Placing any limitations on what people are allowed to say makes us collectively weaker and stupider is the core argument of Bjørn Stærk’s compact and thought-provoking bookYtringsfrihet. Stærk argues that freedom of speech allows us to think clearer, get closer to the ‘truth’ and ensure that conflicts remains a matter of words and not bullets and gas chambers.
Like Stærk, I’m an idealist when it comes to free speech. I think that all ideas, whether we like them or not, should be allowed to be expressed.
Censorship actually makes us weaker, because we can’t develop arguments against ideas that we don’t know exist. Complete freedom of speech, on the other hand, makes us stronger, as we are forced to think about and develop arguments against things we don’t agree with. Instead of sending extremists to the dark corners of closed internet forums, where they fester unchecked, we should open all ideas up to the harsh light of criticism. This means that if someone wants to say that the holocaust never happened, or that women are the weaker sex, or that god hates gays, or that man-made climate change isn’t a thing, that’s fine. It’s up to us to prove them wrong with reason, logic and evidence. The difficulty with this idealism is that, as Jonathan Swift wrote, “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired...”
Contained within this principled stance for freedom of speech is the proviso that we are talking solely about ideas. It is important to understand that attacking ideas is one thing and attacking individuals is another. In an ideal world, opposition to the suggestion that a woman, Jane Austen, should be featured on the next British £10 note, would use reasoned, non-threatening arguments for alternatives. In reality, opponents led a coordinated attack of misogyny and rape threats against feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP, Stella Creasy, perpetrated by men from all walks of life. Rape threats are not covered by freedom of speech. However, as Tanya Gold points out, whilst both are utterly despicable, there is a difference between the rhetorical ‘I think you should raped’ and the threat‘I am going to rape you’.
Today, incidentally is #twittersilence day, in protest against online misogyny . I respect those taking part in the protest but think it is misguided. It's a self-censorship that silences those whose voices need to be heard, rather than the trolls who spout hate. I’m a fan of #shoutingback.
Twitter is now rolling out a report button as a response tothe problem, but not everyone, myself included, is convinced that technological solutions are what is required to tackle entrenched societal misogyny. I recommend reading Padraig Reidy’s excellent writings over at Index on Censorship regarding what can/can’t, should/shouldn’t be done about abuse on Twitter, without undermining freedom of speech.
As with the internet forums on which Stærk faced neo-Nazis in the mid-90s, social networking hasn’t directly been responsible for an increase in racism, sexism or homophobia, or any other prejudice – it’s just given people a platform to share those views. It’s the same platform that has given people the chance to share many more good things too.
Absolute freedom of speech can lead to the problem of false equivalency and the idea that all opinions deserve to be heard and are as valid and legitimate as each other. That is obviously not the case. As Stærk outlines, we enact a form of censorship by controlling the level of exposure that different ideas get based on practical limits. There is obviously a degree of selection when it comes to opinions expressed on prime-time TV and in articles in the mainstream press and those consigned to blogs and internet forums with niche audiences. This practical curb on freedom of speech only becomes a real problem if there is a systematic selection against a particular group or idea, something which conspiracy theorists often play up.
Those who believe they know the Truth, typically the religious, are much more likely to want to protect it from scrutiny, than those who believe the world is made up of smaller truths, which are our best approximations of the reality we find ourselves in. The problem is that those who have ideas they wish to protect, often, perhaps even deliberately, confuse criticism for persecution and hide behind the shield of blasphemy laws, the very antithesis of freedom of speech. Blasphemy laws putatively protect minorities from being persecuted and increase tolerance, but they don't. The reality is that these often vague laws are used to persecute minorities.
Stærk’s book does not just argue for the importance of free speech, but also argues the reader to think through why freedom of speech is important and your reasons for where you think, if any, limits should be placed on what people are allowed to say. Stærk uses simple hypothetical problems as a way of forcing the reader to think about their points of view and the consequences of following through with that idea. You can’t just say something is silly, or wrong, or a sacred good; you have to know what the person is talking about have good reasons to explain why you think it is silly, wrong or good. Saying ‘it just is’ or ‘everybody knows…’ is worse than meaningless and is actually damaging because it puts you on the back foot in an argument.
A question that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, posed as an aside in the book, is whether freedom of speech should be limited in terms of the damage that may be inflicted on the weakest or in terms of the opportunities it gives to the strongest (under the understanding that I think very few limits should be imposed all). It’s a good question to ask yourself as a starting point for where you yourself stand. Idealist or pragmatist, liberal or conservative, (in the general outlook, not just in the political sense), it is important to have reasons for what you place value in – it’s how we can argue our way to a better world.
Stærks’s book is the first in a new series, Pro et contra, from the Humanist Forlag, which aims to examine contemporary ethical issues and serve as a guide for provoking reflection and discussion. Books on genetically modified foods and criticism of religion are in the pipeline. If they’re half as thought-provoking as Ytringsfrihet, they should be an excellent read.