The Paradox of “Free Speech”

In a previous article I’d written – inspired by the debate surrounding the petition to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK – I discussed the nature of free speech and what its genuine protection actually entails.

I also made a (somewhat qualified) defence of the protection of “hate speech” and suggested that if governmental regulation of expression is ever deemed required for whatever reason, then that regulatory process ought to be as democratic, transparent and thorough a process as is possible with the proposer subjected to a high-threshold burden of proof as to the necessity of the regulation proposed.

In that sense, it wouldn’t be accurate to call me a “free-speech absolutist”, although my default position is one of suspicion towards proposed or existing regulation until I am satisfied it is practically required, or a necessary evil, in other words.

As such, I acknowledge that practical concerns in a democratic society may necessitate a conditional approach to “free speech” – in instances where there may be imminent, immediate, direct, provable and/or quantifiable material consequences, for example – so as to protect the rights of others upon which the expressions of the empowered or powerful might encroach.

Perhaps this could be more accurately framed as a regulation of undesired effects of free speech rather than as a regulation of expression per se, or maybe others will argue that such a distinction is merely academic in the sense that humans are rational actors (by and large) and so the regulation of an inevitable consequence of a certain form of speech or expression via the threat of penalisation upon the expresser will thus discourage or de-incentivise the potential expression. Nevertheless, the complexity and diversity of reality demands performing a delicate balancing act of competing rights.

Earlier this evening, a combination of tweets appeared on my Twitter feed that I thought aptly summed up the problematic paradox inherent to the ideal of “free speech”. I thought it might be worthwhile sharing them here as they’re very much relevant to what I had been discussing in my previous piece in respect of the Donald Trump debate.

The tweets read as follows:

Essentially, whilst gross inequality and disparities can exist at both individual and institutional levels in terms of held power – which can be monopolised in the arena of ideas-exchange (or what has been referred to as the “marketplace of ideas”) – and in the degree of access to channels for expression or in a party’s capability to voice themselves or be heard, thus materially diminishing free expression in practice where it is supposedly unstifled in theory, there is no incorruptible way of assigning power to police expression to some sort of benevolent or protective overseer – be that a democratically-elected authority or some sort of mechanism to ascertain and effect the will of popular consensus – so as to protect the vulnerable and disempowered, against whom expression by the powerful can be used as a weapon to further suppress and silence.

In fact, assigning power to such an observing body to police expression would be akin to explicitly sanctioning monopolisation. Even if that power is assigned to or by a democratic majority, unless there is absolute unanimity in any “consensus” at all times (which is highly unlikely, if not practically impossible), those who assented hold the monopoly of power, whilst the views of dissenters are dismissed.

Although representative democracy might assist in ensuring a greater number of people are served, in accordance with their declared preference, the inherent problem is still unsolved; a Tocquevillian tyranny by a majority remains possible.

Interestingly, the “free speech” policy of Twitter itself has evolved quite radically over time. Twitter’s policy evolution also serves to demonstrate the paradox inherent to the concept of untrammelled free expression. When Twitter was initially established, it was an unregulated forum for communication and exchange, but the company felt that this “libertarian” approach was actually having an inadvertent and unwanted chilling effect on expression. Consequently, to enhance diversity of expression, they introduced rules limiting certain undesired types of expression. Of course, democratic societies do the very same.

As Annalee Newitz wrote for Ars Technica UK:

Twitter has discovered what many proponents of democratic society already knew: censorship is not the opposite of free speech. In fact, so-called free speech can actually be used as a weapon to silence the vulnerable and dispossessed. Ironically, to maintain its position as a platform for free discourse, Twitter must censor its users. Like Reddit, this once laissez-faire community is making some basic safety rules. Here’s how the company puts it:

We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.

Call it what you want, but this is a ban on hate speech. Whether it will actually lead to less harassment on Twitter remains to be seen.

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One comment

  1. […] I certainly don’t profess to possess a solution to this interesting paradox but it is nevertheless something I have written on in greater detail – nay, with which I have wrestled – previously. […]

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