Craig Harper
May 7, 2018 · 7 min read

Free speech is the key issue of our time.

A range of cultural debates have emerged online over the past two or three years that are based around two simple questions:

  • Should we be allowed to express controversial ideas that may offend specific (typically minority) groups?
  • Do we have a right to direct our opinions to absolutely anybody?

Whether it’s Sam Harris discussing the validity of studying the science of group differences in IQ, Yaron Brook advocating the social virtues of capitalism, Gad Saad talking about sex differences, or Jordan Peterson fighting against the alleged compelled use of gender-neutral pronouns, nothing gets us going as much as a debate about what we can and cannot say.

As a psychological scientist interested in political decision-making, this topic fascinates me. Why do we sacralize certain groups over others? What’s the big obsession with curtailing and compelling others’ words? And why are we all so hypocritical about these issues?

I woke up this past Saturday to find a tweet from The Humanist Report accusing online interviewer Dave Rubin of hypocrisy. The offence? Rubin had blocked THR from viewing his tweets — a move that THR saw as being contrary to Rubin’s explicit claims of commitment to the so-called “marketplace of ideas”. Take a look for yourself.

For me, we need to distinguish between two different concepts, which I want to define before moving on.

Freedom of speech/freedom of expression relates to your ability to speak your mind, freely and without censure. It is the one true right that we should all have, and allows us to engage with others in debate and discussion.

The right to be heard relates to an entitled view that we should all be able to say what we want, when we want, and that the targets of our speech should have to consume our views, irrespective of whether they want to or not.

I contend that these two things are not the same thing, and that having the freedom of expression does not automatically equate to a universal right to be heard. Let me explain…

Freedom of Speech and Healthy Debate

It’s clear that freedom of expression (‘free speech’ in colloquial terms) is vital to healthy debate and political disagreement. Without having access to different sides of a debate, we can’t evaluate the range of viewpoints available.

This is different, though, from the right to be heard. In the case of THR and Rubin, for example, this was the ‘offending’ tweet that allegedly led to the blocking.

The use of a personal issue (Rubin’s homosexuality) might be seen by some as a bit of a low blow. He does have a point though. Rubin’s sexuality may be inconsistent with the some of the core personal values of some of his conservative associates.

This is potentially irrelevant though, and points towards the use of identity politics on the part of THR. (note: I don’t know who THR is, or whether they have a tendency to engage in identity politics — this claim is a judgement of this specific line of argument).

The important issue for Rubin, I believe, is whether there is an association between the core values of his new associates and their actual behaviors. For instance, Ben Shapiro is traditional in his views of sexuality, but respects Rubin on an interpersonal level. Likewise Dennis Prager.

If we reduce Rubin to just his sexuality — or conservatives to just their traditional attitudes about sex and relationships — we miss a bigger picture, where people are more than just these specific proclivities and beliefs.

By acknowledging this simply fact — that people are more than just a summation of their various specific identities — it’s possible to have effective and interesting conversations with them. However, if we go straight into such a debate with a reference to a single characteristic — as it seems THR has done here — you instantly close down the possibility for constructive dialogue.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Not Two Sides of the Same Coin

Returning to the central premise, we need to clarify exactly why — and how — it is possible to be in favor of free expression and support the so-called ‘marketplace of ideas’ and maintain a personal policy in which social media blocking is acceptable.

Constitutionally, blocking an individual from viewing personal tweets does not at all diminish their freedom of expression at the abstract level. We can consider the ACLU’s recent take on the Pres. Trump First Amendment lawsuit regarding his blocking of individuals on the platform here.

… courts must begin by asking which role a public official embodies on a given social media account: that of a private speaker or a government actor. If the answer is “private speaker,” she can limit her audience and curate the messages on the page, just like any other member of the public. But if the answer is “government actor,” the First Amendment dictates that she can’t prohibit access to her social media in three specific circumstances.

We see from this that freedom of expression is not constitutionally associated with the ability to communicate with specific individuals online. So in our previous example, Rubin is within his rights to block THR without removing the free speech rights of the latter.

Lets apply the same logic to another domain.

We typically see freedom of expression arguments being framed around invited campus speeches and their associated protests. Let’s assume somebody like Milo Yiannopoulos — a truly divisive and blatantly provocative figure — has been invited to a campus to give a talk to a conservative or libertarian student society.

Student campus protests are at the heart of many free speech arguments (Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash)

He’s been invited, and he has the freedom of expression. That right to air his views should not be taken away, so long as what he says does not incite violence towards specific individuals or groups.

(Actual violence — not just perceptions of it)

In practice what this means is that attempts to disrupt the talk or have it shut down or cancelled are unacceptable. The pulling of fire alarms or other instruments to drown out the speaker, or of using violence against them and their audience. For a perfect examply of how protests shouldn’t go, check out the video of Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad) and Yaron Brook at King’s College London earlier in 2018.

So how might an acceptable protest look? One that still respects the speaker’s right of expression.

Those unhappy with the speech might discourage attendance in the first instance. After all, to reiterate — the freedom of speech does not automatically include the right to be heard. If nobody turns up to hear a speaker, their speech rights have not been infringed.

This is unlikely to be a success, though, given the ideological differences between the protesters and those inviting the speaker in the first place. So a counter-event might be organised in a different building on campus. This has the same effect as the first recommendation by limiting the potential audience of the speaker.

Protesters might also hold some kind of rally outside the speaker’s venue. This should aim to raise awareness of the protesters’ views, rather than be geared towards the disruption of the speaker’s event — shutting that down would be an infringement of free speech rights.

The aim in protesting unpalatable speech, or even just viewpoints that you don’t personally agree with, should be to starve it of attention — not oxygen.

What this really means is that you shouldn’t be aiming to silence it completely, but shine a light on how and why it is wrong. By silencing, we drive unpalatable speech underground. It festers. It grows in terms of its resentment to its silencers. And it bubbles up to the surface with venom.

Don’t be complicit in this. Don’t let the resentment grow, but help such individuals, and the broader community, to see why such views are unacceptable or wrong.

Similarly, don’t assume that you have the right to an audience. Yes, you have the right to express yourself in any way you see fit (short of incitement to violence), but nobody has the right to demand that other people consume their opinions.

Freedom of expression does not equate to the right to insist that you are heard. What it does mean, though, is that you have an absolute and inalienable right to set out, clearly and coherently, why your views are better than those of your opponents.

That is a central part of the “marketplace of ideas” — you need to prove your worth in such a market, rather than asserting your value in an authoritarian way. Acknowledging this nuanced distinction between the freedom of expression and the right to be heard leads to one simply recommendation — use your free speech wisely.

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The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Craig Harper

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Social psychologist and researcher interested in controversial ideas and decision-making. Posts represent personal views.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

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