Common Arguments Against Free Speech: How to Obliterate Them
Argument 1 [The Already Argument]
But we already have limits on free speech! What about libel? Slander? Or Holocaust denial laws?
This one is a non-starter since laws restricting the freedom of speech do not automatically justify further restrictions. That being said, let’s examine the restrictions that do exist in the free world so that we can see how they justify themselves.
Libel and slander do not pertain to the critique of ideologies but rather to reputations and grant people recourse in the case of outright calumnies issued against them. These laws, however, are much more complicated than most people realize so I am going to issue the most general summary of their workings.
In America defamation is a civil crime and not a criminal offense which means that the injured party may sue whoever is doing the defaming. In order to do so the victim of defamation shoulders the burden of proof in showing that the libel or slander was published, false, injurious and unprivileged. This scenario and the legitimacy of one’s defamation claims depends on several factors and becomes even harder to prove if the plaintiff is a public figure. To put it simply, defamation suits are not easy to win and the advantage, at least in America, is definitively in the defendant’s court.
Essentially, these laws mostly exist to protect non-public citizenry against invidious (and public) aspersions or misinformation about their person because of the measurable harm that can result. Note again, however, that it is the victim that must prove she has been wronged.
Why is this distinction between ideologies and reputations important? Reputations do not form political parties. Reputations do not form social movements. Reputations do not form the basis of or found governments and religious institutions, ideologies do. A person can be taken to court and forcibly be held accountable for their actions. Ideologies, however, cannot be taken to court. Ideologies are difficult to hold accountable which is why the freedom to criticize them is paramount if we are to protect ourselves from their sinister and extreme varieties.
Lastly, regarding the Holocaust denial laws such as those in Austria or Germany, this legislation pertains to an objective historical, scientifically and academically established truth. It is, to put it simply, a fact that the Holocaust happened and there is every kind of evidence to support it from eye-witnesses to video to documentation to common-fucking-sense.
Personally, I do believe that one should be free to make a fool of one’s self and reject the obvious while simultaneously being publicly ridiculed for doing so. But to conflate these laws with those found under such theocratic regimes as Saudi Arabia or Iran concerning imagery of the Muslim prophet is as obtuse as it is intellectually lazy. It is not a fact that Mohammed was a prophet, no one can prove that he was or wasn’t. Further, Mohammed is the cornerstone of a very bad idea called Islam which must necessarily be open to criticism. The Holocaust is not an idea. It is not the cornerstone of any ideology. To put it all simply, the Holocaust’s substance can be substantiated whereas Islam’s cannot be.
The remaining restriction that exists pertains to immediate harm done by hate speech. This, obviously, has nothing to do with the criticism of ideas but only rabble rousing. Calling for the death and destruction of a person or people should not be protected by law. It is neither constructive nor a critique of ideas.
It should now be abundantly clear that the legal restrictions on free speech in the free world do not pertain to the critique and open discourse of ideas which is the most significant and primary reason to exercise it.
Argument 2 [The Substance Argument]
I don’t support killing people over cartoons but they were racist weren’t they? People should only be allowed to exercise that kind of criticism when it is really meaningful or counterbalanced.
Incorrect. That is not how freedom of speech or the press works. Who decides if it is ‘meaningful’? Who decides when it is ‘counterbalanced’ effectively? To what degree of ‘meaning’ is necessary to justify the exercise? To what degree of balancing?
The problem with this argument is two-fold. First, it exposes the person for the latent authoritarian that they truly are because only an authoritarian mind would be so arrogant as to presume she knows absolutely what is substantial versus superficial. It also exposes the belief that feelings are more important than ideals. That is a breathtakingly dangerous sentiment in a world where open discourse is valued.
The whole point of a no holds barred approach to freedom of speech as far as ideas are concerned is that no one’s understanding of the truth is so absolute that they transcend peer criticism. Racists should be allowed to assemble and protest racial integration for the simple fact that if you detain them they and others will have precedent to detain their opposition should they ever be in a position to. It is simply too dangerous to allow any one person or group to escape the intellectual rigor of public scrutiny.
More importantly, bad ideas don’t go away when you silence them. Instead, their possessors become hard to identify and even harder to hold accountable when the campaign trial begins.
In a world where open discourse and freedom of the press reign supreme the public is free to lambast idiotic people like bigots and take them to task for their unsubstantiated beliefs. Good ideas will always defeat bad ideas in the coliseum of open debate and discourse where everyone has a voice, no matter how repugnant or resplendent. This is how free speech ensures itself.
Argument 3 [The Hypocrisy Argument]
But this free country or that free country limited free speech when they…
For some reason there are people who believe that citing hypocritical governments amounts to some kind of argument against the free and open critique of ideas. It doesn’t. It only proves that governments, as they’ve been doing since the beginning of time, always attempt to consolidate power, no matter where they are. Obviously we shouldn’t let them.
Argument 4 [The Harm Argument]
Speech is an act and acts that do measurable harm are criminal.
What kind of harm are we talking about? That question is relevant and bears answering. We’ve already noted that there exist laws which limit hate speech inciting imminent harm to individuals, as well as reputations. But that does not include someone’s discomfort over a topic nor does it include their hurt feelings when an idea they hold dear is held under rigorous scrutiny.
Freedom of speech cannot and should not be truncated to accommodate a person’s ideological insecurities. If the offended party sincerely believes they possess the truth then an environment fostering open discourse will allow them to defend it. It is not the fault of free speech that some ideas are better than others or that some people are incapable of defending their beliefs.
It is also worth mentioning that if we begin legislating on preference and feelings anything will become game for prohibition, including reason and objective truth.
Free speech only matters when it can confront the taboo. The freedom to speak out about recipes or linens doesn’t mean anything. Only when speech can be used for ideological reckoning does it have value.
Remember, we are not talking about absolute free speech here. We are talking about safeguarding the freedom we have to criticize ideas. In America at least and as far as I know, there are no federal laws that prohibit the critique of ideas and thus it should remain.