Freedom of speech is seen as a fundamental right in western societies. It is one of the universal rights of human beings and in the United States it is the First Amendment for a reason. Nowadays it feels like we started disbelieving in the freedom of speech. The Cancel Culture for example is a perfect example of a group trying to suppress freedom of speech. Jordan Peterson became famous because of him defending free speech and there have been numerous scandals on college campuses all over the world where there are protests against some speakers like Milo Yiannapoulos or Ben Shapiro for example.
I started asking myself the question why it is the case that people are starting to be against freedom of speech. Why was there this disbelief in this universal right? It mostly came from the left, so I turned that way for answers. This book has a misleading title. The book claims not to be against free speech per se, rather it is against the concept of free speech. Fundamentally the writer believes that free speech has never existed.
The book begins by claiming that freedom of speech has never existed because freedom has never existed. Starting from a communist paradigm it is easy to see why he might think this. All those who are oppressed, inevitably have no full freedom and thus no free speech. This is because of the difference of property between groups. The writer believes that we can only be free when we are equal in terms of property and capital.
This point falls flat pretty fast. Though it is true that someone with more money might be freer to buy a yacht and I might not be, I am also free to buy a yacht if I have the money. There is no law which limits me from doing that. Only financial capacities do that. Now do I have less freedom then? Not really since I have the same base freedoms. Freedom doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. Freedom means that there will be no institution or person forcing you to do something. This is a small distinction but an important one. To apply this to free speech, the writer claims that oppressed groups don’t have free speech because they aren’t heard. Well, they have free speech because there is no one limiting or censoring their speech (something they do try to do). They can say whatever they want as outrageous as can be, no one will censor them. But then people are also free to listen to whomever they want. So, if you aren’t heard, maybe it’s because what you’re saying isn’t interesting enough.
Another point the book makes is about white supremacists. If Nazi’s have the right to speak freely then what does free speech even mean? If Nazi’s are allowed to speak freely about the Arian race being the superior race, that all immigrants should die or whatever else they put in their heads, what does free speech mean? Obviously, this is a complicated topic. It is easy to see that some speech is racist, sexist or even genocidal. But where the line is, is very difficult and highly subjective. What might be racist for you, might not be racist for me. Therefore, limiting speech by law will be filled in with a certain ideology. If you are a part of that ideology, then you will see this as positive, but if you are not a part of that ideology, you will see it as negative. The true neutral stance would be that everyone is allowed to say everything he or she believes to be the case.
This is a hard stance to take, because we can certainly think about things which would be better if it wasn’t said anymore. But this goes into the whole debate of if we should ban words or not, which I will go handle in a later post. So, are Nazi’s allowed to say the things they say? The simple answer is yes, as long as they don’t incite violence. Allowing things doesn’t make them morally right. It is still legal to cheat on your spouse, but it is by far not a moral thing to do. The same goes with lying for example. We ‘allow’ these things because we believe in the responsibility and rationality a person will take. People make mistakes but it is only by seeing and hearing those mistakes that we might be able to solve them. By putting the carpet on the stain, the stain will not disappear. It will be hidden, until it is too dirty to ignore.
My biggest problem with this book is that it doesn’t really make arguments. Every chapter is a story about some bad person or Nazi who uses speech or protests. Then follows a kind of ‘oh my God, how could anyone do this?’ type of reaction, which in my opinion falls flat. Yes, there are people with distasteful opinions. No, that doesn’t give you the right to silence them. I don’t like communists who exclaim that what happened in the Sovjet Union ‘wasn’t communism’ but that doesn’t mean I have the right to say that they aren’t allowed to say those things anymore. All in all this is a pretty weak book and if this is the best case someone can make against free speech, it makes me happy that free speech is still one of the things we got right in history.