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Liberty & Equality

Free Speech: A Paradox

Ryan Andrews reminds us what free speech is for.

Tom: (tuts over his newspaper) Of course, religious extremists and state censors are not the only enemies of free speech. There are also moral-majority conservatives, left-wing egalitarians, and many more overly-sensitive souls of every stripe. The variables are different, but they all follow the same formula: ‘If the idea expressed is sufficiently antithetical to our values, it should be suppressed’. If that’s free speech, then every society that has ever existed has allowed free speech. But for me, the logic behind real freedom of speech is simple: what constitutes the Good is entirely subjective, and the knowledge on which we base our judgements will always be incomplete anyway, so we have a constant need for new ideas – for new speech. Therefore, individually and as a society, we should act according our factual and ethical beliefs, but always allow for the possibility that we are in error, and that there is a new thought that we should be allowed to hear.

Alex: I think, in general, that what you say is true, oh Socrates.

Tom: (grimaces) So we agree that the right to free speech is not an end in itself, then. I mean, we don’t simply want to allow a citizen the satisfaction of getting something off his chest … nor are we concerned that he enjoy some psychological feeling of freedom. Not that we begrudge him these comforts; but the reason we wish free speech to be a permanent feature of society, is that we want the actual speech.

Alex: You are right there, oh Socr…

Tom: (hastily) And if the point of free speech is that we want more speech, the enemies of free speech are not just government censors, or those who would use violence to intimidate people into silence. Those would-be censors who protest or boycott others’ speech should also be counted as hostile to free speech. Words are weapons, it is true, and so they should be aimed at encouraging or discouraging action – never to expressly discourage other speech.

Alex: An admirable sentiment. But just to clarify: you’re not saying that people should be prohibited from arguing against free speech, right? You’re just saying that speech should not be used to actively prevent speech? At the same time, if I hire someone to sell shoes, and instead he spends all day speaking on behalf of his pet cause, I’m not violating his freedom of expression if I fire him, correct?

Tom: Of course. But get to your point – we need to wrap this up by the time I’m done with my coffee, so I can carry on with my editing.

Alex: Well, almost all speech has the potential to discourage other speech. The dominance of any widespread opinion discourages people from voicing contrary opinions; or perhaps even thinking them, I have to imagine.

Tom: Sure. But where’s the wisdom in exacerbating the situation? Protest against the expression of political opinions is a preventable evil.

Alex: But where do you draw the line? Am I infringing on someone’s free speech if I ignore her? Should we have a ‘fairness’ law that requires everyone to hear everyone’s opinion on everything?

Tom: Well, most of us believe that the more medical research, the better – but this doesn’t mean that we think that all our resources should go to medical research. Likewise, my idea that the more speech the better doesn’t mean that we all should spend every waking hour actively trying to maximize the amount of available speech. My proscription for both, in fact, is that, as a minimum, we not actively interfere with their free availability.

Alex: I understand that. But then should we limit free speech in order to preserve as much speech as possible?

Tom: No, because if our support for freedom of speech depends on a belief that our knowledge will always be incomplete, and that what is believed to be good will always be subjective, then we cannot privilege the right to express one idea over the right to express another.

Alex: That cuts both ways though. I understand the logic of your laissez-faire attitude; but if we can’t privilege the right to express one idea over another because our knowledge is always incomplete, and good is always subjective, then perhaps we should suppress that speech which would subtract from our total potential speech.

Tom: But how would we know what speech to suppress?

Alex: I know our knowledge is always incomplete; so let’s just accept the idea hypothetically.

Tom: Fine. Good is subjective, but the subjectivity of values does not necessitate the equality of values. You suggest that since we don’t know which speech is correct, it stands to reason that we should suppress that speech which would subtract from our total potential speech. So if the expression of an idea limits the sum of our ideas, I think we have to accept that sacrifice, and precisely because what’s good is subjective. If good is subjective, who’s to say that any sacrificed idea is not worth more than all the other ideas its articulation would prevent us from hearing?

Alex: (finishing his muffin and smirking) You must see the paradox – the paradoxes – in your argument?

Tom: (draining the last of his coffee) Yes. Hopefully we’ll be free to discuss it all further sometime.

© Ryan Andrews 2015

Ryan Andrews is the author of The Birth of Prudence, a novel.

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