Free, Free, Oh So Free

“Freedom of speech” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the US. What limits does it come up against?

I’m not talking about free speech in terms of the first amendment alone. I’m also interested in what free speech means as a norm in various institutions and in civil society. And I’m not focusing on speech of low value (insults, childish name-calling, slurs); my concern is about the ability to hold a discussion on controversial topics, express a dissenting opinion, and ask an uncomfortable question, especially in forums that are meant for such conversations, such as a townhall meeting or a classroom.

This post is prompted by a book I’ve just read, The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom, who took a six-month journey around the US, spoke to a variety of people, and reported his findings in what reads like a series of blog posts from the road.

There are observations he could have researched more or followed up on more deeply (though part of his approach was to let the various Americans he met explain things to him). I appreciated that he wasn’t trying to make anyone look stupid or ridiculous. He didn’t ask questions that were worded in a confusing way to trip people up. Usually he listened to an opinion and asked, “Why?” (What’s the basis for your belief? Why do you feel the way you do?). Or he pointed out the elephant in the room and observed people saying, “What elephant? No, that’s a housefly… maybe a swarm of houseflies… but not an elephant.”

Here are a few things that come up in the book, again and again:

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Recommended Reading: The Tyranny of Opinion

I recently read a book that would have been relevant before widespread Internet use and the advent of social media, but makes for even more urgent reading now.

TyrannyofOpinion

The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford discusses threats to freedom of speech beyond government censorship. Blackford focuses on coercion and conformity imposed by other powerful institutions and forces in society, including online mobs that foment outrage against offending individuals, often with abuse, slander, harassment, and serious threats, such as loss of employment.

I appreciate the book’s thoughtful discussion of free speech, including the question of what constitutes harmful expression, and how people have different ideas of what’s harmful. For example, most would agree that issuing death threats or inciting a mob to attack shouldn’t be counted as free speech. However, people may want to suppress speech that appears to undermine a set of beliefs they hold dear. Harm as a concept can get stretched from the threat of literal violence to feelings of upset, anger, or offense. How do we best determine the standards of harm for our society?

The book serves as a reminder of what free speech is meant to protect and why it’s important to uphold it as a general principle (and not limit it to a question of what the government permits). Are the following important to you?

  • The ability to engage in free inquiry, including questioning ideas and conducting investigations into different topics.
  • The ability to discuss various issues, including the pros and cons of public policies.
  • The ability to write, paint, and create other art. (Of course there have been controversies, including questions about whether a piece has artistic merit or is mere obscenity. But do you generally prefer to critique an artistic work, or do you lean more towards bans, threats, and harassment of authors and artists?)

There are challenges to upholding free speech, not least because people have a strong tendency to be tribal about it. (Even people who consider themselves free speech proponents are prone to tribalism; they’ll gladly defend one of their own, but not a political opponent.)

People are also prone to exercising coercion, imposing certain types of thought and speech on anyone who doesn’t conform. The book provides multiple examples of the way “offenders” are met not with well-reasoned critiques but with exaggeration, dishonesty, displays of moral outrage, and threats against livelihood, reputation, and physical safety. With social media, it’s easy to instantly whip up large numbers of people from all over to descend on an offending individual, and no facts or well-developed arguments are necessary.

Instead of reasoned arguments, people often rely on personal attacks and ascribe all kinds of evil intentions to someone who steps out of bounds. Discussing a 1994 article by Glenn Loury, Blackford writes:

Within a milieu of political conformity, anyone who speaks out on a particular topic in a particular manner will be judged personally. Meaning will be read into her manner of expression, and her arguments may never be examined on their merits. Questions about her data and her reasoning may well be set aside, and instead she will be assessed as someone who was willing to speak in that way, at that time, on that topic. This may reveal her as an apostate from her group, especially if its true believers are hiding whatever misgivings they have about the local orthodoxy. A likely consequence is that a group’s moderates and internal dissenters will be driven out of conversations, or at least be forced to keep silent about their moderate and dissenting opinions.

What happens when people are afraid to speak, express doubt, or question a group in any way? Along with festering resentment, stagnation sets in. Far fewer original thoughts, interesting proposals, or important questions get introduced. People’s capacity for critical thinking weakens, and they struggle more with how to construct a strong argument or evaluate evidence. (What need is there for critical thinking when you can engage in knee-jerk outrage?) There’s also more dishonesty, distortions, and misconceptions. For example, when non-conforming thoughts are severely curbed in a particular environment (such as a university), people might assume that the established, acceptable opinion on a certain topic is more widely held than it actually is, because no one is speaking out in disagreement or calling for greater nuance.

Towards the end of the book, Blackford offers suggestions for how to combat forced conformity and promote well-reasoned discussions and inquiry. Examples include recognizing propaganda techniques, resisting the knee-jerk impulse to join social media mobs, assessing other people’s words and intentions in as fair-minded a way as possible, pushing for changes in various organizations in terms of their speech codes or the reasons for which they fire someone, and facing down an outrage-fueled mob without caving in to irrational demands or abuse.

Another book I read recently, The Coddling of the American Mind, overlaps in some of its topics with The Tyranny of Opinion and also offers suggestions at the end for “wiser kids,” “wiser universities,” and “wiser societies,” including ways to protect physical safety and dignity while engaging in more robust discussions, self-reflection, and a principled stand against mobs.

I want to be optimistic, and I do see more people sharing concerns about conformity and the suppression of free speech and inquiry in ways that don’t involve government censorship. But what are the incentives for greater numbers of people to more consistently resist suppression, conformity, and an overly broad definition of harm?

Outrage and tribalism are powerful and attractive. The self-righteous thrill, the malicious glee, or the power trip of fomenting or joining a mob appeals to many. Engaging in more critical thinking and self-reflection is difficult, and the rewards aren’t usually immediate. Evaluating evidence, waiting for more evidence, withholding a knee-jerk opinion, making the effort to truly understand someone with a different political point-of-view, and conveying another person’s point-of-view honestly – all of that takes mental effort and a commitment of character.

You can say that one of the rewards is a strengthening of your integrity and self-respect. But to what extent do people care enough or even associate those qualities with the ability to sustain a civil, honest discussion? It’s also much less risky to keep your head down, especially if you aren’t wealthy, well-connected, or powerful. A major pushback against mob mentality and excessive restrictions on speech will need to come from thoughtful, influential individuals and from large numbers of people who support them – people who don’t agree with each other on all topics or share all of the same beliefs.

Here’s another excerpt from the book. It can serve as a call to action, pushing for a return to traditionally liberal values, which are necessary to maintain a certain kind of society. (If this kind of society is sufficiently important to us, we’ll try to keep those values alive.)

… principles such as secular government, free inquiry and discussion, and the rule of law; values such as individuality, spontaneity, and original thinking – have wider cultural resonance if only we take the trouble to explain and advocate them. When we override these principles and values with supercharged anxieties about identity and offence, we throw away what made liberalism attractive in the first place.”