Friday, September 23, 2016

Free speech, but as a public good

The core of free speech is that words have meaning. This is a point so obvious that it goes without saying, and it is thus all the more confounding that it seemingly has to be said. Not least in these perilous times, when the only thing keeping pace with the frequency of meaningless statements is their volume.

I need not remind that one of the most frequent loudmouths has a fifty/fifty shot of becoming the next US president.

The classical arguments for free speech had very little to do with individual expression. They did not primarily expound the right and virtue of being an asshat in public. Rather, these classical arguments were primarily concerned with the positive effects of not having public debate limited by the public institutions that were the object of debate. Primary among such institutions were monarchies with varying degrees of absolute authority.

One of the positive effects of free speech is that the public, by partaking of the public debate, would have a reliable source of information to base their opinions on. After having read the arguments to and fro, for and against, the public would stand at the ready to mobilize their own rational faculties in their day-to-day democratic activities. Thus, the public is informed on the issues, understand who the actors are and what is at stake, and can get to work utilizing the best knowledge available to them. Whatever the king sovereign might opine on the matter.

The hidden premise here is of course that the public debate is conducted properly and in good faith. Those participating are expected to bring clear understanding to bear on the issues of the day, and inform the reading public about what is at stake. The function of public debate is to educate and mobilize the public with regards to the issues of the day. If this function is not fulfilled, things go awry. The public bases its decisions and deliberations on poorer information than it ought, and the democratic decision-making processes suffers because of this.

This is a radically different notion of free speech than the nihilistic freedom to unabashedly shout one stupidity after another in public. While some might feel good by roaring "RETARD!" at the top of their lungs on the town square, such roars do not contribute anything constructive to the public debate. Such antics do not create or convey an understanding of current issues, and it goes without saying that there are more interesting avenues of speech to explore.

The same goes for self-identified nazis. The issue as stake is not that the public has not heard what they have to say, and would be convinced if they but took the time to absorb more refined versions of nazi rhetoric. Quite the opposite: the arguments have already been presented, both in general and in their most specific implementation. Adding more speech will not further anyone's understanding of what is at stake. History has already rendered judgement on these matters, and there is little left to add.

With this in mind, it is hard to take self-proclaimed free speech provocateurs seriously. They are either disingenuous or know not of what they speak. In either case, nothing is gained by helping them spread their unrelenting ululations.

We know better know. It would be to insult generations of free speech advocacy to not have learnt these things by now.

Originally published August 10, 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment