Hate speech is not free speech. Yelling that a building is on fire, when it is not on fire, is not free speech. Everything else is. This conclusion has been upheld by U.S. courts, including the Supreme Court. Why do I mention these facts? To clear the air for a discussion about freedom of speech.
I came to thinking about this topic when I went to a restaurant, and was silenced by a Palin supporter using the argument that “bringing up politics at the dinner table is really rude.” Resorting to social mores to silence opposition seemed like a cop-out to me. If I truly had the evidence on my side in an argument, I would see no need to resort to using social conventions to silence an opposing view. The others at the table would also be free to observe who was backing up their claims, and who was not. They would see whose evidence was more solid, and whose was more tenuous. I would have been more than happy to continue a discussion. But, the Palin supporter chose not open debate, but coercion – an argument from the authority of tradition. There is no such thing as a sound argument from authority. My opposition was silenced by a logical impossibility – and a socially sanctioned logical impossibility at that.
What does this have to do with free speech? If you have the facts on your side, then there is no need to use coercion, or insulate yourself from debate. Free speech favors those who have the facts. As author Sam Harris rightly said, “Facts are contagious. You can give me your reasons, and I will helplessly come to believe what you believe…That is what it is to be a rational person.” This is not to say that one should always be erring on the side of credulity. As Michael Shermer said in his (5/12/10) New Scientist article, “Scepticism is integral to the scientific process, because most claims turn out to be false. Weeding out the few kernels of wheat from the large pile of chaff requires extensive observation, careful experimentation and cautious inference. Science is scepticism and good scientists are sceptical.”
Observe what happened recently to the creators of South Park. They were threatened with violence by a radical Muslim group. Why did this happen? Because South Park depicted Prophet Mohammed in a bear costume. In a civil society, if you oppose an idea, democratic means are available to counter it. However, there is one caveat: for your objections to be “contagious” enough to reach a large segment of the population, they should be truthful. Failing that, there is not much you can do except hope that enough gullible people believe your big lie. American society has a touchy relationship with Islam which has gotten more negative since 2001. Sensing all that, the radical Muslim group resorted to coercion through the threat of violence. If they had the facts and sound arguments on their side, the threat of violence may not have been used.
What is there to learn from this? An idea is weak if the only way it can survive is through the use of force and ignorance. In a civil society, a strong, truthful idea can withstand criticism from all sides. It needs no special protection, no double standards, no transformation into ‘sacred cow’. (That is why scientists peer-review their papers. The best experts in the field hammer away at your ideas. And, you can actually be applauded, in science, for proving yourself wrong! Imagine if that happened in politics or religion.)
A truthful idea persists because all sides, when they question it, will get the same results. (Whether or not they accept the results is another story.) A weak idea is weeded out in a civil society: it cannot survive relentless questioning. Therefore, free speech is essential if truthful ideas are to triumph over bogus ones. Free speech sets truth free, and the truth will set you free.