You know that old saying, “When I criticize you it’s free speech, but when you criticize me it’s suppressing my free speech”? Well nobody actually says that because it would require an unheard of level of self-reflection, but it’s still an important thing to consider. What is a suppression of free speech, and is there ever a situation that would merit it? Obviously when society collectively tells you to shut the fuck up, that is not a suppression of your speech, but if you are prevented from speaking under threat of state violence, that is. Free speech is the right to speak; it’s not the right to be heard.

I want to look at free speech from its Classical Liberalism origins, and not from a Libertarian perspective for two reasons. Firstly, Libertarians, in the current definition of the term, aren’t actually supporters of free speech. They want to transfer power from democratically elected government who at least is partially beholden to the public to unelected autocrats in the private sector whose only obligations are to profit. They believe that if the government stifles speech then that is oppressive, but if a company wants to prevent their employees from even speaking about unionizing or blocks certain peoples from the rights given to others, well, that is their right! Transferring suppression from one sphere to a measurably worse one is not reasonable thinking, so I will ignore it. The other reason is that Classical Liberalism demands individual freedom so long as the individual does not commit harm against others. This is crucial to my argument. Libertarians think that if a company puts lead in their paint, then it is up to me to start up an entirely new industry of lead-free paint in a vicious, unregulated market with my extremely limited time and funds, as if that is somehow a possible thing. There is no worry over harm so long as the market is free to regulate itself. I prefer the world where we work to prevent unnecessary corpses, but maybe that’s just me.

How does harm fit in with individual freedom? It is fairly uncontroversial to assume that actively killing people is not okay, even under the most free of circumstances, so the idea is that individual freedom is great so long as nobody else gets hurt. Any impositions on the individual outside of these extreme circumstances are immoral. Harm is a difficult concept to nail down, which makes its application to speech tricky, but not impossible.

Consider the fact that uttering threats is illegal. It is nothing more than speech, but it projects an implication of harm that must be taken seriously, therefore it is not allowed. Or sexual harassment laws: it is generally agreed upon that a workplace feels unsafe if a woman experiences unwanted sexual advances, so laws exist to ban this type of speech. Bullying is a little more grey, but consider the case of Amanda Todd who was followed online by her harasser until she ultimately committed suicide, a clear indication that harm had occurred.

Now we’re working under the premise that we don’t want to commit harm to others. Murder is bad, remember. Harm to an individual via the medium of speech is regulated to some degree as seen in the examples I just mentioned, but what about harm to groups of people? This is where people defend free speech with the greatest enthusiasm because they’re fine with some restraints on their ability to harm an individual, but don’t you dare try to take away their right to harm black people. I hope that this appears starkly absurd to most people, and I’m sure those advocates of free speech don’t necessarily see it this way, but that is mostly due to the lack of self-reflection I was discussing earlier. If we accept that harm to individuals is unacceptable when it comes to speech, then we must accept that harm to a group is equally impermissible. Now there are those who will say that the harm that minorities face through hate speech is less than the societal harm that would come to be if absolute free speech (which already doesn’t exist) was leashed by regulations. It’s funny that it’s always disenfranchised groups that are the ones who have to suffer so that liberals can enjoy their free speech.

What about the slippery slope fallacy that curbing hate speech will result in cracking down on political dissent? That’s like saying that making jaywalking illegal will lead to the criminalization of walking on the sidewalk. Cracking down on a single aspect of something does not mean that universal suppression will naturally follow. I mean consider the despotic nations of Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, and many others with hate speech laws. Meanwhile the country that demands free speech to the point that it overtly encourages hate is doing just fine, right?

What makes an aspect of speech harmful toward a group? This is the biggest question, and the reason that I’m rewriting a previous blog is that now I have something of an answer (an answer that I actually gained from writing another blog! Ain’t it grand how much I’m getting out of writing this stupid thing?) The harm caused by hate speech is expressed through its criticism of an unchangeable aspect of a group instead of focusing on a group’s mechanisms to change. Let’s look at the examples I used from my the previous blog to explain:


Example A: Obvious Antisemitism

Criticism of Israel

Example B: Genuine critique of Israel which may be mistaken for Antisemitism

The first is critical of something that the group cannot change: their Jewishness in this case. The second is critical of the disproportionate response of Israel against Palestine which could be quite easily rectified. If someone were to say that Muslims are violent, uncultured, and irrational, it could be argued that Muslims could change this by being less violent, gaining cultural significance, and achieving rational enlightenment. However, by generalizing these behaviours, it becomes clear that it is the Muslimness that is being criticized, and not the behaviours at all.  If one were to look only at individual instances of violence and irrationality under the pretense of finding mechanisms for change, then we would be forced to seek the causes of those things rather than disperse the blame on the entirety of the group.

It’s not hard to distinguish hate speech from genuine criticism, just as it is not hard to suppress hate speech without suppressing dissent. Punching someone in the face is assault, but boxing is completely legal. Potentially harmful dialogue can certainly exist in regulated settings, just as violence can exist in a boxing ring with rules governing its exhibition, without allowing it to go unfettered in the streets.