Some thoughts about free speech

There are two components to the question of protection (and restriction) of free speech: the idea being communicated, and the way it the idea is communicated. Too often, I think, the two are conflated, much to the detriment of a society’s success.

One necessary – indeed, definitional – aspect of a society is the interaction between its members. What after all is a society if none of its members communicate with each other? Good communication between societal members ensures transmission of ideas, thoughts, and emotions; it builds a sense of community, of direction, of safety; it is a fundamental means of progress. Protecting free and open communication is absolutely essential to help ensure the success of any society.

The protection of communication is often managed under the rubric of “free speech.” However, without a clear understanding of what communication is and how various communicative acts impact society (and so, eventually, impact the actors themselves), it isn’t possible to protect communication properly.

Free speech is a broad and deep subject; I do not expect or pretend to deal with it fully here. However, I do want to give one example how free speech must be limited if it is to be protected. Note that I start with the premise that free speech is a means to help ensure a successful society. That is, the goal is to have a successful society; free speech is just one mechanism to help improve a society’s success.

I take the success of societies as a measurable quantity. My current preference is for the Successful Societies Scale (http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP073984414.pdf) of Gregory Paul. There are others; but it doesn’t really matter which one you use. Within most if not all of them, free and legitimate communication between members is a fundamental means of progress.

However, not all free speech improves the success of a society. If free speech is to be used to help a society, then particular types of free speech that hinder a society must be restricted. This means we need to be able to tell the difference between good and bad acts of free speech.

This is already possible in some ways, typically through laws against speech acts that directly promote societal harm. Laws protecting people from slander and libel, as well as hate speech laws, all clearly show that some speech acts are just wrong. Speech acts that fall under these legal restrictions invariably involve some element of falsehood; that is, under it all, lying is generally considered to be wrong, and speech acts involving lies are wrong as a result. However, such laws vary widely between nations and cultures, so even though the overall preference of truth over falsehood is clear, where exactly the line between the two is drawn is, so far, quite subjective.

There is another feature of free speech, however, that I think warrants more attention than it’s been getting lately: the difference between the idea being communicated and way in which it is communicated. That’s what I really want to write about here, and I’ll use an example that most North Americans who care about such things will likely know about.

The absolutely sickening Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has an especially abhorrent rallying cry: “God Hates Fags.” In nations and cultures that are generally considered successful, such a statement is considered not only sick and disgusting, but a violation of free speech laws. The reason for this is that it induces specific harm on on the society in which members promote the idea behind it, in very specific ways. Implications of this statement include:

  • that there is a one single god;
  • that god can hate;
  • that, since god hates, hate can be a moral emotion;
  • that some sexual practices are immoral based on “religious” views;
  • that it is acceptable to hate others based solely on their sexual orientation or practices;
  • that it is acceptable to believe counter-factual claims (that is, the factual claim is that neither homosexuality nor homosexual acts are inherently immoral);
  • that, since beliefs inform action, it is acceptable to act out one’s hatred towards others;
  • and so on.

There are so many bald assertions here that the statement cannot in any way be regarded as meaningful. Even worse, this statement – regardless of whether it is true or not – helps instil hatred, demeans people unjustifiably, and foments violence. That is, besides the questionable truth of the statement, it is uttered in an intentionally harmful way.

So, to decide whether or not such speech acts should be protected by “free speech,” we need to examine both the idea being communicated and the means by which it is being communicated.

Given the allegedly “Baptist” roots of the WBC, we must assume their god is an essentially Christian one. Within that rubric, it is obviously superficial at best to view that god as hateful; after all, one of the hallmarks of the Christian god is omnibenevolence. While it strikes most people as an absurd and hateful idea, most modern societies unfortunately retain the primitive notion of gods. These are not things that can be turned off like a light-switch; like it or not, beliefs in the supernatural permeate our societies and there’s little we can do about them at the moment except to continue to advocate for rational, evidence-based, humanist ideals.

We can and should, however, be entirely intolerant of speech acts that promote hate and harm. Such speech acts do not only inflict unnecessarily and unwarranted harm on whole segments of society, not only do they foment violence against those people, but the also undermine trust and security that members of a society must experience for that society to succeed. In the long run, groups like WBC are not only hurting others – they are hurting themselves.

So while the idea within the statement is (unfortunately) a reasonable one within at least some current modern societies, the manner in which it is rendered is abominable and hateful, and ought to be prohibited under free speech laws exactly because it undermines the goal of free speech.

Consider this statement: “Our god requires us to believe that homosexuality is immoral.” This captures the essence of the WBC’s slogan, but it does so without the obvious crass disregard for others, and without necessarily fomenting hate and violence. It clarifies the underlying idea – which itself remains repugnant in so many ways – but it eviscerates it of the seething rage implicit in the original form.

Repulsive as it is to me and virtually every other decent human being, the modified statement – given current cultural norms – would have to be permitted under free speech, whereas it’s actual form as used by WBC goes far beyond any reasonable utterance of belief. There is no question that what motivates WBC to use the language that it does is hatred, ignorance, and malevolence towards society and its members. Whether it is an act of criminality or just a marker of severe mental disease is irrelevant – or at least a matter to be decided separately. The fact is that there is no world, no version of the story, in which the phrase “God Hates Fags” ought to be tolerated in a society that strives for success.

Afternote:

Just in case anyone thinks I have any sympathy at all for WBC, here’s what I think ought to be done with it and its members:

  • all adult members ought to be separated from society, pending psychiatric evaluation;
  • all adult members found to be mentally ill ought to be institutionalized until such time as they are demonstrably cured;
  • all other adult members should be imprisoned (duration to be determined by the courts, but under the rubric of having committed hate crimes);
  • all dependents of WBC adult members who are minors ought to be made wards of the state and be guaranteed sufficient health services to help them manage the trauma they experienced within WBC;
  • recanting membership in WBC must not excuse them from what they may have done while members – ex-members must be held accountable for their actions;
  • all assets of WBC should be seized and re-distributed without cost to secular causes that seek to combat homophobia; and
  • the ground on which WBC facilities currently rest should be turned into public monuments decrying hate and harm to help ensure no one ever forgets their crimes.
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