On the Importance of Free Speech

Today I want to explain a pretty simple idea: why free speech is important. It might silly to say that we need an explainer for why free speech is important, but this is one of those things that goes unquestioned in society right up until it doesn’t, and free speech is under substantial assault these days. And, unfortunately, I don’t hear too many people rising to the vocal defense of free speech. Of course, there are many who have been writing articles in defense of free speech, but these articles typically take a “Everyone needs to love free speech more” line, or a “We need to remind people why free speech is worth protecting” line without ever actually, you know, explaining why free speech is important.

Most of the time, when a defense is given, it is by reference to Mill, who argued that the truth will eventually have out in a kind of free market of ideas. I love Mill, and On Liberty is a classic. But I think Mill’s argument is a little naive. In the long run, it’s possible that Mill is right. But ignorance and dogma can maintain an unbreakable grip on the minds of societies for millenia. See: any system of religious belief. (Except your religious beliefs, of course. Your religious beliefs are all sensible. I’m talking about those other guys’ religious beliefs, the ones who are getting it wrong.) So there’s no real reason to be sanguine about the truth prevailing any time soon. Certainly not before (say) the next election.

No, the real reason we need to protect free speech is that this is the only social norm that will prevent us from killing one another.

Here’s Megan McArdle today, quoting Greg Lukianoff of FIRE:

Lukianoff notes that the illiberal left often argues that the distinction between violence and speech is open to challenge by those who think it is harmful. “When people say that the distinction between speech and violence is a social invention,” says Lukianoff, “I say: Yes! It is a social invention, and it’s one of the most important things we ever came up with.”

First, a point I can’t help myself on. The distinction between speech and violence is not a social invention. Speech is one thing. It’s the communication of ideas. Violence is something else. It’s the use of force to harm others. That is a real difference in the intrinsic nature of these things. People are far too willing to grant claims for the form “X is a social construction.” Very few things are social constructions. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something (probably Marxism).

But apart from that, Lukianoff is making an incredibly important point.

Violence is, according to most moral theories, the kind of thing that can justify violence. If you use violence against me, I can use violence against you, in defense or (perhaps) in retribution. So societies have generally adopted norms according to which violence justifies violence. But it is a further question of whether or not societies will adopt norms according to which speech justifies violence.

Human societies, in their “natural” form (to the extent that this makes sense), will adopt this norm: The idea that speech can justify violence is a natural one. We tend to judge things as deserving of violence when they infuriate us. And speech can easily infuriate us. When someone taunts us, it takes a real effort not to lash out in retaliation. The things we tell ourselves to prevent ourselves from lashing out: “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” “It’s not worth it…” “It would be undignified…” That’s us rehearsing social norms that we were taught from a young age, norms which say that speech does not justify violence. Because that norm – that speech does not justify violence – is indeed, as Lukianoff says, one of the most important things we ever came up with.

Because the simple fact of the matter is that, if speech that infuriates us justifies violence, large societies cannot peacefully coexist. The norm that only violence justifies violence can lead to bad places when society lands in a circle of recrimination. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, and all that. But there’s another stable equilibrium, where everyone refrains from violence, and so no one ever harms anyone else, and so everyone lives peacefully and forms a happy, wealthy society. That stable equilibrium is a great place to be. It’s where we’ve been for a long time, but it’s not inevitable that we will always be there. A circle of recriminations is a stable equilibrium as well. Religious wars can last for centuries.

The problem with the norm that speech justifies violence is that it is basically guaranteed to destroy the stable equilibrium of a harmonious society. That equilibrium exists because, once violence stops, there’s no norm that licenses the violence starting again. Any violence that occurs would be the result of a norm-violation. But if speech justifies violence, the harmonious equilibrium is destroyed when someone commits violence or when someone says something infuriating. Inevitably, in the course of myriad social interactions, some infuriating things will be said. Thus, the norm that speech justifies violence will inevitably end up licensing much more violence than the norm that only violence justifies violence. Societies that embrace the only violence justifies violence norm will therefore be stabler, more wealthy, and less likely to fall into the bad equilibrium of the circle of recrimination.

So that’s why we need free speech. In Rawlsian terms, it’s one of the things everyone would agree to behind the veil of ignorance. All we need to know in order to prefer a free speech norm is the basic game theory of how people respond to normative governance.

There are objections that could be made to this, and maybe I’ll go through them some other time. But I felt it was important to write the basic point down because this isn’t common knowledge. It’s not something that I was ever taught in, say, high school. But these are the important civics lessons that we need to teach our kids. If we don’t, they might get to college and start to think that speech which infuriates them justifies violence. And wouldn’t that be awful?

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