Endless talk

Given recent developments in Nazis, this is probably a good time for some real talk on the whole free speech thing. While this topic has been discussed to death, it’s attracted a truly staggering amount of dullardry in the process, so I feel the need for boring philosophical clarity.

First, there is no such position as free speech absolutism. You cannot begin understanding the issue until you understand this. We like to talk about “rights” as though they are unlimited, but that’s not how the concept works. In terms of moral philosophy, a right is something that you don’t violate for utilitarian purposes. There are times when killing someone might actually result in the best overall outcome, but you still don’t kill people in those cases, because you have the right not to be killed.1 But it’s for this same reason that you can and indeed have to violate rights in order to preserve other rights. In the real world, rights conflict, so you can’t always preserve all of them.2 This isn’t a novel interpretation, it’s just how rights work. Even Second Amendment zealots don’t argue that individuals ought to be able to own and operate intercontinental ballistic missiles.

When it comes to speech, there are already plenty of laws on the books restricting it on this basis. Ordering an assassination is not “protected speech,” because it violates the target’s right to life. And the restrictions aren’t only for extreme cases; lots of practical, everyday speech acts are prohibited in the same way. Credible death threats are illegal because they violate the target’s right to basic security. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is illegal because it causes direct physical harm. Libel is illegal because you have the right not to suffer harmful consequences based on falsehoods (of course, you do not have the right to avoid the consequences of truths, which is why only falsehoods qualify as libel. In other words, this is a specific instance of the right to due process). There’s even a legal category that’s actually called “fighting words,” referring to speech that directly precipitates harm or illegal action. The decision referenced in that link clearly conveys the balance of interests required in making these determinations:

It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

Furthermore, speech not only conflicts with other rights, it also conflicts with itself. One of the problems with libel is that preemptive damage to the target’s reputation prevents them from being able to correct the record – one person’s speech restricts another’s. Similarly, highly provocative speech can prevent a discussion from taking place, and certain types of intellectual climates make certain ideas inadmissible. You can’t respond to these types of situations simply by picking the side with “more speech.” There can be valid speech on both sides, and you have to decide which side you value more.

In a broader and more important sense, this is the real problem with hate speech. It’s not that it hurts people’s feelings or even that it’s “harmful” in general. It’s okay and frequently desirable for harmful things to happen. Racists get their feelings hurt when people call them racists, but this is a good thing, because it’s correct for your feelings to hurt when people call you out for doing bad things. The problem is that hate speech is detrimental to overall human expression.3 Arguing that black people are inferior to white people necessarily reduces their effective ability to speak. The argument itself does this, even before anyone accepts it, because refuting the argument becomes a prerequisite to listening to black people. If you spend all you time arguing about whether black people’s ideas deserve to be taken seriously, you spend none of your time actually taking black people’s ideas seriously. This is exactly why the affected groups often try to shut these discussions down: because they have to, or they will never be able to say anything else.

So if you call yourself a “free speech absolutist” and refuse to make any determinations on the issue, all you’re actually doing is allowing existing forces to make those determinations on their own. The real world has a variety of conditions and constraints that allow certain types of expression to happen and disallow others, and a “hands off” approach means tacit agreement with the results. So you are not in fact an “absolutist” at all, you’re just a naive censor.

This also means that “maximizing speech” (as in “the solution to bad speech is more speech”) is not a coherent goal, because some ideas crowd out others. The idea that black people are inferior to white people and the idea that black people should be equal participants in society cannot just float around abstractly without affecting each other. They conflict on the basis of their inherent content. To the extent that one of those ideas is expressed more, the other is expressed less.

This is compounded by the fact that there is a limit on how much speech can actually exist. We are finite beings living in a finite world, so we can never inhabit a situation in which we are expressing and considering “all” ideas. (When someone says “all options are on the table,” they really just mean that an option that would make them look bad if they directly argued for it is in fact being argued for.) The space of potential ideas is infinite, and choosing which are worthy of consideration is a large portion of what it means to be an intelligent lifeform. Not all expression is of equal quality. Putting forth an argument that has been widely rebutted is inferior to a new version of the same argument that takes the rebuttals into account, or to an entirely new argument. Substituting one of the latter options for the former increases overall quality of expression. The way that the 24-hour news cycle effectively forces some new thing to become the Most Important Thing every day is anti-free-speech behavior, because it restricts the ability to distinguish between levels of real importance. Furthermore, context matters. It matters that the New York Times has completely godawful op-ed columnists because lots and lots of people read the New York Times and take it seriously just because it’s the New York Times. The fact that better ideas are free to exist elsewhere doesn’t cancel this out. Ideas being expressed in more prominent venues matter more.

I’m being pedantic; this is really all just the basic stuff we do when we communicate: we try to understand things and make useful contributions to the discussion and say things that are right instead of wrong. We try to get useful ideas expressed in the places where people can actually hear them. We criticize the elevation of trash, not because we think people don’t know better, but because there are better uses of our limited resources.

Obviously, we do not want to respond to this situation by censoring any idea that someone deems “not good enough.” But that’s exactly the point: the only question here is how we’re going to manage speech. In terms of what we want to accomplish, increasing the overall quality of ideas expressed is the only thing that makes sense. We don’t want a “robust discussion” about fascism, we want a discussion where nobody is arguing for fascism.

There is, of course, a specific meaning to the term “free speech,” which is that the government should not be able to restrict expression on the basis of its content. But this is still not an absolute condition. Here’s Ludwig von Mises being completely wrong about this:

But whoever is ready to grant to the government this power would be inconsistent if he objected to the demand to submit the statements of churches and sects to the same examination. Freedom is indivisible. As soon as one starts to restrict it, one enters upon a decline on which it is difficult to stop. If one assigns to the government the task of making truth prevail in the advertising of perfumes and tooth paste, one cannot contest it the right to look after truth in the more important matters of religion, philosophy, and social ideology.

Of course you can. I think it’s pretty obvious that the slope between banning poisonous toothpaste and banning political opinions is not particularly slippery. There are specific reasons why the government is (potentially) competent at the former but not the latter. First, the government has an obvious bias regarding which political ideas get expressed, which makes it an incompetent judge of which ideas deserve suppression. As the entity that manages power distribution, the government has the strongest possible vested interest in regulating ideas. But the government is just as capable as any other entity of running tests to determine what’s poisonous, and it has no vested interest in the results4. So the problem here has nothing to do with “big government,” it’s simply a matter of competent discrimination.

Second, because the government is the entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, ideas prohibited by the government are absolutely prohibited. It’s okay to ban one brand of toothpaste, because that’s not a significant restriction on anyone’s choices (if the toothpaste really is significantly harmful, it’s actually an enhancement of people choices, because it prevents them from accidentally making a decision they never would have made based on real information). But ideas are more complicated. Even an obviously bad idea might have positive effects through clarifying arguments or inspiring counterpoints. So, unlike being poisoned, which is something you never want, bad ideas are not absolute negatives. You might want to restrict them in particular times and at particular places, but you don’t want them absolutely restricted. Since people obviously disagree about ideas, discrimination is properly applied on the level of voluntary groups – that is, organizations can decide individually which ideas are worthwhile for them and which are not.5 And while there are in fact ideas that deserve complete eradication (again, fascism), this has to be done organically. Ideas are not magic; they have physical causes. If you try to banish an idea without addressing why it came about in the first place, it’s inevitably going to regenerate at some point. That’s exactly what’s happening right now: everyone thought we had gotten over fascism, when in reality all we had done was to shove it into the category of “Bad Things” without doing anything about its real causes. But once you’ve processed an idea and moved into a new situation where it no longer applies, artificially preserving it restricts speech. It prevents you from moving on to the next stage of discussion.

So these are the two actual criteria that matter for assessing speech restrictions. The first is accurate judgment: whether the idea is being restricted on its own merits or out of other motivations such as prejudice or political interest. The second is breadth: whether the restriction is being applied at the correct level. It’s fine for one explicitly capitalist magazine to disallow socialist opinions, because that’s not what anyone reading it is there for. It’s not okay for a larger entity to disallow the creation of any other types of magazines. But banning death threats throughout all of society is the correct level of applicability for that case, because death threats affect all humans.

Understanding the issue in terms of these criteria shifts the terrain of the debate considerably. The main point here is that speech restrictions have to be considered in context and not as absolutes, so I’m not going to try to formulate any kind of rules about what’s good and what’s bad. But since this issue has attracted such an unfortunate amount of misdirected chatter, I will work through a few examples to show how this works.

An extremely important story that has not received nearly enough attention is a recent change Google made to its search algorithm to promote more “authoritative” results. Naturally, this resulted in traffic drops for a variety of “alternative” news sources. This isn’t the kind of thing that normally gets discussed as a free speech violation. After all, none of the affected websites have actually been “censored,” and there are other search engines available. But the result is the same, because it fails both criteria. It’s improper discrimination because it’s intended to improve the “quality” of results, but all it actually does is impose a particular political viewpoint on them, based on Google’s collective internal assumption as to what counts as “fake news.” And it’s also overly broad, because it affects everyone who goes looking for information on any topic, regardless of what their individual desires are. If you’re trying to find alternative news sources, this change will prevent you from doing so, and there’s no way to opt out of it. And of course Google doesn’t tell you how it’s filtering its results, and it’s constantly changing things without telling anyone, so you don’t know whether there really is something else out there or not. Furthermore, Google is entrenched enough that it’s more accurate than not to say that this affects “everybody,” even though there are technically alternatives available. In other words, Google users constitute an involuntary group that has not consented to this restriction. If this were just one explicit, publicly understood option among many – if, say, it were one search engine marketing itself as an “authoritative news source” or something – then there wouldn’t be a breadth problem. The people who chose to use it would know what they were getting.

This applies just as much to the general movement to get social media companies to “do something” about “fake news.” Again, this isn’t an absolute condition; there’s no such thing as a “neutral” platform. But the criteria still apply. Scams and death threats are examples of things that social media companies can (potentially) accurately identify and which merit prohibition. Banning Twitter users who make “jokes” about putting people into ovens is more free-speech-friendly than not doing so. People who pull that shit are specifically trying to intimidate others out of speaking. And this does actually bleed into politics somewhat: if your ideas cannot be expressed without direct dehumanization and death threats, then it is correct for them to be suppressed. When it comes to actually discriminating based on ideology, though, giving Facebook the ability to decide which ideas are worthy of expression means conducting public discourse from inside Mark Zuckerberg’s head, which is clearly the worst possible outcome.

As mentioned, the big issue is Nazis, and unfortunately there isn’t a trivial solution here. If we’re talking specifically about literal Nazis, then censorship is probably fine. We can be as certain as we are of anything that Nazism is not a viable political option, and removing it from the public discourse doesn’t prevent people from cosplaying as Nazis on their own time. But of course there is no actual Nazi Party anymore; the entire issue is identifying which ideologies are really dangerous. Trump was widely condemned as a white supremacist for equivocating after Charlottesville, but all the mainstream Republicans who denounced him are also white supremacists. In fact, they’re more effective white supremacists, because, unlike Trump, they’re actually capable of closing deals. Declaring only overt Nazism beyond the pale sets the paling far too far to the right.

The thing that’s being called the “alt-right” is not one thing. It’s an umbrella term that covers a lot of different ideas and reactions. We can assume they’re all wrong, but even then, they’ve come up for real reasons, in response to real problems. Trying to sweep this stuff under the rug is exactly how you get surprised by someone like Trump. Dealing with these problems for real requires creating a society that fixes them, and developing that blueprint requires engaging with the underlying ideas. Expecting the government to take care of the bad guys is not going to accomplish this. In fact, it’s the opposite: the government is on the side of the fascists more than it is on yours.

Importantly, though, “engaging” here does not mean restricting yourself to the realm of cable-friendly “rational debate.” It means having a real fight. Making group efforts to deny fascists the use of social resources meets both free speech criteria. Such efforts can only come to fruition when there is widespread, non-idiosyncratic agreement as to what’s going on, and shutting down individual gatherings is not equivalent to censorship. People making the collective decision to disallow certain types of speech from the platforms over which they have influence is pro-free-speech activity, because it allows better ideas (by the standards of the involved parties) to be expressed. So shutting down fascists is indeed the right thing to do, but it only works if you do it yourself. Anyone who claims to be doing it for you is actually just fattening you up so they can eat you.

Also, violence is not a unique problem. The problem with violence is simply that it violates the criteria: it discriminates on the basis of who’s better at fighting rather than which ideas are better, and it completely prohibits expression rather than singling out particular ideas. But in situations where this isn’t the case, or where violence is already being applied, there’s no case for rejecting violence as such. Like, it’s pretty ridiculous to get all huffy about individual acts of defensive violence when they only stand out because you’re living in a cocoon created by the greatest purveyor of offensive violence in world history. Violence is generally a bad thing, but, given the current situation, a lot of the time it’s less bad than doing nothing.

(By the way, antifa has nothing to do with any of this, because they don’t start shit. As Cornel West and others have testified, their whole thing is defending people against fascist violence. From what I understand, they will actually escort neo-Nazis out of danger in order to defuse violent situations. Fretting about “violence” here, especially in the face of fascists who come armed to what they intend to be public confrontations, is nothing but typical anti-leftist bogeymanning.)

On a lighter note, the whole thing about university speakers being protested is a perfect example of something that is not a real problem. First, such protests can only happen through mass mobilization on the part of the affected constituency, which is proper discrimination. Second, being denied a speaking slot at a university has basically no other repercussions. Your ideas are still out there for people to engage with. Even the specific students at that university can look them up if they want to. In fact, the direction of suppression here is exactly the opposite of how it’s normally portrayed. It is the granting of the speaking slot in the first place that is suppressive behavior. If a group of college students wants to create a discursive climate in which trans people are not bullied, giving Milo Yanniopolis a speaking slot censors that political opinion.

To be honest, none of this is particularly relevant. Invoking “free speech” is almost always a dodge away from discussing actual political issues. It’s a way for people who don’t have the guts to take a meaningful stand to pretend like they’re principled when they really just want to avoid the discomfort of genuine values conflicts. The real problem is the fact that it works. As long as “free speech” is thought to be at issue, everyone has to spend all their time preemptively defending themselves instead of making real arguments. In other words, talking about free speech is a means of suppressing speech.


  1. You might want to keep in mind that this is all highly theoretical, because of course the government kills people and commits other rights violations for utilitarian reasons all the time, so talking about any kind of “pure” standard here is fantasyland from the getgo. 
  2. This applies broadly. If you try to take just one right and treat it as absolute, you run into internal contradictions. For example, treating the right to life as absolute and sacrificing everything else to it leads to the Repugnant Conclusion: valuing only life destroys the things that make life valuable in the first place. 
  3. So, if you hadn’t noticed, “hate speech” is a complete misnomer. Hatefulness has nothing to do with anything. The problem is with dehumanizing speech. This is actually why a lot of people get confused: they think they’re looking for “hate,” so when they don’t see it, they assume there’s no problem. Having a level of conceptual organization beyond “bad things are bad” matters. 
  4. There can, of course, be other interests at work: the relevant agency might be in the pocket of Big Toothpaste (this is called “regulatory capture”), or the government might want to direct poisoning at a specific undesirable community (this is called “environmental racism”). But these aren’t arguments against regulation, they’re arguments for good regulation. 
  5. This doesn’t work for involuntary groups. You can’t argue both that people need to work to eat and that their employers should be able to restrict their political opinions, unless you’re willing to accept that people with the wrong kind of ideas ought to be murdered. Either work is involuntary and employment is protected, or working is not a prerequisite for staying alive and associations can be fully voluntary.