Axiomatic: Free Speech


I’ve said before that modern skeptics are lazy and pointed in the wrong direction. I still believe that.

But there’s kind of larger point there. Humans are lazy and pointed in the wrong directions.

How often have you thought about free speech? If you’re like me and you frequent the places I frequent… once a week or so? I mean, it comes up all the time. Usually in some circumstance where that freedom is being abrogated somewhere in the world. There is (justifiably, I think) a real concern about freedom of speech and its defense.

Still, there’s a kind of defacto acceptance, especially with young, white, tech-literate males, that freedom of speech is a natural state, an unassailable good, something obvious (or as they say in the US, self-evident).

Is it?

I mean, there’s nothing particularly obvious about it. Like everything else, it’s just something people made up. It might be a hard-won evolution of centuries of experimenting with despots, but it’s not obvious.

There’s also an assumption that freedom of speech is binary. It isn’t that either. I mean, it’s not like you can say everything or nothing. Even in the US, the government will not protect dangerous speech (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). How different is that from inciting violence against a particular race or gender via words?

Clearly, there’s a spectrum there. And yes, there’s an argument to made that offensive speech should be allowed (if not encouraged), but there’s also a strong opposing argument that allowing dangerously offensive speech to propagate by being spoken is something society simply should not accept.

Finally, there’s an assumption that freedom of speech applies in all domains, everywhere. Which is the most obviously wrong. Any freedom is context sensitive. The problem tends to be that people confuse the implementation with the philosophy. The implementation is that the government should regulate speech as little as possible; the philosophy tends to be expressed as “anyone, anything, anywhere”.

Then we whittle down who is anyone (Children? Genocidal Mass Murderers?), what is anything (Snuff porn? Obscenities? White power manifestos?), and what is anywhere (Work? School? A wedding?). And when the free speech advocate is done, we’re in the same place the “pure philosophy” view is meant to get around: Speech is messy, context is important, and there are some things which society as a whole has decided should not be tolerated.