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Free speech is not just about the government.

An open letter expressing a generic defence of free speech was published in Harper’s Magazine last Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, two signatories had been hectored into retracting their support, a third had been reported to their employer, and a broad swathe of the activist ecosystem was busy proving the letter’s point that censorship and shaming, rather than debate, were becoming the default tools of political dialogue on the left.

It’s hard to think of a response which could have better illustrated the need to defend our right to think freely and ask dangerous questions. A healthy political culture requires the freedom to disagree with consensus, no matter that we find the thoughts expressed distasteful.

There are any number of justifications for a stance bordering on free-speech fundamentalism, so I’m going to stick to three. The first is that we accept a possibility, no matter how slight, that we might be wrong. As we are constantly reminded, the moral values of today are not the moral values of the past. People held views with utter conviction that we view as abhorrent; it’s an uncomfortable thought that we almost surely hold views that our descendants will view as equally indefensible. Perhaps the family abolition movement will get their way and children in the future will be raised communally, severing parental connections. Such a society would judge us harshly for upholding a system where your parents could determine so much of your future, while we would view it as barbaric.

If the possibility that we’re wrong exists then we should at least be willing to allow people to discuss alternatives; we may find lacunae in our thinking that would otherwise have gone unexamined.

Given that the root cause of the current problem is an excess of moral confidence, I suspect this argument probably won’t sway many. The second and more persuasive justification is the pragmatic; the tacit understanding that while one side might be in the ascendancy today, it may not be tomorrow. Don’t do to them what you wouldn’t have them do to you. Don’t set up systems you wouldn’t have turned against you. And don’t weaken the idea that suppression of speech signals a bad actor in government. Remember, it is because of the protections granted by free speech that your views were able to enter the mainstream in the first place. It’s not beyond the limits of imagination that in the absence of those freedoms they could someday be suppressed.

The response to this might well be that the far right of the political spectrum is unlikely to uphold its end of this bargain; having entered the political mainstream under the shelter of free speech, it will immediately tear it down when in office. This is entirely true. The kicker is that the pragmatist lets them speak anyway, not because they expect this courtesy to be returned, but because defining those unworthy of the right to speech is the sort of process that can quite rapidly get out of hand.

This brings us to the third and final justification, raised by the signatories to the Harper’s letter: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away”. The idea that we can best vanquish fascists or communists through rigorous public analysis is a lovely one, but it probably isn’t true. It may well be more effective from a purely partisan view to suppress such views. This is why dictators don’t generally crush opposition by inviting them onstage for a rigorously moderated debate.

What is almost certainly true is that it is better for the health of democracy to beat your opponents by showing that their ideas are flawed. You secure the greatest possible chance of your right to speak freely when the other side is in power. You ensure that your ideas are tested for weaknesses. You learn something about what people believe. And you may even find that you agree with what they have to say.

If you agree with me that free speech is a desirable goal – and if you don’t, that’s your opinion and I respect your right to express it – then the next logical question is to ask where free speech ends.

This can be interpreted in two ways. The first is ‘which types of speech fall outside of the boundaries of protected freedoms.’ For this, I’m happy to run with the answer given in Brandenburg v. Ohio – speech which is intended to produce immediate illegal action and likely to do so. Preserving public order is priceless. For everything else, there’s libel law.

The second interpretation is ‘where is speech protected, and to what degree’. It is a striking oddity that the idea that anything short of government suppression is legitimate has been so gleefully seized upon by the left as it constitutes a significant transfer of power from workers to employers. Within this framework, companies are free to police the thoughts of those working for them; step out of line and express dissent, and you’re gone. Similarly, social consequences arising out of the coordinated action of online activists – so-called ‘cancel culture’ – should be viewed with apprehension.

Discuss this topic at all online and you will at some point be sent a particularly tedious line cartoon declaring that freedom to speak is not freedom from consequence, a mantra which has been gleefully seized on by the left as conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of cultural change after cultural change. Think things through a step further and it becomes clear that those proposing this standard would never dream of adhering to it if they were to find themselves on the other side of the issue: “If a church congregation threatens a teen with ostracization for supporting gay rights, then they aren’t infringing on their rights to believe as they will; they’re merely showing them the door. If your employer fires you for attending a black lives matter rally, then this isn’t curtailment of your freedom of expression; it’s consequences for your behaviour“.

Freedom of speech is explicitly freedom from consequences to the extent of the protection offered. It’s not enough to focus only on the legal obligation for the government to refrain from interference; we must commit culturally to upholding people’s right to free expression. How free can speech realistically be if the consequence for speaking on the wrong side of an issue is a concerted effort to destroy your life, and one that is increasingly likely to succeed? If the reaction to expressing an unpopular view is activists hunting through every scrap of your life for posts they find offensive to send to employers, friends, and family with accompanying demands that you be cast out from that community, who would run the risk of speaking out against the consensus? These examples do not need to be a guaranteed or even particularly common occurrence to be powerful; organised witch-hunts have a chilling effect that stretches far beyond the individual affected.

If free speech is a meaningful concept then the response to disliked speech cannot be an attempt to unperson an individual through the destruction of their social and economic life. Solving this problem is considerably more challenging than identifying it; the state is not generally in the business of mandating social interaction, and even the end of at-will employment probably wouldn’t stop businesses finding ways to release workers on the wrong end of public opinion. However, it would be a good starting point if we could at least reach consensus on the idea that actively attempting to destroy your ideological opponents is anathema to the deal that underlies our democracy. Tolerance is the basis for a society of this sort, and that means tolerating the presence of people we may detest. That one side is good and the other bad is immaterial; we are bound by the same mutual duties and so long as we fulfil them, we should be free to speak and believe as we will.

That some of those leading the charge against this idea are journalists and academics who earn a living — in their view — by asking questions that are dangerous to the hierarchies of power that they live within is perhaps the strangest part of this whole affair. The idea that the mechanisms they freely endorse would ever be turned against them seems to be a logical step too far; after all, only immoral speech that damages the fabric of society is covered by these rules, and no right-thinking person would ever view articles on the health benefits of pornography or the need to dismantle the nuclear family as falling under such.

It is entirely possible, of course, that caring about freedom of speech is always going to be the cause of the losing side. Free speech is simply a tool one uses to open the door just enough to get ones arguments into the playing field; once your views are in the ascendancy, the game becomes one on shutting the door to changes that might undo your position. I hope that it is not, and that a consensus in support of our freedom to debate and discuss ideas can be found. After all, if it isn’t – I’ll probably get cancelled for this.

Image courtesy of PhillyCAM, used under a Creative Commons Licence.