How Free? Speech, Liberty and Social Stability

by Dylan Ludwig, August 2017.

‘Free Speech’ is typically thought of as a principle either accepted or rejected wholesale. The ongoing debate that it inspires seems focused, for the most part, on strictly political or legal implications. But the issue is certainly more complex than this, and in the interest of moving forward, it is useful to engage in some cool-headed reflection on the role speech plays in our society more generally.

Language is typically assumed to be one of the crucial evolutionary adaptations that enabled our ancestors to thrive. Its role, in processes like teaching and learning, seems to have allowed early humans to strengthen social bonds in ways that could form a foundation for more complex, robust, and stable social, political, and moral phenomena. For example, the ability to communicate through speech and written text enabled more sophisticated relationships of apprenticeship revolving around tool construction; these relationships were in turn crucial in enabling the collective pooling and efficient transmission of information responsible for early hominids’ exponential technological advancements. While language can and does stabilize social bonds, it can also be used to precipitate instability. Consider how a relatively minor terminological dispute caused the first major schism within the unified Christian population, resulting in centuries of violent conflict. Language, and particularly our practices of speech, are powerful tools with the capacity to either unify or divide human populations.

Today, there is a surge of support behind a notion of “free speech” that is at least tacitly assumed to be in some sense absolute: because we can use language to express the contents of our thoughts seemingly without limit, it is argued that we ought to be able to exercise this ability, construed as a fundamental aspect of individual liberty, without restriction. One underlying worry is that if governments and other institutions are allowed to enforce rules around the use of language, then they could potentially enforce a particular agenda and censor ideas in order to shape opinion or instill ideology in a given population. Indeed, this has been a worry historically, especially for those whose governments are genuinely oppressive, in that they use power and privilege to further marginalize demographic groups who have historically lacked such power and privilege. The US National Guard opening fire on unarmed students at Kent State who were expressing criticism of an unjust and oppressive war is an extreme example of this form of abuse of power. And so, many have framed the issue of ‘free speech’ as a choice between, on the one hand, the fight for an important aspect of individual liberty, and on the other, the call to cultivate empathy for, and eventually account for, the varied perspectives of others in the community. Those sympathetic to the latter take it as obvious that certain socio-linguistic practices, such as respecting others’ preferred gender and identity pronouns or restricting and punishing offensive and defamatory speech, ultimately protect certain unalienable rights.

Failing to take into account the speech acts that serve to reinforce ongoing systemic oppression, and that justify ongoing violence against marginalized groups…is counterproductive to the very foundational principles of social organization.

The idea that people are “too sensitive” or “easily offended” is another underlying assumption made by those who advocate an extreme notion of free speech. But these advocates are being dishonest if they fail to admit that everybody can be offended by something. Everyone values certain things about themselves and lacks confidence in others, and there are always certain speech acts that can be used to attack and degrade those valued things. Speech acts, first discussed by the philosophers Paul Grice and J. L. Austin, are linguistic performances that in certain contexts have consequences in action. An example of a speech act that certainly has unsavory consequences is screaming obscenities at the funeral of a loved one. In this context, there is an almost infinite list of things one can image saying in an outburst of “free speech” that could inflict deep emotional wounds on those present. These kinds of speech act initiate conflict that threatens the basic harmony of a particular community; a harmony that ought to be a basic guiding principle of our social practices. In this way, the context within which language is used is ever-important. Consequently, some disagreements about free speech arise when we fail to realize how context-dependent our practices of speech are.

We have rules in place, albeit typically implicit rules that are loosely determined via ongoing social interactions, that discourage people from making such an outburst at a funeral or in other social contexts. These are social mechanisms that discourage engagement in speech acts that directly or indirectly cause violence. They emerge in the service of upholding some measure of civility in our social practices, and ultimately in maintaining stability in the community. If someone insisted on their right to make an outburst in contexts like the funeral of a dear friend, chances are that we would step in to try to remove the disruption, and if our “free speaker” were putting up too much of a struggle, we would resort to the necessary means in order to ensure their removal.

The difference between funeral practices and more problematic social contexts, like those underlying systemic oppression as in racialized or gendered contexts, is that the things that cause offense to members of the oppressive group are not built into the fabric of our institutions, into the very mechanisms of thought and social practice, in the same way that they are for oppressed groups. We who have privilege aren’t forced to regularly confront the things that disrespect what we value or make us uncomfortable about ourselves, and we owe it to ourselves to imagine what that sort of experience of being in the world might be like for those without the same privileges.

So, it seems that the worry about governments contributing to oppression through the regulation of speech acts is confused and misguided, so long as this regulation happens in the name of alleviating oppression and maintaining the wider social stability. Failing to take into account the speech acts that serve to reinforce ongoing systemic oppression, and that justify ongoing violence against marginalized groups, as for example when artists insist on using racial slurs or sexist imagery, is counterproductive to the very foundational principles of social organization. In contrast, Jordan Peterson’s refusal to acknowledge preferred gender pronouns on the grounds that it impinges on one’s ability to speak freely, is counterproductive to the very process of taking responsibility for our social (and hence linguistic) contexts. The fear that there is a wider academic and political conspiracy aimed at state sanctioned censorship and ideological warfare is unfounded, and the general backlash against cultivating safer spaces (i.e. social contexts where language and actions that contribute to oppression are discouraged) is, in the same way, counterproductive to fundamental principles of human organization.

We all share the same worry about government intrusion and misuse of power, but there are only laws limiting absolute free speech when this is the last resort (or the best we’ve got) for attempting to root out systemic oppression, and for doing what is best for the stability of the larger community. This is why there are legal protections against hate speech, for instance. If we don’t want governments involved, then we should take it upon ourselves, from within our own positions of power and privilege, to uphold standards of respect and dignity in the social practice of speech.


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