Some Thoughts On Free Speech

I’ve become pretty much a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, but this is not to say that I don’t question this belief and wonder if it should always universally apply, even when it’s not a direct incitement to violence.  Things get quite murky when it comes to hate speech because, I think there are going to be disagreements of what hate speech is.  For instance if I said:

“All Jews are scum and should be eradicated.”

I think we would all agree that this was hate speech and incites violence.  But what I just said:

“All Jews are scum.”

Image result for Free speechSome might say there is no incitement to violence.  But this is a hate speech no question.  And I would argue that it dehumanizes a group of people (which increases the odds that violence will perpetrated against them) and also simply has no merit in any intellectual fashion.  I think even most would agree that both should not fall under the purview of free speech, but what if the message, like the second one, is not so overt?  Hate groups tend to be a little cleverer about their message these days, yet there are still groups that get away from some pretty blatant hate speech.  Consider the Westboro Baptist church.  Their message about homosexuals is certainly dehumanizing them, they certainly talk about torture being done to them (at least on some other plane of existence) even if they aren’t the ones to do the torturing.  Religious posturing, particular using fear-based tactics to gain followers certainly makes out those who do not follow the religion to be less than human, possessed by evil, worthy only of eternal torture, they are the enemy, etc.  But I am not trying to bash religion, but only to point out that when freedom of religion mixes with free speech the murkiness increases and we tend to be even less punitive despite the harm that might result from those words spoken publicly.

Which brings us to the topic of punishment.  If we aren’t going to punish hate groups for advocating for things like white nationalism by the law, is it reasonably to have groups like Antifa do the punishment for us?

Image result for free speechIf we want to live in a society where the government isn’t going to interfere with what people say publicly, we are left with a sort of vigilante style justice system. When I was on social media there were quite a few people that felt Antifa’s actions were justified.  Some of those people were quite well educated also.  Their argument, which I tend to agree with, is that any group that advocates the superiority of their own group over others, purports a worldview that only their group has certain rights while others do not.  And this tends to include a lack of protection from violence for those groups that they feel are unworthy due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.  Such a worldview is not compatible with a free society and thus if we must have free speech, then punching a Nazi is completely acceptable as a consequence to somebody expressing their racist worldview.  Answering hate speech with violence is the part I struggle with.  I tend to think that anybody who advocates a worldview does not support equal rights for all humans is simply sowing seeds of hate which will lead to violence and this is therefore harmful speech that should be punished.  If we say the law should punish them, then this becomes a slippery slope. Once we start limiting free speech this also presents dangers to a free society.

Image result for free speechI am sure there many people who have thought more deeply about this societal right than I have, but I tried to think about what the purpose is for free speech.  I think I would boil it down to two important aspects 1) The ability to have an unbridled free market of ideas that allow people to challenge ideas and choose the ones that have the most merit and 2) The freedom to voice dissent about existing paradigms, culture, governments, etc.  Both these things are good for a society and not being punished by those in power for this speech is important.  History is full of bad ideas that have taken hold of societies and without dissent, things would simply not have gotten better.

Image result for colin kaepernickOf course the problem is that people are punished for dissenting ideas all the time.  Certainly those who disagreed with slavery, segregation, and other oppressive policies and cultural attitudes towards African-Americans has paid prices in this country (and still are).  The fact that those in power can advocate for policies that cause real harm to particular groups of people, makes the importance of being able to express dissent freely even more obvious, even if this hasn’t happened in practice.  We know how hard it is to have progress in affording all people basic human rights when free speech is chilled.  And even though I can bring many more examples of consequences that people face when exercising their first amendment rights (even if that punishment isn’t be federal law) we know that speech is rarely 100% free.  And if this is the case, do want mob style justice for that speech or do we want thoughtfully put together laws, and judges and juries making decisions about whether possible violators are innocent or guilty?

Of course freedom of expression shouldn’t imply freedom from consequences.  And it is those consequences that we have to be mindful of.  When does vigilante violence become the solution to dealing with groups pushing the limits of what is considered hate or harmful or speech?  Is violence ever a good idea, even against groups whose worldview would advocate violence against others?  I don’t think that it is morally wrong to do so, but since the action of punching a Nazi doesn’t exist in isolation, one also has to wonder about the bigger picture.  When people see violence enacted against somebody and others cheering it on how does this play into the psychology of individuals?  Even if that person, could arguably deserve it because they advocate a worldview that would inflict violence on others does such an action actually change people’s point of view? If we avoid violence we might turn to shaming. Social media is pretty good at shaming.  Is shaming effective?  It can be, but this is a court that makes mistakes too.  Shaming can also have deep psychology impacts which don’t necessarily lead to positive change.

Image result for free speechIt’s not obvious to me that violence is the right action, nor is it obvious to me that such speech shouldn’t be met with sharp reprisal given the level of danger that such ideas represent.  Maybe the question really boils down to “Is it okay to dehumanize people who dehumanize others?” There might be obvious actors that we would answer yes to this question. But certainly we know that people also reform, and that many people who are part of hate groups realize the errors of their ways and turn their lives around.  I know there are times when violence is the only answer left to confront people who mean to do serious harm.  It’s just not obvious to me that we’ve reached that point and worry that organizations like Antifa do more harm than good, when other options might still be on the table.

Perhaps it’s my own frustration that leaves me wondering, “Why do we still have to still talk about whether one race is superior to others or not?”  Hell if you had asked me if that flat Earth theorists would be making a comeback, I’d have laughed my ass off.  I don’t know why we have to convince people that vaccines are in their and society’s best interest.  Yet here we are.  My commitment to free speech waivers it seems when confronted with revisiting conversations we’ve already have and should be over.  There are real problems to solve, and while speech should be free, wasting time on speech that is factually incorrect and in many cases can cause real harm, affects me on an emotional level and there is a part of me that says “Yeah, shut that idiot up, even if you have to punch him, his shit is ridiculous.”  Ultimately though the best argument for free speech is to look what happens in societies without it.  A society committed to freedom of speech, I don’t think is likely to spin into totalitarianism.  I guess the best thing to do is just be vigilant and to make sure that bad ideas are always exposed as such, and fortunately we have the freedom to do so.

14 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Free Speech

  1. I think there is a distinction here that seems to go unmentioned. If you try to convict someone of criminal conspiracy, it is rare that anyone can get convicted based upon just what somebody says. They actually have to do something.

    Religions created thought crimes. If you think of adultery, you are an adulterer; that kind of thing. The law begs to differ. You have to act on your thoughts for there to be a crime.

    So, if someone says “That guy is an idiot and should be killed!” That is hate speech, but so what? As long as no one acts upon that command and there is no command structure from the speaker to the killer, then there is no crime.

    For a long time American society was pruning away racist comments. They became just too disapproved of for people to vocalize them out in the open. But then the Internet gave people anonymity and a soapbox and racist statements have made a comeback. Eventually we will drive them out there, too, I suspect, but that is something for society to do socially, not something that we treat with criminal justice procedures.

    When somebody offers hate speech in public, then we know them for who they are. Boo them off of the stage … politely, of course. Walk out in disgust. Shame people for staying, etc. Protest civilly outside the venue. Create a counter activity. All of these are mechanisms to protect our free speech!

    Once we start culling the list of those who get to speak, we are on the slippery slope and it doesn’t lead anywhere we want to be.

    By their words shall you know them!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do tend to agree with you…but I don’t think that your analogy here always holds. For instance I can be charged for simply leaving a young child alone at home. Even if nothing bad happened to that child. Creating environment where dangerous things could happen is punishable in many areas. Sometimes it initially takes an incident to alert people of the dangers, but we regulate industries and punish industries for simply unsafe practices even if no direct harm comes from it. We base on past incidences. So we know what hate speech can accomplish, and we know what calls to violence and the dehumanization of peoples can do. How it impacts people’s psychology and how it might change their behavior. So it’s not always the case that something has to happen before we can act on it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Robert

    The Jewish religion is based on racism and so all practicing Jews are scum! The Jewish God endorses genocide, sexism, racism, murder, adultery, human sacrifice, and evil…so all practicing Jews are evil!


    1. I am approving this comment only because this post is about free speech and perhaps you think I’d like to just trash it so you can confirm some prediction you have about me. I don’t know. Regardless, I find your comment here to be antisemitic and without nuance or intellectual merit. Not to mention completely not what this post is about. I don’t want to waste a lot of time on your comments so I don’t plan on responding to you again, but other people may. I of course don’t disagree with your psychological profile of Yahweh, but your extension to all practicing Jews exhibiting the exam same behavior is fallacious to say the least.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Robert

        The Jewish god is a blatant racist among other things! The fact is I am antisemitic and anti Christian and anti Islamic…the three lunatic Abrahamic religions! And anyway, who cares what you think because you can’t wrap your head around the facts and became an apologist for sick people! 😊


  3. Scottie

    Hello Swarn. Jerry Coyne is very vocal on this point of hate speech. While he acknowledges that speech that incites to immediate violence must be illegal and prosecuted, the best way to deal with hateful speech is to let it be heard and then defeat it with better reasoned arguments. I tend to agree with that. I want to hear the other side in an argument even if I detest them, because them I can better argue against them and show how and why they are wrong. As for hate action laws, if two people are assaulted , one for no reason other than in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the other because they were hated against, were not both assaulted? What makes one assault worse than the other. I am a gay man, if attacked and harmed due to being gay does that make someone attacked and harmed simply for their money less than me? No it is the violation of the person that should be judged and the degree of harm caused regardless of any protected category. To point another example, is rape of a lesbian worse than a rape of a straight woman? No they both are a violation of the persons body and must be handled as such.

    Great thought provoking topic. Hugs

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Scottie. Your points here bring up something I also think a great deal about, and that is about intentions. When we look at something like the punishment for murder, I am sure you well know that categories from 1st degree down to involuntary manslaughter. Now perhaps you disagree that there should be a distinction here, but this type of tier system for murder types and thus punishment for a crime is there for a reason and this boils down to intention. In all cases the person is dead, but in terms of how we address the person who killed this tier system matters quite a great deal. On the extreme case if you have an psychopathic killer and a person who accidentally killed somebody in their car because they drove too fast, there is a very real distinction in those two people. One person is much more likely to kill again than the other and I think that matters a great deal.

      To address the points you brought up I would say it does matter. Now if someone is attacked for no reason, I would say that person is likely psychopathic who did the attacking so that tells us something about that persons mind (I doubt that even psychopaths attack for no reason, although the reasons might be crazy). A person who commits violence against a particular group, whether it’s gays or African-Americans is much more likely to commit violence against people from that group again. Their hate towards the group and intentions matter in terms of how we protect society from such people. It also gives us an indication of culture, possible holes in our education system, or problems with how information is disseminated. While my sadness for the victim is the same in both cases, how we move forward to both protect society and reform people who might have similar attitudes makes intentions and attitudes rather important.

      In your rape example, I don’t find the distinction in intention there to be overly relevant, but if it was a man raping a lesbian because she doesn’t like men and hates gay people, then I would say the level of aggression in that individual might be more worrying than say Brock Turner. I am not saying both aren’t still rapists, but again from the point of view of having less rapes both those situation might require a different way to address the problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. David Fischer

    So I think I need to disagree with your opening premise. If you truly we’re fundamentalist in terms of free speech (of which I consider myself) you would want to protect all speech no matter the content. I think the issue is two fold, what you or I would consider hate speech may not be considered hateful by others so who are we to tell them what they should believe is hateful? Secondly we must remember that we have the right to speak our minds, not to have others listen. The difficult answer to hate speech is to ignore it aggressively, don’t give it news coverage, don’t tell them they are wrong or small minded, don’t acknowledge the ideas in any way. Without a platform the doeech cannot grow. The issue is that social media has ensured that everyone has a platform and an audience. I still fundamentally will protect and argue for anyone’s right to say nearly anything (with the exception of an over call to violence, which in my view needs to be truly upfront and obvious along the lines of “group a is bad and we need to kill them all”, whereas “group b is bad and we should crush them” is not in my view a call to violence, mearly a call to action to somehow suppress group b. This is still wrong morally, but I feel is within the right to free speech as it does not directly ask someone to commit an act of violence). I don’t need to, and in most cases do not, agree with the speech that needs to be protected, rather I know that to suppress speech of any kind leads to a very slippery moral slope.
    Others here have pointed out that the best offense against hateful and as you soeak to at the end, stupid speech is to have a better idea with a better argument to convince more people that the hateful speech is bad. Perhaps I am still young and niave in terms of fundamentalist protection of rights contrasted against what is morally acceptable. I do not have kids, and am just starting to settle into a family lifestyle of my own. I think though that in cases like this it’s important to remember that you will never convince everyone that you are correct, anti-vaxxers will still exist, flat-earthers will continue to argue that we are floating on the back of a turtle. Be confident that your views are as correct as you can make them, be willing to change your opinions in the face of new and more verified facts, and don’t give creedance to hateful and stupid ideas. Kill this ideas with kindness and reason, not violence and more hate.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Your comment is so well put David, and I agree with you, most especially loving the ending. I like your point that the power can be taken away from such groups by not giving them the airtime, not exhibiting them, aggressively ignoring them, you can’t fight hate with hate ultimately. Anyway, you said it better *nods*.

      – Esme Cloud

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Thank you for your comments David. I certainly don’t disagree, but to be fair I did say “pretty much a free speech fundamentalist”…meaning that there are simply times when I’m not sure letting certain speech be heard has value. Also that I refuse to be completely fundamentalist about anything, and that I am willing to question any belief.

      At least in this day and age, I don’t think saying we should just ignore and not pay attention to hate speech. The platforms for having hate speech heard, and the way the algorithms and economy works for media, rewards the spreading of hate speech rather than suppressing it. Advertising dollars are what make all these social media platforms money and hate speech either gets people to join in the conversation who agree, or those who oppose it. So I think it’s reasonable to be worried about hate speech and its impacts. It might be reasonable to simply deny them platforms and limit the ways in which they can spread their message. Although John Zande further up didn’t elaborate, he’s right in pointing out that there are other countries that are democracies with a great deal of freedom that do a much more effective job at curtailing hate speech.

      I also don’t think hate speech comes down to a matter of opinion. I think we have ways of analyzing speech to determine its veracity. Sure someone can claim anything they don’t like as hate speech, and I think there are people who do that erroneously but we can evaluate those claims objectively. It certainly shouldn’t be decided by just me, but I think that there are people with expertise that can make such decisions.

      Finally I would say that speech that calls for any type of violence, not necessarily just death is problematic. And as I said the act of dehumanization leads to situations in which people can justify violence against that group. We know the impacts of dehumanization fairly well and we know the damage it causes. I can never lift a finger against a group I don’t like, but with social media and speech to dehumanize that group, I can increase the odds of violence and rights violations against that group dramatically.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Swarn,

    You’ve got lots of great talking points in this piece.

    The crux of your exploration, I think, revolves around whether or not free expression should be permitted in the cases where it is linked to one group asserting a dehumanizing view towards another. But then in the closing paragraph you mix this with your own consternation regarding those who have a hard time swallowing ideas proven by science. And for me, these are very different propositions.

    Let me start with the latter. I’m reading a book right now by Norman Doidge, M.D. entitled The Brain’s Way of Healing. It is a fascinating study of people who’ve found ways of healing seemingly intractable physical deficits using techniques that ultimately have been explained using current neuroscience, but which at the time were considered quackery. Only now, with discoveries regarding neuroplasticity, for instance, do we have a framework for understanding how traditional Buddhist healing modalities related to eyesight actually work. Over the years, the medical community has ignored or even suppressed them. But now we understand them. So, on the science front, I think there is just too much risk of limiting the conversation to present scientific understanding and losing the upside. The downside and risk are simply too great of suggesting a particular scientific position should curtail other beliefs or ideas. I’d even argue this sort of position is inherently unscientific, but that’s a story for another day.

    The most important point is your first. I’m not really familiar with what other countries have done, but to me it seems reasonable to declare a “Bill of Rights” in which each human being has a right to the fundamental dignity, in the public space, that comes with being human–regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or creed (or whatever comes next in the line of indignities that have no place in civilized society). Infringements on this could be restricted to private clubs or something, where speech could still be free, but I personally would not take issue with regulating public statements that suggest a particular group of people are unworthy of fundamental respect and dignity.

    There is one subtlety here. I would not suggest that a person could not get on national television and state that homosexuality is inconsistent with their personal religious beliefs, for instance. I would only regulate statements or assertions that suggest one class of human beings is not worthy of the dignity, rights and privileges of any other. It’s kind of tricky. There are so many slippery slopes it’s a hard terrain to navigate, but assertions of fundamental unworthiness, or that the world would be better if another class of person did not exist, have no place in modern society, in my opinion.

    As to permitting acts of violence by one human against another to express a grievance, I don’t personally think that is ever all that helpful. But I’ll caveat that by noting that it is really, really hard to state universally that protection of our rights never admits to defensive violence. There’s a way in which we could argue that allowing hate speech of the type I described above is a failure of society to protect all of its members, which puts them in the untenable position of needing to defend themselves. When violent action is taken, I suppose at minimum I would advocate it be defensive in nature only. Violence is tough, as it always leaves a mark and perpetuates discord through subsequent generations…

    Tricky stuff, Swarn!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Michael for your thoughts here. I agree with what you have to say, even in regards to science. I am not an advocate for speech being allowed that is only verifiable by science, but rather when we talk about things like hate speech or the geocentric theory, I think we have quite a lot of scientific evidence against such things, and thus I don’t think conversations about them are helpful. I would argue that the case you are talking about was one that simply shouldn’t have been shut down in its inception because we didn’t know enough about the brain. Likely such a conversation was shutdown because it involved eastern philosophy and western bias (which still exists) was stronger back in the day. This is a very different situation than someone claiming that one race is superior over another, or that the earth is flat. We have not just a little, but mounds of objective evidence against such claims. Now certainly flat earthers cause little harm, but we know the consequences of racism. And there simply is no valid evidence to sugest such a thing is true. I am sure even if there were average differences in certain qualities among different races, it is hardly significant to suggest that any person is less than human. And I like the way you stated ” I would only regulate statements or assertions that suggest one class of human beings is not worthy of the dignity, rights and privileges of any other. ” I would simply say though that with a case like the anti-vaxx movement, this an obvious case where harm has come as a result of allowing this speech. It’s not to say that we won’t come up with a better way to treat diseases, but as of now it has simply caused more harm than good to let it continue. I can only imagine what it’s like to be a doctor and have an increase of children coming in who are dying of easily treatable diseases.

      But of course you’re right, mistakes could be made using current scientific thinking to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of speech, but I doubt that such speech would be suppressed indefinitely. If it is correct, then its truth will be revealed.


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