Okay, Let's Talk About Free Speech

On Oliver Traldi's "Let’s Talk About Free Speech"

In an article on the City Journal website, Oliver Traldi objects to the type of argument that says debates about censorship and free speech are not actually about free speech and censorship, but rather are about where to draw the line on what’s socially-acceptable speech. Traldi seems to think that this “line-drawing” argument is really type of rhetorical move to change the subject from a matter of principle to something closer to the writer’s actual interests. Rather than view these arguments as potentially neutral attempts to explain or describe certain social practice, it seems Traldi believes this is sort of an intrinsically bad faith form of argumentation, a “harangue” worthy of a bit of scorn or at least suspicion:

In general, we should be skeptical of people who try to argue by attempting to shift our sense of what some debate or event is “about.” “Aboutness” itself isn’t about much of anything. When someone starts haranguing about what some debate is or isn’t about, interpret it as a sign of what they do or don’t want to talk about. If someone says, “Politics is about power,” it means that they want to talk about power. If someone says, “So-called free speech debates aren’t about free speech,” it means that they don’t want to talk about free speech.

But strangely enough for a piece that calls for dealing directly with the matter at hand and not move into meta-debates or meditations on the nature of social behavior, it provides no positive defense or definition of the principles in question. Perhaps it’s also hesitant to take up the same issue it says everyone is hesitant to take up?

But I’m going to try take up the challenge of the piece. I want to talk about free speech. To me, there are two possible justifications or understandings of free speech, which are related, but possible to distinguish: a political one and an expressive one. The political understanding of free speech goes roughly something like: “To prevent the consolidation and abuse of power, and to ensure the needs of public administration are met with the full powers of reason and evidence, we need the ability in society to freely and publicly speak about the broadest variety of issues with very little restriction. Restrictions on speech or censorship can ultimately only serve the interests of a powerful few. Indeed, by the very fact of imposing such restrictions, a group or individual becomes a kind of tyrannical power, making their specific understanding of the world the rule for the entire society.” Then there’s a kind of expressive argument, which goes something like, “We have an intrinsic psychological need to express ourselves that should be free of social or political sanction. To require people to silence or censor their reactions, opinions, and feelings is a kind of cruel imposition on individuals’ most fundamental needs as persons, which is to communicate, to be heard by others in their joys and sufferings. Also, if we pursue such a course of sanctioning, we will not only create a great deal of personal misery, but also a kind of regime of total dishonesty and deceit, where no one can really say what they are really feeling or thinking.”

One of these arguments deals with the public interest, the other with the private need of the individual. But of course, they are related, because speech is never entirely private, it’s social, other-directed, usually an attempt to do something, to reach others, and in the political case, to persuade or cajole others to join one’s campaign or movement or party. In the expressive case, it’s to find people who recognize, sympathize, and understand one’s hopes or needs, to ask or provide help or support, or to just listen and share their own thoughts. We speak to others often to avoid the agonies of total isolation and loneliness. If speech was understood to be generally meaningless and unimportant, and utterances had no concrete impact on the world, its freedom or regulation wouldn’t be an issue—No one would care. The need for free speech implies a world where it has real consequences.

The real problem that I think is being grasped at by the articles Traldi dislikes is that even if we agree on the principle we still will rapidly get to a great deal of very tense social conflict. People’s political associations, formed through public appeals and debates, and their needs of self-expression will clash. Let’s suppose a situation of absolute free speech, so that means people can say anything, no matter how outlandish or preposterous it may sound. The people in this imagined society will have the absolute, unalloyed right to accuse others, fairly or not, of trying to oppress and abuse them. By speaking out you hope others will agree with you, or at least consider your perspective, and if enough others agree or even consent that it’s one of a number respectable views worth of consideration, you will become amplified a great deal. Now lets say your piece of free speech is “The X people are bad and all their statements are lies” (remember, this is totally allowed because of absolute free speech) and that gets amplified enough, then the X people might begin to have trouble substantially exercising both their political and expressive free speech rights. The response to them would be, “I’ve heard just now you’re a liar and a scoundrel, so I will not listen to your self-expressions or join with you politically. You cannot be trusted and you are not welcome here.” Of course, the x people or person could counter in a number of ways, but one imagines it would be a quite demoralizing and isolating experience: “Everywhere I go now I’m called a scoundrel and a liar! I can only speak openly to a very few people I trust, mostly in private. One day I hope that my views will be accepted, but for the time being I have to keep to a relatively small group of likeminded people in order to be free.” (They might also not feel any of that, and just invoke such a story to generate sympathy, but then one has to judge.) The point is, you will have a conflict and a potentially a very serious one. You will have the de facto abrogation of the rights of a group or a person in a certain sense. The law might say, “You can say anything you like in public,” but if by saying what you like you will be met by a hostile public, also armed with the same absolute right to accuse and abuse, it may not feel like a very freeing situation at all. You will find your personal expressions abused and denigrated and your political life curtailed to tiny, ineffectual groups, all through the very same right to free speech.

Some institutions might exist that verify and decide whether the contents of certain statements have the proper level of evidence or are rationally sound. We have institutions that decide when arguments and cases are scientifically valid or legally valid. But for the most part the decisions of truth and rationality in the public sphere will have looser criteria, especially if they are understood to be truly free. Free speech means free speech, after all. But let’s suppose the society gradually agrees upon some norms about what can be said publicly. They’d say, “Well, certain types of accusations of bad faith are just too toxic for public-spirited debate, they make people too angry and they cause very bad social conflicts when they are thrown around, so as a norm, we prefer a slightly more civil tone—even when the matter is very serious.” Well, that’s not exactly censorship imposed from above, but there’s an unspoken agreement on what not to say. Certain things would still have to periodically violate that tacit agreement for free speech to meaningfully exist. Someone might conceivably say, “No, I cannot follow the norm of civility, the matter is too dire for me: I really must express myself truly in the fullest possible sense” or “I must publicly accuse this petty tyrant who is oppressing the public in the strongest possible terms.” A keen judge of public statements might say, “Oh, well that sounds rhetorical, or like B.S., to me and here’s why, blah blah blah.” But saying, “This very form of rhetoric is a threat to the public and we must discount it entirely” you also might start to edge back into censorship territory a little bit.

Let’s return to Traldi’s piece for a moment. He writes:

If the line-drawing argument is right, then it would not be an affront to free speech to ban, for instance, pornography, criticism of Israel, advocacy of Communism, or negative newspaper articles about certain public figures. Those would just be different ways of drawing the boundaries of free speech; on the terms of the line-drawing argument, they wouldn’t be instances of true censorship. And surely activists in favor of banning such things might at some point become successful, influence institutions, or persuade young people. But such success would tell us nothing about free speech.

I’m not so sure about the conclusion here. The activists’ ability to “persuade” or cajole enough people to get their way relies and to rise in institutions on their own ability to use free speech. This activist cadre must have some public-facing apparatus of propaganda or argument or they are just a tiny conspiracy, which is unlikely to grow very large or powerful because they can’t get others to join them. At some point, other people must either be persuaded or intimidated—maybe some combination of the two, as the case may be—by the activists.. The activists must speak and be heard. That’s sort of what activists are out to do: make a fuss. We typically understand activism to employ a type of speech that is “freer” in a way than the rational argumentation of the scientist or the scholar: they are permitted, in the pursuit of public ends, to be quite strident and open in their language. It might create a more peaceful type of society some of us would like more, but it wouldn’t really be an argument for free speech to ask activists to tailor their public statements to a certain code of rational argument or politeness. Again, for the activist in this situation, I would imagine the demands of public peace would feel like a tyrannical imposition on their political life or their right to self-expression. In that case, a sense of oppression might be kind of justified.

This leads me to one of the more puzzling statements in the piece. Traldi writes, “If someone says, “Politics is about power,” it means that they want to talk about power.” I don’t really understand how this is supposed to be a form of misdirection exactly. Politics inevitably is going to involve some discussion of power. Indeed, it’s implied in the very definition of politics thats going to be “about” the distribution and arrangement of power in a society. In point of fact, Traldi’s entire piece is concerned with power, namely worries about the power of certain “activists” to restrict or control the limits of the public sphere should they accede to high offices, and, in a slightly different sense of the word, the power of certain forms of rhetoric to distort or derail debates. He wants to dispel the power these people and arguments have over us.

But it’s also possible that people can invoke principles like “free speech” in error or in bad faith. You cannot rule it out of bounds, without, paradoxically, making a kind of restrictive argument about speech. Now sure, Traldi doesn’t say “it should be forbidden to make this type of argument,” but he does say “we should be skeptical of such people”, which seems to go beyond “this is perhaps not the best argumentative approach” into something more like “distrust the x people.” That’s perfectly fine, of course. But it’s essentially the same thing as saying “distrust the ‘free speech’ people, who are misdirecting from the real issue at hand.” It’s a political and pragmatic mode of argumentation, focusing on the supposed intentions and desires of one’s interlocutors, and what they really are about. It says, “Don’t listen to them, they are up to no good. I know this because of how they speak.”

One other statement of Traldi’s on free speech, from another piece, is very strange to me. He writes of Jordan Peterson:

Peterson doesn’t even seem to consistently believe in free speech. He writes: “‘After Auschwitz,’ said Theodor Adorno, student of authoritarianism, ‘there should be no poetry.’ He was wrong. But the poetry should be about Auschwitz.” Classical liberals motivated by issues of free expression don’t think they should limit poets to one topic.

I think Jordan Peterson is not great for a number of reasons, but I actually have to defend him here. This is pretty clearly not a question of free speech. Peterson is not really saying, “YOU MUST ONLY WRITE ABOUT AUSCHWITZ.” To think that is just sort of a total misunderstanding of the sense of the statement in question. Peterson’s saying something thats maybe very pretentious, but he has no interest in restricting artistic expression: it’s a piece of art criticism. IF it means anything at all, it means something like: “Art, to be considered serious and valid, should address this very important subject-matter.” The problem with Peterson’s sentence is that it’s silly, pretentious and vapid, a piece of sententious cant; emphatically not that its an attempted restriction of free speech. Most generously, you could say Peterson is trying to get his audience to “think big thoughts” by making this kind bold statement; he’s not trying to force them stop writing poetry, as much as we might sincerely hope that Jordan Peterson’s fans would be discouraged from writing poetry. I would prefer people didn’t write sentences like Peterson’s here, because I prefer writing to be good. Does that mean I’m against free speech? Peterson’s statement actually means a lot less than Traldi thinks it does and I think my interpretation is really much closer to what Peterson’s sentence is “really about” than Traldi’s. I think by focusing excessively on principle here rather than the specific practice—namely writing, or bad writing, cant, specifically—Traldi misses the point and makes what I think is a very clumsy criticism. My point here is that bringing attention to what something is “actually about” is not always an effort to misdirect or change the subject, but can also hopefully lead to the most precise concepts and analytics to understand a given situation. Big Principles still will always require us to know when and how to apply them, in other words, to judge correctly. “I think you are actually using the wrong concept here,” is a totally normal form of dispute, but maybe not the most easily resolved one.

In conclusion, I also don’t think the invocation of the principle of free speech really resolves many arguments or conflicts. In point of fact, I believe it intrinsically creates conflicts, and moreover most of the conflicts we see in our society today have a dimension that is caused by the relatively unrestricted principle of free speech in our society: anybody can really say anything about any subject and find some people who will listen, then those people will join together, be louder etc. I also think that both the political and expressive dimensions of free speech are necessary conditions to living in a decent and good society. The problem is just that the principle of free speech ends up being kind of self-undermining in practice. You rather quickly get to a situation where people are afraid of getting a sock in the jaw, not just in the form of a literal fist, but in the form of another statement: say, an accusation, a calumny, something unfair about their character, their true motives, their past, etc. So, yes, we must have free speech, we must ensure that our political, social and individual needs can be met, but the question then becomes, “What sorts of institutions, what arrangement of powers in our society can allow this to happen in the best way?” So, the question of boundaries will always come into play, practically speaking. I don’t have a complete answer of what these institutions look like, but we already restrict speech in various legal ways: we have restrictions on incitement, libel etc. It’s true these restrictions are not generally prior restraints, but they do lead to some degree of self-censorship because people need to be somewhat careful about not running afoul of the law. I think the latitude to criticize and even demonize public figures must be quite broad to ensure a free society. But others might call this “cancellation,” a term I think which becomes meaningless when applied to actual politicians. I think it’s worth emphasizing that most “cancellations” begin with the exercise of free speech in the form of a public accusation or denunciation. I also increasingly think some average schmo on the street doesn’t need to feel the full opprobrium of public wrath because they say or do something foolish and that people should “self-censor” a bit when it comes to these sorts of denunciations. I can think of many instances in my life, both in public and private, where I wish I had held my tongue or keyboard and not just gone with my first reaction.

It’s also worth reflecting that this country, thought by so many to be the home of free speech, has a long history, some of it quite shameful, of both official and social censorship. Maybe to have a free society it’s just always going to be slightly anarchic, and maybe some people will periodically feel somewhat silenced and disrespected by louder voices until they can get critical mass for their views. But since speech in our society is such a key part of what allows people to accrue or establish power, both electorally or, more informally, in their ability to persuade and recruit others to beliefs and causes, it’s just impossible to understand speech apart from politics. If you think it’s politically or personally beneficial and important for certain types of statements to be heard publicly, then you should say those things. Of course, you may not like the response you get very much. But that’s free speech, man.