Free Speech means just that

One of my favourite quotes (which is actually a paraphrase, not a quote) is so commonly referenced that it has become almost cliché:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

This is, of course, famously attributed to Marie François Arouet, better known as the French philosopher Voltaire. It is probably the single greatest encapsulation of one of the most liberal of enlightened philosophies, that of Free Speech. Free speech is the hallmark of liberal, enlightened and modern societies; so much so that we often take it for granted. Of course, if you live in China, that’s quite another story.

Google China has had issues with the oppressive (use of this word is entirely opinion, since it’s an extremely relative term) censorship laws the government has forced on all internet use in the country. As a result, they recently moved out of China and is redirecting their traffic to, which for reasons I don’t quite understand is not subject to the same censorship. The Chinese government has reacted by accusing Google of pushing an ideological stance rather than respecting China’s repressive, backward and wholly counter-productive “Great Firewall” mentality. Understandably, the rest of the world has reacted by saying “Good on ya, Google.”

Free speech isn’t just a nice idea. Free speech allows the flow of information and the creation of new ideas. It accelerates discovery and ensures that tyranny cannot survive. This is the reason why the first thing a totalitarian regime does is crack down on critical press, and the reason why the writers of the US Constitution (a fantastic document despite one’s feelings about the USA) and the Canadian Charter made sure to enshrine free speech and free press as paramount. Free speech is more than simply a boon to the average citizen – it ensures the progression and long-term health of a society.

So here’s my issue: Ann Coulter. The absurd blonde dancing monkey (the media is calling her a ‘pundit’ – I will feign no such respect) was scheduled to appear at a conservative student’s association event at the University of Ottawa this past week. To digress for a moment – conservatives, why on EARTH would you associate yourself with Ann Coulter? That would be like liberals taking their cues from L. Ron Hubbard! Find someone less insane and eye-rollingly clueless to represent your cause. Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Ann was supposed to speak to the UofO, and the president of the university sent her a letter reminding her that free speech laws in Canada specifically make exception for hate speech, and she should be careful in light of her previous statements that she can be prosecuted if she says something that advocates hate against a specific group.

Being the logical, moderate and insightful person that she is, Ann of course had a reasonable response: she said that she was the victim of a hate crime. I am almost tempted to say I wish a hate crime one day actually PERFORMED on everyone who cries “hate crime” inappropriately. Scratch that, I’m taking out the equivocation. You can quote me on this. I fervently hope that anyone who calls a mild rebuke, a conscientious disagreement, or a helpful letter of warning a “hate crime” is beaten senseless by a mob of skinheads or religious extremists. There, that takes care of any political ambitions I might have. A hate crime is a real thing, and misusing the word ‘hate’ makes a mockery of anyone who has legitimately suffered for a cause or as an accident of birth.

Some protesters showed up to Ann’s speech, she panicked, and chickened out, canceling the event. In true Chicken Little fashion, she cites the violence by the 2000 protesters who were there. Police estimates put it around 1000, most of whom were people trying to attend the event. She called UofO a “bush league” school (which may be warranted, but still… ouch!), completely unaware of the triple entendre (since she was very much part of Bush’s league, and due to the high quality/relative proportion of the female student body). She then ran lovingly into the arms of Calgary, bastion of ignorance and bigotry for Canada.

This story is not really a propos of anything, except that it highlights a glaring hypocrisy in Canada’s free speech laws. What it boils down to for me is that speech is either free or it isn’t. In my mind, there is no special status for hate speech – it deserves no special attention or regulation. Well-intentioned but philosophically bankrupt lefties are betraying the very idea of Free Speech by saying “your speech is as free as we decide it is.” I say this will full awareness of the fact that there are people out there who speak free hate against me and my parents’ marriage (for those who don’t know, my father is black and my mother is white). I have read their hate speech, I have read speech against LGBT people, Natives, immigrants (of which my father is one), Jews, Roma, any group under the sun. Not once have I ever said “they shouldn’t be allowed to say that.” There is a very good reason for this.

Speech is the way we express ideas. Ideas, once spoken, are subject to debate. Good ideas (women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights) prosper, while bad ideas (slavery, bigotry, anti-Semitism) fall by the wayside. It’s no accident that societies with free speech have better human rights and overall healthier societies – it’s directly causally linked. The bad ideas I listed before were all legally enshrined in the same countries that have free speech; however, over time the free flow of new ideas pushed the bad ones to the fringes. This is only possible when people are allowed to say what they think and be taken to task for their ideas. Prohibiting certain types of speech is not the answer to a progressive society; it actively retards progression. This is not to say that someone inciting violence shouldn’t be prosecuted for it, but prosecution should come on the grounds that it is violent, not because it’s “hateful”.

The side benefit to allowing bigots to speak their mind (aside from the fact that their writing is usually of such a poor quality that it is easy to identify and dismiss them readily) is that the bigots often represent a real dilemma bubbling below the surface. We’ve seen recently what happens when such resentment is allowed to go unchecked.

There are a few moments in history where conservatives are right and liberals are wrong. This, sadly, is one of them.


  1. says

    I disagree.

    I agree that so long as we are merely offended by the speech, the government may not limit it.

    However, once a harm is caused by said speech, it needs to be limited for the same reasons as everything else is limited.

    There have been studies (which I can spend time digging up, they’re hard to find and I foolishly didn’t book mark them last time) recently which show that in a ‘hostile’ environment (defined as an environment where the participants are passively undermined by their coworkers), participants under-perform as compared to an environment that is (at the least) neutral towards them.

    That is to say that a racist atmosphere causes those whom the racist statements target to underperform.

    I would put forth that if my work is inhibited by someone else’s action, I (and thus the business, and thus the country) am harmed by that action.

    Thus is hate speech actually a Harm. Thus does it require limiting.

  2. says

    By that token, however, any speech that causes anxiety or under-performance is harmful “hateful” speech. Honest criticism also will cause some people to under-perform, so Simon Cowell should be convicted of hate speech.

    The line you draw for harm is too wide, and I doubt even hate speech restriction advocates would agree. Even still, I could argue the case that suppressing speech leads to harm, as people are more likely to engage in illicit activity when their speech is criminalized, and radical hate groups that form and meet under the radar rather than in plain sight are much more dangerous.

  3. says

    So you’re veering dangerously close to straw-manning my point.

    1. In a meritocracy, there are valid reasons for criticising someones performance. Ethnicity isn’t one of them (“of course you failed the driving test… you’re Chinese”). Anxiety also doesn’t have a uniform effect on performance: very low levels of anxiety lead to under-performing of tasks as do very high levels. There are necessary levels of anxiety for optimum performance.

    2. I’m not talking about bullying. Bullying is recognised as a harm by many countries. I’m not sure that Canada is one of those countries (Ireland definitely is). Cowell is certainly a prick, but he’s not Gordon Ramsay, and he often commends when it’s due. Nor does he criticise on the basis of invalid parameters (such as ethnicity).

    3. Criticising with regards to valid parameters (actual performance) can never be ‘wrong’, even if people suffer anxiety in the process. There are additional goods gained from valid criticism (such as long-term improvement) that offset the harm caused (if any, in a particular person) by anxiety.

    4. Invalid criticism has no benefits, as it’s invalid. It can only be tolerated, therefore, so long as there are no additional harms caused.

    5. If there are harms caused by invalid criticism (long-term, not a mere direct response to the criticism; i.e. they stay with the person after the particular incident), then not only is restriction warranted, but necessary. Mill, and Rawls.

    One of the studies in question: A bunch of Chinese girls were tested in math twice. Same group, two times. The first time, the girls were primed to self-identify as Asians, and were given material that put them in mind of the racial stereotype “Asians are good at math”. They scored x.

    Subsequently, in test two, they were primed to self-identify as girls, and were given material that put them in mind of the gender stereotype “girls are bad at math”. To a statistically significant degree (in both score, and the number of girls affected), they scored less-than-x.

    This is one particular example. There are many studies like this. Note that this is nothing to do with direct criticism, or bullying, merely about the presence of negative schemata/stereotyping. Yes, I agree: if this were the only study, it’s pretty weak to hold the opinion that I do. It’s not the only study. These kinds of results have been replicated, and they are consistent. I recognise that a fair criticism of this particular study is that they may have merely gained confidence from the first set of material, and been neutral regards the second. Other studies aren’t open to that particular criticism.

  4. says

    I have no issues with your studies. I am actually quite familiar with some of the literature in this area.

    The issue becomes whether there is a right to abridge the right of free speech when invalid criticisms are being made, insofar as “harm” is being done to a specific group, yes? Again, I say that there are any number of things that would fall under this blanket but for which suspension of free speech protections is not warranted. For example, people who advocate a link between vaccines and autism, or who deny evolution. These are two claims which are exhaustively refuted by scientific research (even more robust than the studies that you showcase and with which I agree entirely).

    Belief in either of these groups causes “harm” – reduced vaccination and the spread of infectious disease in the former; erosion of scientific education in the latter. The justification of hate speech laws in your example would also equally apply to these examples. While I’d much rather anti-vax and Creationist groups shut the hell up with their nonsense, I’d rather live in a society in which people have the opportunity to explore why the ideas are wrong rather than simply shutting out dissent, even when the dissent is demonstrably false.

    I also disagree with your point #4. Invalid criticisms DO have a benefit – they serve to highlight the heuristic and uninformed understanding of a group within the populace (like a canary in a mine). Shutting down criticism in this way doesn’t make the dissent go away, it just makes it illicit. Hidden stupidity is much MUCH more dangerous than open stupidity.

  5. says

    “Again, I say that there are any number of things that would fall under this blanket but for which suspension of free speech protections is not warranted. ”

    And there are reasons for that. In all like-cases, I would make the same argument. You have nor presented like-cases.

    “For example, people who advocate a link between vaccines and autism, or who deny evolution.”

    These are dissimilar.

    The extremely small group of cases that I am talking about are, in essence, Ad Hominems, specifically Circumstantial Ad Hominems based on criteria that we have no control over.

    “What would you know, you’re a scientist!”

    is radically different from

    “What would you know, you’re a Muslim/Persian/Jewish/Chinese/Buddhist/etc!”

    If you want to paper over that difference, then there’s nothing to discuss on this topic. Obviously, I have problems with speech being limited in the former case, I have less of a problem (not *no* problem) with it being limited in the second.

    “Belief in either of these groups causes “harm” – reduced vaccination and the spread of infectious disease in the former; erosion of scientific education in the latter”

    I would contend that *how* they cause harm is also important, because that *how* can be addressed in different ways.

    In terms of Vaccines, the problem is inherently that people make bad choices because of the bullshit. There are multiple ways to counter this, not the least of which is better education in general, and mandatory vaccinations. (I’m not advocating either of those here, I’m just laying out the possibilities)

    In terms of racism, the problem is the mere presence of speech creates schemata. As a species, until we are educated otherwise *and* reach a certain age (both criteria are necessary), we think in terms of categories (so say my Psych text books). We ascribe qualities to these categories, and then apply them pretty much without discretion (discretion leads to the abandoning of the categorical view).

    You can’t simply educate your way out of this problem. Events that are emotionally charged will imprint the schemata more than calm, rational education.

    An anecdote: one of my closest friends is a fairly young (20ish) Chinese girl. Any time (and I mean *every* time) she has interpersonal problems, her version of the situation involves the ethnicities: she’s chinese, and they’re not. She grew up in location x, they grew up in location y. Once the scenario is laid out, it’s clear to me that the individual in question is/was an idiot, and it typically takes another half-hour to get her to see things in a non-categorical manner. Typically I have to appeal to an example in her life of some other person who shared circumstances with the problem-person, but who managed not to create a problem. I (obviously, I hope) don’t consider this an argument, but merely an illustration of my argument.

    There doesn’t appear to me to be any way to combat the formation of these schemata, except to prohibit the speech that misinforms the schemata formation in harmful ways.

    I am open to hearing alternatives.

    “The justification of hate speech laws in your example would also equally apply to these examples.”

    I would hope that I have sufficiently illustrated the difference and why it does not equally apply.

    “I’d rather live in a society in which people have the opportunity to explore why the ideas are wrong rather than simply shutting out dissent, even when the dissent is demonstrably false.”

    So would I.

    The problem arises when platforms are involved. Having a tête à tête with a racists/homeopath is something I don’t have a problem with. Furthermore, I would advocate that there are specific areas where the hate speech laws are not in play, areas specifically designated for people who enter to have full blooded and fearless conversations on any and all topics, knowing full well that the most ‘offensive’ topics can (and will) be discussed there, and people are free to be as passionately racist/homophobic/whatever as they like (and hopefully be met with like-minded though diametrically opposed people).

    But not in the public square, where people who don’t know any better are going to half-hear, misinterpret and misinform themselves.

    Yes: I *am* in favour of the nanny-state (as much as I hate that stupid expression), but with outlets!

    “Invalid criticisms DO have a benefit – they serve to highlight the heuristic and uninformed understanding of a group within the populace (like a canary in a mine).”

    I think (i.e. hope) that my delineation between private speech and public speech (i.e. from a platform) deals with this.

    Given that the danger of these ideas is their random and rapid spread throughout the populace: I don’t agree that hidden stupidity is more dangerous than open stupidity. In terms of people who will act on their belief to harm others: you’re absolutely right. But I’m not talking about that, I’m talking specifically and *only* about schemata formation.

    Hiding the stupidity would limit that, and on that view that is *less* dangerous than open stupidity.

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