In this article, Jake Olenick goes back to basics to justify free speech at a time when speech rights are being ignored, forgotten or suppressed.
Lately, the banning of people like Milo Yiannopoulos from Twitter and the firing of James Damore (of memo-writing fame) from Google have pulled competing notions of free speech from unspoken disagreement into open debate. However, unlike many other debates (say Uber in London, or the green belt) no one alive today was around when the topic of free speech first entered public discourse in this country several centuries ago. In the absence of a basic argument for free speech, it becomes natural to shrug off restrictions on free speech. With this in mind, I’d like to provide a basic argument for free speech effectively from scratch.
The argument here contains three strands: the basic epistemic value of speech, the societal value of speech, and the socio-political risks of restricting speech rights. I’ve chosen these because free speech is relevant in all, and in exclusively, socio-political contexts. Any more specific discussion would become cumbersome (for example justifying free speech in each individual type of society or state), while any more general discussion would become incoherent (“free speech” doesn’t mean much when abstracted beyond societies to the level of the individual).
To understand the epistemic value of speech, it is enough to imagine the smallest society: two people. The knowledge available to one of them in the absence of speech is the small amount of knowledge which can be gained by observation and reflection in their lifetime. However, each person has an abundance of information which is inaccessible to the other, except through communication. Communication is the only way to escape the cage of one’s own limited experience and acquire information on what it’s like to be someone else. Furthermore, communication is self-enriching: by talking to someone else, you grant them an entire additional life’s worth of knowledge, and standing on your shoulders they may be able to see farther and share what they see with you, which may enable you to see yet further. So even among just two people, the epistemic value of speech in general is absolutely immense.
Next, the societal value of speech. When there are more than two people in existence, the importance of speech as described above acquires new dimensions, but the notions are mostly the same. Speech is still a means of acquiring knowledge, and as the size of the society grows, the potential for such knowledge increases exponentially. However, there is also a separate and interesting aspect of speech which was present in the previous case but only in a very limited sense, and that’s the ability of speech to synchronize opinion (whether knowledge or not). This is because while knowledge is valuable, social cohesion is (perhaps to a lesser extent) also valuable. So, even when speech fails to promote knowledge, it’s likely at least prevent extreme differences of opinion.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about what is involved in restricting speech, beyond merely the absence of that speech. Crucially, the restriction of speech is enacted through the use of an imbalance in power. So, in the case of two people, the better-armed one might be able to prevent disagreements through violence. Beyond merely suppressing the quantity of opinions, the use of violence to restrict speech also has the tendency to perpetuate the sort of hostility that it began with: when people stop talking, social cohesion breaks down, and violence becomes more likely. But beyond merely perpetuating hostility, suppression of speech also perpetuates the power imbalance that enabled it. Knowledge is (or at least provides) power, and if someone restricts speech so that their opinion is the only permissible one, they also become the only person with access to other opinions. In a society of three people, each holding opinion A, B, or C, the person with the most power may enforce opinion A, and silence expressions of opinion B and opinion C. The other two people now only know their original opinion and opinion A, but the aggressor has access to all three opinions. In other words, ignorance is not just an effect, but also a cause, of suppression of speech. So the use of an imbalance in power to suppress speech not only prevents all the benefits of speech from occurring, it also increases social unrest (more than willful silence does), and magnifies the power imbalance which created it.
I’ve enumerated all those things of moral value which come with free speech, but it’s worthwhile briefly attempting to appraise these things in comparison with those things which are sometimes thought to outweigh them. One simple example is speech which is literally violence, like using a megaphone to express your opinions, which is so loud as to permanently deafen the people you’re talking to. For one thing, such speech is obviously counterproductive. But it is also possible to prevent the means of speech, without suppressing its content: make such use of megaphones illegal. It seems that this aspect of free speech really is less important than preventing this sort of violence. On the other hand, consider the notion of firing someone from your company because they openly disagree with company policy, as occurred with James Damore at Google. Generally a discussion suppressed in this way loses its epistemic value. In this case it happens that, contrary to Google’s probable intentions, James Damore and discussions of his memo rapidly and widely circulated through the internet, so the discussion may not have ended up so suppressed after all. More troubling are the deep divisions fostered by such actions, often described in terms of “echo chambers.” The negative effects of these are likely obvious. Lastly, it is important to realize that in many ways Google is the government of its small eponymous society. In the same way that exiling dissenters is bad for a country, banning objectionable speakers is bad for Google. Many other examples exist besides those above. But I hope that the ideas in this article can extend to, and help to clarify, all such examples.