Comfortable and Furious

Why I’m A Free Speech Absolutist

Why I’m A Free Speech Absolutist

Americans pretty much believe in our First Amendment. Unlike many others in the West, a shrinking majority of us think you should never go to jail for writing a book or sharing a picture of some graffitior getting heated up on Twitter. Score one for us. USA! USA!

But among those of us who support The First Amendment, there is a rarely articulated division. Some see free speech as a thoroughly good concept and practice that should be actively promoted. Others see it as a necessary evil that often must be circumvented. We see these two camps talking past each other in every internet comment section where the subject comes up.

Correct Person: I don’t agree with this person, but he has the right to free speech!

Stupid Jerk: True. But I also have the right to free speech, and I can use it to [attack someone’s livelihood, try to get a show I don’t like taken off the air, prevent the distribution or sale of a product that offends me, wage a smear campaign against anyone who disagrees with me, prevent people I disagree with from giving talks, etc.]. Just because you have free speech, doesn’t mean you are free from the consequences of that speech!

The first camp advocates of the principle of free speech. The principle camp believes that people should create whatever art they like and freely and openly express their opinions, even if those opinions are disagreeable or incorrect, and that a willing audience should have ready access to that expression. In their dream world, you could walk into a library or check out new music or purchase a video game and be exposed to whatever content somebody had the inclination and means to create. We should not use organized coercion or intimidation to silence ideas or punish people for expressing them, either with government censorship or by other means. Obviously, if people hate what you have to say and reject, criticize or ridicule it, that is part of the discussion. The objection is to campaigns that insert themselves between the speaker and a receptive audience and attempt to block the communication, or to those who would organize to impose “consequences” (a common euphemism for punishment) for free expression and thought.

Another area where these camps differ is on the meaning of criticism. To the principle camp, criticism consists of analyzing, interpreting and evaluating a work, not advocating against the creation of that work. Those in the principle camp might crap all over the art or other content you create, but they will not demand that the content is removed or altered to conform to the demands their ideology or tastes. To the principle camp, that is not criticism, but advocacy of censorship, particularly when combined with other forms of pressure.

The opposing camp advocates only the legal right to free speech. The legal camp believes that we should be legally protected from direct censorship by the government. But the legal camp advocates other measures for punishing or silencing those with whom they disagree. In their dream world, the content they find most objectionable (Rush Limbaugh, gangsta rap, The Dixie Chicks, satanic metal, blasphemous paintings, violent video games, Harry Potter, pornography, whichever side of the Israel/Palestine issue they don’t like, holocaust denial, etc.) would not exist, even though it might be legal. In their view, we should use coercion and intimidation to silence ideas we disagree with and punish people for expressing them, though there should not be government censorship.

For the legal camp, criticism can include both analyzing, interpreting and evaluating a work, and advocating against free expression, or demanding that content be altered so that it conforms to the demands of their ideology or tastes. The latter is not censorship because, for them, censorship only occurs when the government intervenes directly against speech.

So, whichever camp you belong to, hopefully that clarifies things. The legal right to free speech and the principle of free speech are two different things. Just because you believe in one, does not mean you have to believe in the other.

I am in the principle camp. I think unrestricted artistic expression, free thought and free speech are intrinsically good things and want them to flourish. Here are eight reasons why, in order of increasing incoherence.

1) Unpopular speech might be correct and popular speech might be incorrect.


Someone has to be the first to say, “let the slaves go,” “gays should be accepted,” “the earth revolves around the sun” or “we get it. You like bacon.” This evolution of human thought is ongoing. Both as individuals and a group, we often find that incorrect beliefs are stepping stones to better ones. Human beings did not happen to figure out all of the important answers just around the time you were born.

Some unpopular ideas are right. Some widespread beliefs that we really wish to be true are false. But no one person can say for sure which ideas are right and which are wrong and, in many cases, the most useful answers are not objective or unchanging.

The lower the cost to expressing unpopular ideas is, the sooner we can all start entertaining and eventually accepting the good ones or the incorrect ones that are a stepping stone to better ones. And once we accept good ideas, we can begin adapting to reality instead of operating on the basis of ignorance and wishes. Whether the cost of expressing an idea is incarceration or fine, or loss of employment or income brought about by private individuals, or the expression of that idea is obstructed some other way, silencing dissent or disagreement slows this progress down.

2) Speech might be wrong, but it is still good for it to be expressed and heard.

Did the holocaust really happen? I would bet every penny I have that it did. Are the figures exaggerated? I doubt it and don’t think it really matters. But, on the other hand, people will always chose to believe the highest body counts and most horrible stories in these situations. But, returning to the first hand, sometimes the worst is true and this seems to be such a case. Yet, once you doubt the orthodox view, you might have an unjustified “red pill” moment, where you reject the orthodox narrative altogether and embrace a kooky one.

This kind of backlash is much more likely to happen when the orthodox narrative is sacrosanct and part of its justification becomes, “because we say so! Now shut up!” If you say, “I’m pretty sure it was six million and here is why, but if you want to think it was five million or four million or zero, have fun being a dope,” there is really nothing to rebel against.

More importantly, when you openly express an incorrect opinion, you’re more likely to run into the evidence against your side and perhaps change your mind. When you are relegated to furtive basement meetings with like-minded people, the social and psychological dynamics promote fanaticism and cultishness. Your self esteem becomes so intertwined with your position that admitting error is very difficult.

When people freely express views that are wrong, or that we disagree with, we gain the opportunity to examine them. Who are these people? What motivates them? How do they see the world? What are the antecedents to their view? Some find it more comfortable to think of their adversaries as cartoon villains, which is to embrace ignorance. There is often more to learn when people are wrong than when they are right, if you really listen to them.

Meanwhile, those holding the truthier view will only benefit from engaging in criticism fairly. They might believe the right thing for the wrong reasons and, facing criticism, find better evidence. I believe in evolution. Mainly because all of the eggheads say it is real. When somebody asks me how the giraffe evolved a long neck while simultaneously evolving the changes in other parts of the body required to support that neck, I can’t give an answer. Instead of trying to get my opponent fired from his job, I go out and learn a good response to the challenge. I now believe in evolution for better reasons and he still has his job. It’s win/win.

Lastly, even great innovators are never right all the time. Newton, for example, believed in alchemy. He didn’t know that physics is good and alchemy is bad, he believed in both. We cannot effectively convert our ideas into good and bad ones. We can only express them freely, or reign them in. Therefore, if bad ideas cannot be freely expressed, many good ideas will not be freely expressed.

3) Sometimes terrible ideas prevail, but restricting free speech doesn’t prevent this from happening.

Now, you might say, “but what about those Nazis you mentioned? What if the bad guys convince enough people to go along with them, even though their arguments are wrong and the evidence doesn’t back them up? It happens. Do you know how many albums Mariah Carey sold?”

To which I say, I don’t think the problem with Nazi Germany was insufficient authoritarianism. Incorrect viewpoints will often prevail in the public debate, particularly in the short term. It is a routine occurrence. Human beings are kind of a mess, if you haven’t noticed.

But it doesn’t follow that only you have all the answers and we should adhere to your word instead of having that debate. You share in the inherent failings and limitations of all human beings. Authoritarianism of that sort is a key ingredient for Stalinism, Nazism and almost every other ideology that results in nightmare states because the merits of ideas become less important and the authority of people who have the ideas becomes more important.

We will make bad judgments with or without free expression. But with it, they are subject to immediate criticism and revision and the other options remain available. Hopefully, in this environment we become more open to the idea that we are often wrong and learn to shift our opinions with some regularity. Not so when the competition between ideas is mostly decided on the basis of who has the most power and/or fervor. When we reward rigid thinking coupled with the exertion of power, we will get more of the same.

And, to reiterate a point from section two, if we listen to people with an open mind as they become angry and alienated and start thinking that ISIS, the Nazis or Cobra have some good ideas, maybe we can address their concerns before they fester into violent extremism and before such beliefs spread.

4) Inequality of opportunity to speak is a problem, but authoritarianism and censorship aren’t the solutions.

I was in college when the internet was just a toddler. I worked for a group called Project Censored. (Yep, I’m squeezing in a plug.) Their main goal is to bring exposure to stories that the mainstream media systematically ignore. These are often stories of government and corporate wrongdoing engineered by people who belong to the same country club as the media owners and famous journalists. For example, stories about corporations hiring goons to attack civilians who opposed them in the third world.

A lot of people thought the group was poorly named because omitting stories and perspectives from the news is not censorship. Our argument was that, when 90% of the news content is owned by six corporations, they will shape the news to promote their interests and that omissions to this end amount to censorship. Information and perspectives are blocked from consumers.

Maybe this was something of a rhetorical device on our part. Maybe we were a bunch of idiots. The point is, we were in the principle camp, because we recognized the inequality in volume of speech. We wanted maximal information to be available and for multiple perspectives to have a voice. We wanted pluralism.

Obviously, there are inequalities in volume of speech. The government over the population, white over non-white, rich over poor, corporations over everyone, urban over rural, first world over third world and so on. But creating mechanisms to silence opposition doesn’t fix the problem. The powerful and well connected and those who figure out how to game the system will gain control of those mechanisms and use them to their benefit. See, for example, every authoritarian country that has ever existed.

We happen to be living in the middle of a nice case study. As the internet has gone from toddler to college sophomore, we’ve seen the proliferation of different ideas and perspectives in a very pluralistic medium. I reach more people with my dumb website than I ever did with Project Censored, and Project Censored reach far more people now than they did back then.

Maybe this is part of the reason why we see the most strident opposition to the principle of free speech expressed online. Some people are dismayed to see ideas and people they dislike operating so freely. They feel their foes must be reined in. But, among the many views we dislike online, we can easily find the views of ethnic, religious and racial minorities, people in distant countries, poor people, people with politics outside the mainstream and so on.

Open, pluralistic discussion gives everyone the best possible opportunity to be heard and to encounter and be challenged by new ideas and information. Being rich, white, powerful, connected, etc. is still an advantage. But, if you are none of those things, you’ve got a better shot of reaching thousands or millions of people in the pluralistic online world than you ever did through the more controlled media of TV, books or newspapers. For leveling the playing field, pluralistic, open expression is imperfect but it is the best available option.

5) Art will not warp your character.

itchy and scratchy and marge censorship two forms of free speech free speech debate

People from the right (Pat Robertson) the left (Anita Sarkeesian) and what is considered the center in The U. S. (Tipper Gore) pop up regularly to argue that we must modify or restrict our expression because it warps our minds and, particularly, the minds of children. They hold up junk science and anecdotes as evidence and make demagogic appeals based on our visceral reactions to challenging expressions. These Slayer lyrics are horrifying! (True.) Harry Potter is practicing witchcraft! (Pretty much.) This video game has intense violence! (True.)

They combine these elements to demand that expression be altered to conform to their personal ideologies and tastes. Not because they are on a power trip, you see. But because the stuff they don’t like is legitimately dangerous to you. They are merely altruists looking out for your best interests. (For some reason, their altruistic mission always entails you sending them money.) It just so happens that the content they personally dislike will brainwash you into becoming a serial killer, committing suicide, worshiping the devil, becoming a racist and misogynist bigot or shooting up a school.

Many studies indicate that listening to aggressive music or consuming violent media correlates to a temporary spike in aggression. These are mostly small, on campus studies conducted by psychologists on students who might be able to guess the desired outcome of the study and should be taken with a large grain of salt. But even so, the results are no surprise to anyone who has ever been to a metal or punk concert. The legal camp will sail to the conclusion that this makes you a more violent and aggressive person in general, even though the results are always short term, directly contradicting that conclusion.

These interpretations willfully ignore the possibility that we are observing the build up of short-term aggression to release long term aggression, rather than the generation of long term aggression out of nothing. Isn’t it healthy and normal to release our aggression in a controlled manner that does not harm anybody else? A punching bag? Banging away on a musical instrument? Going on a tirade about our frustrations to a confidant? We call this venting.

Prima facie, a mosh pit or a violent game look a lot more like venting than a means of programming you into a violent criminal. Otherwise, why would a healthy person be attracted to them in the first place? Because they want to be programmed into a violent criminal for some unidentified reason? Of course not. They want to vent, or just be entertained. That is the fundamental appeal of such things.

Maybe people who lack proper venting mechanisms get their aggression out by constantly sticking their noses in the business of other people. Maybe if Al did a better job of venting Tipper’s mechanism, the United States Senate wouldn’t have served as a platform for rebuking Van Halen for the “Hot For Teacher” video.

In any case, clear evidence for a long-term increase in violent behavior via media does not exist. If you don’t believe me, try to find it. Fortunately, looking for different ideas and information is extremely easy these days, so it should be a snap.

You probably know some of the anecdotes opponents of free speech use. Some kids who liked Judas Priest shot themselves once. Young men who commit spree killings often like video games (what are the odds?). Rappers from gang ridden neighborhoods sometimes know gang members (San Diego officials recently attempted to imprison a rapper on this basis). Ted Bundy liked porn. Tim McVeigh liked The Turner Diaries. David Koresh liked The Bible. Osama Bin Laden liked The Quran. Charles Manson liked The Beatles. John Hinckley liked Jodie Foster. Saddam Hussein liked Raisin Bran. Obviously, all of these things should be drummed out of society.

Assuming we are not confusing causation and correlation in these stories — Assuming that the allure of the products was a cause, rather than a minor symptom or just a coincidence — the most we can say is that disturbed people might be set off by anything. Unless such a person becomes a dictator in your country, the danger they pose to you is trivial. If we are going to make more restrictive rules to be safer, we should start with reduced speed limits, mandatory shower helmets, prohibition of doughnuts and thousands of other things before we get to “some lunatic might think a movie is real and kill you because of it, so no violent movies.”

Again, we are in the middle of an excellent case study. Within my lifetime, we have gone from pong and pinball to extremely violent video games that millions of people play for hundreds of hours per year. Mainstream movies have become more violent and sexual. TV has become much more violent and sexual. Heavy metal and gangsta rap have ascended and enjoyed decades of popularity with developing young minds. Many millions make regular use of porn that you used to have to drive out of the city limits to get and then some guy would follow your car, flashing the lights on his pickup truck until you pulled into a crowded parking lot where you explained that you did not intend to signal an interest in an anonymous sexual encounter. We are bombarded with this stuff. It is as if some powerful alien has been conducting an experiment on us to see what effect violent and sexual media will have. And what has happened?

Violent crime has decreased in every country where this de facto experiment has been conducted. The first long term study completed suggests video games do not cause sexism, let alone misogyny. Another long term study shows violence in video games and other media doesn’t affect our real-world behavior, except for possibly, slightly decreasing violence. There’s no evidence that reading Harry Potter or listening to metal make you worship the devil. There’s no evidence that Marilyn Manson can compel you to shoot up your school.

Art does not program us to be violent, bigoted devil worshipers. Another person’s free expression will not warp your basic character or brainwash you.

6) A universal right to not be offended cannot exist.


The idea of a right to not be offended was kind of a joke not long ago, but now more people seem to take it seriously. Twenty-seven years ago, right wing Christians protested Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ for blasphemy and were almost universally derided by liberals and intellectuals. More recently, many suggested that the workers at Charlie Hebdo kinda deserved to be murdered for blasphemy. Most of those unsympathetic to the victims did not believe the tenets of Islam, but they believed Muslims have a right to not be offended.

There is a reasonable argument, not for the murders, but that French Muslims should have a right to not be offended. French Jews have that right. You get thrown in jail for denying the holocaust, so why not for disparaging Muhammad? That is the fatal flaw of the right to not be offended. If such a right exists universally, anybody can evoke it against anybody else and nobody can really say or do much of anything. (And don’t forget, corporations are people too.) Since that is not tenable, we again arrive at a power struggle. Whoever has the most power and the most fervor gets to silence the people they don’t like because only their right to not be offended will be recognized. We also set up a scenario where the more easily offended you are, the more power you have to regulate the speech of your adversaries. What could go wrong there?

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we got a lot of lectures, mostly, but not exclusively from the left, on what types of satire are permissible. Satire must always “punch up,” meaning it must only target people a particular camp doesn’t like and must never make fun of the people they do like. Much also depends on whether the puncher is liked or disliked. Hillary Clinton might be “down” and an isolated teenager with Asperger’s might be “up.”

Score one for those who think fundamentalists are humorless because this bespeaks a lack of understanding of how satire works on a basic level. It does not punch people or groups. It punches ideas and behavior, mostly by reduction to absurdity. For example, the TV show Portlandia satirizes behaviors and ideas common among coastal, mostly white, liberals. It satirizes particular cultural norms, not an entire race or social class. Even if we say a satire makes fun of whites, this is just shorthand. Portlandia is obviously not making fun of white coal miners or Moldovans. It is not making fun of the fundamental characteristics of white people, but rather, of the way some whites behave. This is what differentiates satire from caricature.

The whites who exhibit the ridiculed thinking and behavior will survive Portlandia, just as blacks who exhibit various behaviors survived In Living Color and Chapelle’s Show and religious people survived The Life Of Brian, musicians and metalheads survived Spinal Tap and we all survived The Simpsons, which “punched” unions, teachers, the rural poor and immigrants as well as the 1%, cops and politicians. We’ll survive because nobody is really being punched. This talk of “punching” is taking the figure of speech too literally. Satire does not harm anyone. It merely attempts to point out foolish or absurd aspects of their behavior. For those who are capable of admitting their own foolishness and absurdity, this might be embarrassing but it is more likely to be amusing and maybe even enlightening. It doesn’t really hurt at all.


It is no surprise that those who profess to know with total certainty what is best for everyone, and who subscribe to all-encompassing dogma, often lack the capacity or willingness to see their own ridiculousness. To admit to the absurdities in their beliefs and behavior would be to acknowledge absurdities within their dogma. Admitting to absurdities within a dogma acknowledges that it could be wrong. And what is a dogmatist to do if their dogma is wrong? That is why they see satire or any other form of ridicule as harm. That is why such people are often easily offended and take it so seriously.

So, we arrive at one the major projects of those who oppose the principle of free speech. Just as they seek to transmute fictional violence or witchcraft into real world violence or witchcraft, they seek to transmute offense and annoyance into violence. But they can never point to a corpse attributable to a razzing.

On the other hand, those who claim the right to not be offended have been frequent murderers throughout history. In the cushioned world in which most of us reside, they more often use their self-righteous indignation to justify going after a person’s livelihood, smearing them in public or intruding on their personal life. By claiming that offense is a serious harm, and that the offensive speaker threw the first “punch,” the story of who is harming whom becomes conveniently reversed. And that’s how we wind up with people who think you maybe, kinda deserve to be murdered for drawing a picture, or at least are undeserving of sympathy or solidarity.

7) Some people are just bossy.

homer the vigilante capre diem free speech absolutist

I’m no big city lawyer, but I have learned a thing or two over the years. One is that people wind up doing what they like doing. I don’t mean that in a The Secret kind of a way. I mean, if you like helping people you will help people. If you like attacking people, you will attack people. If you like ordering people around, you will order people around. If you like being aggrieved, you’ll be aggrieved. Somewhere a movie star is complaining about how unfairly life treats him while stiffing a waiter. Somewhere else a homeless person is lending a hand to a person who makes six figures. We have an incredible capacity to find whatever justification is needed to feel good about behaving as we please.

Why are opponents of the principle of free speech so concerned with what everyone else is doing? Why would I care what you publish in your magazine, or what a public figure says on social media or what kind of art you create or enjoy?

The answer is not altruism. If one desires to make the world a better place, it is obviously far more effective to do unambiguously good deeds. One can easily volunteer to help poor kids, or to put in an extra shift and donate the money to a good charity. It is difficult to force someone to stop being a bigot or to start being a fundamentalist Christian or to give up naughty music. Even if one successfully blocks a person from hearing one instance of speech they want to hear, most people respond to hectoring, threats and personal attacks by becoming hostile and doing the opposite of what is demanded.

And while we know people are better off with food and medicine, there is no evidence they are better off listening only to music approved of by televangelists. Are people who dislike the principle of free speech just too dumb to see all that? Do they embrace pseudo intellectualism in the form of bogus studies or obvious misinterpretations of studies because they are such idiots? Are they so blind, that they cannot see that their practices regarding speech inevitably boil down to naked power struggles?

I don’t think so. I think they have a great deal of mental agility and they use it to come up with justifications for doing what they like. They like to feel superior. They like to condemn others for being inferior or wrong. They like feeling aggrieved, because it means their foe is bad and has thrown the first “punch,” which gives them the right to strike back. They like buying into dogmas which invariably have this central tenet: people like me are good and people different from me are bad. They want to impose that dogma as widely as possible because, as with the basement radical, their self esteem is intertwined with the stories they believe.

Obviously, this is not a clean dichotomy. Most of us have tendencies towards both of the poles I have described. We all like stories that say people like us are good, and we all sometimes want people who disagree with us to shut up. We can all be angry and disappointed when a public figure we like says something we deeply disprove of. We all have those one or two issues that really set us off and make us want to punch someone in the nose. That is why it is so easy to discern what is going on with those who oppose free speech: we can all recognize it in ourselves. I think we’re better off when we take a deep breath and check these impulses rather than attempting to justify them, or even magnify them.

One more good thing about pluralism, though. If you really want to submit to dogmatic authority and then use your share of that authority to police the thinking and behavior of others, there are a great many organizations and movements that will be happy to sign you up. But their authority must be contained to those groups. Otherwise, we again revert to a power struggle as only one dogma can be imposed universally and odds are, it won’t be yours.

8) All People Are Crazy Idiots.

We are fooled by randomness, crammed full of false memoriesand governed by cognitive biases. We don’t understand our own consciousness and even academics reject science they don’t like. Bach and Shakespeare both reached decent audiences, but their contemporaries didn’t think they were anything special. Many people used to believe in witches with magical powers, vampires and Poseidon. Some people still believe in those things. Many of our beliefs will seem foolish in the future. And I’m not just talking about anti-vaxers, homeopathy, Scientology and countless similar beliefs. I’m talking about things taught in universities. And the people of the future will often be wrong about which of our beliefs are foolish, or misinterpret what we mean or where we are coming from as they deride our views without understanding them.

The central joke of Mad Men is how ludicrous and backward the beliefs and behaviors of the characters seem to us now. But, if you weren’t alive when the show is set, your parents probably were. Same goes for Jim Crow, McCarthyism and… well, its a long list. Go back much farther and the people can start to seem alien. But they were the same species we are. Their mechanisms for arriving at beliefs were the same as ours, give or take a little science stuff. If you lived then, you would have believed the same bullshit everybody else did. But you live now, so you believe the same bullshit everybody else does.

The more you know about human behavior from anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, sociology and even things like history and art, the more you know that we are all crazy idiots. The mind and its stories are not primarily a conduit to truth, but tools an animal uses to survive. We have needs, like the need for affiliation, that have little to do with being right. A basic part of human psychology is that, nearly all people who do not suffer from depression exist in a constant state of denial that influences many of their beliefs and decisions. Denial is a normal part of healthy human functioning. That means that being wrong is a normal part of healthy human functioning.

When we lash out at those from other camps, where are we psychologically? As I said before, we all have the impulse to do this. Part of me would love to kick Pat Robertson in the nuts. I imagine Rush Limbaugh or Catherine McKinnon destitute on the streets because everyone has realized they are full of shit. They finally see that they were wrong and people like me are right. I generously forgive them (I’ve been put in charge of such things) and welcome them into the fold of the enlightened. There is a self-righteous idiot in all of us.

Because we all have these feelings, we know that they are not really motivated by a true sense of justice and certainly not by compassion. The people who send threats, go after careers, attack personal lives, block speech, and smear their foes (never mind, engage in real violence) are motivated by pettiness, jealousy, and a desire for approval from others in their camp. They need to force the story of their own superiority down as many throats as possible and are terrified of any evidence that it is untrue.

Opponents of the principle of free speech usually subscribe to a worldview that purports to have comprehensive answers. They have a set of infallible positive and normative claims about biology, religion, gender roles, political and economic systems, criminal justice and morality. They see themselves as purely rational agents, evaluating mountains of information that they understand very well, and arriving at the correct course of action to promote objectively desirable goals. I think they’re all a bunch of crazy idiots, just like me. I can’t see any other solution than letting all the crazy idiots have their say and hoping we gradually muddle our way to better ideas and behavior. In fact, I suspect it is a collective process. Conservatives, liberals, leftists, rightists librarians and even authoritarians are all appendages that our species uses to feel its way through the dark. When one of them is severed, we tend to fall off cliffs.



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