Why is Free Speech So Important?

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nearly all of us agree that our right to free expression is important; it is their right to say things we find objectionable that often seems to become controversial. We are quick to agree in the abstract that free speech is valuable even if we often disagree about how important it is relative to our desire to shape society in ways we personally find more pleasing.

It is also interesting to note that many of those who are willing to utilize social pressure in an attempt to shape the speech of others do not recognize what they are doing as suppressing the free speech of others. Some go so far as to mock and deride those of us who try to defend free speech (e.g., "freeze peach"). If they recognize that their efforts have the aim of suppressing speech they find objectionable, they seem to have decided that protecting the feelings of those who might take offense is worth more than the right of free expression. It is baffling to see some of these same people now jumping to express support Charlie Hebdo, almost as if they fail to recognize that the views they have expressed have been closer to people like Bill Donahue and others calling for the enforcement of blasphemy laws and seeking to demonize the cartoonists. Others have been more consistent in their opposition to free speech. Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True) linked to a few recent examples of atheist bloggers accusing Charlie Hebdo of racism, sexism, hate speech, and the like.

But why is free speech so important? Why is it something that always seems to be threatened? And why is it something we should all seek to defend, even when it involves the expression of ideas we find abhorrent? Many find that these are surprisingly difficult questions to answer.

Here is Prof. Steven Pinker's keynote speech at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's 15th Anniversary. I thought he did a good job of articulating three reasons why we should care so deeply about free speech and be prepared to defend it. Given his audience, he focuses on speech in the context of higher education; however, I believe that his comments are general enough to be of interest outside this setting.

If you would prefer to read the speech rather than watch the video, you can find the transcript here.

Make no mistake, the free expression of ideas is under attack these days right here at home. A growing number of colleges and universities have instituted speech codes, "trigger warnings" and personal victimhood are creating problems on campus, it is becoming unfortunately common for students to refuse to expose themselves to ideas with which they might disagree, and the forces of political correctness and social justice warriorism have expressed a desire to ban certain words. It seems that concerns about hurt feelings are increasing likely to take priority over the free expression of ideas and learning itself.