On Defending Free Speech – A Reply to Scott Alexander

Scott Alexander, who runs the outstanding blog Slate Star Codex, has written a post in which he warns that sacred principles such as free speech are like resources which might be exhausted if they are used too often to defend controversial ideas and people. Thus we should be judicious about who and what we defend lest we damage respect for free speech. The example he gives is that a student group at Harvard University, which has invited Charles Murray and Jordan Peterson to speak, should not deliberately select controversial speakers. As he clarified in a follow-up post, Scott does not object to Murray or Peterson being invited, but his objection is specifically about the process of selecting speakers based on how controversial they are.

This is an ingenious argument and probably applies to a number of sacred principles, but I don’t think it works particularly well for free speech. By its very nature, free speech is always invoked in defence of controversial ideas. No one needs a right of free speech to express popular opinions which are approved of by those in power. If you wanted to express your beliefs in Marxism-Leninism, socialism in one country, and Lysenkoism, or your antipathy toward fascism, capitalism, and genetics, you were perfectly free to do so in Stalinist Russia. None of that changes the fact that Stalin was one of the greatest enemies of free speech in all of history.

At a university like Harvard, free speech rights of leftists are not in danger. When left-wing student groups invite speakers to give talks promoting socialism, feminism, or social justice, their events are not disrupted by right-wing protesters blocking entrances, chanting slogans to drown out the speaker, pulling fire alarms, or outright rioting. If you have any recent examples of this happening, please point them out to me and I will happily post about them and condemn the protesters in the harshest terms.

Meanwhile, the reverse situation has become commonplace on American campuses. Whatever the demerits of the American right might be over the last few decades, they have been quite good on free speech, while the left has not. I do not see this as an inherent property of the right and the left; certainly there have been many times and places where the right clamped down on speech and the left championed freedom of speech, but America right now is not such a place.

The point of inviting controversial speakers whose ideas are under threat of being silenced is to punish those who try to silence them. This is the way to create a Streisand effect: if you try to silence someone, expect their ideas to get much more exposure than they otherwise would. This might not convince radical leftists that supposedly racist or transphobic people should be allowed to speak, but if it gets some of them to refrain from disruption, violence, and censorship out of fear of boosting the message of their opponents, that’s good enough in my book.

Does this tactic weaken support for free speech among the left? Yes, it probably does. But quite frankly, those leftists who are so offended about student groups inviting speakers they disagree with that they abandon their commitment to the idea of freedom of speech are beyond hope. We are unlikely to reach them with politeness and reasoned argument. Instead we should expose their authoritarian mindset and try to appeal to more reasonable people on the left who do recognise the importance of free speech. The sooner the mainstream left can distance itself from its authoritarian social justice wing, the better for everyone involved. If and when that happens, I will still disagree with most of what the left has to offer, but at least then a rational discussion is possible, which you can’t have with someone who just hurls obscenities at you or dismisses you on the basis of being a cis-het white male.

To be fair, Scott is correct that selecting speakers on the basis of who would be most controversial or offensive is a bad idea. However, the student group in question certainly is not doing that. Anyone who decides on Charles Murray as the most controversial figure they can think of is suffering from a serious lack of imagination. If maximal offensiveness had been the objective, they would have invited someone like a Holocaust denier. While I do think that Holocaust deniers deserve the same rights to free speech as anyone else, it would indeed be a strategic mistake to invite them to speak, partly for the reasons Scott lays out in his post, but mostly because unlike people like Murray and Peterson, their ideas are both boring and easily disproven.

If we fully adopt Scott’s precautionary ideas about defending free speech, we give up our strongest weapons in this fight. Unfortunately, not everything can be resolved with niceness. Scott is right to worry about free speech becoming a right-wing idea. To prevent this, we need reasonable leftists to speak up for freedom of speech and we need right-wingers to be just as vigilant about those cases where people on the left get silenced as when it happens to one of their own. However, this does not mean that we should be any less vigorous in our defence of free speech.

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