Hi all, hope you are keeping well. In my last two posts I detailed the history of Freedom of Speech and I’m now to continue with my thoughts on the topic, I strongly encourage you after reading to share your thoughts too. Regardless of what platform you are on, it’s an important conversation we need to have. Please too, comment here and let me know your thoughts. I don’t really know how to write about this topic, I know I will never be able to do it justice. However, I will try. I will have to defer to ideas from far better minds than mine, but I feel it is worth it and somewhat important. The history of Freedom of Speech is closely linked to the history of censorship, but what’s good about Freedom of Speech and what’s bad about it? What limits should be placed on it if any? These are the questions I will try to answer, mostly for myself to add to my working understanding of reality and society and to help me orientate myself in the world.
So, where to start? I think liberty as a concept is a good place to begin, to do that I will defer to John Stuart Mill. He writes in On Liberty: “By liberty, was meant against the tyranny of political rulers. The rulers were conceived (except in some of the popular governments of Greece) as in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled. They consisted of a governing One, or a governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or conquest, who, at all events, did not hold it at the pleasure of the governed, and whose supremacy men did not venture, perhaps did not desire, to contest, whatever precautions might be taken against its oppressive exercise. Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty.” He writes of two ways this was attempted, first by recognition of immunities called political liberties or rights. Any breech of these by the ruler was regarded as a breach of duty, which would legitimise any specific resistance or general rebellion. The second was the establishment of constitutional checks or a body of sort said to represent the will of its people, this was made a necessary condition to the more important acts of government. “A time, however, came, in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to themselves. It appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government would never be abused to their disadvantage. By degrees, this new demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers. As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannising over itself. Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made.” Mill goes on to dispel such a myth that such an elected body needs no limits of power over themselves, pointing out that the people who exercise power are not always the same people with whom power is exercised over. “The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.” He goes on: “There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.
But though this proposition is not likely to be contested in general terms, the practical question, where to place the limit—how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control—is a subject on which nearly everything remains to be done.” Here we discover the crucks of liberty including of Freedom of Speech. “No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that. Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their anti-social ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest.” (SIC) This comes down to the assumption in infallibility “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” To deny people the right to express contrary ideas is to assume the infallibility of one’s own, at the same contradicting that assumption. If one’s idea is infallible and good why fear any challenge to it? “…for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility…” (SIC) That is why the Freedom of Speech is good, it is a protection against our fallibility.
Further to that the Freedom of Speech is the freedom to think, for speech is an extension of thought I higher mode of it and again writing is further still a higher mode of thinking. Speech and writing are an non private mode of thought that allows ideas to be spread and challenged, as like a simulator before an idea is put into practice. Stopping in effect bad ideas from killing us as best as our fallibility will allow. Mills writes on making the argument against such a proposition: “The objection likely to be made to this argument, would probably take some such form as the following. There is no greater assumption of infallibility in forbidding the propagation of error, than in any other thing which is done by public authority on its own judgment and responsibility. Judgment is given to men that they may use it. Because it may be used erroneously, are men to be told that they ought not to use it at all? To prohibit what they think pernicious, is not claiming exemption from error, but fulfilling the duty incumbent on them, although fallible, of acting on their conscientious conviction. If we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and all our duties unperformed. An objection which applies to all conduct, can be no valid objection to any conduct in particular. It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right. But when they are sure (such reasoners may say), it is not conscientiousness but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions, and allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind, either in this life or in another, to be scattered abroad without restraint, because other people, in less enlightened times, have persecuted opinions now believed to be true. Let us take care, it may be said, not to make the same mistake…” (SIC) He answers this saying “I answer that it is assuming very much more. There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”
While we freely admit the validity that of the arguments for free discussion and object to any extreme of such a position, it is strange and perhaps paradoxical that we imagine that we are not assuming infallibility; in such a matter. Mills writes: “…when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.” Witch I think begs the question, should there be limits or are there any justified limits of what people can say? In our modern-day Censorship seems to be growing, people left, right and centre are censored in life and in social media for their opinion that society deems certainly wrong, there is no more telling a use of censorship than in the political left today. This may be an unpopular opinion yet as much as fallibility can allow, it seems true. it is a case of social or social self-censorship, but is reaching now into the realm of governmental censorship. Where social media platforms are now working with government offices and special interest groups to control the flow of information and the public narrative that we all consume through it as well as news media. No more was censorship most evident in modern day than during the covid pandemic. This all has me concerned. Yet it remains is such censorship justified? One could argue that the limit of Freedom of Speech is when such speech endangers life or insights violence, this seems reasonable. However, we seem to have gone beyond that. Anything that is offensive is now subject to censorship if it is aimed at specific group and now labelled hate speech, what falls in the realm of hate speech has become increasingly broad. It is at the stage now that hate speech is considered a crime with penalties up to seven years in prison, even if such language is absent of any action. Eerily reminiscent of criticism of the catholic church in the 1200’s, perhaps with not so quite a severe penalty by law but certainly in terms of social repercussion. It has gotten to the point that one cannot question or criticize anything classified under hate speech laws, such as race, sex, disability, nationality, ethnic origin, religion, gender reassignment and sexual orientation. That is not to say I think one should harass, threaten or abuse any one of these categories of person, far from it. I feel such things as harassment, libel, threats and abuse are a legitimate limit to the Freedom of Speech. It is to say that such things can go to far, to the point that comedians can’t make jokes, religions cannot be criticized, and that debate cannot be had around such topics as to the age some medical procedures and treatments should be allowed. It has gotten to the point information is limited and suppressed and controlled around such topics as climate change, vaccination’s, government policy, immigration and crime and demographics. Such things as these censorships should not be permitted in a free society, in my opinion. So, in the supposed age of information, have we made the same mistakes as we have in the past? Are we heading backwards and creating new heresies? New thought crimes, blasphemies and seditions?
The main problem with such things as hate speech laws is that they are vague, self-contradictory and selectively applied, founded on emotive language rather than objective or legal language. As well as utopian ideas. Were harassment, abuse and liable laws would suffice hate speech laws are applied. Hate speech laws are an example of modern censorship, based around the idea of attacking someone where attack isn’t clearly defined. Who gets to decide what is hate and an attack, if history is anything to go by that would constitute anything a particular group finds critical or negative towards them. Usually followed by severe penalties. Given the definitions provided under hate speech laws anything and could be considered hate speech, depending on how it is interpreted. Something one day could be fine and the next deemed hate, such vagueness should not permeate the lives of individuals so such a degree that all people should be considered to have the same world view; to go against it is hate. Hate speech effectively renders all discourse illegal as hatred can be felt and expressed along any element of human experience, if applied evenly any topic imaginable be a potential source of hate speech, that is any speech that one person happens to find offensive, difficult, or painful could be considered an attack. Having hate speech laws sound like a good idea but given its vagueness it is wide open to interpretation, so much so that anyone can be made out to be in violation of it at any point in time. Sounding bad enough that the population in general would be hesitant to object to it. Yet for all that how ells would be deal with the hostilities and overt hatred of public life? There is a narrow portion of expression that harassment, abuse and libel don’t cover. The point I’m trying to make is that we need to be careful about how we apply such laws and if possible, better define them out of ambiguity and make them less ripe for abuse. So, as they don’t become a tool for the tyranny of the mob. It is evidently clear that there are cons to the Freedom of Speech, such as the spreading of false information, the invitation to violence towards others, verbal abuse, polarization of society, racism and sexism to name a few. These are the bad things about it, but I see far more prose than cons.
I think I will conclude this post here and say, it seems to me that Freedom of Speech is the corner stone of liberty, without it there is no freedom of thought, no freedom of expression and no free sharing of ideas. Any limits on the Freedom of Speech should be minimal and rationally justified and open to refutation. To not permit any contrary opinion, criticism or refutation on a topic, policy or idea is cowardice and shows a lack of confidence in such a topic, policy or idea as good and justifiable. Without the Freedom of Speech there can be no progress, society would stagnate, and people would suffer under the oppression of popular opinion. A clamp down on the Freedom of Speech is a mark of tyranny as history shows, inevitably directly or indirectly resulting in loss of life. As much as any incitement to violence, intolerance, hate and persecution in fact it leads to these very things. (as far as I can tell) My final word about it is that it needs balance, there should be consequences to speech; absolute free speech would be anarchy. So, in a sense Freedom of Speech isn’t free like all liberty it has a price, we are born free and come to society and agree to live by a set of limitations, we call these laws. As there should be laws to limit the power of government, to limit the tyranny of the mob and what actions are lawful; there should be some laws to limit what we say. Its how far we take them that will define us as society as well has how we come to them.
“The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.” (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty)
Thanks for reading my somewhat confused writings, I hope at some level they made sense to you, and I hope you got something from it. For myself I am left with more questions than answers, such as how one would strip ambiguity from hate speech laws and how that would look. many seem think the solution to hate speech is more speech not less, some part of me feels hate speech laws might a step in the wrong direction another part of doesn’t, I don’t find them hover to be to vague and ripe for abuse. I found it a confusing topic to write about but I’m glad I did, I have now the unwavering conviction that in the grand scheme of things Freedom of Speech is a force for good in the world and can form understanding around that, better compassion for other people’s views and a higher degree of tolerance for contrary opinions. As well as the speech has consequences not just for me as in individual but in the larger society, best to aim that speech towards liberty for all mankind. Please leave a comment let me know your thoughts. Stay well all.
In researching this other than On Liberty I read some articles on the topic, though I didn’t agree with everything these articles said I did take inspiration form them:
3 thoughts on “097 – Freedom of Speech – Part Three”
Very comprehensive. I think holding leaders to account was a bit more apparent in England after the abuse of power by Charles 1st in the 17th century. I do believe people should be allowed an opinion regardless of how offensive that is. But shouldn’t be allowed to enforce that with violence or hate towards others expressed through actions …
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I don’t disagree with you, thanks for commenting.
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Welcome 🙂 have a great day
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