Problems with the Third tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].
(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].
(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].
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In the last two posts I showed that there are serious tensions between (1) and (2), and (2) and (3). In this post, I explain how there are problems between (1) and (3), because there are cases in which our emotive responses are considered adequate grounds to limiting what what we should say. These emotive responses can generate moral reasons and behaviour requirements we sometimes describe as ‘etiquette’.

One problem with (1) is that ethics can restrict what we can say. A problem with (2) is that sometimes our feelings dictate whether a particular claim about a situation involving ethics, can depend upon our feelings. In light of this, we can see that, for any claim involving feelings as the basis of whether some claim is true or false, then those emotions, by proxy, legitimately limit what we can say.

It is generally taken that hurting another’s feelings, all other things being equal, is something you should not do. For example, you should not say to someone that you think they are ugly or stupid. And you should not do so precisely because being told those things can cause a great deal of pain within the person. The fact that such words can cause such anguish seems to generate a moral commitment then to not say such things.

Our language and moral concepts show how sensitive we are to this. If someone says such harsh words (e.g., you are incredibly fat, fatso), we label such a person ‘rude’, ‘cruel’, ‘mean’, etc. to indicate a character flaw of the person. And if someone does it enough, and is unapologetic about it, we often disassociate from the person or otherwise remove them from discourse, sometimes based solely upon these grounds. We might even go so far as to say they lack basic human empathy.

These observations about common courtesy and our reactions to violations of it, indicate that we believe basic manners hold moral ground. If so, then our feelings in such cases should be taken as serious grounds for limiting speech acts.

Now while this may be true all other things being equal, it seems obvious that there appear to be cases in which truth can overrule such feelings. For example, telling someone they did a poor job fixing your kitchen sink might cause them anguish, but intuitively the truth in such a case trumps their feelings. But note that all this objection does is highlight that the truth sometimes is adequate grounds for hurting someones feelings. It might be the case that ‘sometimes’ is most of the time, or barely any of it, but truth does not give us, in virtue of simply being true, grounds for saying it.

To that end, there are clearly cases in which feelings trump truth. We judge a parent who  tells their child they are bad or inadequate at some task harshly, even if what they say is true. And we consider it morally reprehensible because in such cases the feelings of the individual trump the facts of the matter. Even in cases where the parent must break ‘harsh truths’ on their child, it is not done for truths sake, but rather, to help the child in the long run. Note here that it isn’t even truth, but moral reasons that permit truth to be spoken.

But emotive responses and feelings do not just give adequate grounds for limiting what one can say – they can also legitimately compel speech acts.

The domain of etiquette appears to be another place in which emotive responses can dictate what we should and should not say. Manners such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, calling someone by their title (‘Doctor’, ‘Professor’, ‘Senator’, ‘Your Honour’, etc.). Particular types of words common within a linguistic community (workplace, golf club, nursing home, etc.) to indicate inclusion and respect can be compelled. Not keeping to the language of a linguistic community often indicates a lack of respect, rudeness, or arrogance, and persons and groups will ostracise a violator of the etiquette. Etiquette also limits what we say. Expletives, expressing disinterest, openly questioning or criticising another, or otherwise can have disastrous effects for the violator of etiquette.

And how are manners and etiquette generated? An obvious answer lies in emotions and feelings: people feel very deserving of being respected, and not doing so will trigger a serious emotional reaction if they aren’t. So, it seems etiquette rules are generated precisely around things people feel so sensitively about. And since we take rules of etiquette, manners, and basic common courtesy, as things that limit or compel speech acts, it appears again that emotions can legitimately limit what we should, or should not, say.

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Problems with The second tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].

(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].

In the last post I showed that (1) is not true, since morality and truth appear to be things that legitimately restrict what we can say. And while truth and ethics might limit our speech we do not, intuitively, take these restrictions as violating free speech.

In this post, I’ll explain how there is serious tension between (2) and (3), since there are some propositions which has their truth value turn upon how we feel. Such propositions are those that relate directly to our feelings while others are moral claims that primarily involve ‘harm’ (as understood in both consequentialist and deontological thought).

To begin, let us consider propositions involving feelings or emotions. Consider the following. Suppose two teams, Red and Blue, are playing a game of football (soccer). The final score is 5 – 0, in the red’s favour. Suppose we make the following claims: 

1. Blue lost to Red.

2. All the players on Blue are happy they lost.

3. All the players on Red are happy they won.

4. Most of the players on Blue are angry because they think Red cheated to win.

The above propositions have truth values; the claims are either true or false (or perhaps both or neither). Claim 1. and 2. are false, while Claim 3. and 4. are true. What makes the respective claims true or false? The claims seem to depend on facts of the matter, but some of these facts are not independent of feelings. The truth values of claims 2, 3, and 4, are somewhat predicated upon the feelings of the players of those teams. Since this is the case, it means that (3) is false, because some claims do require us to consider a persons (or group of persons) emotions or feelings, then for such claims our reasoning on them requires taking into consider the feeling of others.

Now, we might want to say that (2) still holds, because even if the truth of some proposition hinges upon feelings that does not mean we take consideration of feelings as an extra condition. For feelings would only matter in virtue of them grounding a truth claim – but the thing that makes them worth noting is that they are true and not that they are feelings. Perhaps an argument can be made here, but the point remains that truth and feelings are still not as inseparable as FSCs think they are.

Another problem about the dichotomy placed between (2) and (3) involves ethics and morality. It appears that certain types of claims about morality and ethics, especially surrounding under what conditions a person is wronged, are problematic.

If we adopt a theory of ethics similar to consequentialism or hedonism, the wrongness or an action depends upon the harm it produces. And considering the most intuitive way of understanding harm along consequentialist lines involves a persons emotive response, then it appears again that the conflict between (2) and (3) arises. Worse still, in cases such as these the truth of whether an action is wrong or not depends entirely upon that feeling. 

The same problem still seems to exist in deontological ethics with regards to consent. Consider two different cases. In case one, Andy hits Byron square in the jaw during a robbery, knocking him out. In case two, Casey hits Dany square in the jaw during a boxing match, knocking her out. Who was harmed, Byron or Dany? In terms of violation of consent, Byron has been harmed whereas Dany has not. Reason being that as part of a boxing match, Dany has waved her right to not be physically assaulted (i.e., consented), whereas Byron has been physically assaulted on the street and did not give consent for such behaviour to be done to him. 

Note, however, that the fact of whether Byron or Dany were harmed in such cases depends upon the subjective opinion of the person who was hit. Whether such waving of consent can be counted as a feeling or emotion seems doubtful to me, but the hard line that so many FSCs draw between facts and a persons subjective experience seems problematic at best, especially when we consider ethical truths or propositions.  

So it seems that (2) is too strict a claim and is not sensitive to the fact that some truth claims can be dependent upon our feelings or emotions. Considering (3) states that such feelings should never be inputs into our reasoning for (2), then it’s not entirely clear at all how we could ever evaluate claims dependent upon feelings or emotions. 

Problems with the First Tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].

(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].

In that previous post I outlined why such beliefs might be attractive. In this entry I will consider the following problem for FSCs: there is a tension between (1) and (2) because, intuitively, truth is a condition that does, and should, limit what one can say, and therefore limits our speech acts. I consider what other conditions might legitimately curtail speech acts. Finally, I offer a reply to the common objection that any limitation – even a legitimate one – can, or will, lead down a slippery slope. This slop, it is commonly asserted will result in government censorship, the end of Individual Freedom and rise of Authoritarian Left-Wing Fascism (such sentiments can be found in one of Marcus “Count Dankula” Meechan’s popular video, “The Platform Monopoly“).

Let’s begin with the first tension: truth is, intuitively, a condition that does, and should, limit what one can say, and therefore restricts speech.

It seems to be a widespread intuition that telling the truth is the default thing to do unless we are given a good reason to do otherwise. That is, telling the truth is what you must do (all other things equal) precisely because it is the truth. The tension between FSC tenets (1) and (2) becomes obvious: if telling the truth is what we must do because truth it is a fundamental value, then there is (at least) one condition that justifiably causes us to censor, limit and curtail our speech acts.

One would hope that even the staunchest of FSCs would be sensitive to this, agreeing that lies and falsehoods should be banned (although they probably wouldn’t use the word ‘ban’ because of connotations to censorship). They might say then, that truth is the only condition that should limit what one can say. Yet truth does not seem to be the the only condition; morality and ethics seem to legitimately limit speech acts.

I take it that, if one believes free speech is a fundamental human right, then it is not the only right we have. If that is the case, then there will be circumstances in which those other rights will conflict with our right to say whatever we want.  One obvious right is the right to not be harmed. Admittedly, what constitutes a harm is vague and ill defined. Regardless, I think it is intuitive enough to say that if a speech act causes harm to another then that speech act should be forbidden. At the very least, it seems correct that certain types of harm should limit what one can say (as famously put forward and defended by John Stewart Mill). And if we cash out free speech as having some sort of function or purpose in a society, then any speech act that threatens to undermine that purpose should not be protected. For example, one might advocate for free speech because it is an expression of our autonomy (such defences are explored by Brison). If so, then any speech act that undermines a person’s autonomy should not be protected (for doing otherwise would be to devalue and comprise the very thing speech was meant to honour).

What we might summarize the points as follows. Free speech is but one of many values we hold. Given the obvious fact that in some circumstances values can clash, it is highly likely that free speech will be, and should be, trumped by one of these other values in certain circumstances. If FSCs take this seriously then it is clear they have a large oversight within their core tenets that must be either resolved or revised.

One common objection made by FSCs is appealing to a slippery slope. While never explicitly stating it in any formal way, we can roughly summarize the concern they raise as follows. A particular change, or limit, to speech (even if acceptable) will lead (perhaps inevitably) to some intolerable limits to speech or other disastrous results (such as censorship, and/or Fascism). While there might be some historical precedent for such a claim, FSCs often treat the slippery slope as something that we will get on if we limit speech in the currently considered way (such as hate speech).

What FSCs fail to realize, it seems, is that we are already on that slope. Whether we have slid too far one direction or another is what the debate should be about, rather than couching this objection as claiming that adding new items to the list of things we shouldn’t say is somehow the action of getting on the slope. And the fact we are on the slope, and whether we could slip further down it, tells us nothing about whether we actually will slip down, or if it is unjustified or wrong to do so.

Of course, it is possible for some limits to speech might lead to further restrictions, but the again they might not. Yet even if limitations in the immediate case do lead to further restrictions later on, those other limitations might also be justified because of the truth and moral/ethical conditions I outlined above.

What I have said thus far is that the naive free speech tenet and the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet are at odds, and that there seems to be other conditions, like moral or ethical reasons, for limiting what one can or can’t say. The reason seems to be that the value of free speech can in some cases be in direct competition with our other values. And in such cases those other values can, and sometimes must, limit our speech.

What I have not said is whether the government or state can enforce these standards. There seem to be some cases which it is intuitively acceptable for a state to intervene and punish, and other times not. And other times it is intuitively acceptable for a community to intervene and punish, and other times not. It is a difficult problem which I have not thought about enough, nor is it a problem within the scope of this essay.

But whatever the case, FSCs need to accept that free speech does not mean unrestricted, and that legitimate restrictions do not diminish our freedoms. Once they truly accept this and begin engaging with why precisely, certain immediate cases like ‘hate speech’ need a legitimate argument against them (besides saying ‘hate speech’ doesn’t exist) if they are to make any traction.