Measured Against Reality

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Why Free Speech is Necessary

I got a bit more negative reaction to my recent free-speech post than I was expecting. This is one of those things I find so obvious that I didn't really consider that any thinking person would disagree with me. I realize now that this is not the case, and I will briefly present the rationale behind my stance.

I think that the case against the "total and complete" free speech position that I take is most sensibly voiced by commenter JeNn:

I think you're inflating the importance of freedom of expression. Heck, it's probably because people like you think it's ok that "if they want to make a big effigy of Muhammad and burn it then they should be able to do that too" that Muslim extremists are able to recruit radicals so easily - because they can then justifiably say that Americans are bigoted and disrespectful of the beliefs of other people.

I would argue that freedom of expression is not a right; it's a privilege that's accorded to responsible and mature people who will not abuse this power to influence others. If you're going to abuse the religious beliefs and cultural identities of others under your right to freedom of expression, you're just going to create discord and make the world a worse place than it already is.

Even if it is a right, it should still be exercised responsibly, with respect and brevity. That's why censorship exists, because they're impressionable people who could easily be influenced negatively and because they're irresponsible people who would use this to their advantage.

In short, I think your stand's too extreme. I'm all for freedom of speech and whatnot, but not if it's going to cause me to turn against my neighbours or create a climate of fear and social instability. Better safe and alive than living in fear under a false distorted notion of freedom.


This is about as well as I've seen it put, so I'm going to argue against this (and more or less only this).

First, the slippery slope. I don't generally like slippery-slope arguments, but here it is totally valid. If my (admittedly ridiculously extreme) example of burning an effigy of Muhammad shouldn't be allowed, where do we draw the line? Am I allowed to call Islam stupid? Am I allowed to condemn radicals? Am I allowed to condemn the moderates who allow the radicals to get away with their radicalism? Am I allowed to criticize Islam at all, on any level? I don't think that there's a clear place to draw the line, and trying to put it at something like "respectful criticism" just won't work, because to many people the only respectful criticism is none. We're seeing this happen in Europe right now, where people are being sent to prison for criticizing Catholicism, and the UN is trying to go the same for Islam (and presumably other religions).

If you put the cutoff somewhere, then what's stopping someone from moving it? If I say "Christianity is full of shit", should I be arrested? What if I say "I believe that Christianity is wrong"? It's the same exact statement, one is just worded provocatively. If I can't use provocative language, then I've effectively been neutered as a writer.

And moving further along the slope, what stops people from banning unpopular but valid opinions? What's stopping the grand arbiters of censorship from declaring the President (or any politician/party/idea) beyond critique? You could try to put careful laws in place, but once you do that you're setting precedent for outlawing more and more speech. What starts as a campaign to keep the mouths of the citizens clean and decent could very, very easily result in stifling dissent. I think everyone can agree that is a very, very bad thing.

Moving past the slippery-slope, we get to "Speech is a privilege, not a right." I can't think of any new way to combat this other than to say, "Says who?" Every document I know of (which I will admit is only the UN Declaration of Rights and the US Bill of Rights) explicitly lists freedom of speech as a universal, unalienable human right. Saying that speech is a privilege is pretty silly when it's so universally regarded as a right.

Moving on to offensive speech. No counting the slippery-slope arguments against restricting offensive speech, I only have one left: No one has the right to not being offended. I'm not certain where this idea came from, but it's flat-out stupid. If I say something that offends you, have you not considered that it might be your problem? If the offensive remark is baseless, then you can dismiss it out of hand, but if the remark has a basis in truth, then perhaps you need to reconsider your beliefs. For example, offensive racial remarks speak loudly about the person saying them. However, offensive religious remarks tend to speak loudly about the religion (or at least that's my view).

People sometimes forget how powerful a tool indignation is. Some of the best, most powerful, and most poignant works are offensive or controversial, and that's precisely why they're so powerful. TV shows like South Park use ridicule as a tool to point out flaws in people and organizations, and it works. Taking that away would kill an entire means of expression and argument, perhaps the most effective one.

JeNn mentioned Islamic extremists being inspired by acts against their religion, and perhaps they are (however, extremism is built into Islam itself, and I very much doubt that the actions of individuals in the west inspire radicals in the Middle-East). But if they are, is that the fault of our speech? Should we kowtow to their demands? Again I refer to South Park, that did a brilliant two-parter on exactly this topic:

Woman: Mr. President, we're awaiting your orders!
Kyle: Sir, just think about what you're doing to free speech!
Cartman: No! Think about the people who could get hurt!
FOX President: Ah... I don't know who to listen to!
Cartman: Okay, I'll make it easy for you. [pulls out a gun and aims it at the president] Pull the Mohammed episode, now!
FOX President: Okay, I'll listen to you. [gets back to the phone] Julie?
Kyle: Noo! Wait! You can't listen to him! He's a lying deceitful monster who only wants Family Guy off the air!
FOX President: But he has a gun.
Kyle: You can't do what he wants just because he's the one threatening you with violence!
Cartman: Shut up, Kyle!
FOX President: I can't be responsible for people getting hurt. Especially me.
Kyle: Yes, people can get hurt. That's how terrorism works. But if you give into that, Doug, you're allowing terrorism to work. Do the right thing here.
Cartman: Give the orders to pull the episode, Mr. President!
FOX President: I shouldn't even be in the office still. It's supposed to be half-day Friday.
Woman: Mr. President, thirty seconds to airtime. What do you want us to do?!
Kyle: Do the right thing, Mr. President.
FOX President: How about I allow the episode to air but, just censor out the image of Mohammed again.
Kyle: I wish that was good enough, but if you censor out Mohammed, then soon you'll have to censor out more.
Cartman: No gay speeches, Kyle!
Kyle: If you don't show Mohammed, then you've made a distinction what is okay to poke fun at, and what isn't. Either it's all okay, or none of it is.
Woman: Five seconds, Mr. President! [the programmer J. Walker has his finger hovering on the button]
Kyle: [softly] Do the right thing. Show Mohammed. [Cartman still has his gun on the president] Do. The right. Thing.
Woman: Mr. President, we need a decision now!
FOX President: Family Guy goes on air as planned. Uncensored.


This has been quite long. Perhaps I haven't addressed everything, I probably can't. But I hope that I've convinced some people that free speech is not a privilege, or even just a right, it is a necessity. If you live in society where your speech is restricted in any way, you do not live in a free society. It's just that simple.

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9 Comments:

  • JeNn, your interpretation of free speech as a privilege rather than a right is dead wrong -- and dangerous. Free speech is not bestowed on a citizenry by its government; it's a "natural right" that transcends any particular political situation. Yes, a government can try to withhold that right, but no regime can grant it.

    If all speech were cute and cuddly, as you, JeNn, seem to wish, then there would have been no need to single out the right of free speech for special Constitutional protection. But the First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." This phraseology clearly implies that some speech is expected to be anti-establishment, disruptive to complacency, or even offensive to most members of society.

    There are no gradations of free speech; speech is either free or it's not. As Justice Hugo Black said, no law means no law.

    By Blogger The Exterminator, at 10:15 AM, April 11, 2007  

  • I think JenN should read Brave New World. It sounds like her style, stability above everything else.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:18 PM, April 11, 2007  

  • I agree with you 100%.

    By Blogger Harry_Googler, at 11:21 PM, April 11, 2007  

  • Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that free speech is a privilege per se. I'm just pointing out that I don't see why it should be a 'natural right' just because it's stated in the Universal Charter of Human Rights. After all, the world used to think that the Earth was flat. Consensus does not make truth.

    That said, I do believe that free speech is a right; I just think that it's not as important as some would have it believed.

    Meanwhile, even rights can be withdrawn from time to time. A person's right to freedom is taken away from him when he is imprisoned for doing wrong. His right to life is denied when he is sentenced to death for murder. When someone infringes upon the rights of others in society, he is essentially giving up some of his rights. That's how law and justice work, no?

    That's how freedom of speech should work. It shouldn't be a free-for-all system where everyone can say anything they like without expecting to cause consequences, and therefore take responsibility for them. No man is an island, after all. 'anonymous' has completely misinterpreted me in saying that I do believe in stability above 'everything else'; in actuality, I just don't believe in unnecessary instability due to a FALSE (I repeat, FALSE) notion of what free speech really is.

    How would I define free speech then? I'd say it's the liberty to speak anything you like, so long as you can justify it and so long as it is justified (i.e. you can't just say you can justify it but refuse to substantiate your claims).

    I would presume that you agree with this definition, since you asked, "What stops people from banning unpopular but valid opinions?" The word "valid" implies the opinions are justifiable, since how else can you show something to be valid?

    It's got nothing to do with how provocative the statement is, although admittedly the more highly charged the language, the greater the burden of having to justify the use of such language.

    It's ok, for example, for Chaz Braman of RussellsTeapot.com to say whatever he does about Christianity since he actually quotes from the Bible. (Although it doesn't mean that his interpretations are correct..) However, it's NOT ok if someone goes around saying "Christians are stupid!" without any evidence to show for it.

    I don't know how exactly you view Christians, but the Christians I know, myself included, are all reasonable people. If your remarks have a "basis in truth", or so you say, then fine. I enjoy reading the arguments against Christianity anyway. I won't cry foul and say that you should be censored for being insensitive to the religious beliefs of others.

    Similarly, it's not ok for people to poke fun at Prophet Mohammed at the expense of other people's beliefs if they don't actually critically analyze the religion. What you said about "extremism (being) built into Islam itself" is taken out of context in the Quran (just like so many verses in the Bible are misquoted.. *sigh*).

    I don't know much about Islam myself so I'll just cut and paste what a Muslim friend wrote:
    "There's stuff about jihad in the Quran because when it was first brought about, there were a lot of wars going on and Muslims were being repressed." I guess I'll take that to mean that extremism in Islam is only as a response to oppression to begin with. So yes, when people say without justification stupid things about Islam, the terrorists can well interpret that as marginalization and use it to recruit more extremists.

    When you say, "But if they are, is that the fault of our speech? Should we kowtow to their demands?" you're proving my point exactly about how free speech is being abused. You're essentially saying that it's all right to say anything you like, not necessarily with substantiation, without having to take responsibility and therefore consider the very real ramifications that may come about as a result of what you say. You're saying that even if what you say is helping to increase the numbers in Al Qaeda and indirectly causing the deaths of more innocent people amidst escalating terrorism, it's all right because it's your right to free speech!

    Now THAT'S what I call a false notion of free speech; when you're so happily indulging in that right that you no longer consider how it may affect the rights of others. Try the right to live! Try the right to have shelter over your heads, the right to food! All these fundamental basic rights are being threatened in places like the Middle East because bigots are irresponsibly insulting religions simply because they want to and they think they can.

    I think the South Park extract is cute, although I don't see how censorship of people like the "FOX President" allows terrorism to work. The most obvious point that comes to mind is that if you can shut down their channels of expressing their terrorist sentiments (i.e. censor them) it'll make it so much harder for them to influence other people into joining them.

    A more subtle one is that terrorists turn to, well, terrorism, because they feel ostracized in the first place. When you say more negative things about what they stand for, it's not going to help make them feel more accepted.

    At the end of this long commentary, I would just like to reiterate the fact that I AM for free speech. I support it as a human right, and I believe in it. I'm willing to protect that right. I'm just not going to exaggerate its importance and allow such a precious concept to be abused.

    By Blogger JeNn, at 7:30 AM, April 13, 2007  

  • This is going to be sort of rambling, because responses to responses generally are that way.

    First of all, people really didn’t used to think the Earth was flat (maybe they did at one point, but they didn’t in the Middle Ages, Washington Irving pretty much made that up). But that’s a pedantic point that I like to spread.

    All of the examples involve a person causing deliberate harm to someone else. I’ve said before that speech that causes deliberate harm (for example libel or yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater) is NOT protected, because it does cause deliberate harm (either monetary, physical, or to the reputation of the target). But both of those invoke the word deliberate, as in the person has to know that the words will cause harm, know that they’re false, and say them anyway. That’s the only kind of speech that can be banned (I’ll get back to how terrorism is involved with this later).

    Ok, we go with your definition of free speech, and let’s stick with my example “Christianity is full of shit.” Who decides if that statement is justified? I bet most people in America, if they had the chance, would gladly throw me behind bars for making (because I’ve upset their oh-so-delicate sensibilities). But I think it’s entirely justified (if a bad way of saying that the Christian religion is nonsense). If I were to say that, would I have to follow it up with a tirade against Christianity? Should I have to be able to back everything I say with a cogent, coherent argument?

    The problem with your ideas is that you assume that we have some dispassionate, independent arbiter of what is “justified” or “valid”. We don’t and we never will. As soon as we put someone in charge of this stuff will start getting banned, and it will turn into Brave New World or 1984 very, very quickly.

    It’s totally about how provocative the language is, maybe not for you, but for outraged people who demand to put restrictions on speech. The more provocative something is the more likely it will be noticed by someone and people will start to make a stir about it. A naked chocolate statue of Jesus or cartoons of Mohammed should be fine pieces of expression, but they piss people off.

    So I need to actually quote the bible in order to be safe from the guards of anti-Christian rhetoric? I don’t quote the bible very often because that just makes it too easy (when was the last time you kept kosher or slaughtered animals on the new moon? I’d like to see you interpret Deuteronomy or Leviticus metaphorically, that would be so much fun).

    Yes, the Christians I know are generally ok with criticisms of their religion (or so I would assume, I do have some tact and don’t go spouting off “Christianity is full of shit!” anywhere where someone might here it who doesn’t want to, unless they engage me first). But what about people like Jerry Falwell, or Bill Donohue? If they had their way, no one would ever, ever be able to criticize any aspect of their flavor of Christianity, and those men are revered by thousands of followers. You can’t possibly tell me that if we started to restrict how you could criticize religion and if Jerry Falwell were in charge of enforcing it, that I would be a free man. No way, no how.

    Terrorism is caused by lots of different things, but the reason that people in the Middle East hate us (us being the West in general and the US in particular) probably has something to do with our ridiculous meddling in their affairs, mostly our support of the creation (and maintenance) of Israel.

    But even if I grant you that me calling Mohammed a douchebag would create a bunch of terrorists (how they find out about it is beyond me), so what? Even if they go on to kill a bunch of people, is that my fault? Umm, no, it’s their fault. My roommate put it pretty well in saying that your argument (when it comes to terrorism) is like, “You shouldn’t criticize someone because they might flip out and kill people.” How someone reacts to what I say is completely not my problem, it’s theirs. You could call me anything, absolutely anything, say anything about my beliefs, about my loved ones, about my country, and I either wouldn’t care or would use my words to counter yours. If there are people in the world who aren’t like that, then it’s not my fault.

    You apparently missed the point of the South Park quote. If terrorists demand that we censor ourselves our they’ll start to kill people, and we censor ourselves, then we’ve given them exactly what they wanted and allowed terrorism to work. The entire point of terrorism is to scare people into giving you what you want, and giving is precisely what allows it work. By allowing it to work you’re giving the terrorists power, and that’s far worse than whatever set them off in the first place.

    I don’t really know if you think that terrorists are like five-year-olds who, instead of pouting in the corner kill people, but they’re not. Insulting their sensibilities isn’t what causes someone to walk into a bus full of school children and blow themselves up, there’s something more complicated at work.

    I say that if you don’t believe in a person’s right to say whatever they want whenever they want wherever they want (minus the “deliberate harm” stuff), then you’re not for free speech. Period.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 9:30 AM, April 13, 2007  

  • I'm kinda tired cuz it's really late here, so I shan't give a long reply. Just a minor point: "If terrorists demand that we censor ourselves our they’ll start to kill people, and we censor ourselves, then.."

    Thing is, they DON'T.

    By Blogger JeNn, at 9:38 AM, April 13, 2007  

  • now, i agree with the premise, but the fact that you are only able to justify free speech by appealing to "natural right" and the "bill of rights" and "universal declaration of human rights" is just not convincing.

    any bible thumper could appeal to his bible in the same manner, and you haven't done anything to show why one is better than the other or more valid.

    you also appealed to consensus when you said "universally regarded".

    first of all, is it really? i love my free speech and all, but i can easily doubt it.

    i want it, but i also have a hard time justifying it further than that.

    second -

    crap, i guess we better believe in god and creation due to consensus.

    maybe the latter example is a bit bad, as only a majority of americans do that. slighlty less than a majority of europeans, and i would bet the rest of the world has a strong majority of creation story belief.

    but 90+ percent of people believe in a god. it is probably more universally recognized than free speech.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:50 AM, April 13, 2007  

  • Anonymous, I'm not sure what article you read, but I spent a good bit of time saying that there's no practical way to limit speech without creating an state in which arbitrary limits are placed on speech. I don't even recall appealing to a natural right, just saying that it is widely regarded as a right that cannot be infringed upon.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 11:54 AM, April 13, 2007  

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