My Defence of Free Speech
Certainty, Doubt and Offence
Free speech may be the most important idea developed in the western world, but the way it has been attacked in recent times would seem like it’s one of the worst. Our memories do not serve us well. We are quick to forget everything it has done in the past - woman’s suffrage, gay rights and the civil rights movement - all these were achieved thanks to free speech. The same speech laws that protected these movements are the same ones that protect speech we view as abhorrent today.
It’s free speech for all, not just those you agree with.
Some of the main aggressors against free speech today are those with complete moral certainty and those who take offence. Quite often the two groups overlap. Sanctimonious individuals have always threatened to impede progress, fortunately, the right to speak one’s mind supersedes another’s offence and moral certainty.
Countries that restrict free speech the most, such as North Korea, Russia or China, are labelled anything from authoritarian to outright dictatorships.
It is hard to convey to a free person what it would be like to live in one of these countries. Your neighbour’s door is kicked in overnight, they’re dragged away and never seen again. You know you can’t talk about it or complain that it’s unfair, lest you succumb to the same fate. You just keep on living, pretending it didn’t happen, and praying that it never happens to you and your family.
There is no questioning of the state.
The authoritative figures have decided they know best, in fact, they are certain of it. So much so, they are willing to use state violence to silence people questioning their unwavering certainty.
Silencing critics speaks volumes about their confidence in themselves. The validity of an idea lies in its ability to withstand challenge and confrontation. If an idea is unable to be criticised, this shows its weakness, not its strength.
If an idea is right, one should be able to demonstrate this through argument and reason alone, never through the threat of violence. Harming people does not lead to a genuine change in belief. It must be done through conversation. If not through conversation, what else do we have?
Certainty and Doubt
Doubt is a virtue. Doubting our beliefs is the only way for us to change our minds - it always has been and always will be, a necessity for scientific and moral advancement. Humanity’s beliefs are constantly evolving for the better: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Instead of clasping onto our ideas with the grip of certainty, we should do the opposite - doubt them, even things we are 100% certain of. We can interrogate our deeply held beliefs and only convert if the opposing idea has ‘won’. Doubting what we believe and asking tough questions will only strengthen our resolve in that original position. Or if it turns out we were inaccurate, then fantastic, we now believe one less incorrect thing about the world.
Doubt is essential. Indubitably there are some positions we hold which are wrong - we just don’t know which ones, yet. Doubt helps us navigate through our ideas and filter out the potentially erroneous ones.
An example can be this:
“Is it wrong to kick babies?”
“Of course?! They’re human, they’re subject to pain and suffering and inflicting a sweet round-house kick to the head would most certainly hurt them.”
“And hurting people is something we wish to avoid?”
“Yes, you moron.”
“Thank you, I am now more certain than before that kicking babies is wrong.”
Questioning something doesn't mean disbelieving it, it means you’re wanting to explore precisely why you believe what you believe. It’s about engaging in an epistemological exercise to come out stronger on the other side.
Whereas doubt is essential for progress, certainty is the antithesis of it.
Why is certainty bad?
It’s not. We all hold moral positions today that we know won’t change, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Certainty becomes dangerous when it is used to shut down a conversation due to believing we already have the answer.
Humanity has believed some crazy things in the past, things we were absolutely sure of, only for us to later realise how wrong we were. The only reason we moved forward was due to questioning our certainty. We were open to the idea of being wrong. We had doubt.
If you cannot persuade us why you are right, nor argue why others are wrong, how can you know you are right? It’s just empty assertions. It reminds me of a child having a tantrum, repeating “I’m right” through their tears a thousand times until a parent comes to reassure them. You may in fact be correct in your beliefs, but if you cannot substantiate your certainty - your claims are not credible, and refusing to elaborate does not convince onlookers.
It’s fine to say something as self-evident as ‘Nazis are bad’, and be certain in this viewpoint. I’m in 100% agreeance with you. I want you to explain your thought process behind this and be able to demonstrate to everyone why you are correct. It’s one thing to claim the truth, but another thing to back it up and convince others. If you don’t, is it because you are unwilling or unable? Both are a problem and I detail why a little later.
I do not believe in asserting one’s rightness, I believe in proving it.
It’s easy to look back at figures of the past and view them as uniquely evil, especially through the moral lens we use to see through today. We only see them as evil in retrospect. At the time they viewed themselves as the moral ones. Should we really be so naive as to think we have everything figured out now? Given our past track record of being wrong on almost all issues, would it not be wise to let these ideas battle it out, seeing which ones become victorious rather than resorting to censorship?
To conclude: if you think you’re right - prove it.
Another way to stifle speech is to claim an idea is so wrong, so abhorrent and dangerous, that we cannot allow the discussion to take place due to the effects it has on the wider public and on individuals. This is the appeal to offence.
I should start by saying I don’t believe people should go out of their way with the sole purpose to offend. We should do our best to be nice to one another when possible. However, in recent times I have become more dubious towards those who claim to be offended, and you should too. It seems like it’s no longer about trying to reduce harm, but instead about silencing others.
Respecting people by not discussing things they find offensive is a dangerous road to go down for several reasons. First and foremost, you can still have respect for someone even while causing offence.
Secondly, offence cannot be measured nor verified. Those people who want to shut down a conversation may do so under the guise of offence while secretly having nefarious intent. And why wouldn’t they? It works. They can control a narrative, shape how they’re viewed in the public eye, and use offence as a way to stifle critics to hold onto power. No doubt people are genuinely offended by certain phrases or topics, but the appeal to offence can often be abused by dishonest actors.
Lastly, people have always been offended. Why do you think so highly of yourself that you get to exist in a world where this doesn’t happen to you? Why should the world cater to your needs? It hasn’t in the past, so why should it now?
There was, and still is, mass offence taken by religious fundamentalists at the idea of gay people getting married. But we pushed through with this offensive idea because although they were certain they were right - so were the rest of us. We didn’t give in to anyone’s certainty or offence, we made arguments for and against the position, and the best arguments won.
This is worth remembering.
Imagine if we had listened to the perpetually offended back then or any time in the past. Where would we be now? We must honour the history of free speech and not fall victim to things that can impede progress, such as deferring conversation due to offence.
Although it’s not like these people who want to shut down certain conversations don’t have a valid point. There are things the overwhelming majority agree with and feel there isn’t a need to discuss (like the aforementioned ‘kicking infants in the face’ analogy).
I understand the trepidation felt by many when others like myself say that all topics should be open to questioning and dialogue. There are some conversations which seem morally grotesque to even begin to question, but I still stand by the position that free speech has the right to question anything.
One reasonable objection to this which I hold some value to is that people’s rights should not be up for debate. This can be insulting and hurtful to those this could affect. I fully understand, I wouldn’t want to hear people talk about whether I have the right to exist either. However, diving a little deeper I know there are people out there who sincerely hold this belief. These people are not going away. Their numbers will only grow the more they surround themselves in their own echo chamber and ignoring or censoring them does not stop the idea from growing. Dialogue and reasonable conversation are a way to break through these toxic stronghold echo chambers. If we do not fight back with our words, we cannot hope to change others’ minds. We must engage with the ideas themselves.
“But Nazis won’t change their minds, they’re too far gone.”
Well, Daryl Davis begs to differ.
Anyone can change their mind.
Do you want more Nazis or fewer? If you want more, engage in censorship and shout them down. If you want less, engage in good-faith conversation.
Engaging in these ideas will make some people extremely uncomfortable. Free speech laws are designed for exactly this, and discomfort is the price we pay for the freedom to speak our minds.
I believe anything should be up for debate. Anything. It can be the basics such as what 1 + 1 equals, or the morally grey areas like abortion, or the morally offensive like people’s rights. I want the debate to happen on topics not because I think we are wrong, it’s the opposite - it’s because I think we’re right. It’s easily provable. Can you really not make an argument as to why we shouldn’t own other human beings as property? It would be the shortest debate in history, and anyone watching it would be embarrassed if they even considered the other side.
Here’s an idea, why not forcibly silence incorrect views? Let’s punish people for spreading wrong and hurtful ideas. It’s much easier than engaging in dialogue, and surely it would be more effective as well, right?
Firstly, it goes against my principles of free speech and liberty. Anyone should be allowed to believe anything they want, or voice any opinion they want without government intervention (a call to action is not considered free speech).
Secondly, this can be used for malicious purposes. Look no further than the dark ages, where those who questioned the church were killed in the most horrible manner, or even in recent times where Chinese citizens have been arrested for using their right to free speech and protest.
Lastly, who gets to decide what is ‘wrong’? The entire point of debate is to decide what is wrong, and we are allowed to revisit ideas as many times as we like.
The cost of free speech is that nasty people get to say hurtful things. Free speech is designed for these contentious ideas. Nobody needs their speech protected when they talk about how much they love puppies, because no one is interested in silencing that opinion. It’s only when one starts wading into areas that can make people upset that free speech becomes necessary.
Fortunately, when these bad ideas arise, and many more will in the future, we can use free speech to defeat them. If the status quo needs to change, we can rely on the fact that we have free speech. Just like in the past, arguments were made, people were persuaded, and laws were changed. Society became better due to free speech despite people being offended by certain ideas, and so too, society will continue to improve as long as we are not afraid to have a free and open dialogue.
This is one of the reasons why I’m sceptical about banning certain speech. I wish to honour the past and the potential future. The same laws that protected black civil rights activists are the same laws that protect nazis today. Free speech and the law is for everyone, not just for those you agree with.
If we listened to previous people’s certainty and quelled the right to free speech under the guise of moral certainty, then we would not have the freedoms we enjoy today. We should be well aware by now that morals shift over time. Should we really be so confident in our current position that we are willing to shut down free speech after everything it has granted us?
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