Free speech advocates – or perhaps more accurately, free speech warriors (FSWs) – view themselves as championing and defending our individual right to freedom of speech. Generally, it seems most FSWs see this battle as a small, but necessary, fight in a much larger culture war against social justice warriors (SJWs) who, according to FSWs, are ‘post-modern cultural marxists’ (whatever that means) attempting to co-opt language to ultimately change our culture (whoever “our” is). So although saying we should not use (or perhaps ban) racial slurs or derogatory comments seems intuitive enough, FSWs claim it is a slow and slippery sloped path (logical fallacy pun intended) to a world in which our language is completely control by the government or the intelligentsia (whoever they are). The slogan often associated with FSWs is: “I might not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.
There is a lot to unpack there and, to be frank, I am bereft to enter into this at all. That said however, all I want to do in this entry is consider what it is we mean when we invoke “free speech”. It’s unclear to me precisely what ‘freedom’ or ’speech’ refer to, or if FSWs even understand how perhaps their own interpretation of ‘free speech’ might be problematic or inconsistent with other views they might hold. That aside, I want to quickly explore two interpretation of ‘free speech’ which are both problematic for different reasons.
The most naive interpretation of free speech I can think of would be as follows:
Naive Interpretation: exercising ‘free speech’ would be to express ones opinions in any way (i.e., ‘speech’) without receiving any criticism (whether legitimate or not) or incurring any punishment (whether social exclusion, de-platforming, or government intervention) (i.e., ‘free’).
I don’t think many would defend the naive interpretation because it is self-defeating. Not allowing for (i.e., banning of) criticism would be by itself a restriction of free speech. Second, if it is an expression of ones opinions in any way, then physical violence or destruction of property could be one of those ways. Since, all other things being equal, even the most staunchest of FSWs think such violence is unjustifiable (“I may agree with your message, but not your methods”) then we can restrict the ways people express themselves. Third, FSWs advocate for free speech precisely because it allows views and opinions to be criticised and put under public scrutiny – for doing so allows bad idea to die and good ones to flourish. I think these reasons are enough to rule out the naive interpretation of free speech.
Perhaps a more plausible interpretation can be given as follows:
Plausible Interpretation: exercising ‘free speech’ would be to express ones opinion in any non-violent way without receiving irrational criticism, or incurring any punishment (whether social exclusion, de-platforming, government intervention).
So, ‘speech’ here would be construed as an expression through a medium, whether verbally, written prose, or artistically (through art, music, poetry, etc.). We could allow for criticism, as longs the criticism was ‘rational’ which roughly means that the criticism is not based upon pure emotions or likes/dislikes. But this more plausible interpretation seems problematic too. We often think that incurring some sort of repercussion to be acceptable, and that these punishments are used in an attempt to curtail certain types of speech, while compelling others. The examples are numerous:
1. If someone were to cry out “fire!” in a crowded cinema, when in fact there was no fire, we would expect that person to be punished for causing social trouble and panic. We might even expect that person to be punished by the government or law enforcement of some kind.
2. If Jimmy keeps crying out “wolf!” when there is in fact no wolf, it seems a society might, and would be within their rights to, ostracise Jimmy as punishment (no government intervention required).
3. If someone enters into our home or place of business and says things (or does non-violent things) we disagree with or find disrespectful, intuitively we are within our rights to remove them (sometimes by force) from our premises.
4. Manners and respect are mechanisms of compelling speech. Demanding to be called by a title (Mr., Mrs., Ma’am, Sir, Dr., etc.,) or using ‘appropriate’ language (please, thank you, etc.,) and punishing those who refuse to use them is an attempt at forcing speech use upon another.
5. We demand that a person stop spreading fallacious and detrimental rumours about us, and we can invoke the law to intervene on our behalf.
These five examples show cases in which punishment can be induced by way of law enforcement, social groups, individuals, and a case in which speech can be compelled. These cases are cases in which we are intuitively fine with, yet are incompatible with the plausible interpretation, I take it that there is some serious problems here for those who wish to hold onto this view.
Perhaps another way to approach the problem is by thinking about how we conceive or understand ‘free’ in the first place. Think about the discussion surrounding free will, and whether we have it. Half the trouble is defining what we mean by ‘free’ in this context too. But nobody would think that to have a free will meant doing whatever it is that you want; just because I want to fly but cannot does not mean I am not free. “Free”, in this context, does not mean “unrestricted”. That is, you can be restricted (e.g., by the laws of nature), and still be ‘free’.
Perhaps in the same way “free speech” does not mean “unrestricted speech”, but rather setting appropriate boundaries about what can be said, and allowing a space in which people can explore.