Written by ‘Classical Liberal’
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The recent landmark ruling, in the case of a mother who called a transgender woman ‘he’ on Twitter, that freedom of speech does include the ‘right to offend’, could turn the tide on woke intolerance.
In December 2020, Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Warby, presiding over the case in the Court of Appeal, ruled that free speech encompasses offensive language. The ruling came in a successful appeal decided in favour of Kate Scottow, a feminist prosecuted for calling a transgender woman a man and a ‘pig in a wig’. Scottow had been found guilty under the 2003 Communications Act. The ruling, that ‘Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having’ and ‘free speech encompasses the right to offend, and indeed to abuse one another’, sets a precedent for future cases involving freedom of speech.
This seems a good time to set out an argument for freedom of speech based upon the tenets of classical liberalism.
John Stuart Mill
The classical liberal argument for freedom of speech was probably best stated in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), which addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.
Mill argues that freedom of speech is necessary for intellectual and social progress. He opines that we can never be certain that a silenced opinion does not contain an element of truth. He also contends that allowing people to express false opinions is good for two reasons. First, people are more likely to abandon incorrect beliefs if they are engaged in an open debate. Second, by encouraging people to examine their beliefs during debate, these beliefs are stopped from becoming mere dogma. Mill believed that it is not sufficient that one has an unexamined belief that happens to be true; one has to understand why it is true.
Mill argues that if an argument is really wrong or harmful, the people will judge it so, and then the argument will be excluded. He also argues that even arguments promoting murder or revolution against the government should not be suppressed. If revolution is really necessary, people should revolt; if murder is really proper, it should be permitted. However, these arguments should be expressed in a public speech or writing, not in a way that causes actual harm to others. This is the harm principle: ‘That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
Mill also supported freedom of speech for political reasons. He was concerned that minority views would be suppressed and opined that debate over public policy is vital to representative government. Therefore, Mill was also strongly opposed to censorship:
I choose, by preference the cases which are least favourable to me – In which the argument opposing freedom of opinion, both on truth and that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief of God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality … But I must be permitted to observe that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less if it is put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However positive anyone’s persuasion may be, not only of the faculty but of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of opinion. Yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.
Argument for Freedom of Speech
Building upon Mill’s argument, it follows that we can have freedom of speech without oppression. But any form of censorship requires oppression. Of course, I am talking about ideas and arguments as free speech; not slander, malicious gossip, or plans to commit a crime.
Freedom of speech is a truce between all of the different groups with their competing perspectives. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and nobody is permitted to silence anybody else.
The biggest risk is that the most powerful group will silence all opposition as blasphemy. Freedom of speech favours the weak, novelty and alternative perspectives. Therefore, it can lead to progress.
Freedom of speech does carry the risk that people might try to spread lies or incite violence. But, even in these instances, we should allow freedom of speech, because of the element of subjectivity. One person’s hate speech is not necessarily another’s. This becomes obvious when we step outside of a single culture. For example, in one culture it might be considered an offence for a woman to dance in public without being accompanied by a male chaperone and punishment might include beating or even worse; whereas, in another culture the idea of beating a woman for dancing in public without a chaperone would be considered hate speech and an incitement to violence. Therefore, one might find oneself for or against freedom of speech or censorship depending upon which culture one is part of.
Violence itself is worse than hypothetically inciting violence. We need to draw the line at actual oppression and violence.
If we find someone’s free speech offensive, what should we do about it? We can make counter-arguments, have debates, and peacefully protest; all of which are possible without censorship, oppression, force, or violence.
But, what if we find their speech so offensive that we have to silence it? Once again, one person’s undeniably hateful speech is not another’s. And, of course, you cannot logically be a cultural relativist – who believes one culture has no right to judge the morality of another culture – and support censorship. Beliefs may lead to violence. But, it is the actions that need to be prevented, not the highly contestable, subjective beliefs themselves.
If debate does not defeat the offending party’s vile rhetoric, what do we do? This is where some people believe that we must resort to any means necessary to stop the hateful speech. However, one group who has used force to silence another group today, might easily suffer the same treatment themselves tomorrow.
You cannot use actual violence in the present in order to prevent someone from expressing a view which you think will incite violence in the future. You would be committing the very crime that you are opposing.
However offensive one finds another’s free speech to be, one can fight it with free speech. And, if what we are opposing is genuinely offensive, what are its chances of winning in a fair, open and rational debate? If we cannot win that debate, then we can try harder to do so: do some more research, improve our arguments, etc. Or, maybe one side or the other will be persuaded. Thereby, bad ideas can be filtered out.
Freedom of speech exists to prevent oppression, from whatever side, and censorship can only exist through oppression and the probable threat of punishment tantamount to violence. The success of censorship can lead to vast corruption and the large-scale violent oppression of people.
Censorship by force is on the rise, including in unexpected places such as university campuses and the arts. Although this is ostensibly being done in the name of the greater good, the practice itself is anything but good. Using force to silence thought, speech, or artistic expression is historically the avenue of those who cannot counter-argue or debate – of fascists like Hitler, of Marxists like Stalin. When woke ‘social justice’ activists shout down those who disagree with them, rather than engaging in open debate, they show themselves for what they truly are – not campaigners for ‘social justice’, but totalitarian disciples of Hitler and Stalin.
Can we allow other people to express ideas which we are opposed to? The answer has to be ‘yes’, otherwise, those same people have the same right to deny our own right to express ourselves. Do we want to live in a world where contrary ideas exist, or one in which force is used to extinguish all but one overarching perspective – in a liberal democracy, or a totalitarian dictatorship?