There’s something… weird about American publications, which regularly rely on the First Amendment, to argue against those very freedoms. Obviously, part of the joys of free speech is that of course they’re allowed to express opinions on why we should have less free speech… but it’s still odd. The latest entrant is from the New Yorker, which has a long piece by Kelefa Sanneh, which supposedly takes a look at the “new battles over free speech” and raises some of the usual concerns these days about how there have been a number of high profile (and low profile) situations recently where people have used their free speech abilities to demand that others, with views they disagree with, be silenced.
There are reasonable and potentially interesting debates and discussions to be had around these issues, and how some have really decided that “free speech” can’t somehow include any form of “speech we don’t like” — as ridiculous as that concept seems to many of us. However, Sanneh’s piece is none of that. It focuses mostly on two recent books, both of which argue that “the left” is looking to stamp out free speech (it’s the whole “political correctness debate” warmed over yet again). But, the article itself is oddly… devoid of any actual discussion on free speech, why it’s important, or any actual free speech experts. You would think they’d at least check in with a few. But without that, the piece is chock full of just downright false claims.
The good folks at FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) have done a nice takedown of the piece (yay, counter-speech!) discussing ten different things that the New Yorker gets wrong in the piece (over two separate posts), but I wanted to focus on one of the stranger arguments made in the article — that appears to slam “free speech extremists” as if they’re crazy and have no rational basis.
Speech nuts, like gun nuts, have amassed plenty of arguments, but they—we—are driven, too, by a shared sensibility that can seem irrational by European standards. And, just as good-faith gun-rights advocates don’t pretend that every gun owner is a third-generation hunter, free-speech advocates need not pretend that every provocative utterance is a valuable contribution to a robust debate, or that it is impossible to make any distinctions between various kinds of speech. In the case of online harassment, that instinctive preference for “free speech” may already be shaping the kinds of discussions we have, possibly by discouraging the participation of women, racial and sexual minorities, and anyone else likely to be singled out for ad-hominem abuse. Some kinds of free speech really can be harmful, and people who want to defend it anyway should be willing to say so.
Except, nearly everything said there about free speech “nuts” is wrong. Many are more than willing to admit that much of what they defend has absolutely no valuable contribution to a robust debate. But that’s the point. Defending free speech is about recognizing that there will be plenty of value-less speech, but that you need to allow such speech in order to get the additional valuable speech.
And, contrary to the claims in the article (note the lack of quotes to support the point), plenty of free speech advocates are quite reasonably worried about the ways in which certain kinds of discussions may be “discouraging the participation of women, racial and sexual minorities.” Hell, Sarah Jeong just wrote a whole book about this. Or how about the Dangerous Speech Project, that specifically looks at how some speech can lead to violence, but still looks at it from a free speech perspective. Pretending no one even considers these things is simply wrong. You would think that the New Yorker, with its vaunted “fact checking” department, would have at least looked at these things.
The problem is that you can recognize how some speech may discourage other speech and then not immediately leap to saying censorship must be the answer. It is entirely possible to say that there is some kinds of speech you find problematic, but then look for other ways to deal with it — such as with counter speech, or with technology choices that can minimize the impact — that don’t involve taking away the right to free expression.
The really ridiculous point underlying all of this is this idea that the best response to speech we don’t like — or even speech that incites danger or violence — is censorship. That is rarely proven true — and (more importantly) only opens everyone else up to risks when people in power suddenly decide that your speech is no longer appropriate either. Totally contrary to what Sanneh claims in the article, free speech “nuts” don’t believe that all speech is valuable to the debate. We just recognize that the second you allow someone in power to determine which speech is and isn’t valuable, you inevitably end up with oppressive and coercive results. And that is a real problem.