Free Speech: Don’t Assume Reason’s on Your Side

I’m as strong an advocate of free speech as you’re likely to find. I think there are plenty of things we should choose not to say — certain racial epithets, for instance — but if you want to go ahead and be an ass and say them, I’ll defend your right to do so ’til the sun goes down. Applying social pressure in an attempt to shape speech choices is fine with me; restricting absolute speech rights is not. I expect other people to treat my speech in the same way.

To many people in the west, this attitude is utterly normal. Expected. Assumed. I know not all European countries safeguard speech to the degree we do here in the U.S. (where it is, for instance, perfectly legal to deny the Holocaust, and you can wear whatever religious symbols you choose), but in general, I think people living in western nations are steeped in a free-speech ethos.

That’s great. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

But there is a problem: the free-speech ethos is so enveloping that it’s hard for us to understand why or how anyone might be against free speech. This inability to see “free-speech cultures” from the outside means that we’re taken by surprise by events like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It is simply inconceivable to us that there are people out there who truly believe that freedom of speech is not just unnecessary but actively bad.

Over the last day, I’ve imagined defending the concept of free speech to some sort of fundamentalist. In today’s world, we might tend to assume this fundamentalist is Muslim, but many other religious traditions have also had powerful impulses against free speech. So let’s just make this fundamentalist — I’ll call him “Bob” — a generic monotheist and leave it at that. In my head, the conversation goes something like this:

Me: I know you find this artwork religiously offensive, but the right to free speech must trump any one religion’s views about what is and is not offensive.

Bob: Why? Why should the right to free speech be more important than what God says about how we’re supposed to behave?

Me: I don’t share your beliefs about how God thinks we should behave, so they don’t apply to me.

Bob: Sure they do. It doesn’t matter what you believe. It matters what’s true, and what’s true is that God has said we are not to do what this artwork does. Your disbelief doesn’t have any impact on what’s true. God’s rules apply to you whether you think they do or not.

Me: But don’t you see that we live in a religiously pluralistic society? We all have to get along with one another — Christians, Jew, Muslim, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, pagans, whatever. If we try to take one religion’s rules about what is and is not offensive and impose them on everyone else, we’ll have endless strife and bloodshed.

Bob: Your underlying argument is flawed. We shouldn’t be living in religiously pluralistic societies to begin with. Such societies should not exist. All those other religions are wrong. Everyone needs to convert to my religion, which is true.

Me: You can’t force everyone to give up their own religion and follow yours. They’d be miserable. Religious beliefs are deeply personal and connected to people’s cultural heritages. Every person must have the freedom to follow their own beliefs.

Bob: Nonsense. Beliefs are either true or false. Many people believe things that are false, and their wrongness endangers themselves and others. What’s a little misery now compared to eternal damnation? Your live-and-let-live attitude is actually cruel. You’re denying the majority of people in the world the opportunity to know the truth and be right with God. If they were forced to convert, some percentage would come to truly believe in the truth, and the world would be better off. Permitting pluralism is irresponsible; it’s a sign that a society doesn’t care that most of its members will be damned.

Me: …

I have no answer for Bob, at this point. There is no convincing way for me to argue against what he’s saying.

Bob inhabits a different world than the one I live in. To me, offensiveness is deeply subjective. What offends one person does not offend another. Things aren’t offensive or non-offensive; rather, they are found or not found offensive. That’s because what is true, in the largest sense, is mysterious to me. I don’t think we have access to that kind of certainty.

I look at Bob, who is utterly convinced of the absolute truth of his beliefs, and then I look at someone else — “Sally,” let’s say — who is utterly convinced of the absolute truth of her beliefs, which are not only different from Bob’s but incompatible with them. And I think, “Who am I to decide that Bob’s right and Sally’s wrong, or vice versa? The only possible solution is to let both Bob and Sally do their thing, safeguarding the rights of each.

But Bob doesn’t think that way. For Bob, what’s true is clearly knowable and absolute. When everything is clear, freedom of speech is simply an opening for falsity to creep in and mislead people. People who think like Bob thinks cannot be convinced of the value of free speech.

It’s worth noting that my attitudes — the uncertainty of truth, the value of pluralism — are based on values and beliefs just as much as Bob’s attitudes are. There’s no higher level of reasoning I can call on to convince him that pluralism is good. It’s simply what I believe, and I probably believe it largely because I was raised in a culture that embraces it. Given Bob’s beliefs, his views are no less “rational” than mine. If he’s right about the nature of God, then his attitude makes perfect sense.

I just don’t think he’s right.

But he does.

This is the sort of difference that leads to insolvable problems. And bloodshed. Lots and lots of bloodshed.


  1. I agree absolutely with your position. I remember when the footballer Glenn Hoddle said, in a newspaper article that people with disabilities where being punished for sins in a previous life. Quite understandably many people found his comments deeply offensive. (I, as a visually impaired person found them both offensive and rissible). Hoddle was forced out of his job as a consequence of his comments. I disagreed with him having been compelled to resign as he had a right to voice his opinion, however crazzy it undoubtedly is. If someone says something stupid or offensive the best way to deal with that is by arguing against them although, as you say this is difficult with people like your (fictional) Bob. J. S. Mill’s essay “On Liberty” is a wonderful defense of personal freedom and a work to which I return from time to time. Kevin

    1. Oh, yes, drewdog … Mill’s essay is wonderful! It is really worth reading. There’s a copy of it up on Smashwords for $1.99:

      You know, I have mixed feelings about Hoddle’s firing and other such events. On the one hand, yes, people should be able to express stupid ideas. On the other hand, social norms are quite powerful. Once an idea becomes “too stupid” or “too offensive” to be tolerated, it might well be on its way out. Ideas are sort of like viruses — the more exposure they get, the more they spread. They may never die out entirely, but if people feel restricted from talking about them, they lose most of their “hosts.” For instance, there aren’t many people around who believe the Earth is flat. There are a few, but their ideas have gained that “too stupid” label, so most people never hear about them.

      The scary thing, of course, is that these same social norms can be used to suppress good ideas, too. So … dunno quite where that leaves us.

      1. Its great to meet a fellow admirer of Mill. Thanks for the link to “On Liberty”, it is about time I gave it a reread. I understand your point about stupid ideas. However I think, in general if stupid ideas are exposed to debate they will, on the whole be exposed for what they are – stupid! Those who deny that the Nazis implemented “The Final Solution” under which about 6 million Jews died are, obviously barking mad. On the one hand it could be argued that such views are so dangerous they should be prohibited as is the case in Austria and Germany, (given the history of those nations one can understand why they take such a hard line). However I, personally prefer to live in a country where such views are tolerated (as they are in the UK where I reside). I find it objectionable that people are locked up for the mere expression of views (however odious). If one prohibits such views one can, paradoxically raise their profile. For example the far-right historian, David Erving was imprisoned in Austria for denying the holacaust. His imprisonment was all over the media which, no doubt helped to raise the profile of his opinions. Several years ago the then leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin was invited onto BBC’s Question Time. Some where highly critical of the BBC’s decision. However I and many others who watched the programme saw Griffin’s opinions exposed for the extremist nonsense they are. Had he been denied a voice he would, no doubt have become some kind of martyr to the extreme right in the UK. So, on balance I think ideas (however stupid) should be tolerated.



        1. I generally share your position, Kevin. And once you get past private acts (social ostracism, job loss, etc.) and into issue of government censorship, I’m 100% in the free speech camp.

          You know, if you’ve never read John Milton’s Aeropagitica, you might give it a try. It’s the first great defense of the freedom of the press in English, so far as I know. Milton makes exactly the point you do: people can learn not only from good books, but also from bad books. The latter teach us what *not* to think and offer the opportunity to react virtuously by moving in a different direction. It’s a tough read — 17th century prose is no picnic! — but fascinating.

          Interestingly, I was just listening to a story on the radio this morning about the publication of an annotated scholarly edition of Mein Kampf in Germany. The book has been banned there since the end of WWII. Over all those decades, in contrast, it’s never been out of print in the U.S. It sells some thousands of copies every year, here. There’s no better example, IMO, of two nations taking opposing approaches on how to reduce the circulation of evil ideas (trying to suffocate them vs. blasting them with fresh air and light).

          1. Thanks for the recommendation of Milton’s Aeropagitica. I have heard of the book but despite reading Paradise Lost have never read Aeropagitica. There is, I feel sure a Kindle edition which I will download. As you say, it is interesting to see the differing approaches of countries regarding bad ideas. In today’s internet age it is increasingly difficult to enforce bans as (even when the prohibition was in force) someone in Germany could go onto a site located in the USA or another country with no prohibition on reading Mein Kampf and read Hitler’s words. I think the issue of people losing their job due to their views is a very difficult one. If a teacher is an unreconstructed supporter of Stalin (there are a few still around) there are obvious concerns that their teaching of history and other subjects would be rather skewed to put it mildly. Likewise if a teacher is a member of a neo-Nazi organisation both their teaching methods and relationships with non-white students could give grave cause for concern. However if an educator is keeping (as they should do) their own convictions out of the classroom then it could be construed as unfair to dismiss them because their personal political (or other) convictions are not impacting on their teaching. The other problem is, of course a clever person intent on indoctrinating students could keep their views/membership of extremist organisations private and subtly introduce such unsavoury views into their teaching. There is in the UK a ban on prison officers joining far-right organisations because of concerns that membership is incompatible with their duty to treat all prisoners, irrespective of their ethnic background in the same manner. In this specific case I support the ban. However, as I mentione above a person may keep their views private and still discriminate. In the dim and distant past I read history and politics at University College Of Swansea so its great to read your post. Kevin

            1. Kevin, I think you’re absolutely right about this question of political views and jobs … it strikes me as very tricky, too. I don’t see a good answer, either. The “Stalinist” teacher, if accused of indoctrinating her students, might accuse her capitalist colleagues of indoctrinating their students in that ideology. And it might well be the case: we tend to notice indoctrination that runs counter to our existing beliefs, whereas indoctrination that matches them tends to just sound “right” or “factual.” Why should the majority ideology be okay for indoctrination while minority ones are not? The whole thing gets very tricky, as does the question of whether anyone can really separate their political views from their work. For instance, I would never tell my students who I vote for or my stance on most political issues; nor would I tell a student I thought their political stance was wrong or problematic. I also keep mum about my spiritual beliefs. Nevertheless, I’m sure these aspect of who I am do shape the issues I choose to raise in class, the materials I choose to cover, etc. I wouldn’t know how not to let that influence happen, since my moral attitudes and political positions, etc., arise from aspects of myself that can’t really be separated out and temporarily banished.

              It’s all very interesting, and the conflicts and problems that arise in this area are often troubling. Here’s a recent example: Here’s an older one: There are lots of events like these.

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