2021-01-11

Quick! Do Something! Anything!

It's often been said that "haste makes waste." I happen to agree. Unfortunately, most people do not.

In a stunning admission over the weekend, one of my far-left friends said that free speech absolutism was a conservative position. I call this "stunning," of course, because free speech absolutism has been, for the majority of my lifetime and that of my parents and grandparents, the liberal position. If anything, it has been a left wing position, held only by the most ardent of leftists. 

While I'm pleased that the right has discovered a newfound appreciation for freedom of speech, I'm disturbed by how quickly the left has shrugged it off completely. They now accept without question that there should always be some restrictions on the freedom of speech.

Before I continue, let's get the obvious out of the way: In this blog post, I'll be focusing mainly on the ethical principle of free speech and open dialog, the belief that society is freer and better off when all viewpoints are expressed than it would be if certain kinds of ideas were banished from conversation, even informally. I will not be referring to the merely legal concept of a constitutionally protected freedom from a government's legally denying people speech rights. The reason I'm making this differentiation is because it's possible to shut down a conversation without violating any law or civil right. 

The impulse is understandable on some level. When one encounters very abhorrent views, it's natural to want to get the hell away from them. In our personal lives, we can manage to do so very easily, by walking away. If someone decides to follow us around with a megaphone and scream abhorrent views at us no matter where we go, we have a tort to deal with that kind of harassment, and there is really no issue of free and open dialog at play.

But when a cadre of very powerful media moguls decide to collude against a particular strain of free expression, severely limiting society's access to that strain of thought, even if they're within their rights to do it, free and open dialog has been abridged. Not legally abridged, mind you, but abridged.

This, in turn narrows the available array of ideas. In the moment, that might achieve a given end. You might temporarily stamp-out a particular strain of thought, at least until the people who believe that strain of thought figure out a more reliable way to broadcast their beliefs. (I understand that Ham radio is still an option...)

The next time society encounters a strain of thought that it thinks is abhorrent, they will have that much easier a time squashing it out. The problem arises when the thought they're squashing out isn't truly abhorrent with respect to the arc of history. For example, interracial marriage used to be considered abhorrent, and those advocating it used to be reviled. In the long run, though, interracial marriage is good for humanity, and most of us now fully recognize that it's not an abhorrent thing at all.

How did society go from reviling interracial marriage to tolerating it, and then to appreciating it? I think society accomplished this through free and open dialog about interracial marriage. We started by talking about it and making people mad; then we talked about it and made people bored; now we talk about it and make people happy. That's evolution, for you.

Notice that the people who reviled interracial marriage did not know at the time that they were reviling something that was actually not a problem at all. Instead, they thought they were standing up for what was right! Sticking to you own!, they thought. That's how it's supposed to be!

They were wrong, and needed convincing. That's what free speech does for us.

Free speech does something else for us: It lays bare the arguments for bad ideas, and enables smart people to defeat those arguments. Imagine a bad idea that everyone knows about, but that no one is allowed to discuss. Take teenage sexual intercourse, for example. Many teens are unable to discuss sex with their parents, because their parents forbid such discussions from being had. So those teens often grow up either sexually repressed or they get themselves into a kind of trouble that they could have avoided if they had had better information from a trusted source. Talking about teenage sexual activity doesn't lead to teenage sexual activity. The data on that are all pretty clear, and they state that teens who are able to have supportive and informative conversations about sex with their parents grow up to be better adjusted and to avoid more of the pitfalls of sex, such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. That's because having conversations out in the open about bad ideas enables us to respond to all bad arguments with good counterarguments.

The critic may here respond, "But some of these people don't care about or won't listen to counterarguments!" No, they won't. You can't control how other people respond to your arguments, however. Preventing them from being able to speak at all -  on whatever platform we happen to be talking about - is the authoritarian impulse. It won't work. 

The left used to understand this quite well. I am sad that they no longer do.

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