Friday, November 21, 2014

Why is Free Speech Important?

So far, I have been arguing that a great deal of current discourse on free speech is misguided. It is misguided because it treats free speech as always absolute (rather than recognizing the contextually necessary and good limits to it) and misguided because it misjudges the importance of free speech to the academy. Free speech is important to the academy, but it is not the only thing that is important and stating that it is does not actually get us very far unless with also acknowledge the importance of other things, like hard work. I have also implied the free speech should not be used as an excuse to disguise or cover over individual responsibility. If I take actions that harm others I should (a) learn from these actions, and (b) address them. Free inquiry, I have argued, is different from free speech without explaining exactly what I mean by this term, but I have implied that people should have to "show their math." In other words, the right to speak is important but speaking on something about which one knows nothing or one is wrong is not good and we should not pretend that it is.

So ... why is free speech important? One could legitimately ask this question and add to it: Andrew, you've taken a lot of space to show limits, misjudgements, errors. And, someone might also say "you know, I can accept much of what you say. Yes, providing a forum for racists is not good and yes, you are right, simply stating that one supports free speech really does not get us very far. But, you're short selling free speech. You are not telling us why it is important." This is a fair critique of this blog to this point so let me address this matter because I later want to argue that free speech confronts a different series of challenges than those identified by its supporters.

Free speech is important for a number of reasons. First, and perhaps ... perhaps most importantly, there is a connection between how we express ourselves and who we are. In other words, our language, social and political views, opinions, ideas, etc., are not something that is somehow different from who we are. They are intimate to us, vital to our sense of who we are, and perhaps even -- to some degree -- constitutive of who we are. When we deny a right to freedom of speech and/or expression we are denying the right of articulating the self. This is not something about which the defenders of free speech talk a great deal but I think it is one of the reasons that so many people view free speech as vitally important. When we tell someone to "be quiet" we are not simply making a statement about their views (whatever those might be). We are making a broader statement about our assessment of their value. They are not worth listening to and they are saying something so bad or silly or dumb that no one else should listen to them either. Don't believe me ... go tell some folks to be quiet when they are making what they think is an important point and watch what happens.

It is precisely for this reason that limits to free speech need to be introduced with care, with appeal procedures, and only on reasonable grounds. Limits to free speech may be reasonable, they may be good, they may be necessary but we need to be very careful that we are not damaging other individuals. This is why I tend to support contextual limits to free speech. Thus, I never suggested (as in the example in my previous blog) that I did not have the right to discuss my summer vacation. I said I did not have the right to discuss my summer vacation instead of the lesson I was supposed to be teaching my students. My summer vacation is important to me and my friends and talking about it is fun and an act of community. It expresses who I am and allows people to share my experiences. I have every right to speak about it. I just need to do so in the right context.

This is also the reason why the protection of artistic or cultural expression is guaranteed in Canada and other countries. I am not an artist but I know how important art, music, poetry, fiction, etc., is to family and friends. Many people, for instance, identify strongly with certain songs. Good. If we censor that song ... we limit their mode of identification, the communities that build around culture, and the human interaction that develops out of it. This does not mean "anything goes in culture" but it does suggest that we should be particularly careful in censoring cultural expression: that there should be a particularly important and pressing reason. For instance, during the Rwanda genocide the US thought about blocking radio signals from RTLM and a radio station that urged the massacre of Tutsi civilians, gave directions as to where they were (so that death squads could find them). They also played songs that praised the killing of Tutsi, recycled racist stereotypes. Censoring this music and this expression, I would argue, would have been legitimate (even though it took place in another country) because there was a pressing and particularly important reason to do.  In other contexts, we might find this music distasteful, and might even suggest that it not be played on the airwaves, but we might talk about it in class. I suspect most people agree with me. Context is important, we should be very careful about censorship, we should provide appeal mechanisms for censored material, and we should make sure that we censor only in pressing and important situations. Other than that, we might find that the price of censorship is too high precisely because it is so bound up with one's sense of self.

This is particularly important when it comes to other matters as well. This includes, for instance, the expression of one's spiritual believes, heritage, values, traditions, and other like manner. Hence, the so-called "Secular Charter" in Quebec was a problem. It did not prohibit criticism of government or policy (see point two below) but it did limit the scope of personal expression to a significant manner. In effect, it made the expression of spirituality illegal (or, rather, would have if it had been implemented) in the public sphere. The result is a direct attack on self-expression and hence on the self and going with this (point four below) an impoverishment of the public sphere.

Second, it is also particularly important to protect citizens ability to criticize government policy. In general, this right can be protected through the Parliamentary privilege of opposition parties, through a free media, and through free speech. Let me use an analogy to illustrate what I mean. Advertisers have to be honest. If they are not, they are engaged in fraud. But, I'd suggest a lower bar for critique of political and governmental leaders. Honesty should -- as I will talk about later -- still prevail but that is self evident and a parenthood-type statement. What is important is that citizens need be free to not simply state their differences with government policy but to constitute through communications alternative policies and governments.

Why? Because government policies impinge directly on life matters and the constituents of a good society. Pollution is dangerous and so ensuring that citizens can criticize, in this example, policies that might produce more is important. Ensuring a responsive government is important and so ensuring that citizens retain the means to hold governments to account between and during elections is important. Political organization is about more than who is in power and who is out. It is about how we organize our society, the values we carry forward, the opportunity for individuals to lead full and meaningful lives. If we limit the ability of citizens to criticize government, we are, de facto, limiting their abilities to define for themselves the constituents of a good life. I am loathe to that. On an individual level, I have no troubles telling someone -- usually a friend -- that they are making a bad decision that has negative implications for their life. I hope I can help them out. But, I don't have the power (nor should I) to force them to do what I want to do. I have only the power of free speech. On a political level, however, the state can impose obligations on citizens. Hence, because of this, a high bar with regard to speech needs to be maintained.

Third .... as I just intimated, free speech can be about my ability to contribute in an effective and -- hopefully -- in a caring way to others' lives. In other words, it is important on both a micro level -- my ability to talk to another person in a way that is designed to improve his or her life -- and on a macro level -- my ability to draw attention to problems that are negatively affected the lives of others. If I (or, someone else, or some group of people) cannot, say, criticize educational policies that might, say, impede education or environmental policies and practices that pollute the environment, then others lives are harmed.

Fourth, limiting free speech impoverishes (as I said above) the public sphere. If we limit how one can express one's self in the public sphere, we limit the range of voice in that sphere. We reduce the spirituality evident in it, the range of views, the culture, the traditions and the heritage. In other words, we make the public sphere bland, but bland in a way that is dangerous as well as culturally limiting. Dangerous: consider again the proposed Secular Charter. In effect, this law if it had been implemented would have had a marginalizing effect. It would have said certain forms of spirituality (secularism) can be legitimately expressed in public but others (say, certain forms of Islam) cannot. The effect, in this sense, is not simply to prescribe certain modes of self expression but to make indicate to the people practices those modes of expression that their self-expression, their spirituality, traditions, heritage, etc., are not welcome. Thus, it creates a hierarchy that has very real human effects. One person (me, for example) is welcome to express themselves in a spiritual sense. Another, is not.

Bland: one does not need to believe in an "everything goes" philosophy to be troubled by a public sphere that limits self expression. Why? Because everyone benefits from diversity. Diversity in Canada is "opt in." The fact that, say, I express myself as a Christian does not mean that anyone else needs to accept what I am saying or my spiritual beliefs. This is, of course, just an example, but you see the point. My expression -- my speech -- does not compel anyone to follow it but it does make it available to those who might want to, or might want to know more about it, or might simply appreciate its aesthetics. If we reduce or eliminate that expressions, I am harmed (point one above) but so are others who cannot now take advantage of what I might be offering them. Because it is opt in, to say this again, the fact that Bob doesn't like what I am saying and ignore me is fine. But if Bob tries to stop me from expressing myself, he limits Mary's opportunity to know more about what I am saying, to engage my traditions, to find a spiritual home for herself (should she desire).

Bland might not be the right word here -- and fix it up for me if it is not -- but I trust the point is made. The vitality of the public sphere is important and add cultural richness and the like and I agree with these points. But, they are also difficult to empirically demonstrate. What we can demonstrate, however, is the effects on others. If one does not know about something ... how can one make up one's mind on it?

This list is not exhaustive. There are many other good reasons to support free speech (one could, for instance, talk about the advances in scholarship as I've already indicated even while noting that scholarship is about much more than free speech) but I again trust that the point is made. What I want us to note, however, is that free speech and expression have important purposes that might be more complex than we first think. They are certainly more complex than the quick soundbites we hear at the time of some controversy about free speech. Their importance is worth thinking about because it can easily be confused. Joseph Heath makes the case somewhere that rights can have a certain nobility about them. That is, that they advance causes that we find noble; that we deeply respect.

The defence of free speech that I have offered here is intended to "get at" that nobility in a way that is both reasoned and serious. Free speech is not a me, me, me, I have this right-type of thing. It is not right that should be defended in the manner of children fighting over toys in the playground. Instead, most of the reasons should defend free speech relate to something more important:


  • the ability of people to self-articulate, expressing who they are but recognizing the close connection between our sense of who we are and our culture, values, traditions, spirituality, and self-expression
  • the protection of citizens from bad policies (we don't even have to dislike a government to find one or another policy misguided) and the ability to organize alternative forms of governance or alternative governments that more accurately meet the needs of citizens
  • our ability to contribute to the meaningfulness of the lives of others and the richness of their lives. 
  • the promotion of equality in ways that elide the marginalization of citizens on the basis of their self-expression (in terms of religion, heritage, traditions, etc.). 

When we look at this list, what we see is that free speech is important not as a me, me, me, I want to speak-type of right, but rather as a right that has an important series of social consequences. In other words, the individual right to free speech, at its most noble, is about our connections to other people and our abilities to work together to produce a better world. Free speech at its most nobel is about the other. It is about the self in the sense that it is our expression that enriches and protects others. Moreover, as you will also notice, all of these key important aspects of free speech and expression I have noted are compatible with reasonable limits on it. There is not space in this blog to address this matter in a sustain way but you can see the differences between articulating one's concerns over an educational policy and planning a crime. The one helps others; the other harms. Understanding this might help us understand why most people find limits to free speech not onerous and legitimate and exactly where the barrier between legitimate speech and expression and that which we restrict lies. 
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