• NOS4A2
    6.5k
    Free speech is given lip-service but rarely is it followed to its logical conclusion: free speech absolutism. It’s difficult to find anyone, past or present, who defends such a principle. Even what we might call the philosophical paragons of free speech would advise limits to it. JS Mill thought expression ought to be interfered with if it incited mischief. John Milton defended free speech from one side of the mouth while denying it to Catholics from the other. Wherever we look, there is some linguistic act worthy of being met with its suppression and punishment.

    In my own readings, the notion of “free speech absolutism” is largely an American affair. The first amendment of the United States constitution seems to have bred some devotees to its unwavering and absolute language. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black famously contended that the constitution guaranteed “absolute freedom of speech”. The philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn also noticed that the first-amendment was unconditional, rightfully so, and applied it as the bedrock of democracy. No exception is indicated, therefore, none can be allowed. But at no point in American history have these rights not been violated. There are laws against slander, perjury, fraud, and so on.

    Besides, all of this is politics, legalism, and applies only to government. Maybe the architects of the US constitution held some sort of view that could be called “free speech absolutism”, but as far as I can tell it has never found expression as a principle for the every man.

    What’s wrong with free speech absolutism?

    (For anyone who wishes to consider or to avoid my own opinion on the topic, the reason I would advocate free speech absolutism is as follows.)

    ***

    If we could compile the sum total of human art into its own artifice there would be a gaping hole wherever the censors had their way with it. One could never know the beauty or ugliness of what once stood there, could have stood there, or what might occur should we chance to look on it again. All we can know is it has been sacrificed on some forgettable and long-forgotten whim of bigotry.

    Such works and their creators are often censored for fear that they may produce a deleterious effect on society or some other group of people—at least that is the censor’s justification. The Athenian youth, for instance, must be spared the influence of Socrates, whom will no doubt corrupt them. We can never know if the Athenian youth made it through their lives uncorrupted or whether the act of censorship served well to protect them—frankly, who cares?—but we can intuit what was lost, or rather, stolen from posterity. One can be confident that the loss of Socrates and his art is greater than whatever trappings had been gained by his silencing.

    So it is with all acts of censorship; and this is why I contend that one act of censorship is worse for humanity than all the censored works of human history combined. Human art and knowledge is as fragile as the Herculaneum papyri, and humanity is left ignorant wherever any of it is destroyed or vandalized.

    If one is concerned with human rights he might think twice about his desires to snuff out this or that speaker and his words. The censor violates an unfathomable number of rights with one act of intolerance: the right of the person to create her art, and the right of posterity to witness it. And in so doing he has stolen from humanity vast sums of human knowledge on some specious whim of bigotry, and as such is an agent of ignorance.

    It is for these reasons I refuse to censor another.
  • ssu
    6.6k
    I think one can speak simply about free speech, because even if you want to make the difference with American free speech and the issue in other countries insisting on the "absolutism" of American free speech, you still have in the US laws against libel and slander, blackmail etc. And one of the largest security apparatuses keeping the taps on American citizens.

    The problem of having to make limitations on free speech is basically an integral part of a society based on democracy and free speech. Just where we draw the lines on these freedoms, just like what ought to be decided by the government / collective and what should be left to the individual citizen, is a question that every society and every generation has to try to solve and likely will find different solutions.

    We can hope that the solutions found will be as close to the ideals as possible and self evident for the majority of people.
  • Baden
    14.1k


    Freedom of expression is an important social value. So is e.g. security. Sometimes, social values conflict. Where they do, a rational society prioritizes what is good for it--usually some compromise that retains as much of the positive elements of each value as possible rather than prioritizing one particular value over all others. Can you explain why it should do otherwise? E.g. suppose we can retain 99.9% rather than 100% of free speech and simultaneously retain 100% security (just hypothetically), would that not be preferable to 100% free speech and 0% security? A free speech absolutist must say no, right? This is why the position is irrational in practice and is not followed to its logical conclusions.
  • BC
    11.5k


    "Shouting fire in a crowded theater" is a popular analogy for speech or actions whose principal purpose is to create panic, and in particular for speech or actions which may for that reason be thought to be outside the scope of free speech protections. The phrase is a paraphrasing of a dictum, or non-binding statement, from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s opinion in the United States Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States in 1919, which held that the defendant's speech in opposition to the draft during World War I was not protected free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The case was later partially overturned by Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969, which limited the scope of banned speech to that which would be directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action (e.g. a riot).[1] — Wikipedia

    Justice Holmes cited the malicious shout of "FIRE!" in a crowded theater because there were some actual instances of this; the stampede for the doors resulted in many deaths, without any fire being present.

    Free speech can, of course. set crowds on fire. Rioting (mob action with no one in control) has been triggered by free, fiery, speech. Or, sometimes, the utterance of falsehoods at a critical moment. If we don't like the rioters, then incitement is especially dangerous. If we are the rioters, then the spark which set off the riot is brilliant rhetoric.

    Back in the 1960s I opposed the draft and the Vietnam war. I participated in demonstrations and spoke freely against the administration's policies. My speech wasn't throttled, but it was was routinely condemned as unAmerican or treasonous. The experience of speech suppression in private spaces (workplaces in particular) since Vietnam has led me to be on the side of unlimited free speech. Speech about socialism or communism has also been attacked.

    Here's an example of workplace free speech suppression: My social service agency employer held a training session on a method of therapy they wanted staff to use. The presenter began by announcing that the staff were expected to accept what was taught that day without objection or discussion. I, being the usual suspect and designated problem person, duly objected.

    The therapy method that was taught was not objectionable; it was the instruction to accept it without discussion that was unacceptable. Now, I didn't object in class. During the lunch break I commented that it wasn't my practice to accept instruction that wasn't open to objection or discussion. For that I came close to being fired.

    At other work places, policies were announced with the add-on that there was to be no discussion about it. As a staff lawyer said, "There is no right to free speech in the workplace." Which, of course, is one of the critical places for free speech to occur.
  • Tom Storm
    5.8k
    Here's an example of workplace free speech suppression: My social service agency employer held a training session on a method of therapy they wanted staff to use. The presenter began by announcing that the staff were expected to accept what was taught that day without objection or discussion. I, being the usual suspect and designated problem person, duly objected.BC

    Goodness. Seems antithetical to good community work which is supposed to encourage reflective practice and a diversity of approaches. I've seen some poor practice over the decades, but I've never had that experience in 33 years of working in the health and community sector. I recognise that organisations are not democracies and that inevitably decisions of leadership need to be made that not everyone is happy about, but the right to complain or provide feedback or explore alternatives should be available.
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    I think you’re right. The overlap of rights causes a sort of schism. My belief in property rights, for example, suggests that people can restrict another’s free speech rights wherever speech occurs in their domain. In a way, it’s their free speech right to censor whomever they wish.

    But no, I would prefer 100% free speech to 100% security. In my mind censorship threatens my security more so than another’s speech, and I have a hard time seeing how words can threaten security.
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    Thanks for writing that.

    Not unlike your own experiences, Justice Holmes used the “fire in a crowded theater” theory to justify jailing dissidents who were protesting the draft. This goes to my point that censors will use the promise of future damage to justify present censorship. In his words, if speech represents a “clear and present danger”, it isn’t protected, even if there is nothing clear nor present about what might happen. When will this danger occur? How will it manifest? This is basically why Holme’s dictum was overturned years later.

    I’m still doubtful that speech causes the activity that people claim they do, or that upon hearing certain guttural sounds in certain combinations it will animate their body into performing this or that act. For example, when Mill suggests that speech and placards shown to an excited mob ought to be silenced because they lead to the harm of the corn dealer, violating the Harm Principle, I fail to see how the one necessarily leads to the other. It seems to me that the causes of any harms are the excited mob.

    But then again maybe there is some sort of biological mechanism in some people that allows speech to push them around in some way, like sorcery. Who knows?
  • Baden
    14.1k
    I would prefer 100% free speech to 100% securityNOS4A2

    That's not the hypothetical choice I posed though.

    Prefer which:

    1) 100% free speech and 0% security
    2) 99.9% free speech and 100% security

    Just as a hypothetical, 1) or 2)?
  • Baden
    14.1k
    I have a hard time seeing how words can threaten security.NOS4A2

    Unless you have a hard time seeing how a wire tap on the Pentagon could threaten America's security, you don't really. And it's not hard to translate this into a free speech issue whereby a newspaper might be prevented from printing the results of such a wire-tap. Or should the U.S. allow its newspapers to give away America's nuclear secrets (again, hypothetically) just to get from 99.9% to 100% free speech as free speech absolutism would seem to demand? Is the obvious answer perhaps why almost no one takes the idea seriously though it may be fashionable to pay lip service to it?

    Here you may also see why the contradiction runs in the opposite way to how you conceive it. An insistence on free speech absolutism could threaten to undermine the grounds of its own possibility. No security, no freedom. So, free speech absolutism is essentially incoherent and self-contradictory in practice.
  • L'éléphant
    891
    But then again maybe there is some sort of biological mechanism in some people that allows speech to push them around in some way, like sorcery. Who knows?NOS4A2
    Criminals rely on information, printed or spoken. There are information you don't want publicized. Identity protection is a form of censorship on what information can be published without consent of the individuals.

    But at no point in American history have these rights not been violated. There are laws against slander, perjury, fraud, and so on.NOS4A2
    Thank god! Can you imagine if you're a parent in the middle of a nasty divorce and lies are posted against you in order to damage your reputation? That would be horrible!
  • BC
    11.5k
    But then again maybe there is some sort of biological mechanism in some people that allows speech to push them around in some way, like sorcery. Who knows?NOS4A2

    It isn't really that mysterious. Mill, per your post, spoke of the messages on placards setting off an excited mob. The biology involved is that of perception, thinking, emotional arousal, and group dynamics.

    A group of bored people in a queue aren't going to turn to arson, rape, and bloody murder on the basis of a few placards. A group of people who are already stirred up, however, can be coalesced into a lethal mob by speakers wielding just the right set of provocative rhetoric. A group of rednecks, aimlessly milling around outside a Mississippi jail, could be provoked, by speech, to break into the jail and lynch a black prisoner. This has happened often enough.

    On the afternoon of the George Floyd riots in Minneapolis, a group milling around the Third Precinct police station were being literally wound up by inside agitators. The speakers weren't creating discontent, they were fanning its flames. Not to long after I observed this, the riot which wrecked that part of town began.

    In 1921, a mob burnt down the core of black Tulsa, OK. The whole area was incinerated, and around 300 black people were killed. There is a clear record of how this massacre developed over a quite short period of time (just a few days).

    On the positive side, people can be moved to do good deeds or donate more money than they intended to by the deployment of inspired preaching. The short sentence, "This material will be on the final exam" will cause students who get good grades to pay extra attention to "this material".

    As you suggest, words don't have magical effects. Language causes things to happen under certain conditions which exist prior to the language being deployed.
  • BC
    11.5k
    IF what I said in the post above about language being able to start riots is true, should we then forbid people to talk that way?

    There is the principle of free speech; there is also the principle of prior restraint. The state can't forbid something from being said on the basis that it might possibly be libelous, criminal, or provocative.

    I am probably a free-speech absolutist, in practice. I haven't heard anything recently that I thought should be censored. (Maybe 50 years ago I would have been willing to ban some speech.). I'm pretty opinionated, and other people have all kinds of ideas I think are really bad, dead wrong, and all-round stupid. I don't think they should be enjoined from saying what they have to say. I want to be able to say whatever is on mind, therefore, I'm in favor of free speech.

    It's at the border of acceptable ideas where free speech becomes "dangerous". Some people are in favor of sexual relationships between adults and older children. Endorsing man-boy love is pretty much a reputational suicide in polite society. Homosexual activity was, once upon a time, "the love that dare not speak its name." Now it won't shut up. Being a Communist in the USA was verboten in the late 1940s and 1950s. Now it's not a hot topic.

    There is no risk today in calling Donal Trump a fraud. What is acceptable changes over time, and with it the contested boundaries of free speech.
  • Baden
    14.1k
    It seems to me folks are generally free speech absolutists in the way Elon Musk says he is, even though he's not really (his Twitter still censors / bans etc.). It's like a club or religion that sounds good, but in practice is just the same as being a regular free speech advocate because if you ask hard questions over what the "absolutist" part really means, you realise that its followers either can't or won't pin it down. They mostly go on about the type of free speech the majority of us agree with anyway, ignoring that the absolutist part is only really crucial when you get to the 0.01% of situations where it would be really self-defeating to be absolutist about free speech. So, yes, nice club. Good for selling badges and T-shirts, I presume, but otherwise meaningless (or to the extent it's not, absurd in its implications).
  • Isaac
    9.4k
    One can be confident that the loss of Socrates and his art is greater than whatever trappings had been gained by his silencing.NOS4A2

    How?

    By which I mean, it doesn't seem at all likely that the sum total of censored material would add up to anything very much of import. Mostly just abuse and weird opinions. There might be one or two gems in the rough, but that's an argument for more careful censoring, not for no censoring.

    It'd be like arguing for no justice system on the grounds that occasionally an innocent person is condemned. No editing of books on the off-chance that a legitimate word is nonetheless edited out.
  • Agent Smith
    8.9k
    I vote for censorship. Good people rarely speak anyway. :zip:
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    I would prefer 1 to 2. Then again I’m not sure what kind of security I risk losing. The hypothetical seems to me to make no sense because the two are not mutually exclusive and one doesn’t necessarily rise and fall in inverse proportion to the other.
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    Take a look at the Index Librorum Prohibitorum to get a sense of the vandal’s project. Voltaire, Montesquieu, John Locke, Hume, Balzac—more than a few gems were subject to ban. Look at the works thrown into Nazi fires or destroyed by Commie censors. Luckily these days publishers can stay ahead of it and with smuggling some works can reach others. I imagine that wasn’t the case before the printing press. I can never know what Galileo or Bruno might have written if they were able to express themselves freely, but I guess we can be content enough with what was able to reach us.

    The problem is in most cases we can never know what might have exised in that gaping hole. No matter what it is I’d prefer to know and decide on my own accord rather than remain ignorant about it and let someone else decide for me.
  • frank
    11.9k
    The problem is in most cases we can never know what might have exised in that gaping hole.NOS4A2

    Fire!!!
  • Isaac
    9.4k
    Take a look at the Index Librorum Prohibitorum to get a sense of the vandal’s project. Voltaire, Montesquieu, John Locke, Hume, Balzac—more than a few gems were subject to ban. Look at the works thrown into Nazi fires or destroyed by Commie censors. Luckily these days publishers can stay ahead of it and with smuggling some works can reach others. I imagine that wasn’t the case before the printing press. I can never know what Galileo or Bruno might have written if they were able to express themselves freely, but I guess we can be content enough with what was able to reach us.NOS4A2

    Firstly, we seem to very much have these works using our current system. You can't cite them in support of the fact that the system is losing some amazing works. We don't seem to have lost those. Censorship used to be terrible (mainly religiously motivated), it's much better now (despite having gotten considerably worse recently). You'd need to find, to support your argument, some great work of art or philosophy which was censored under our current system.

    Secondly, even the works you cite are a tiny, tiny proportion of all the junk that's eliminated by censorship. What, seriously, do you think are the chances of someone publishing some world-changing insight via Twitter and it being lost in the pile of vitriol the censors otherwise trash? The idea is preposterous.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, none of what you've said distinguishes an argument for no censorship from an argument for better censorship.

    The problem is in most cases we can never know what might have exised in that gaping hole.NOS4A2

    We absolutely can know. We know (in the wider sense of 'we') what is censored. It's not some super-hidden military secret. The stuff is just kept off the main servers. Loads of people know what it contains, none of them have yet come forward with a new approach to unified theory or a cure for cancer.

    No matter what it is I’d prefer to know and decide on my own accord rather than remain ignorant about it and let someone else decide for me.NOS4A2

    Someone else always decides for you. Unless all human thought is presented to you on a searchable database, then someone else is making decisions about what you'll encounter. Censorship just places it out of everyone's reach. Hundreds of other factors place it out of your reach.
  • Hanover
    9.5k
    We can never know if the Athenian youth made it through their lives uncorrupted or whether the act of censorship served well to protect them—frankly, who cares?—but we can intuit what was lost, or rather, stolen from posterity. One can be confident that the loss of Socrates and his art is greater than whatever trappings had been gained by his silencing.NOS4A2

    This is just circular ideology. You argue that free speech is holy and it's therefore necessarily sinful to censor, so it's unnecessary that we calculate the positives and negatives of a particular act of censorship, but we can also just presume (or whatever "intuit" means here) the censorship would be harmful had we actually deciphered the harms and benefits.

    Stepping outside this intuition based system, and turning toward an actual empirical analysis, it would seem that (1) there are in fact instances where the world would have been a better place without the spread of misinformation, and (2) we can't absolve ourselves of the obligation to find those instances and censor if necessary, even if it means we might violate some right we have declared as untouchable.
  • Baden
    14.1k
    I would prefer 1 to 2NOS4A2

    Ok, well you have bitten the bullet. But it seems then you'd want to allow newspapers to publish a country's nuclear secrets even if it meant, in the extreme case, that country's annihilation. I find that odd. Why would absolute free speech be preferable in this case to not being dead?
  • L'éléphant
    891
    This goes to my point that censors will use the promise of future damage to justify present censorship.NOS4A2

    One could never know the beauty or ugliness of what once stood there, could have stood there, or what might occur should we chance to look on it again.NOS4A2
    And you're not using the promise of beauty had censors stopped what they're doing? Look at the above statements coming from you -- you against the censors or those who would want to limit free speech.

    Let's be honest and say, the view of absolute free speech (which includes publication) is not sustainable because there are measurable harms that we could use in the study of what-if anyone can publish any information they want to publish without consent from anyone.

    But if you're only talking about literature and art, then say so. Do not use "free speech absolutism" because that's gonna be challenged to the fullest.
  • Philosophim
    1.3k
    A good topic. I largely agree with your viewpoints with one implicit addition, "If those who speak freely do not intend to manipulate through untruths with the intent of personal benefit while harming others."

    That of course is a mouthful, and easily followed by the question of, "Who determines what is true, harmful, and a selfish benefit?" This cannot be any one individual, and it cannot be mob rule either. This must be proven in a court of law with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond that, say what you will.

    But to a finer point, why have any restrictions at all? Nos, you tend to have a supremely optimistic viewpoint of humanity. Rightly so, you note that bad actors are a minority of citizens in many situations. I do not know your viewpoint on this so I will ask, "Are you aware of the destruction even one person with ill intent can cause?"

    In my experience in history and in life, one bad actor can ruin a carefully constructed environment of trust and good will. It takes days to build a building, but one day for a bomber to bring it all down. In my viewpoint, societal restrictions in general are not because the majority of people need to be managed, but to minimize and prevent the severity of the rare bad actors involved. Can an oppressive government cause more harm then one bad actor? Unquestioningly. But in general a place with no governance, screening, or rules will inevitably have to contend with the inevitable bad actor that causes ruin.

    The same goes for speech. Governments for years have used propaganda in enemy states to sow discord in other states and make them unstable. Liars peddle harmful and shoddy products to consumers that cause permanent damage and death, then disappear to another area of the world. The reality is that people are not rational beings, they are rationalizing beings who look for "reasons" to back their emotional beliefs. This makes lies a powerful weapon to use against people. Should we allow this unrestricted, I would argue any society would inevitably collapse in time due to a few bad actors. So from my viewpoint, some restrictions are needed for these reasons. What about yourself?
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    I always face the insoluble problem of who I would give the right to decide what I can or cannot say and read, as if I was a child or student. I cannot come up with anyone or any group of people, dead or alive, who are fit for the task. So the Better Censorship would invariably be none at all.

    Censorship always boils down to this: I don’t want you to say this-or-that and I don’t want others to hear it. It is the concern of an unwelcome and meddlesome third party who has neither the character nor knowledge to know what others can or cannot say, or what they can and cannot hear. All they possess is their own sentiment, and that counts for little in these matters.
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    “Measurable harms”? Like what?
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    The “spread of misinformation”…so fearful are we of such a spread that we will give the power to censor misinformation to those who are historically and empirically the greatest progenitors of it.

    There is nothing empirical about counterfactual thinking, I’m afraid. But for the sake of argument, your intuition that the world would have been better had such-and-such speech been censored still involves the violation of countless rights, whereas education, counter-information, the truth etc. might have sufficed to make the world a better place instead. There are other means to achieve the same desired ends without resorting to tyranny, no matter how enlightened it pretends to be. So if justice and human rights is of any concern at all one might need to put in a little more effort.
  • Isaac
    9.4k
    I always face the insoluble problem of who I would give the right to decide what I can or cannot say and read, as if I was a child or student. I cannot come up with anyone or any group of people, dead or alive, who are fit for the task.NOS4A2

    As is clear from most of what is censored, the answer to this question is 'virtually anyone'. Censorship is mostly about removing obvious crap and anything accidentally removed which isn't crap is very unlikely to be the next Beethoven or a cure for cancer, so the person chosen doesn't even have to be very good at it.

    It is the concern of an unwelcome and meddlesome third party who has neither the character nor knowledge to know what others can or cannot say, or what they can and cannot hear. All they possess is their own sentiment, and that counts for little in these matters.NOS4A2

    Nonsense. The vast majority of people find the same sorts of things offensive. That's why being offensive works, because your audience is likely to reach in a predictable way. It's easy to spot offensive material and remove it.

    And if you're one if the rare ones, if you're not offended by stuff most people are offended by, then all that will happen is you'll miss out on a few jokes and some opinion pieces. So what? It's absurd to kick up such a fuss about a few comments you might otherwise have liked to have read.

    You were, on the other thread, attempting to defend a compassionate individualism. you're really not advancing that cause any by complaining about a handful of off-colour jokes you'll miss out on because of censorship. There are far bigger issues to worry about for Christ's sake.
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    I have given no such right because I do not know an answer to the question of who knows better than I do what I can or cannot read and write. Maybe you do, but one glance at popular opinion or any other authority shows to me that "virtually anyone" isn't a sufficient answer; it's an obsequious one.

    What you find offensive says nothing about what I would find offensive. Your sentiments pertain to you and you only. "Most people" and other appeals to the populace are utterly unconvincing especially on the matter of who gets to decide what I can or cannot say and read. I find many things offensive but I do not violate everyone's basic human rights every time I secrete a little cortisol and start furrowing my brow.

    I get it, though, if human rights are not a concern there are certainly more pressing issues.
  • Isaac
    9.4k
    What you find offensive says nothing about what I would find offensive.NOS4A2

    So what? That's the question you keep dodging. Why do you expect anyone to give a fuck about whether you miss out on a few non-pc jokes you might not have found offensive but others do?

    I'm not arguing that anyone knows what you'll find offensive. I'm not arguing that the censor we choose will get it right all the time. I'm asking you why it matters.
  • NOS4A2
    6.5k


    So what? That's the question you keep dodging. Why do expect anyone to give a fuck about whether you miss out on a few non-pc jokes you might not have found offensive but others do?

    I'm not arguing that anyone knows what you'll find offensive. I'm not arguing that the censor we choose will get it right all the time. I'm asking you why it matters.

    Because we're neither children nor slaves. Such behavior is unjust and stupid.
  • Isaac
    9.4k
    Because we're neither children nor slaves. Such behavior is unjust and stupid.NOS4A2

    You've not even begun to make a case from either justice or stupidity. All you've told us so far is that you'd prefer not.

    If an institution censors offensive content, most of its customers/clients will be pleased. So doing so hardly seems stupid.

    If an institution censors someone's output against their will, they will suffer a very minor inconvenience to benefit many others. So doing so hardly seems unjust either.

    If your conception of 'justice' is just that you get to do whatever you want, unimpeded, then its your conception that's at fault here.
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