June 20, 2016

Speaking Out in Support of Free Expression


There's a thought-provoking article in the recent issue of The Economist, Under attack: Curbs on free speech are growing tighter. It is time to speak out. It addresses three ways that free speech is under attack these days:
  1. Government repression (e.g., Putin's Russia, Jinping's China)
  2. Violence by non-state actors (e.g., enraged Muslims in Bangladesh)
  3. Social justice warriors and their allies who believe that people have the right not to be offended (e.g., college students blocking speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali or anyone else they consider to be "gross" and "racist")
The article acknowledges that #3 seems trivial, especially when listed alongside #1 and #2. But I really like how the author explained why this one matters.
But if I have a right not to be offended, that means someone must police what you say about me, or about the things I hold dear, such as my ethnic group, religion, or even political beliefs. Since offence is subjective, the power to police it is both vast and arbitrary.
Exactly right. Insisting that we have the right not to be offended as individuals or members of various groups does seem to mean that there must be someone to police what is said. Plenty of Christians would like to police what atheists say about Christianity; plenty of social justice warriors would like to police what skeptics say about feminism and all sorts of other topics. But of course, the importance of this pales in comparison to the point about how offense is subjective and thus any policing is inherently arbitrary.

It is not much of a stretch to say that someone out there will managed to be offended by nearly anything one might say. If we attempt to police all potentially offensive speech, we will end up with no acceptable speech. Not even the social justice warriors have been able to agree on which speech is permissible and which should be punished through their incessant "call outs" and public shaming. This is part of why they repeatedly turn on each other.

This particular assault on free speech has seriously undermined the mission of our colleges and universities.
But university is a place where students are supposed to learn how to think. That mission is impossible if uncomfortable ideas are off-limits. And protest can easily stray into preciousness: the University of California, for example, suggests that it is a racist “micro-aggression” to say that “America is a land of opportunity”, because it could be taken to imply that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame.
When uncomfortable ideas are banished, it is difficult to imagine how learning can occur. Critical thinking, skepticism, and freethought certainly cannot flourish in such an environment.

Liberals in the U.S. are largely united in their concern over Donald Trump's authoritarianism, and I think they are correct to be concerned about this. At the same time, many have a blind spot to their own authoritarian leanings when it comes to shutting down the free expression of ideas with which they disagree or regard as offensive.

The article concludes with some excellent advice we would all do well to heed.
Never try to silence views with which you disagree. Answer objectionable speech with more speech. Win the argument without resorting to force. And grow a tougher hide.
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