• 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”.

    Category: FeaturedFreedom of ExpressionPhilosophy

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.

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    • The comic does not say there is no other meaningful sense of free speech. It says the Right of free speech, thereby setting it in its political context. The comic indicates nothing at all about the morality of the ensuing censure. It does not suggest this is the only form worth caring about, only that it is not a political issue. And XKCD is correct, it isn’t. But it can still be a moral and social one.

      To that last bit I would add this (and Notung, I think we’re similarly-minded here): everything great about modern society exposes us to some risk and new problems intrinsic to the benefits. We have freedom of the press. Not everyone does, and a brief jog back in time… nobody anywhere did. We’re a tiny sliver of humans incredibly fortunate to have a society with that feature. But it also brings with it yellow journalism, and real difficulty legally or socially dealing with defamation. Those are serious problems and ones we should and do spend resources addressing. But we can never eliminate it, it’s a package deal. The risk is intrinsic to the benefits. The only way to change it, fine tuning aside, is to remove liberty or social quality somewhere. And that’s a terrible idea because the benefit/cost ratio with all the goods and bads summed, is overwhelmingly positive. I mean it’s not even close, it’s a massively, massively good thing.

      Now, I am not saying the fear-mongering and hand-wringing about unruly internet mobs or “bullies” actually threatens anything in the bill of rights or any political right. What I am saying is that, like in the above, the solutions that get proposed seem to ignore or be ignorant about the cost/benefit ratio because they work in the direction of trading a bit of liberty or social quality for a bit of control/sanitation. That’s a terrible deal because the magnitude of the “problem” is so much smaller than the benefits. They just aren’t as salient to our senses. We don’t seem to grasp what the cost is likely to be.

    • I took the comic to mean “free speech = right to free speech = First Amendment”, but it’s difficult to really tell for sure. I’ve certainly seen others respond to “free speech” with “no, free speech just means you shouldn’t get arrested”. Of course that isn’t completely wrong, but could do with a little more nuance.

      The last two panels imply that it’s the goodies (boycotters, banners, yellers, cancellers) vs the ‘assholes’, and that’s why I feel I’m arguing against xkcd here.

      I agree with all of the rest of your comment.

    • I don’t read the last two panels that way. I could easily say, “Joe, Mary think’s you’re an asshole and she’s showing you the door.” Without agreeing with Mary, or having any particular opinion.

    • Quite right, but if instead you said “Joe, people think you’re an asshole” then I’d assume you were trying to criticise or blame Joe in some way.

    • Patrick

      “I suspect the best approach might be to eliminate top-down controls and provide users with the tools to effectively customise their own experience.”

      This is something we’ve lost in online communities with Usenet being supplanted by blog comments. I would love to see Disqus provide these kinds of tools. It would encourage more open discussions and make it clear which bloggers support the principle of free expression and which seek to control the discussion.

    • josh

      I agree with this post in that the XKCD comic is in the tradition of some pretty shallow responses to ‘free speech’ issues. Yes, ‘free speech’ is a legal right in the US constitution and it’s not being legally violated in internet kerfuffles and boycott campaigns. But there is a broader issue of why the first amendment is an important thing to protect that has to do with the free flow of ideas and criticisms. That principle is important beyond the context of government rights and shouldn’t be callously swept aside. Sometimes it is important to hear other people or let them speak quite apart from whether the government is involved. (And I’m saying that without commenting on any particular case.) The first amendment is an example of how we have socially implemented free speech concerns, it isn’t the fundamental concern itself.

    • There should be a law against discussing xkcd strips without reference to the title text of the comic in question. As the cartoonist points out, the “title text points out the irony of anyone appealing to free speech as a defense for their argument or opinion. If the only thing that someone can say in support of an argument is effectively that it is not illegal, then they are severely undermining it by essentially admitting that they don’t have any better defense for it.”


    • Ah, I didn’t see that. Yes, if ‘free speech’ is their defence in the face of substantial criticism, then I understand. However, panel 4 implies that they are having their speech stifled in some way, so I think my objections stand.

    • What does it say about our society that we’re celebrating boycotting things, yelling at others, cancelling events, and banning people?

      What it says depends mightily on which particular things, others, events, and people we are talking about and in what context. If we’re boycotting lead paint, for example, I don’t see any problem with that. If we’ve boycotting Braum’s ice cream, that is much closer call.

      Similarly, if we are banning people because they cannot stop spouting hate on a forum dedicated to calm and rational discussion, I don’t see any problem with that. If we are banning people because they accidentally misgendered someone once and pointed out that they had no ill intent, that is another matter entirely.

      Basically, every one of the actions mentioned in the fourth panel are acts of free speech and free association, and they can be used moderately and wisely or immoderately and unwisely. It is not to the artist’s credit that they seemingly discount the latter possibility.

    • Edward Gemmer

      It’s also wrong. The government does arrest people for what they say and does all the time.

    • ThePrussian

      I’d agree that these can be used moderately and wisely or not – it just seems like there is a lot more of the “not”. Take the recent firing of Eich; is making a donation really sufficient grounds to destroy someone’s career? Does the punishment fit the crime?

      Natural justice seems to go on holiday here…

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    • Respecting Eich, a more salient question is whether supporting a bigoted campaign favouring systematic heterosexism is sufficient grounds for the board to conclude that he is unfit to serve as the public face of a corporation that purports to value diversity and relies heavily upon the goodwill of the tech community.

    • ThePrussian

      Again, a one time donation. This isn’t like being a grand Kleagle (or whatever the hell they’re called). It just strikes me as completely out of whack in terms of justice.

      As I’ve outlined elsewhere, I don’t think we’re likely to win like this.

    • Eich isn’t being sued or indicted with a crime, so you don’t mean formal justice in the courts.

      No one in the Eich home is going hungry or even middle class anytime soon, so you don’t mean social justice.

      And honestly, I’ve no idea what “natural justice” means but I am confident that antelopes disagree with lions on the subject.

    • ThePrussian

      Well, justice is what underlies all proper relations between human beings. Courts don’t come into it. If someone snubs you you don’t react the same way than if they had defrauded you.

      I’m just deeply leery of all this “fire people for their opinions” thing. It’s something that could easily happen to one of us.

    • What’s your take on Donald Sterling?

    • I was so hoping someone would write up a comparison piece like this. Did not see the banana coming, though.

    • ThePrussian

      I’ve written twenty thousand words arguing against racism and there’s more to follow.


      However, I don’t like the idea that people can now be snooped on and punished for what they may or may not say in the privacy of their own den.

      And the _reason_ I think like this is that it has now reached the next level. Now people are getting sacked just for saying that Sterling shouldn’t have been turfed out:


      There is no way that this sort of thing won’t spread once it’s accepted. And I can tell you from life on the continent, that this kind of thing ultimately creates the opposite. I’ll just have to quote Nick Land (yeah, a neoreactionary, but he’s right on the money here):

      ” Every liberal democratic ‘cause war’ strengthens and feralizes what it fights. The war on poverty creates a chronically dysfunctional underclass. The war on drugs creates crystallized super-drugs and mega-mafias. Guess what? The war on political incorrectness creates data-empowered, web-coordinated, paranoid and poly-conspiratorial werewolves, superbly positioned to take advantage of liberal democracy’s impending rendezvous with ruinous reality, and to then play their part in the unleashing of unpleasantnesses that are scarcely imaginable”

      That’s quite right.

      And finally, what happens when this method is applied to one of us?

    • ThePrussian

      And before you say it, yes, I know this is one hell of a difficult area to draw the line. I’d draw it like this: if he’d said all this stuff in public, it’d be a different matter, but a situation where everyone now needs to carefully monitor what they say in the privacy of their own homes? I don’t like that.

    • I’m pretty sure that “everyone” is not at risk of revealing profoundly racist views, even in the privacy of their own homes. That said, I am apt to say things here that I’d really rather not have broadcast to the world.

    • ThePrussian

      That would be comforting if “racist” was not used, as I wrote in my piece, as a catch-all accusation against anything that discombobulates the status quo hivemind. You’ve seen the accusations of racism that are heedlessly flung at Dawkins and Harris for having the onions to say something about Islam.