Some thoughts on free speech

Professor Jerry Coyne has an excellent blog about evolution and, perhaps secondarily, atheism: Why Evolution Is True.  I have often re-shared his posts on various social media because they just make so much sense; and I will continue to do so.  Recently, however, Jerry took a bit of a swipe at Canada, and I must take exception.  I do this not because I’m a patriotic Canadian, but because I sincerely believe that freedom of speech as enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is extremely sub-optimal and largely responsible for the emergence of a uniquely American phenomenon, the right-wing nut job.

Jerry’s post, A Bad Week for Free Speech, covers recent happenings in Britain and India, in which events where changed or cancelled because of, as Jerry writes, “Muslims whose feelings were hurt.” He argues that those things run counter to the requirements of free speech as a key element of democracy.

Jerry writes: “Free speech is the backbone of those democracies, and, except for a few intimideated [sic] democracies like Canada and Ireland, free speech applies to all forms of criticism, political or religious.”  (The links in this quote are in Jerry’s original.)

The link for Canada points to the Wikipedia page on Holocaust Denial, and mention of Canada in that page regards the fact that Canada will generally have none of this Holocaust Denial business.  Since Jerry’s post is mostly about Islam, it’s not explicit how he sees Canada violating the notion of free speech.  I assume that he means that one should be free to deny the Holocaust, because that’s what freedom of speech is all about, and the discussions that will ensue will determine what is true and what isn’t.  If that isn’t the case, then I will certainly retract / rewrite this entry once the facts are made clear to me.

I believe that free speech is important, but that it must be tempered by what is actually known.

That is to say: one can allocate pretty much any topic of discussion into one of three categories: things that we know are true, things that we know are false, and things the truth of which we just don’t know.  Speech that intentionally advocates known falsehoods as if they were true is irrational because it (a) undermines the consistency of our body of knowledge and (b) generally leads to suffering.  These things happen because of the falsity of the statements made and the implications drawn from them used by some to decide on courses of action.  As such, that kind of speech should not be protected by laws of free speech.

When I say “we,” I mean the collective of humanity.  So while it is possible for “us” to know why the sky is blue, it isn’t the case that every individual knows it. But one may learn why the sky is blue because that information is readily available.  It isn’t wrong to be ignorant, but it is wrong to maintain a falsehood in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

This highlights a particular aspect of free speech that I think is often overlooked: humans are at best bounded reasoners.  We regularly reason with incomplete or incorrect information, and our reasoning processes are often themselves incorrect.  We can make up for these shortcomings through discussion and study, but the fact remains that many things that many people believe and say are just wrong.  Unfettered free speech would be fine in a world populated by perfect reasoning agents, but the assumption that we are perfect reasoners undermines the notion entirely.

Holocaust denial is an excellent case in point.  To the best of my knowledge, there is absolutely no doubt that the Holocaust happened.  This evidence has been accumulated over many years and with the work of thousands of individuals.  It results in a body of knowledge that is as good as we can possibly make it.  Denying that it happened is tantamount to denying that the sky is blue or that rocks fall when you drop them.  There are certainly many people who don’t know about the Holocaust.  There are even some who might be shocked to discover than humanity could have ever behaved so immorally, and so resist accepting it.  But the facts are the facts, and eventually every rational person must accept those facts because to do otherwise is to deny truth and reality.

There are, as far as I can tell, only two reasons that a person might persistently deny that the Holocaust happened in the face of the overwhelming evidence: either they are mentally ill, or they seek to foment disharmony and suffering.  In neither case should a caring society allow such speech to occur, because it is in no one’s interest – except the deniers – and their interests are suspect at least and evil at most.

In any case, if there were suddenly new evidence found that cast doubt on the occurrence of the Holocaust, there exists a well-defined mechanism for examining and determining the veracity of that evidence: academia.  If some Holocaust denier were truly in possession of such real evidence, it should be published in peer-reviewed journals, it should be subject to close study by experts in diverse fields that pertain, it should be vetted, replicated, and considered from every angle.  That’s what happens with every other serious claim; why should Holocaust denial be any different?

Instead, Holocaust deniers are weak reasoners, shrill and hateful creatures who try to spread their claims through mainstream media or through self-publication.  Why?  Some of them do it that way because they’re paranoid and believe that academe will quash their work.  Others simply haven’t the reasoning or language skills to pose their arguments in a way that pass muster in a freshman class on rhetoric and argumentation.  I’m sure that there are other reasons, but I quite honestly can’t be bothered to think about them.

Anyone can make a mistake.  I am not advocating for some kind of zero-tolerance on false speech.  I’m referring to the cases that are glaringly obvious.  Some examples are those in the Wikipedia page for Holocaust denial that pertain to Canada.  Those whose speech in Canada was limited are those who systematically continued to write and utter falsehoods in the face of readily available and overwhelming evidence that they were wrong.

There’s little to be gained by allowing entirely unfettered free speech.  (This is even evident in the US Constitution, which does place limits on free speech.)  And there is also much to be lost by the kind of free speech that is accepted in the US.  Consider all the time and money wasted by the right wing nut jobs and by the futile discussions resulting from lies that are spread via certain media outlets.  All that time and money could be used to achieve so many more meaningful goals.  And the unnecessary dissent that such free speech sows in a population just stalls more important and meaningful discussions from even being started.

There’s no need to focus exclusively on the Holocaust either.  Another subject very close to Jerry’s heart – and mine as well – has also been the subject of ridiculous counterarguments: evolution.  There is no doubt that the modern theory of evolution is the best possible explanation of the development of complex life on earth that humanity has ever developed.  It draws from evidence from disparate sciences, all of them not only confirming evolution as our best model, but simultaneously disproving every other model that has been proposed.  If someone finds a serious flaw in the theory of evolution, that person can publish it in the appropriate venues.  Once subjected to appropriate study and verification, there is no reason to think that a new model would not be forthcoming.  But until that happens, the rantings of, for instance, creationists and intelligent design advocates only distract us from progressing and waste precious resources that would be far better spent doing other things.  Creationism and intelligent design, in their current forms, are lies, and should not be afforded the protection of free speech.

There are plenty of things that can be discussed openly, even under Canada’s “limited” form of free speech – important things about international affairs, taxation, social policy, foreign aid, sustainability,… The list is very long.  These are all subjects about which truth is not necessarily available; these are all subjects about which meaningful discussion is absolutely necessary.  Seeking truth in its absence is always a good thing.  But preaching well-known falsehoods can never be good, because it leads to nothing good.  This is why free speech is important, but also why we must be willing to temper it with some limits based on what is known.

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