Freedom of speech, it is said, is our most essential freedom because it reinforces and safeguards all other rights. People will go to great lengths, including dying, to defend this freedom. So, what if I told you that one of the easiest and most effective ways to defend the freedom of speech is to shut up?
Our current environment puts free speech advocates in a bind they are not often able to see. The only true way to assert one’s freedom of speech is to say, write, and draw that which people don’t want said, written, and drawn. That is, freedom of speech simply given away to defend the sensibilities of the offended isn’t really free at all. There is nearly no meaningful difference between legally not being able to draw Muhammad for fear of reprisal by Islamist governments and being allowed to along with a reasonable fear of being murdered (or causing the unnecessary deaths of others in riots) for doing so.
On the other hand — and this is a crucial point that frequently gets missed — a certain tranquility must be maintained in the social environment to keep a critical mass of people eagerly ready to defend your right to say things they would really rather you didn’t. It’s a self-censorship Catch-22: censor yourself, and there’s no free speech to speak of; or don’t censor yourself, and rile the mob until it effects your censorship anyway.
However, there’s a middle way. It is diligently adhering to a set of social norms regarding decency in speech and conduct. The catch is, both speakers and hearers have to keep their end of the bargain for it to work.
Vigorous support for free speech only thrives in an environment in which two commitments are held. First, it requires people commit not to use offensive speech any more than is generally necessary. Second, it begs a promise given in return to punish offensive speech as minimally as possible, often just by letting offenses go.
The delicate balance maintaining that system has broken. Both hearers and speakers have abnegated their part in the contract, and no one remembers clearly who shot first. The result is a cultural conflagration around “free speech” and its alleged archenemy, “political correctness.”
Free speech is not safe in this environment. Nor are people. The social costs of impolite speech can be tremendous, even for a faux pas or a simple gaffe made at the wrong time in the wrong place. The unfortunate story of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt makes a prime example. He was hounded out of his job — Nobel prize be damned — after making a modest joke deemed deeply offensive to the ambitions of women in science. Invited speakers to universities, such as the generally odious Ann Coulter, are being disinvited specifically because of highly credible threats of violence (with the credibility of those threats already legitimized by multiple precedent-setting examples). These extraordinarily excessive penalties are chilling upon free speech for many and deeply infringe upon it for a few. Ultimately, they break the hearers’ end of the decency bargain.
As hearers become too offended (and too offendable, given the ever-swelling, opaque, confusing, and impossible list of infractions against politeness that now exists), they create an environment where speakers will assert their freedom to speak in exactly the way they should: by saying offensive things on purpose. While this tactic succeeds in its intended effects, it reciprocally breaks the social norm of decency on the speakers’ side.
If we were game theorists approaching the iterated prisoner’s dilemma (with a tit-for-tat strategy being played by both sides), the current state of the debate over free speech would be referred to as a “reciprocity spiral,” wherein one player seeks to punish the other for not being more cooperative in the last round, which causes the other player to punish the first’s punishment with reciprocal defection, which repeats cyclically without abating. These unfortunate situations ruin the whole game because they make each player repeatedly defect against the other in punishment for the previous turn. As neither player can remember who defected first, both feel perfectly entitled to punish their partner at every step. The result: everyone loses.
Reciprocity spirals can be broken if at least one side forgives the other and stops escalating the cycle of punishment. That is, at least one side takes one — not for the team, but for the game itself — in order to re-establish cooperation, hopefully to eventual mutual benefit.
Those enamored with politically correct culture can take the hit by deciding to let minor offenses go, meanwhile raising the threshold for speech they find offensive. Particularly, they must do everything in their power not to overreact to speech they don’t like — even if it’s racist, sexist, and homophobic all at the same time. That is, hearers need to shut up about all but those offenses that are truly most outrageous. The screeching and wailing must stop; the deplatforming must stop; the doxxing (releasing private information like one’s address, employer, family’s names, or phone number publicly on the Internet) and attempting to get people fired from their jobs must stop; the demanding that people shut up and apologize must stop; violence and defenses of violence in answer to speech absolutely and unequivocally must stop.
On the other hand, those fighting the overreaches of politically correct culture can take the hit by stepping back and letting the other side “win” for long enough to simmer down. Campus groups can courteously avoid inviting highly polarizing figures to give talks; people can skip saying offensive things merely to prove they still can; people can stop giving anyone the first bit of their attention, money, or support in return for “melting snowflakes.” That is, speakers can shut up where it comes to their most provocative offenses (even without backing down from their demands for absolute free speech).
Which side should give in? It’s hard to say. Truly, both should at the same time, but in reality, it will have to be the side that honestly cares more about free speech.
Those who are willing to kill or to die for free speech should also be willing to shut themselves up just enough to apply their speech very judiciously. They should draw Muhammad, for a paradigm example, only for the purposes of saying “no!” to anyone who tells us we cannot and to insert a wedge against theocratic authoritarianism — but never merely to provoke anyone.
Likewise, those who understand the freedom of speech as the most vital of our freedoms, especially for marginalized groups, must care about it enough to grow a thicker skin and ignore minor offenses. Offense is never going away, and one can control their impulse to take offense at least as easily as one can control their impulse to be offensive. They must further recognize that there is no justice in social environment that penalizes excessively and thus make every effort to temper themselves in what they consider just retribution for uncouth speech.
Will it be hearers or speakers who first take a stand by becoming the first to shut up, thus proving themselves our culture’s true defenders of free speech? Who can say? But we all must hope somebody does.