Free Speech Morality

Modern challenges with regard to free speech

Below, some notes on three concepts/arguments related to free speech – concepts that I think have become either more relevant (thus important to understand) or more complicated in the last 10 or so years (thanks in large part to the rapid uptake of social media like Twitter).

“Censorship” and the right to free speech

xkcd say pretty much what I’d want to, so let’s start with them (remember to read the mouseover text).
I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.

Private citizens and companies are perfectly entitled to refuse to broadcast your opinions. It’s no violation of your rights that a comment section gets closed, or that your comment is deleted from a blog.

If someone were to refuse you permission to comment, or delete a comment, this might reveal various unpleasant things about their judgement or character. It might be capricious, it might be rude, it might be cowardly.

But they have a right to publish what they like, whether they make the right choices (in your estimation) or not. You don’t have a right to be published on other people’s platforms.

(On a related note, I suspect I’ll soon be shutting comments down here on Synapses simply because, besides a few reliable folk, there’s little of value that gets added there. If you have anything to say on that topic, this might be your chance to do so.)

Offence & sensitivities

Certain expressions are legally proscribed – here in South Africa, for example, hate speech is going to get you into trouble. If you’re reading this from elsewhere, you might have similar laws.

Those laws could be poorly drafted, and they could even be nonsensical (to you, in that you think that “hate speech” shouldn’t exist as a legal category of speech, or that it shouldn’t be punishable.)

Ignore that issue for the moment. The issue I want to highlight is that there are a range of utterances or ideas that could offend people or simply create discomfort without meeting the threshold for hate speech (or any other relevant legal category of speech).

A recent case was the cancelled Oxford debate on abortion, that was meant to feature Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley. You can read their perspective on the cancellation of the debate by following the links in this piece by the President of the Cambridge Union, and I’d also recommend reading Isabel Hardman’s piece, as she makes some of the good points that O’Neill makes, but less hyperbolically and without being Brendan O’Neill.

The issue here is – how can one avoid the slippery slope whereby any claims of offence or sensitivity eventually become grounds for not expressing a view, while still being compassionate towards people who have legitimate sensitivities on various topics?

The one end of the spectrum is the classic Liberal position of asserting that we’re improved by allowing ourselves to hear things that make you uncomfortable – the truth wins out, we develop better arguments against falsehoods, and we might get to “toughen up” along the way.

But these things are all easy to say from a position of intellectual and material comfort, and less so when you’re the threatened group. So, there’s serious room for compassion, especially for Humanists like me. However, there’s a tension between these goals, and it’s one that’s difficult to resolve.

The unfettered free speech argument doesn’t automatically get the win, in my view, because of issue #3, namely:

The corn-dealer’s house is right next-door

Many folk who defend free speech refer to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, and rightly so, as it makes a superb case for when speech should and shouldn’t be restricted. But it was written in in 1869, and it’s possible that perfectly reasonable arguments for then are not entirely reasonable for now – or that, if they are, they lead to rather different policy conclusions than was the case for Mill’s time. Take this passage from Chapter 3:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

There’s the problem in a nutshell: if you agree with Mill’s argument, give some thought to how we should implement the argument in terms of comment policies, Facebook and Twitter terms of use and the like.

Mill is talking about a mob of people who need to be riled up to the extent that they will set aside the time to make a plan, then congregate at someone’s house to protest. It takes serious affront to result in that sort of motivation, because you need to make an investment to lodge your protest.

Today, especially on something like Twitter, a ready-made mob of thousands can be assembled instantly. They might not even know you, or understand what you did “wrong”, because your misstep can get re-tweeted by someone influential, with everyone else simply jumping on a bandwagon.

Reading one abusive Tweet is no problem for most, but imagine reading hundreds of them, from people who would likely never have the courage to stand outside your door, shouting abuse as in Mill’s scenario above. If he thought that the mob outside your house should be controlled, and if you agree, should the social media mob also not be controlled?

Morality Religion

Errol Naidoo: still standing

Mr. Naidoo is on a recruitment drive, it seems. He particularly wants to recruit you into a “financial partnership”. It’s a simple deal – you give him money, and he carries on being a reactionary homophobe and underminer of civil liberties. His second newsletter this week again demonstrates a fair amount of “not quite getting the point”. Some choice examples:

God has recently opened some significant doors for Family Policy Institute. The evidence of my success is manifested in the daily demonization of the work of FPI by the liberal media.

Or, the evidence of how little sense you make, and how odious many (even some Christians) find your points of view to be, is manifested in the regular refutations and expressions of incomprehension that someone can be so pig-headed, morally blinkered, and opposed to all that makes a constitutional democracy worth living in.

My efforts to advance Biblical Christian values in Parliament, the media and general society have elicited the wrath of liberal secular humanists, who regard me as a grave threat to democracy.

Biblical Christian values are themselves a threat to democracy, dear Errol. So if you want to see them made law, so are you. How grave that threat is depends on which side of the fence you are. But your values, if applied literally and consistently, allow people very little choice in terms of things like who they can marry, what rights they have over their own bodies – even in terms of their attitudes towards gender equality. If you don’t believe that those things are worthwhile, that’s fine – you can try to make that case. But undermining those freedoms is unarguably a threat to democracy.

Significantly, what all of this does, is prove that Family Policy Institute is making inroads into areas the liberal elite consider their exclusive domain. Freedom of expression & other constitutional freedoms are defined by secular humanists and they alone decide what is acceptable or not!

Nope. They were defined by a consultative process which included many of your ilk. You’re free to spout your crap, and we’re free to tell you that you are a curious throwback to a primitive age, who wants us all to subjugate ourselves to (your interpretation of) the will of a creature from your favourite fairytale.

I believe our human rights and freedoms are a gift from God, and everything we do must reflect God’s sovereign rule in our personal lives and His supreme authority over our nation. That is why I battle daily on the frontlines of the culture war for your and my values. The Biblical Christian Worldview provides the only rational basis for a just, free and prosperous society.

Rational basis? Do you know what the word “rational” means? You may be right about the existence of ceiling cat, and I may be wrong – but the possibility of that is not premised on rational reflection. It’s about faith, and you don’t need faith when things can be known via rationality. Your own holy book can tell you these things, if you took your head out of your self-promoting pompous ass for long enough to think these matters through.

Following my submission on Gambling Law Reform to Parliament in January this year & later in May to the Dept of Trade & Industry in Pretoria, government’s policy on gambling seem to be moving in the right direction.

Damn, you’re so powerful. You remind me of a god, except perhaps with a little more ego.

Errol Naidoo

Well done.

Morality Religion

Beware the evangelicals

While church attendance seems to be declining across (most of) the globe, and religious adherence generally falling (except for Islam, which is growing), we’re far from being out of the woods. Evangelical threats to liberty continue to haunt us, despite the fact that – judging from American Christians – most of the faithful are doing their utmost to undermine the faith, mostly by being moronic:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

The problem is that once people lose the capacity to generate reasoned conclusions for themselves, and once their base of evidence from which they make their inferences is so detached from reality, the opportunity increases for charlatans to step forth, selling them various package holidays in the hereafter. And the more marginal a faith becomes, perhaps the more strident its adherents become through their fear of becoming redundant. So, whereas Christians used to be all about peace, love and forgiveness (at least according to my childhood memories), they increasingly seem to be about intolerance and hate (with increasingly rare exceptions).

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that Uganda looks likely to pass a law making homosexuality a capital offence, “joining 37 other countries in the continent where American evangelical Christian groups are increasingly spreading bigotry”. Now, of course it’s true that many Christians would not condone this. I would like to be able to say “most”, rather than “many”, but the two trends described above make “most” sound far too optimistic. If the gradual decline of religion is making the religious more strident, and if this is combined with an increasing trend of the religious no longer knowing what their religion is about, the extremists tend to set the agenda, and the more civilised believers sit on/wring their hands, despairing of what has become of the church.

We should not complacently think that this sort of thing is impossible in South Africa – we have the growing influence of the National Interfaith Leadership Council to worry about, along with more the regular cast of god-botherers such as Errol Naidoo, who has not shown himself to be averse to supporting prejudicial stereotypes with regard to homosexuality. It’s far too infrequent that we see the more tolerant sort of Christian protesting the manner in which people like Naidoo and Immelman express themselves on these topics, yet us atheists are frequently accused of caricaturing or misunderstanding religion.

How can we not caricature, when the only religious pronouncements that reach the public media sound like bad attempts at satire?