• Steven Pinker on Free Speech (and a Nitpick by me!)


    The excellent Steven Pinker has an article in the Boston Globe today defending free speech. It’s an incomplete defence, of course, given the space (it neglects to defend worthless/garbage speech, which I feel should be part of a complete defence), but it does a fine job of outlining the main points in favour of it.

    I do want to take issue with one argument Pinker makes that I don’t think goes through:

    The first reason is that the very thing we’re doing when we ask whether free speech is fundamental — exchanging and evaluating ideas — presupposes that we have the right to exchange and evaluate ideas. In talking about free speech (or anything else) we’re talking. We’re not settling our disagreement by arm-wrestling or a beauty contest or a pistol duel. Unless you’re willing to discredit yourself by declaring, in the words of Nat Hentoff, “free speech for me but not for thee,” then as soon as you show up to a debate to argue against free speech, you’ve lost it.


    Those who argue against free speech (or for “free speech with limits”, as they often call it) aren’t arguing against all speech or against the value of debate. What they are claiming is that some instances of speech are so harmful that the state should actively prohibit them. A typical example of this is “hate speech”. It is perfectly possible for someone to argue without contradiction for there to be restrictions on hate speech, so long as they do so without the need for them to “hate speak” in the process. So I don’t think that it’s true that if you “show up to a debate to argue against free speech, you’ve lost it”. All it requires is that you don’t think that debating such issues should be considered as the sort of speech that ought to be prohibited.

    I don’t believe that there should be restrictions on hate speech, but that is because I believe free speech should be a right. There’s no contradiction when an advocate of unfree speech uses their approved subset of speech to argue against their right to say what they like.


    Category: Freedom of Expression

    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.
    • SimonNorwich

      How do you define “hate speech”? Many would (and do) claim that any kind of criticism against them or their ideas is “hate speech”.

    • SimonNorwich

      So slick! I wish I had such personal resources to hand!

      At work now, so will have to dwell on it and respond later.

    • I can think of loads of things which I would consider free expression which would nonetheless violate the spirit of formal debate, e.g. interpretive dance, topless protest, DIY “Piss Christ” as a demonstration against Catholic overreach.

    • SimonNorwich

      Finally got my thoughts together. Sort of. It’s late and I’m tired so I hope it makes sense and I don’t ramble too much!

      I seriously doubt that Steven Pinker is an advocate of absolute free speech.

      In fact, I doubt that anyone believes in absolute free speech; in the right to say whatever you want, whenever and wherever, without any restriction.

      Teachers must follow a curriculum, which broadly dictates what they must tell their students; silence must be maintained at times in court; a salesman must speak positively about his product if he wants to keep his job; you can’t deliberately mislead people about the effects of prescribed drugs, flammable chemicals, etc; you can’t set up a permanent megaphone outside someone’s office or bedroom without risk of prosecution for harassment.

      These are all common-sense restrictions on speech that most of us take for granted and wouldn’t even consider to fall under the topic of “free-speech”, but I think they must do.

      I can’t accept that there should be no restrictions on “hate speech”. Hate speech at some stage becomes harassment. When it does, it should be illegal for very similar reasons to the other examples above.

      All of the above restrictions on speech are to protect individuals or organisations and allow them to safely and FREELY go about their lives and business. Speech is not the only freedom we cherish, and there are times when it must be compromised to allow for other freedoms.

      But none of the above restrictions should prohibit the free expression of ideas in various public forums. This is the realm that Pinker must be referring to.

      Pinker is arguing against those who think certain ideas should be banned from ever being discussed in public. That doesn’t imply that he thinks there is always an absolute right to say whatever you want, whenever and wherever.

    • As you say, with your first few examples I don’t consider them “free speech” just because we’re talking about behavioural codes in the workplace, etc. Naturally I can’t expect to keep a job as a shop assistant if I’m always rude to customers, say. But it’s the employer who decides that, not the state.

      However, that’s very different to the question of “hate speech” which is whether or not the state should intervene and take retributive action. I don’t agree that they should, but that’s another story.

      Pinker does say that free speech has ‘limits’, at the end of the piece, and yes he is arguing against those who think certain ideas should be banned. I don’t see how this defends his argument that arguing against free speech in a debate is self-defeating.

    • I disagree, though I find this argument is not the strongest in support of free speech.

      Hate speech should not be forbidden, either. Emotions, including hate, should not be criminalized. Reality bears out Pinker’s objection. In the US, just as soon as well-intentioned “hate speech” policies and laws (or proposed laws) appeared, we immediately began seeing some Christians claim that secularists and LGBT rights supporters speech was anti-Christian hate speech (and if you stumble over the wrong tumblr page, you find highly valid examples of exactly that).

      We can try to hash out who has more or less reasonable claims to facing or being victimized by “hate speech”, but I believe it is a worse condition that we vote on who gets to be permitted their victimhood, and all else are expected to be silent, versus not having any such restrictions and just letting the things run their (dis)course.

    • I think that if the proscription is not related to the content, it isn’t a free speech issue. Disrupting a court has nothing to do with what you are saying, just that you are interfering with a legitimate process undertaken by other people, who also have rights not to be interfered with unduly.

      Employment has nothing to do with free speech, you have no constitutional right to a job, nor did anyone force you to take it.

      You actually legally can mislead people about drugs, etc.., in fact many websites do exactly this. Nobody has yet arrested Jenny McCarthy, or Peter Poppoff who told people he cured their cancer. You can be liable for harm that you do, but that is based on the evidence you caused harm, not evidence that what you said is offensive or wrong. I know that difference can be subtle, but it is important.

    • Jonathan Ray

      The rub is that the problem of who decides what is and isn’t “hate speech” inevitably boils down to free speech for me and not for thee. You can’t even have the meta-argument about whether X is hate speech if you’re not allowed to talk about X or never even heard of it due to censorship. Hate speech will only mean whatever those in power consider abhorrent. In other words, the entire subset of speech that most needs protection will be exempt from protection, and freedom of speech will be meaningless, if an exception is made for “hate speech”.