Some short thoughts on freedom of speech and consequences

Australia has recently enjoyed a visit by left-wing writer and academic Roxane Gay. And she had the following to say on the issue of hate speech:

It would be easy to disregard her ideological nonsense as filled to the brim with dull clichés to the point of meaninglessness. In fact, I am becoming quite accustomed to doing just that for loads of people these days. But there are tropes and template lines that I often hear from critics of free speech that are a little bit too empty for me to let them go without some rebuke. And the “freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences” line is definitely one of those.

On some level, is protection from consequences not the whole point of ratifying individual rights in a legal system? The rights enshrined in the United States’ Bill of Rights exist largely to emancipate citizens from the formal consequence structures of particular actions which were considered essential for a free society. Certainly, informal consequences were still intended, if we are being precise.

The Fourth Amendment grants citizens privacy rights with the intention that it allows them to organise their property as they please without expecting formal consequences just for exercising this right in and of itself. In other words, what you own is no one else’s business, only what happens because of what you own is. This kind of reasoning leads to the classic distinction made between waving a fist at someone’s face as a freely permissible action, while recognising that the person waving the fist is culpable for the consequences of that fist hitting someone’s face.

It is also obvious to any thinking person that deplatforming exists to allow some citizens to impose a formal consequence structure on the free speech of others as a means of revenge for perceived informal consequences of their past speech. To put it a bit crudely, because you offended someone, deplatformers see it as a justified reaction that they impose the formal consequence of forcefully silencing your free speech themselves.

Even if you don’t go as far as seeing these practices as unarguably wrong, deplatformers and less severe varieties of “consequence of speech” adherents are undeniably undermining the spirit of freedom of speech. Written right into the foundational documents on freedom of speech is the explicit partner freedom to listen. To quote the Founding Father Thomas Paine, since the United States is a particular point of focus of this debate, “he who denies to another this right [freedom of speech], makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

The real point of freedom of speech is found in this partner right. People are not granted the right to say whatever they want in order to satisfy some esoteric articles in some arcane legislation for its own abstract sake. They are granted this right because no one has justification to silence them. In silencing them you are taking it upon yourself to deny the rest of society the right to hear them. And anyone who takes it upon themselves to decide what their fellow citizens are allowed to hear is either a totalitarian, a fascist or a coward. There is nothing righteous about it.

In the defences they employ in favour of these piddling, improvised attempts at censorship, the language of free speech opponents reveals a glimpse of their true intention for free speech laws. Ironically, their specificity in pointing out all the ways in which their doctrine of “consequence of speech” is compatible with the letter of the law and therefore “in support of freedom of speech,” clearly delineates all their hidden objections to these same laws. By so precisely focusing attention on the fact that they have not crossed the line set down by legal speech protections, they all but outright state that they would happily cross this line if they could.

The link between contempt for the spirit of free speech and contempt for free speech in practice is obvious and intuitive the more you think about it. There is no way anyone who echoes ridiculous clichés such as “there are just some things you can’t say” could also honestly believe in laws which permit anyone to utter these precise taboos. Perhaps this is why the fixation on “consequences” whenever freedom of speech is brought up reeks of euphemism. The compulsion to go so out of your way to impose these all important consequences is unavoidably caught up in the lust to control what your fellow citizens are allowed to read and hear.

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