Free Speech. We all love it. None of us claim we want to restrict it. So what are we really fighting about when we fight about free speech?
What isn’t there.
I’ve started feeling like something’s missing. In our lives and conversations.
Years ago, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert said it was civility. That we couldn’t talk to each other anymore without hostility.
It’s hard not agreeing, really. I feel it. I see it.
If we had listened to them when they had their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear we would be in better shape. Or maybe we did listen and chose the fear option.
Civility is great, but it’s not quite it. There is some pretty civil conversation that is downright nasty. You can look civil without actually being civil. Just acting nice can seem to lend a certain credibility. In fact, seeming credible is something white supremacists have used as part of a rebranding effort.
Civility is the symptom, the attribute, the example of what’s needed, missing. It isn’t the only thing missing, however. There’s something else we need. And that’s what causes us to be civil in the first place.
Free Speech – the absolute
I feel like a huge piece of the conversation is always missing in our debates about free speech. Like there’s a gap we can’t quite name. Something is supposed to be there, but we can’t acknowledge what it might be.
I didn’t really notice it before. Partly because I love to explore ideas. And that’s what I do when we’re talking through our big public debate. You might be trying to win me to your side, but I’m looking at this idea like a precious stone and I’m looking at its shape and contours and want to explore all that it has to offer.
We do this in our Bible Study classes at church whenever we’re finding something that strikes us, I have us explore all the scenarios–the what ifs–because there’s some reason we’ve come to the conclusion we have. Something behind the decision. What is it? Why do we choose what we choose?
So when we’re discussing free speech, I’m taking almost as absolute a position as you are, it’s just that there’s something not right going on and I can’t quite name it. Like when people try to call me Andy because they think every Andrew must have that nickname and the people around me look at him and say “uh…no.”
I’m not an Andy. Why? It’s complicated, right? All the Andys I’ve known, the way we see Andys in the world. I’m not Andy. I can’t explain it. I’m just not.
Free speech absolutism right now has that sense. Something not quite right about it when we’re talking about all the stuff we’re talking about right now. It’s like the idea doesn’t cut it. Like this thing that always seemed massive is suddenly too small for us to use.
Free Speech – the idea
When we talk about free speech, we all know what we mean. The first item on our bill of rights. We amended our constitution to make sure people understood how important free speech was. Free speech and the freedom to assemble. We protected the press and made no establishment of religion.
The spirit of this independence was essential to our fledgling country and remains the bedrock of our society.
Of course, how we live that out has always tested the idea. The need to find the limits of freedom have always coincided with the exploration of those freedoms. And we’ve often had to do this the hard way.
So we restrict the speech of children in schools and broadcasters on our airwaves, the speech of employers and one’s ability to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Because we’ve found unlimited speech is dangerous. And it also limits the free speech of others.
Imagine the conversation you have with someone who never stops talking or keeps arguing past the point of agreement. Or the one who prevents the dialogue by turning it into a monologue.
We’ve explored these limits precisely to find how to balance both liberty and the common good.
Because absolute freedoms lead to restricted freedoms.
Here’s the thing. You might be swinging your fist and not hitting my nose, but you’re also not letting me walk in the direction I need to go. What with all the fist-swinging and your blocking my path with all that free speech.
And then I turn around and do the same to you, swinging my fist and not hitting your nose, but now you can’t go forward either.
And what of all these swinging fists? Who thinks violence is an expression of speech? But we do try to claim the threat of violence is.
There is no absolute here. There are only people. And we’re trying to figure our junk out.
Free Speech – the institution
The absolute is the institution. That Free Speech is a thing in and of itself. All alone. That it might be something we can pin hopes to and sling arrows at. A thing we can defend and a thing which can allow us to defend it. We use our free speech to defend free speech. Often, even the free speech of monsters.
We pay little attention to the ways we’ve limited the institution. Such as for children in schools, prisoners in prisons, and partisans in polling places.
But also the unspoken or unacknowledged limits. Such as the economic pressure put on professional athletes not to speak or the threat of violence from so-called “open carry patriots”. Intimidation and social pressures limit speech. We often encourage some and decry the others.
This idea of free speech as an independent institution to defend is quite like cherry-picking a passage from the Bible. To isolate free speech from its context transforms its meaning and its purpose.
Because free speech, or more precisely, the freedom of expression, understood as the only thing by itself destroys its essential virtue and becomes a Frankenstein’s monster. To produce life, it creates what will destroy it.
Free Speech – the analogy
It was reading this article by Stephen Metcalf on neoliberalism which helped the pieces come together. They were all set out on the table, and I knew they had to fit, but I couldn’t see it. This helped me.
Free Speech absolutism carries the same mutation as neoliberalism.
To understand why, we remember that the economic theory we know as capitalism is built around the idea of markets, where we buy and sell goods with one another. The idea, more or less, of a free market, like free speech, allows us to connect with minimal encumbrances. And left alone, they will figure themselves out.
That’s how we talk about it, but free markets (like speech) are not meant to be totally free.
Free Markets and Free Speech
As Stephen Metcalf describes in his article for The Guardian:
Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” had already given us the modern conception of the market: as an autonomous sphere of human activity and therefore, potentially, a valid object of scientific knowledge. But Smith was, until the end of his life, an 18th-century moralist. He thought the market could be justified only in light of individual virtue, and he was anxious that a society governed by nothing but transactional self-interest was no society at all. Neoliberalism is Adam Smith without the anxiety.
Metcalf goes on to describe how the economist, Friedrich Hayek, in his theory which would become neoliberalism cut moralism out of capitalism. The inevitable ramifications of such a radical shift has seen the massive transfer of wealth from the masses into the pockets of the already wealthy.
In illustrating what happens to our economy when morality is surgically removed and isolated from our actions, Metcalf reveals the twin dangers of such isolation.
First, it makes the economic system itself unworkable. Removing morality removes the very thing which provides any power in the system to that supposed “invisible hand”. It’s like balancing a tower of blocks on a base of two. And then taking one away.
The second problem, of course is obvious. We stripped morality out of our social order.
Morality – the missing piece
I’m used to hearing morality negatively. I associate it with the “Moral Majority” and puritanical culture. And I’m used to the purity police losing their stuffing over teenagers who don’t hold doors for their elders. So I don’t expect much out of talking about morals.
We should expect far more.
Stripping morality from our conversations around economics, free speech, science, and nearly everything else, gives us a distorted view of our subject matter. It steals a fundamental pillar for our understanding and isolates a particular view of the subject.
And most importantly, it removes the hidden counterweight, invisible on purpose, which balances the system.
Like the Romans, unable to understand how Greek sculptures balance, they needed to make the hidden visible. So our moral-minded brought morality into the public sphere with great success in the culture war. Ultimately isolating morality as its own free-standing pillar. Out of context and with ever-declining authority.
Instead of giving balancing weight to free speech, it became a separate, competing pillar. Absolute and easily evaluated and destroyed.
But how can we fail to see what Adam Smith warned us about? Economic players, absent morality will exploit. And a system which doesn’t protect itself from exploitation cannot stand. How can we not see that the whole economy, if balanced on a moralless ideology will fail to ensure that the markets remain free?
The present transfer of wealth to the wealthy and the growing scourge of monopolies proves how much freedom has been stripped already.
Free Speech depends on morality
When we make free speech absolutist arguments, we are fundamentally undermining reason and the rule of law. We pretend one’s expression can be isolated and free. But we don’t do the same for movement or action. We argue that words may have a special freedom our actions do not.
And yet it is fiction to argue that speech isn’t an action or isn’t consequential to the commons. We already restrict speech to “free speech zones” and to maintain order. We’re already acting against our words on the matter.
But what has imperiled our discourse is not civility or the restriction of free speech, but the absence of moral vision in our our relationship to speech. It is morality which produced that civility so many long for. And it is also morality which encourages many to speak out on behalf of black lives.
We take for granted that free speech is the objective truth of itself and protect it like libertarians the free market. But previous generations also presumed a moral compass guided both our personal actions and our common spaces. A moral compass which is not merely restrictive, but also expands our health and well being.
We also presume intellectual rigor and moral consistency accompanies our speech. It isn’t purely self-expression, but a commitment to deep bonds with others.
Free expression is hollow when it lacks meaning.
Without a moral vision of openness and connection, it becomes evil and corruptible.
Our close-minded view of free speech can easily become rigid and tyrannical when unyielding free speech dogma is wielded against those moral people standing up for the marginalized. When the moral pillar is removed and we’re desperate to maintain order in a heavily unbalanced system.
Without anchors in those methods of seeking truth: faith, science, natural law: the very practice of free speech becomes a cross between individualistic narcissism and megalomaniacal sociopathy. Free speech becomes the monster terrorizing the village and the people bearing torches and clubs become monsters as well.
And to protect ourselves from both, we employ an ever-escalating imperiling of free speech, more and more divorced from morality, while the barbarians are at the gate and authoritarianism becomes ever more likely.
All because we fail to account for what’s missing and pretend it isn’t necessary.