You don’t believe unless


A philosophical aphorism seen on Twitter…

You don’t believe in freedom of speech unless you believe in freedom for speech that you consider ugly, offensive, deplorable, dangerous…

What?

The first three adjectives are standard fare, and reasonable, and so on. But the last one? That’s a whole different category, and it’s far from obviously true. Depending on how “dangerous” we’re talking about, it’s not true at all.

There have been many examples in very recent history of speech used to foment hatred of outgroups with a view to getting rid of said outgroups, and the result was “ethnic cleansing” aka genocide.

No, I don’t believe in freedom for speech that’s dangerous in that way, and no that doesn’t mean I don’t “believe in freedom of speech.”

But then I’m not sure I “believe in” the need for swearing a loyalty oath to freedom speech. I get the principle, and I basically agree with it, but I also don’t think it’s an absolute, and I think one does need to consider particulars.

Comments

  1. theoreticalgrrrl says

    I really can’t stand when people take the fact that freedom of speech is a good thing and twist it around to mean spouting hateful, bigoted ideas is a good, even righteous thing. Yes, you have the freedom to be say ugly, offensive, hateful things. So what? When people disagree with you, they are also exercising their right to free speech.

  2. Al Dente says

    Freedom of speech is not something to be believed in. Under certain circumstances you either accept it or reject it.

  3. RJW says

    Yes, there’s the famous example —people cannot claim that shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre is a legitimate exercise of free speech, and there are defamation laws that are restrictions on free speech.

    @1

    I don’t understand your comment, should we tolerate bigots or shouldn’t we?

  4. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Funny how the people who are advocating for acceptance of this so-called ‘dangerous’ free speech are rarely those put in danger by the consequences of it.

    Conicidence?

  5. screechymonkey says

    “Dangerous” is a sexy word, so people love to use it as an attention-grabber, even for things that aren’t, by any reasonable interpretation, dangerous, like listening to music that older people don’t like.

    Even Daniel Dennett couldn’t resist calling one of his books “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.”

    Dangerously yours,

    Austin Danger Powers

  6. jeffrey says

    it sees the message there is that if you believe in freedom of speech, then there are no consequences to whatever is said. That’s fine on paper but in the real world, freedom of speech can mean having to be prepared for consequences particularly if the speech is to be believed. Anyone expressing really dangerous speech, that is, threatening speech, is a fool if they think that they are necessarily free from consequences, certainly social and possibly very physical, if they are believed. The only good thing about freely expressed dangerous speech is that it lets everyong know where the danger is coming from so it can be watched for and avoided or met head on. I’d rather hear the growl from a distance than be snuck up on.

  7. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    If people like there were honest they’d describe it as ‘dangerous to others but not dangerous to me’ speech.

  8. caravelle says

    I really can’t stand when people take the fact that freedom of speech is a good thing and twist it around to mean spouting hateful, bigoted ideas is a good, even righteous thing. Yes, you have the freedom to be say ugly, offensive, hateful things. So what? When people disagree with you, they are also exercising their right to free speech.

    It isn’t necessarily just about disagreeing though. “Incitement to genocide” is a war crime that people have been condemned to life sentences for (I’m thinking of Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda specifically). I think a lot of advocates of freedom of speech would object to this, seeing as it’s textbook criminalizing of (certain kinds of) speech, not just disagreeing with it. But while this position might be popular in the US given the regard in which it holds its Constitution and the First Amendment in particular, international law suggests it isn’t mainstream worldwide.

    (and as others have pointed out, even the US isn’t absolutist, with the “fire in a crowded theater” exception)

  9. Robert B. says

    Dangerous in what sense? Historically, people have been quick to label speech as “dangerous” when it threatens to, say, make people stop believing in God, or reduce their loyalty to the state, or spread an enemy idea, etc. That’s clearly not the sort of thing you were thinking of, but not everyone is precise with their thought and diction. It’s very possible that whoever coined that aphorism was thinking of (or just using) the sloppy definition of “dangerous.”

    A precise way to say it is: the marketplace of ideas is a good thing, but the danger of physical injury makes it rather moot, because many people won’t speak freely under threat and everyone has to stop speaking when they’re dead. Threatening or inciting violence, therefore, is automatically a betrayal of the marketplace of ideas, and the marketplace has no reason to allow it. Free speech is good, but there is more free speech when people aren’t allowed to say “Shut up or I’ll kill you.”

    Basically, this another demonstration of why people shouldn’t do philosophy on Twitter, a point I recall you making before.

  10. says

    Right, but that was my point. That’s what the scare-quotes on “dangerous” were for. Dangerous in what sense, dangerous to whom, how dangerous, etc. It’s complicated, so it’s quite the wrong word to use in a tweet about free speech.

    Radio Mille Collines along with Serbian state radio are the first things I think of when arguing with free speech absolutists.

  11. Robert B. says

    Right, but that was my point. That’s what the scare-quotes on “dangerous” were for.

    Yes, on a reread I can see where you were alluding to that. I suppose I was imagining an alternative aphorism that ended with something like “… unless the speech is dangerous” and leaving authoritarians a loophole. I was trying more to expand on your OP rather than refute it.

    Like you, I’m not a fan of absolute rules in ethics, because they necessarily oversimplify and don’t “consider particulars” as you put it. The point is to accomplish good outcomes, not to obediently follow the rules.

    *googles Radio Mille Collines* Ah. Yes, excellent example. I hadn’t known about that. I suppose I’m glad that I didn’t find out about that genocide when it happened, since I was about nine, but now I’m behind the curve. (Though come to think of it, I read Zlata’s Diary about the same time, so maybe I should have been hearing about Rwanda.)

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