Contra xkcd on Free Speech
It isn’t always appropriate to examine claims made by comics and comedians, but a recent xkcd appears to be making a serious point:
In general, yes, when we speak of ‘free speech’ we are talking about the negative liberty to not be arrested for whatever we say (of course, there’s plenty of complexity contained within the idea of “whatever we say“, but I’ll assume that we have some reasonable notion of what that might be).
I do, however, see the claim (that this sort of free speech is the only sort of free speech worth caring about) as a bit naïve. Here are a few (unrefined) thoughts as to why we might also want to worry about ‘free speech’ of the sort not covered by things like the First Amendment:
1) The state is often thought to be, in some sense, a representation or embodiment of the people and their collective will. There is a tension when we see a particular action by those with state power as tyrannical, but the same action by those with social power as perfectly acceptable. By “social power” here I mean the power to silence a speaker, or at least remove a platform they’d have otherwise had.
2) The First Amendment doesn’t shield you from criticism, certainly, nor does it prevent consequences for speech (save for legal retribution by the state). It prevents you from having hold your tongue through the fear of facing criminal charges, but is that wholly different to you having to hold your tongue through the fear of an angry mob calling for you to lose your livelihood? Either way, the consequences can be severe, unfair, and downright illiberal.
3) According to the strip, being sued for libel is not an abridgement of free speech, even in cases we’d consider “legal bullying” (i.e. when the defendant is in the right but is forced to capitulate to avoid potential financial loss). In these cases, the government still “cannot arrest you for what you say”, so according to xkcd it must be a case of “people think you’re an asshole and they’re showing you the door”. I think there’s some sense that this is an abridgement of your free expression.
4) The arguments for civil free speech can often also be applied to social ‘free speech’. Take your favourite argument from Mill (or another liberal), and consider whether it could also be used to defend social free speech. For instance – a belief thought to be correct can only benefit from its conflict with error – either the belief is shown to be false and thrown out, or a more refined belief or “livelier impression of truth” is established (On Liberty, Ch. 2). Does this apply to social free speech? Sure it does – if a view is stifled to the point where we no longer hear it, we lose a chance for our cherished doctrines to conflict with objections. Also consider that an anti-liberal could attack (civil) free speech by saying something along the lines of “it’s just that the state thinks you’re an asshole and is showing you the door”.
5) What does it say about our society that we’re celebrating boycotting things, yelling at others, cancelling events, and banning people? It looks to me like a society paralysed by fear – fear of change, fear of others, and fear of being wrong. It is the opposite of the spirit of progress, spirit of inclusion, and the spirit of inquiry. It is at its heart a conservative, illiberal, reactionary society. It is everything that those who love philosophy, science, and thought should reject.
This isn’t to say that the primary meaning of ‘free speech’ isn’t the one given by xkcd, just that the wholesale rejection of social free speech is a mistake. I’ve seen the sort of thing the xkcd strip might be arguing against – for instance the claim that ‘blocking’ someone on social media is a violation of their free speech, or that banning them from the comments section of a personal blog impinges on their rights. That is, of course, absurd (though in the latter case slightly less so).
However, the larger, more ubiquitous, and more socially necessary the thing they are being banned from, the less absurd this claim becomes. On much larger sites like Twitter and Facebook it can become a real worry, especially as it is very difficult for them to be consistent and fair with their entire user base. I suspect the best approach might be to eliminate top-down controls and provide users with the tools to effectively customise their own experience. That will allow us the freedom to express ourselves as we wish, while ensuring that those like the fearful stickman above do not “have to listen to our bullshit”.