A More Modest Defense of Free Speech
At the risk of projecting, I think it’s hard for Americans of a certain age to envision lucid arguments against free speech. If forced to argue against free speech, we’d fail the ideological Turing test. Ever since the ACLU said fish you to its own membership and defended the right of Neo-Nazis to march in Chicago, many of us have taken the value of free speech as an inherently obvious.
But I’m a utilitarian. A world in which Neo-Nazis march isn’t as good as a world as one in which they don’t march. How then can I support free speech for Neo-Nazis?
The reason is that practically speaking, I don’t trust the processes we have for drawing lines around what is and isn’t allowed. Scott Alexander:
Suppose I am a radical Catholic who believes all Protestants deserve to die, and therefore go around killing Protestants. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, there might be some radical Protestants around who believe all Catholics deserve to die. If there weren’t before, there probably are now. So they go around killing Catholics, we’re both unhappy and/or dead, our economy tanks, hundreds of innocent people end up as collateral damage, and our country goes down the toilet.
So we make an agreement: I won’t kill any more Catholics, you don’t kill any more Protestants. The specific Irish example was called the Good Friday Agreement and the general case is called “civilization”.
Sure, I’d support making it illegal to say whatever things Neo-Nazis tend to say. I’d make it illegal to say bad things about free trade. I wouldn’t impose any restrictions on Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian, but I’d give everyone who criticizes them as part of a signaling ritual the Guantanamo Bay treatment.
But I assume there are those who’d do the same with me. We need ways to establish and maintain truces. In seeking to limit widespread boycotts to extreme situations, I noted that:
We have collectively decided that the real enemies are those who think their side winning is more important than complying with civilization’s implicit pact. We are perfectly happy to send missiles to weddings and funerals when we think we might kill one such person because we judge it to be that important.
This state of affairs is special not only within the scope of human history, but also special with respect to the tiny silver of time where there has been civilization.
In liberalized societies, it is normal to go to the store and buy something from someone who is a different race, religion, and political orientation. Sure, you can refuse to hire someone based on their sexual orientation, but if you were to actually ask your plumber about her sexual orientation before giving her the job, it would be intensely weird.
Free speech is another such equilibrium, a truce between otherwise sworn enemies to let us coexist peacefully. It is a remarkable achievement of liberalized society. It’s worth keeping around.