Why Do You Care About Free Speech?
With all the electrons and ink spilt over the righteousness of free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, we knew it would only be a matter of time before the contrarians raised their anti-Hebdo voices, cautioning us not to beatify the Charlie Hebdo authors, or France itself. Fortunately, they can be found on both the sorta right (David Brooks is a branded-conservative pundit writing for the branded-liberal New York Times) and the sorta left (Arthur Chu is most famous for being a dick player on Jeopardy! and writes in the branded-left-leaning Daily Beast).
So now anyone who wants to can play the Both Sides Do It card. Which would be a little bit shallow. Consider this bit from Chu, who makes a piercing cultural diagnosis he traces back to how free speech in the USA gets used in practice:
We have a problem where we feel like everything has to be boiled down into black-and-white “sides” and where the enemy of your enemy must be your friend—where in order to condemn the actions of horrible murderers we have to elevate their victims into sainthood. Hence fervent debate over whether or not Mike Brown stole five dollars’ worth of cigars, as though that has any bearing on whether or not it was okay to shoot him.
Yeah, that’s a correct assessment of a very unfortunate byproduct of the politicized cultural polarization that plagues contemporary society. But Chu goes on:
… You see, I’m from the Internet. Things move pretty fast here compared to the “old media” world that Charlie Hebdo occupied, and I’ve already seen what happens when you get a culture that, rather than asking to what end we defend free speech, valorizes free speech for its own sake and thus perversely values speech more the more pointlessly offensive it is—because only then can you prove how devoted you are to freedom by defending it.
When the only thing you’re reverent of is irreverence, when the only thing you hold sacred is the idea that nothing is sacred, well, you eventually get chan culture, you get one long continuous blast of pure offensiveness and taboo-breaking for taboo-breaking’s sake until all taboos are broken and there’s nothing left to say. You get people who shout racial slurs in unbroken succession all day and think they’ve accomplished something in the name of “free speech” by doing so.
Well, that’s their right in a free country. It may be fun and it may get them paid, until oversaturation ruins our sense for irony and destroys the market for it.
Brooks actually comes round to the same place as Chu, albeit in a more erudite expression:
…[W]hatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.
We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.
But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others.
So wait a minute. Free speech is good, but what it does to us as a culture is bad? I don’t quite get it. Maybe they’ve missed the point completely! Isn’t it perfectly obvious that the puerility of Charlie Hebdo’s speech, or that of any sort of crude, offensive humor, is quite irrelevant? Cue Tina Fey:
When you look at that, or you look at even the controversy surrounding The Interview, it makes you remember how important free speech is, and it absolutely must be defended, and you cannot back down on free speech in any way. … we’re American and even if it’s dumb jokes in ‘The Interview,’ we have the right to make them.
It’s our right to say awful things! The wisdom of saying them is quite irrelevant.
And that’s because all of these statements and expressions of people seemingly rushing to trample one another to the front of the queue as the foremost free speech advocate ever beg the question of why do we care so much about free speech? What is its purpose?
I’ve identified five plausible reasons why, maybe, free speech ought to be elevated as a particularly important value, reasons that I hope will transcend any particular form of government or even any particular culture (with one exception).
A) Free speech is an inherent good. That seems the easiest thing to say — but it strikes me as the hardest thing to justify. Why something is inherently good is rarely obvious and requires constructing some rather abstract philosophical structures, which often enough fails because it’s really just verbose intuition. Intuition isn’t good enough. Further, advocates of free speech as an inherent value must address the seeming inevitability of cultural and intellectual erosion predicted by Chu and Brooks and seemingly playing out at fast-forward speed in the culture before us as we watch aghast because of course none of us are guilty of participating in that phenomenon ourselves.
B) Free speech is the road to the truth. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. She seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known & seldom welcome. She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men. Error indeed has often prevailed by the assistance of power or force. Truth is the proper & sufficient antagonist to error.” and later in his life, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Jefferson often ruminated on what we would call the “marketplace of ideas” particularly with respect to religion, while being cagey (and likely inconstant) in his own consideration of the divine.
C) Free speech is a necessary incident of self-government. (Which, of course, begs another question, of why self-government is so great, and some people don’t think it is.) James Madison: “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Without a robustly free arena for the circulation of opinions and ideas, democracy is not possible; we cannot select our leaders or voice our approval or disapproval of what our government does without a forum in which to do so. A narrow focus of this view would grant high levels of free speech to explicitly political subject matter but permit (though not necessarily encourage) restrictions on matters less directly political, while a more broad focus would suggest that cultural issues form the curtilage of political matters because they form normative values that necessarily will evolve over time.
D) Divergence of opinion is inevitable and must be accommodated. People are going to dissent and circulate unorthodox points of view even in the presence of seemingly overwhelming censorship — on pretty much all matters imaginable. Society might expend massive resources squelching this sort of thing, but the accumulated history of humanity demonstrates that even the most thought-repressive society inevitably would still fail to prevent the circulation of ideas that those in power would squelch. So it’s better to have an environment where substantially all speech and ideas are tolerated, because it frees up resources that can be devoted elsewhere, and thus serves as a bulwark of the Establishment rather than as a sapper beneath it.
E) Free speech promotes peace. Jon Stewart: “…[F]or the most part, the legislators and journalists and institutions that we jab and ridicule are not, in any way, the enemy. For however frustrating or outraged the back and forth can become, it’s still back and forth conversation amongst those on, let’s call it, Team Civilization.” (Emphasis added.) When we have freedom of speech, we don’t need to resort to guns and swords and violence to resolve our differences of opinion. Instead, we get to argue, we get to debate, we get to persuade.
This list of reasons need not be mutually exclusive, of course, and it need not be exhaustive. Nor need it be correct in premise: it may be the case that what we really value is only “free speech for me, but not for thee.” After all, popular or uncontroversial speech does not need any form of protection.
If we do not consider and remember why we value free speech, I see a real danger that it become simply F) a tradition of our tribe, a marker of why our tribe is better than all those other tribes.
Image sources: wikimedia commons.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.