Saturday, April 15, 2017

Free Speech as an Endangered Commons

In a post titled, "Sacred Principles as Exhaustible Resources," Scott Alexander notes that in some left-wing circles the principle of free speech has become unpopular, regularly mocked Twitter as "freeze peach." And it isn't just leftists; one recent poll found that 34% of Americans think the First Amendment "goes too far." So, he says, people who want to defend free speech ought to be careful how they do it. He is therefore doubtful of the new club Harvard students have set up specifically to invite controversial speakers to campus:
I think of respect for free speech as a commons. Every time some group invokes free speech to say something controversial, they’re drawing from the commons – which is fine, that’s what the commons is there for. Presumably the commons self-replenishes at some slow rate as people learn philosophy or get into situations where free speech protects them and their allies.

But if you draw from the commons too quickly, then the commons disappears. When trolls say the most outrageous things possible, then retreat to “oh, but free speech”, they’re burning the commons for no reason, to the detriment of everybody else who needs it.

(This is how I feel about everything Milo Yiannopoulos has ever done or said.)

If Charles Murray sincerely believes what he says, thinks it’s important, and thinks that saying it makes the world a better place, then he is exactly the sort of person whom free speech exists to defend. And if someone in a college reads The Bell Curve, likes it, and wants to learn more, then free speech exists to defend them too. But if your thought process is “Who’s the most offensive person I can think of? Charles Murray? Okay, let’s invite him to give a big talk, put up flyers everywhere, and when people get angry we’ll just say FREE SPEECH”, I worry that you are drawing from the commons for no reason. And that sometime later, when people need to use the commons for things they actually believe, there won’t be any left. People will have gotten so reflexively hostile to the idea of “free speech” that they’ll reject even the barest amount of tolerance for even slightly divergent views.

This is even more pressing in the context of growing partisanship and tribalism. Because the debate centers on mostly-leftist areas like universities, conservatives are turning free speech into a conservative principle. This is a disaster, because something being a conservative principle pretty automatically means that liberals will be tempted to conspicuously desecrate it. If people actually care about free speech, the number one thing they can do right now is very loudly invoke it every time a liberal is silenced. We should be having giant free speech parades supporting everyone who’s punished for supporting Palestine, just to make sure liberals don’t get the impression that free speech is a weapon pointed at them.

The nightmare scenario is that “free speech” goes the way of “family values” – a seemingly uncontroversial concept gets so tarnished by its association with unpopular/conservative ideas that it becomes impossible to mention or invoke in polite company without outing yourself as some kind of far-right weirdo. Right now I think we’re on that path.
I do see the dynamic he is talking about, but I think his worry is overblown. For one thing Americans have never really been that big on freedom for speech they dislike, and we have at times made big swaths of speech that ought to be protected by the First Amendment effectively illegal. There are no actual sacred principles in our society, or probably in any other. So my question would be, is the threat posed to free speech by contemporary leftists any worse than the threat posed by anti-communists in the 1950s or Victorian prudes or any other powerful, highly motivated group? I don't see it.

The flip side of that, though, would be that there have always been threats to free speech, so it has always needed defending.


1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

The ex-NASA roboticist-turned-cartoonist Randall Munroe summed up a lot of my feelings on free speech quite eloquently.

"Public Service Announcement: The right to Free Speech means the government can't arrest you for what you say.

It doesn't mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it. The 1st Amendment doesn't shield you from criticism or consequences.

If you're yelled at, boycotted, have your show cancelled, or get banned from an internet community, your free speech rights aren't being violated.

It's just that the people listening think you are an asshole, and they're showing you the door."

If 34% of Americans think that the 1st Amendment goes too far, then I can only imagine that most of that number must not really know what the 1st Amendment actually says or does.

To suggest that the 1st Amendment goes too far is to suggest that you believe the government should be able to arrest people for dissent. And if you honestly want to live in a nation like that, might I suggest North Korea as being more in line with your views, or perhaps one of several African dictatorships?

Harvard students inviting controversial speakers to their school has absolutely nothing to do with Free Speech. The government does not enter into the equation.

That said, no one has any obligation whatsover to support these students, and every allowance to criticize and oppose them. If they choose to lay down with dogs, they have little grounds to complain about getting up with fleas. They should be prepared to suffer whatever consequences befall them (short of illegal acts). They have every right to embrace whatever speech they choose, but so too does the rest of society have every right to censure them for choosing to support abominable types of speech.

In the excerpt you supplied, Alexander talks at several point about the need to "invoke" free speech - and consequently demonstrates he has no idea what he's even talking about. There is literally only one reason to ever invoke free speech - when the government itself is suppressing your voice. If that isn't happening, then it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about free speech.

If someone refuses to let you speak at their college campus, your rights aren't being violated - you're just being shown the door. And on the flipside, if a college receives negative backlash for hosting speech which people find unacceptable, their rights aren't being violated - they're just suffering the consequences of their poor choices.