Thursday, 25 February 2016

Notes on Free Speech

It's difficult to think of a golden era for free-speech in the world. This is puzzling when one considers how much of the rhetoric on the topic invokes an oncoming dystopia in which we lose our precious freedoms. Whether we are discussing the increase of government power to disrupt public protest or criticising rise of the social justice left and their programme of no plat-forming, both narratives subtly imply that there was a time when anyone was free to say anything and not face any consequences ever.
Of course, the "anyone free to say anything and not face any consequences ever" bit is somewhat farcical: which is probably why no one really defends it when pressed on it. As it stands, you have a right to say what you want but others do not have an obligation to offer you material support or withhold criticism from you and your works. Typically the philosophical framework that supports such an argument rests on a dichotomous public/private conception of society: freedom of speech is seen as a civil "public" right, an agreement between you and the government, not a private obligation between particular individuals or their institutions.
Regardless, it seems difficult to find any period of time where contentious artists didn't face attempts to ban or boycott their work and where protests were roundly tolerated with no foul play on the part of the police.  In light of the history of censorship it's important to view free-speech as a struggle, an ongoing questioning and drawing of boundaries, rather than a concrete liberty.  Free speech isn't a magical place that exists in the past and while we may be tempted to view it as a possible utopian destination for our future, this is a similarly questionable conception. The bulwarks against total freedom of expression - the right to say anything anywhere to anyone anytime and never face any consequences for it ever - are often far too reasonable or ingrained into the human psyche as to be banished conclusively.

To clarify, here are what I consider to be two core reasons for defending free speech:

Firstly it is, in a very basic way, central to any notion of ethical individualism or moral conscience. It's also methodologically encouraged by our need to have a full variety of conclusions available to us in order to the deliberate effectively. These two elements dictate how one normatively evaluates today's issues.
As noted earlier there is a sound philosophical argument for withdrawing support and denying a platform to positions or voices you disagree with. Of course this philosophical argument is nestled within the assumptions of classical liberal thought - and like many aspects of classical liberalism is somewhat short-sighted. While not engaging with or providing resources to one's opponents is not a direct interference with their freedom of speech, the methodological/epistemological reasons for promoting free-speech are forgotten here.  When a person or movement is no plat-formed the wider public and both sides of the debate are deprived of valuable dialogue.

 This argument - that freedom of speech includes dialogue not just expression - would seem to condemn the no-platform tactic out of the box.  This is not necessarily so. There are a plurality of valid and serious factors in need of considering when hosting any sort of contentious debate. In particular when one is hosting a debate where ideas that you find to be morally abhorrent are being expressed. 
A host must seriously consider whether the debate will make people feel threatened or perhaps provide unwanted publicity for a dangerous movement or idea. The simple truth is that not all debates are worth having: not even from a specific political perspective but from a simple concern for the well-being of others. For instance, there is plenty of room to debate the merits of various vaccination programmes and there is some duty to provide room for all sides of the argument but when the anti-vaccination movement raises its voice it is generally innocent children who suffer as a consequence of people buying into their rhetoric.

Outside of handing a megaphone to morally abhorrent or damaging opinions one must also consider whether there is really a debate to be had. Are physicists obligated, by the values of free-speech, to debate psychics? At what point does a crank perspective of reality or politics begin to warrant debating in the public arena?
We have never had un-interrupted freedom of speech and, so long as we are forced to take a pluralistic approach to evaluating the merits of a debate, we never will. The fundamental dynamics of censorship are still intact and it doesn't look like they will go away. So long as we recognise that there are cases in which debate is un-necessary or potentially harmful, a case by case approach is unfortuntely required. There will most definitely be cases in which the spirit of such an evaluation is perverted: cases where the debate or object of concern is warranted, benign but blocked due to an irrational fear that previous political and philosophical commitments might be shattered.

This may seem somewhat defeatist but we have to remember that the "say anything, anytime" alternative is a poor substitute. The values of free-speech can only be realistically sustained as part of a culture that can patiently take calculated risks and deal with the other ethical concerns that arise in the process of mediating a diverse culture

*Not least because a world in which a person's words can never be held against them would be severly dysfunctional to say the least.  

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