Freedom of speech is a great good. But it's actually also weird to have to define it as a "right." It seems to me that freedom of speech just is. On the other hand there isn't. And that's how it should be. Confusing?
Image by Global X - source: Flickr
Yes, it is confusing indeed to think or talk about something so mundane, yet so controversial. I'm used to saying what I think but I also know that there are things I can not say; some speech is indefensible. Speech invokes thoughts and ideas, and those inform actions; as such speech can have an immediate and dramatic effect on how we function in society. A simple and clear example of indefensible speech is crying "FIRE!!" in a filled cinema or "BOMB!!" in the mall on Saturday afternoon, especially when people get hurt and trampled in the panic that's likely to ensue...
Generally though, freedom of speech is a good thing, except when you start to translate it as a "right to insult," which it is not. Sure, there's always a danger that someone gets insulted, in even the most polite of discussions; there has to be room for insult, for sure, or discussions between believers and non believers wouldn't be possible, humor would be boring and so on. But speech can harm individuals as well as groups and it's clearly not alright to deliberately use your freedom of speech with the aim of harming other people. In Trump's case there's no proving if he does something deliberately or not, you never know when a clown's joking or not, but he regularly says racist things and under his "reign" racists are becoming more open about their racism. Although they often still use scientific sounding terms like "race realism" when they try to explain why white people are smarter than dark skinned people. And then they say it's not white supremacy because they also say that Asian people are smarter than white people... See? It's all science, nothing racist at all...
Free speech is important; we need to be allowed to exchange as wide a variety of ideas as possible, share as much information from every viewpoint available on shared platforms. I deliberately use the term "shared platforms" as opposed to the much more popular "marketplace of ideas" because the latter is anti-democratic. Hold on. Let me explain. Markets are places where we compete. The marketplace of ideas is the idea that opinions are pitted against each other for one to eventually prevail. The click-bait sensationalist culture we witness online is the result of this philosophy, and all in line with the dogma of our era, which is capitalism. The currency in the marketplace of ideas is not "goodness" of "validity" or "truth"; the currency in this marketplace is "attention." Competing ideas fight over your and my attention and goodness, validity and truth are all subservient to the ultimate goal of gaining attention.
Debate is sometimes good, but discussions are better, they don't need a winner and allow all participating parties to incorporate all other opinions into their own world-view without having to concede a "loss." That's how democracy is supposed to work; for a large group of individuals to bundle their forces behind common goals, consensus should be what we aim for, not increased adversary. But, like I said at the start, some speech is intended to divide, to insult, to marginalize, and none more so than the rhetoric pouring over the lips of rising extreme right wing nationalists gaining popularity all over the western world. Debating them seems like a good idea and is done with the best of intentions, but it often isn't such a good idea. I mean, when someone says that race X is better or smarter than race Y, that person is ignorant, willingly or by accident, or that person is lying. Debating a willful lier has no purpose; they'll keep lying no matter what you say. And since their starting point is a lie, they won't be interested in hearing truths that contradict their misguided opinions, and you'll be giving them a platform to spread even more lies.
Also, debating racists and fascists creates the appearance of two equally valid opinions to be presented. Just like debates between creationists and people who consider the theory of evolution to be true, it says to the audience: "here's two ideas, you've heard the pros and cons, now go and form your own opinion." That kind of "fair and balanced" reporting is in itself unfair and unbalanced; slap the label of "expert" on two opposing guests and reap the sensationalist fruits from an engrossed audience. Debating can be good, but isn't always, and isn't necessary to point out the obvious untruths espoused by white nationalists, race-realists or creationists. Freedom of speech is like all other freedoms; it comes with a modicum of responsibility to use it wisely and to be informed. Freedom in itself is a concept we're thoroughly unfamiliar with and scares us at the same time it attracts us. Freedom can only be enjoyed together, unless you're talking about the kind of freedom of a hermit, away from the rest of humanity, and that's not freedom at all. Just some thoughts, do with them as you please, dear reader. I hope it'll make you think about what freedom of speech is to you...
Sam Harris, Race Science, and Nerd Logic (Podcast Teaser)
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