Free speech must have limits, lest democracy is doomed


Since Elon Musk's chaotic takeover of Twitter, influential voices have called for a form of "free-speech absolutism," a term coined by Musk himself. Influential podcaster Lex Fridman, for instance, recently tweeted: "Trump is back. Freedom of speech in action." The idea here is that we must have the right to say just about anything we want, and that no crime can be committed by speech alone. Patrick Brauckmann went as far as to state to me, publicly, that "Freedom of speech does include & mean the freedom to call for the end of freedom" (my emphasis). In other words, our beloved freedom of speech is so invaluable that one must have the right to use it so to end, well, our invaluable freedom of speech.




(The statement, in the tweet above, that I claimed to be the arbiter of law and truth is a flat-out lie, ostensibly protected by free speech.)

The first thing to notice about this surprising trend is that it seems, at first sight, to be the ultimate reification of freedom: we must stick to freedom even if it means putting freedom itself at considerable risk. And I believe that the intentions of some of the (naive) people calling for this are, in fact, sincere. But the flawed reasoning behind it is so severe it borders on insanity.

To see why, simply consider the following few things that, under free-speech absolutism, would be protected by law: the freedom to lie, mislead, subvert, threaten, intimidate, to call for the bullying of vulnerable individuals or groups, to call for genocide, for crimes, libel, sedition, and so on. Should these be protected by freedom of speech?

In a democracy, every freedom comes hand-in-hand with responsibility. The freedom to speak—a motor action like walking or pulling a trigger—is no different. It is as insane to make speech legally untouchable as it would be to do so for pulling a trigger; for the consequences can be entirely equivalent. As a matter of fact, historically speaking, speech is considerably more dangerous than pulling a trigger, as it can potentially affect many more lives.

Clearly, crimes and morally indefensible actions can be carried out by speech alone; they should never fall under the umbrella of protection provided by freedom of speech. This is why most civilised countries have laws against, e.g., false advertising, online bullying, intimidation, libel, sedition, and so on. It is absolutely nonsensical and supremely dangerous to over-interpret freedom of speech in such a manner that demagogic propaganda, public misinformation, intimidation and sedition become rights.

Even when freedom of speech does apply, one's freedom to speak their mind does not translate into another's obligation to amplify or provide a platform for it. Even if toxic individuals using a social media platform have the right to say some of the things they say, such right does not translate into the social media platform's obligation to host their speech. And here, ethics and moral values come into play.

But many of the free-speech absolutists out there interpret the right to speak so broadly that it translates into the obligation by others to amplify morally and legally unacceptable nonsense. They do exactly that when they consider e.g. Twitter's original decision to exclude some toxic individuals from its platform a form of censorship. This is itself dangerous misinformation, for no private individual or organisation is required by law to host, amplify or provide a platform for everything everyone wants to say. Instead, individuals and organisations have the freedom to follow their own priorities and moral compass when deciding who they want to collaborate with or give a voice to. And that is protected by the law.

In his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper discusses the 'paradox of tolerance': if a society is tolerant without limits, thereby not curtailing the actions of the intolerant in its midst, its ability to be tolerant is eventually hijacked, subverted, and ultimately destroyed by the intolerant. In other words, tolerant societies must not tolerate the intolerant, or tolerance will die. The same can be said of freedom in general, and freedom of speech in particular: an absolutist form of free speech will lead to the end of freedom.

And this is why free-speech absolutism is internally contradictory. Those calling for it are effectively calling for the end of free speech itself. History has an overwhelming precedent for it: on the 5th of March of 1933, the nazi party took part in free, democratic, multi-party federal elections in Germany. Through a combination of what was then highly-innovative propaganda methods, intimidation campaigns carried out through publicly-spoken threats, and endless misleading and false public statements—that is, the criminal subversion of free speech—the nazi party came to power. The next multi-party federal elections in Germany took place only in 1990. In the interim, tens of millions of people were murdered worldwide as a direct result of the 1933 election, Stalinism unfolded, half of Europe lost its freedom for decades, and the cold war was fought at great expense for all parties involved. That is what you get with absolutist freedom of speech.

The very call for absolutist free speech is a subversion of freedom. If anything can be publicly said without legal consequences or ethical oversight—whether it is true or false, productive or criminal—then nothing that is ever said can ever count; nothing can ever be taken seriously or relied upon. Public discourse and debate become meaningless, eventually die, and, with them, democracy. As a matter of fact, this is precisely what modern Russian propaganda tries to achieve, as explained by political scientist Dr. Vlad Vexler in this extremely important video. And just like in Russia, doing this may be a deliberate attempt by some interests in the West (and abroad) to lay the groundwork for an authoritarian take-over of Western societies, under the guise of—of all things—defending freedom. The perniciousness and vileness of such an attempt is sickening.


We must not be naive, lest we lose our way of life. We must not allow free speech to be subverted. An often unspoken truth at the present historical juncture is that democracy has become a threat to many established interests within the West itself, for cultural and demographic trends mean that groups who have always had their hands in the levers of power may no longer do so in the near future. What better way to avoid this than to undermine democracy from within, by subverting the democratic process itself, while shouting to the four winds the limitless applicability of free speech? So the next time you hear a call for absolutist free speech, ask yourself whether it really is a defence of freedom, or perhaps precisely the opposite; a wolf dressed in sheep's clothes.
Share:

19 comments:

  1. It's hard to know which free-speech absolutists are simply naive and which have a desire (conscious or unconscious) to promote an authoritarian rather than democratic society. Either way, it's frightening that influential and relatively mainstream folks like Lex are so blithely wrong about such an important issue. It's one thing from the far-right, another when it's someone who seemingly straddles the center...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think Jonathan Haidt's social psychological analysis is more useful here:

      "The Liberty/oppression foundation (...) makes people notice and resent any sign of attempted domination. It triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants. This foundation supports the egalitarianism and antiauthoritarianism of the left, as well as the don’t-tread-on-me and give-me-liberty antigovernment anger of libertarians and some conservatives." (The Righteous Mind, p. 203)

      Delete
  2. Hello Bernardo. I think that very few proponents of free speech argue that speech should be legally untouchable. What I would like to see is only maximal freedom to express opinions within the confines of regional law, with a few sensible restrictions against things like racial slurs, as those add nothing to any conversation.

    I think the best way to go about things is to have regional moderation. So, if I in the United States say something that is illegal in France, a French moderator could block my post - but only for French users! My comment would remain visible to users who are located in other countries where my comment is legal.

    This is similar to what YouTube does with its videos, where it locks copyrighted content only for regions where copyright law applies.

    I think region moderation is the only way to go, as the alternative is a kind of "lowest common denominator" moderation where speech restrictions are set by the least free countries.

    What I do not want to see is a return to the old, where people could not even express opinions like "men cannot get pregnant" without having their accounts suspended by a politically charged moderator.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with you in principle Bernardo, but I wonder how this could be practically implemented? Every side of the aisle is accusing the other of being anti-freedom. I can see how the notion of free speech absolutism can absolutely lead to dangerous ends, but I'm not sure how to practically draw the line on which kind of speech is allowed without delving into authoritarianism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good point Pandaproducts. Who gets to be the arbiter of truth? What if the institutions people count on to protect them from disinformation are the ones disseminating most of the disinformation? What if calling for censorship of those allegedly threatening democracy is effectively strengthening the hand of authoritarian powers whose ever-tightening grip on the exchange of ideas is the real threat to freedom, and, who knows, perhaps even to the very future of humanity as we know it?

      Delete
    2. While many things are unclear and up to debate (What's the right interpretation of quantum mechanics? What is dark matter? Is capitalism sustainable? How fast will global warming unfold? etc.), there are also a gGREAT MANY IMPORTANT things that are established fact. To say that everything is up for grabs is dangerous and nonsensical relativism. If we abandon the very notion of verifiable truth, we are lost. This is precisely what Russian propaganda does to de-politicize Russians and turn them from citizens into mere (compliant) inhabitants. There is a segment of the right in the West that is attempting to do the same, and if it succeeds, this will be our downfall. Watch the video embedded in this article.
      THERE IS SUCH THING AS ESTABLISHED FACT. THERE IS SUCH A THING AS KNOWN TRUTH.

      Delete
    3. Bernardo, I think it would help to clarify the position you are taking here if you could provide a short list of some of these “GREAT MANY IMPORTANT things that are established fact”, and what actions you believe are warranted to prevent these from being challenged. I assume that metaphysical materialism, for you, would not make that list.

      Delete
    4. Bob, here's one of countless equally valid lists: most scientific theories work in practice, proven by experiment (if you don't believe it, stop using anything in your life that has been enabled by science, and see how far you go); most technologies work as proven by the fact that you rely on them every day (if you don't believe it, stop using technology: no more car, cell phone, computer, etc. including this website); vaccines by and large work and have dramatically reduced childhood mortality; medicines by and large work, as proven by our longer life span (if you don't believe it, stop taking medicines); human beings need proper food and water to survive (if you doubt it, try to live without); and so and so forth. That you ask me to produce such a list is embarrassing. I presume you like my work, otherwise you wouldn't be here; yet my work is largely based on scientific fact demonstrated by experiment. If you think nothing is really true and everything is made up as we go along, then you should reject my work. I disavow any link with the fashionable BULLSHIT that everything is relative and there are no reliable facts. I want no association with that social pathology of our times. It's dangerous and insane.

      Delete
    5. Thanks for taking the trouble to respond Bernardo, but I still don’t understand why anyone disputing these or any other “established facts” would be considered a threat to democracy, or would need to be censored.
      To clarify the intent of my comment, I was not really trying to promote the idea that nothing is true, but rather to call attention to the possibility that much of what establishment propaganda presents as “established fact” has in fact been “established” by institutional corruption.

      Delete
    6. Bob, misinformation is self-evidently dangerous and manipulative in nature. It leads to death and tragedy. That's what nazi propaganda did, and what Russian propaganda is doing today. And it happens in the West too. Case in point: a new anti-vax "documentary" has an opening trailer showing a basketball player collapsing on court. The obvious suggestion is that vaccines can kill you like they killed that healthy young player. But the scene is from early 2020, before there were vaccines. And the player didn't die. But based on that despicable lie, many people won't get vaccinated and die. How is misinformation not harmful? It's just about the most harmful thing ever conjured up my human minds.

      Delete
    7. Of course I don’t dispute that misinformation is harmful. Lots of things are harmful without being illegal, or being considered a threat to democracy.
      If you can provide the information on that film I would certainly be interested in checking it out. I find it surprising they would have had any need to use old footage. There’s no shortage of footage like that from the past year.

      Delete
    8. I think almost everybody would agree that misinformation is harmful. The real question is, is misinformation more harmful than granting a small group of elites the authority to determine what constitutes misinformation? Personally, I find the prospect of ruling class elites having complete control over the bounds of accepted truth to be a much greater threat to democracy than letting Cletus believe that the Earth is flat.

      Delete
  4. I don't think free speech is the problem. Falsehood is. But, we don't try to outlaw that---it would violate free speech rights.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Inasmuch as I don't subscribe to most of the notions about reality, based on interest, preference and motive, neither do I cleve to ideas claiming justification, based on an array of speculation and psychobabble. My tablet read the word as, psychopaths---I am more tolerant. But, not much. It matters not that I disagree. It matters less that my disagreement falls upon conservative or moderate views. I have argued excess, exaggeration and extremism are our downfall. These trace their origins back to our cherished freedoms...the worm, ouroboros, chasing his tail....dogs were trying to tell us, all along. Well. You all can figure it out. I need not waste more effort on it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. “Tolerance is the counterfeit to intolerance.” - Thomas Paine

    …then there’s this one too;

    “Every right of suffrage, (including free speech) like any other political right, is not to be measured by some sort of abstract scheme of ‘justice,’ or in terms of any other bourgeois-democratic phrases, but by the social and economic relationships for which it is designed.” - Rosa Luxemburg

    ReplyDelete
  7. I agree that there are certain naive advocates of free speech who are absolutist and unaware of the inherent contradiction of that position. But I do also think that Elon musk and most of the current public advocates who agree with the changes being made on Twitter are fairly sensible. Elon Musk himself has spoken about limits to free speech in one of his recent tweets: "The goal is a trusted digital town square, where a wide range of views are tolerated, provided people don't break the law or spam. For example, any incitement to violence will result in account suspension." This is a fair goal. If it's true that Elon used the term "free speech absolutism" as you say, I think it's a case of bad word choice rather than an actual belief in absolutism.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "This is a fair goal. If it's true that Elon used the term "free speech absolutism" as you say, I think it's a case of bad word choice rather than an actual belief in absolutism. Agree completely. "The US is at present a Corporate Plutocracy' masquerading as a Democratic Republi,c and its easy to silence someone when you have almost total control of social media. That could be seen quite clearly in the Hunter Biden laptop coverup. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, basically gave corporate control over election by allowing unlimited use of their financial power to shape election outcomes. It essentially made bribery a civil virtue.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Please note: my comments made no reference to free speech absolutism. Such attribution is an error or some misunderstanding on the part of the reader.

    ReplyDelete
  10. As others have mentioned, the only people in a position to dictate the truth in this society are the owners and managers of the technocracy and media. The idea that some random youtubers with some goofy ideas are a bigger threat to democracy and freedom than all these giant corporations, government agencies and elite technocrats acting in concert seems rather fanciful, if not disingenuous.

    As for “objective truth”, the problem is more how one interprets facts and decides what to do about them. I can accept covid science, despite its apparent confusion, and still question the motives of those promoting the vaccine and choose not to be vaccinated, and I shouldn’t be discriminated against. The heavy-handed way the technocracy attempted to control the covid narrative was the most chillingly Orwellian thing I have seen in all my years in the “land of the free”. And the use of Trump, Russia or nebulous “disinformation” as justifications for technocratic authoritarianism isn’t much better. You need to look at who actually has power in our society and is therefore the biggest threat to freedom; it ain’t random flat-earthers and Trumpists. Maybe the problem is that you belong to the class with this troublesome power, and need to be self-aware enough to see that you could be part of the problem.

    ReplyDelete