc Digital by Nicholas Grossman, titled ‘What Free Speech v. Social Justice Debates Are Really About’. In that article, Grossman argued that the arguments around free speech and cancel culture we are having right now are about where to draw the line for acceptable speech, rather than about whether there should be free speech itself. He also provided several examples in which society has made a decision over whether certain expressions should be legal, based on the competing principles of free speech vs harm prevention.
I agree that there is indeed some kind of line drawing in terms of defining the limits of free speech. This applies even to many people who consider themselves free speech absolutist. For example, I guess few people would support allowing people to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Going further, many otherwise pro-free speech people would also support banning people from threatening others with violence, or promoting terrorism, for example. So the difference between free speech advocates, and those calling for so-called ‘safe speech’ and other speech restrictions, is indeed one of line drawing.
The traditional line in liberal societies is defined by physical violence and harm. Where one’s speech does not advocate for or clearly lead to physical violence, or otherwise directly lead to significant physical harm, one can say whatever they please. This line has been well accepted almost universally until recently. The reason why it’s well accepted is because it is objective, and generally considered fair. It is objective because physical violence and harm is objectively observable, which means that there is a standard that almost everyone can agree to, which in turn means that there doesn’t need to be any subjective or arbitrary judgement. It is also considered fair because the ban on physical violence does not inherently privilege or disadvantage some ideas over others. Every idea can be expressed, with the same basic limitations. Reformist progressive ideas and conservative ideas can be argued on the same level playing field. Finally, by only banning speech that directly causes physical violence, the limitation on speech is minimal, and the flow on effects on the discovery of truth is negligible. This means the pursuit of knowledge about the objective truth, and all the good things that flow from that, remains unimpeded.
The trouble is, in recent years, there has been a move by some theorists, particularly those under the broad umbrella of critical theory and postmodernism, to redefine violence. Now, I’m generally not a fan of terms like ‘systemic violence’, ‘psychological violence’, and so on. Redefining fundamental concepts has consequences, and broadening the concept of violence has flow on effects on free speech and free debate. Psychological harm is much more subjective and the standards can be arbitrary. So-called ‘systemic’ harms are even more arbitrary, because their definition is often rooted in academic theories that remain controversial. The fear is that speech can be arbitrarily limited, to favor some ideas over others, which would impede the discovery of objective truth. Add in the fact that many academic theories supporting the ‘new definitions’ of violence are rooted in or related to postmodernism, which has almost no respect for the importance of objective truth. There is a very real reason, those of us who are still committed to logical empiricism and the discovery of objective truth, have become very concerned about the imposition of new definitions of violence, harm and acceptable speech, that are rooted in academic theories that can be described as postmodern or postmodern-adjacent.
The other thing is, I think we should see the attempt to stamp out all forms of non-physical harm for what it is: an attempt at utopianism. And we all know that historical attempts at utopianism have always ended badly. Utopianism always ends with conflict, physical violence, breakdown of the social order, chaos, and ultimately major setback in the progress of humanity towards liberty and justice. It should be avoided at all costs. Ultimately, history has shown that democratic reformism is the only effective way to progress humanity.
Now, I’m not saying that psychological harms are not important. But, as a reformist, progress towards the reduction of such harms should be based on good ideas winning out against bad ideas, on the level playing field of the free market of ideas. As a Moral Libertarian, I am firmly committed to every individual having equal and maximum moral agency, and I believe that social change should be by people genuinely and willingly changing their minds. After all, change that is sustainable must come about as a result of truly broadened understanding, genuinely changed minds, and democratically formed consensus. Grossman mentioned the phasing out of the n-word and the f-word as examples of good social change, and I agree. I think we can also add things like marriage equality to this list. These changes were not forced upon people by cancel culture. They were the result of true, underlying change in individuals across society, as a result of good ideas winning the argument. Going forward, I think we should stick to what has worked so far, and continue to use free speech and the free market of ideas to advance social justice. There is no need to re-draw the time honored classical liberal line on free speech. We never needed to do so to achieve the positive changes we have so far, and there is clearly no case to justify doing so going forward.