Why I Am a Free Speech Absolutist

| by Iona Italia |

I was recently reading an article by Ulrich Baer, in the New York Times, entitled “What Snowflakes Get Right About Free Speech. The author defended the actions of students who disrupted recent appearances by controversial speakers like Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and Jordan Peterson, by drowning out their voices with loud chanting, megaphones and noisemakers and, in some cases, physically assaulting the speakers or their hosts (one faculty member, who had organized an event featuring one of the speakers, was even hospitalized by a student mob — even though she personally opposed the views of the guest they objected to. The article argues that certain viewpoints should not be aired on campus, certain topics should not be discussed and certain speakers should not be permitted to be heard. This authoritarianism is couched in obfuscatory academese and sprinkled with references to theorists and philosophers in an attempt to obscure the central message, which is this: we should police what people are permitted to talk about.

I am extremely uncomfortable with this for a number of reasons. I disagree with some of Murray’s views, I think Milo is a narcissistic, empty-headed self-publicist and I regard Jordan Peterson as a religious zealot. But what I object to is the principle, for several reasons.

First: you cannot control what happens inside someone’s head. You cannot stop them from thinking a thought. All you can do is make them too afraid to speak that thought aloud. You can find proof of this in the fact that, in a recent survey, under the cover of anonymity, 12% of Saudis declared themselves to be atheists and in the fact that the Arabic version of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has been downloaded 10 million times. Even in the world’s most repressive country, in which unbelief is punishable by death and people are not free to utter the mildest skepticism aloud, in their minds, some of them are free. Fear and threats are poor persuaders. Arguments must be refuted with arguments; speech can only, in the long run, be effectively countered with speech. The words of an elderly don have proved more powerful than the guillotine and the scaffold.

crx981ou8aqpmaz-2.png
Yiannopoulos, whose book hit #1 on Amazon’s most sold list on July 4th

When you take away someone’s right to speak, you also infringe on the rights of others to hear them. You prevent those students from learning how to confront, challenge, sift, weigh and evaluate the ideas of others. These are vital skills. I learned far more discussing things with my fellow students than I ever did in lectures. We must learn to counter speech with speech, to have the tools to respond with arguments, rather than violence. And we must also understand that being mistaken in a theory or wrongheaded about an idea is not, in itself, proof of iniquity. I strongly disagree with Peterson on a number of issues, but I feel able to refute his arguments because I have read his work and heard him speak. Watching students harass and threaten him and hearing about the death threats and kidnapping threats he and his wife and children have received, on the other hand, makes me feel pity for him as a person. Ideas should be critiqued, but human beings deserve our respect and protection.

When we make decisions about who to allow to speak and who to silence, we often make very poor decisions. Even in the West. That’s why reformer Ayaan Hirsi Ali met with death threats from some members of the Muslim community in Australia where she wanted to speak out against practices like child marriage and FGM, while the group’s imam gives talks on such subjects as why and how a good Muslim should beat his wife with impunity.

When we don’t allow ideas to be fully discussed, when we don’t encourage people to read and listen to the actual work of scholars and writers before passing judgement upon them, we get quote mining, witch hunts, careers and reputations ruined and families faced with death threats — often on the basis of partial, twisted or even completely fictional misrepresentations of their ideas. In all fairness, we must always allow controversial figures to put their own case. We must retain a principle of innocent until proven guilty.

I often hear the argument that if speakers are allowed to make certain bigoted generalisations about specific minority groups or utter racist, sexist or homophobic slurs, this will create a hostile atmosphere which will effectively silence members of minorities. While I believe we should all strive to be as polite, kind and considerate of people’s feelings as possible, I don’t think we should allow specific words to become taboo, as it gives those terms a disproportionate power over us and can even increase prejudice since it may seem that the thing itself is so horrific that we shy away from even naming it. Queer was the Voldemort word of my own generation. Usually uttered in a sotto voce hiss, it was an accusation which could make the victim’s blood run cold. Now, it is one of the most politically correct of terms and its power to hurt has been completely neutralised. Likewise, we cannot base our morality on our fear of confronting the possibility of certain ideas. Our psyches must become resilient enough to not be cowed by a collection of syllables. And our ethical instincts must be robust enough to explore, investigate, face up to truth and still be able to decide on a course of action which will maximise human happiness.

We should also bear in mind, when talking about power relations in this context, that power is not merely a question of immutable characteristics. It is always situation dependent. A black disabled trans woman may hold authority over a white cis heterosexual man, if she is his boss and he her employee; an immigrant who faces racism and marginalisation in the wider society may terrorize his wife and children at home; a student whose professor has the authority to award him a passing or failing grade may have power if he gathers with a mob of others to shout down or physically intimidate his teacher. We must always protect the right of vulnerable individuals, no matter which groups they belong to — and every individual is potentially vulnerable when voicing unpopular ideas.

This doesn’t mean bad ideas should go unchallenged. On the contrary, we can only effectively challenge bad ideas if we actually know what they are. So I want to know what someone like Richard Spencer is telling his followers. I don’t want it shrouded in mystery. I don’t want him made into some kind of a martyr. I don’t think punching him convinced anyone to oppose him. I want to know what he is saying because I want his racist, white supremacist ideology exposed, derided, ridiculed and debunked. Give him the rope. Let him hang himself.

The New York Times article falls into one further fallacy which is the result of a deep blindness to the author’s own privilege. I call this the Pastor Niemoeller Fallacy. The writer believes that he will always be one of those in charge of deciding who is allowed to speak and who must be silenced and that his own free speech rights will therefore always remain protected, even as those of others are infringed. This is selfish. But also, I think, naive.

And not just because, on a worldwide scale, those silenced are overwhelmingly atheists, liberals, dissidents and freethinkers. We are living in the age of Trump. It’s surely not that far-fetched to imagine an America under right-wing rule where you are forbidden to teach evolution, where sex education is a taboo topic, where your career could end if you didn’t pay lip service to Christianity. There are already plenty of pockets of repressive anti free-speech authoritarianism on the right, too. Just look at Liberty University, where staff have to agree to teach their students the ludicrous fiction that the world is only 6,000 years old.

We have to make a clear distinction between speech and violence. When we use hyperbolic language, such as claiming that not using someone’s preferred pronouns is an act of assault or that criticizing Black Lives Matter is an erasure of African-Americans, we are equating speech and violence. That’s something we should never do: even when we find the speech in question despicable, disgusting, deeply offensive or vile. Because if just saying something is considered an act of violence, that means it’s OK to counter it with actual violence. That will convince no one. And simply perpetuate a cycle of hate.

We also should never assume that the fact that people are outraged by something someone has said or allegedly said means that the speaker deserves to be punished. They placed Galileo under house arrest; they burnt Giordano Bruno at the stake; they terrorized Salman Rushdie. And, most recently, a mob of hundreds of his fellow students beat promising young intellectual Mashal Khan to death, on campus, in broad daylight.

Don’t silence anyone. Answer speech with speech. Always.

—————————

Iona Italia is a former academic who now works as a freelance writer, editor, translator and general wordsmith. With a mixture of Scottish and desi ancestry, she has lived in five countries and speaks four languages. Iona is currently based in Buenos Aires, where she teaches Argentine tango and is completing a book on the culture of the dance. You can connect with her on Twitter @IonaItalia

—————————

Digital content is available for free, but content that isn’t subject to the whims and demands of its sponsors is rare. Areo is one such publication. Fielding writers and creating for you is our passion, and we want to devote more of ourselves into this venture and continue to produce independently. If you find value from our articles, support us on Patreon:

33 Comments

  1. restless94110

    MRDA:
    !. I’m not spazzing out about a thing.
    2. It’s not about iona “disagreeing” with me. It is about her calling names of speakers she knows nothing about. She was asked why she labels speakers with derogatory names when anyone who has spent even 10 minutes listening to those 3 speakers would know that what she said about them was completely false.

    She responded that her article was not about them, but instead about the right to hear them.

    But you see, when you call people names and mistate things at the beginning, you impeach your thought and you turn the article’s thrust into utter garbage.

    Thus, one starts to wonder: why would a writer say such negative and ignorant things? She sounds like she’s either trying to virtue signal to somebody or she has taken the labels from some group without checking it out for herself.

    In following comments she has claimed she knows all about the people and made a reference to Pinker’s “refutation” of Murray, but when asked for specifics, she is silent.

    She had no reason whatsoever to slander the three speakers. It had nothing to do with the essay and its basic point. She could have used Hitler or some other clearly discredited speaker/writer (say Pol Pot or Mao ZeDong, etc.), but for some unknown reason she claimed that the 3 speakers were something they are most definitely not.

    That was my point, and it remains my point. Other than asking her why she did such a stupid thing, I suggested she change those 3 to some people like the aforementioned discredited people in history, in order to make the point of her article more valid.

    She has declined. Which means to me that she wrote a thinly veiled attack piece on the three, not an article about free speech.

  2. MRDA

    Is Restless spazzing out just because the author disagreed with his perception of three speakers in a fleeting reference? It is to laugh!

  3. restless94110

    Twerpischol: What are you talking about this time? You now think that people all over the world are living in your mother’s basement. And that they are all scared of something? What are they scared about?

    Should they be scared of you? Why would you want people who are saying that you should stop with the ignorant virtue signalling to be afraid of you? Uh ok, boss. We just workin’ on your plantation. The plantation in your mind.

    In other news, which of Murray’s many books did Pinker refute? And in which of Pinker’s books. I’ve read most of them so I didn’t notice that.

    Also, claiming Milo was a narcissist, um that wasn’t gratuituous? Aren’t all performers narcissists, Twerpsickcoal? So, isn’t that a gratiutuous bit of name calling on your part?

    Do this for me: get out of your mother’s basement and actually open that closed mind of yours. You can hardly defend free speech when you don’t know what is even being said, can you?

    Or else, stop putting speakers who are changing the world down with your provencial basement-level name calling. Thanks.

  4. terpsichoral

    Restless: “people all over the world”? One anonymous troll too scared to even show his face or name, writing from his mother’s basement as he munches on his third Big Mac. 🙂 And demanding that an article on free speech be censured for him alone. Careful, it’s hot out there. You might melt.

  5. terpsichoral

    Thank you, Helios and Steve! And, yes, I certainly agree with Peterson — and Milo for that matter — on the specific matter of free speech. As for Murray, just to clarify, I don’t consider him a racist or bigot. But I have read both “The Bell Curve” and Stephen Pinker and Siddhartha Muhkerjee’s refutations of it (and those two are certainly not intellectual slouches) and remain undecided as to how much I agree with his central thesis. One of the things about free speech is that you have to be consistent in your defence of it, which means that you must be willing to defend the speech of people with whom you disagree. That is why I mentioned my disagreements with Milo, Murray and Peterson. It wasn’t gratuitous. I could have used other examples of people with whom I disagree – and would then have encountered their defenders here. But really it wasn’t about them specifically, but the principle which is this: you have to let people express their opinions freely, including opinions you find unconvincing, shallow or even reprehensible.

  6. restless94110

    Iona:

    Like many others here (and many others all over the world), I don’t understand how you can “not like” a speaker without knowing a thing about him.

    It makes you seem ignorant, and it makes your entire essay look like something a person who cares not a fig for free speech would write.

    It is just so strange to see these article. People virtue signaling while acting like they are tolerant and knowledgeable. What is even more strange is to see all of these useful idiots who praise ignorance by framing it as some kind of emotional choice: I like him, but not him. Because why? Because of his hair color or whether he wears a tie.

    That’s just one cut above because of the color of his skin or because he is gay or not gay. It is emotional. It is anti-logic and reason.

    Someone has told you that Peterson, Yianopolis and Miller are bad. You didn’t check out their character. You judged them by feelings and by mob think.

    That impeaches your entire article. It is garbage because it starts with garbage. Garbage in, and garbage out.

  7. Steve Perrott

    Hi Iona- Like others here, I disagree with your perceptions of Jordan Peterson but they are your perceptions! This essay is one of the best pieces I have read on the topic. Bravo!

  8. restless94110

    Well, I truly don’t know what you or Iona are talking about, Helios, because Milo is a strong, strong proponent of the 1st Amendment. In fact, that’s almost the full focus of all of his speaking engagements.

    Which you both would know if you had watched even one of them for more than 3 minutes.

    Which you both obviously haven’t.

    Which means you are talking shit about Milo, when you know absolutely nothing first-hand about him or his beliefs.

    And the same can be said for the other two.

    You know nothing about 3 people who you say you don’t like or otherwise put down with names like narcissist.

    It’s utter snow flake nonsense.

  9. Helios

    Iona may consider Jordan Peterson a religious zealot, but many of her arguments expressed in favor of free speech in this article are also his. It doesn’t seem fair to dismiss him as easily as if he was in the same likes of Milo and Murray.

    The man has a fascination with religion and myths (not only Christianity) which I, an agnostic with a very materialistic and even atheistic view of the world, personally find very enlightening. His ideas are unique, unorthodox, definitely not fundamentalist, and perhaps even friendly to atheists. He was a much needed breath of fresh air after religion has been so maligned by both hardcore atheists and bible thumpers.

    I personally don’t know the author’s reasons for having seen him as a zealot, but that’s understandable. This is a well-written article nevertheless and that’s just a small detail. I’m sure me, Iona and JP are all on the same page when it comes to freedom of speech.

  10. restless94110

    As Jesse E. has said, you could not possibly have seen anything by Peterson if you believe he is a religious zealot.

    You are again, saying you are just as bigotted and ignorant as any anti-free speech snow flake, by making judgments based on absolutely nothing at all.

    I defend your right to be totally ignorant when you speak though.

  11. restless94110

    I agree with everything you have said. Banning any speech is a slippery slope that should never have been taken.

    Freedom of expression allows a society to change and grow. That’s life, and it should never be prevented.

  12. terpsichoral

    Thank you, Phil! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I have watched Peterson on Rogan and I’ve heard his Harvard talk. I think we may have to agree to differ on this. I appreciate that others find Peterson’s work valuable, but, unlike some in this thread, I don’t believe being a Peterson is mandatory. But I DEFINITELY think he has a right to speak and write without threats or intimidation and you have a right to read and listen.

  13. restless94110

    You really miss the point. The speech itself is free to be expressed.

    But inciting people to commit crimes is a crime.

    There is absolutely no reason to ban speech ever.

  14. Anonymous

    The reason something like child porn is illegal to distribute l is caught up in the whole obscenity clause which is based on tastes and feelz. But while obscenity is mostly disregarded today, laws against CP distribution came into play after 1982 and have snowballed since then.

    The exception is based on a similar rational to making ivory distribution illegal. If you make it illegal people will stop killing endangered elephants. And of course that’s what happened, rather than drive the market underground, right? I like to dream, too.

    When I say snowballed, I mean that the precedent has been used (read : abused) for all sorts of other censorship. After all, we ban child porn, so why not toss other thing? Why not copyrighted content? Why not hate speech? Why not this and that?

    By the end of it, the concept of free speech has so many asterisks that it looks like an EULA.

    Understand, just to clarify, I don’t advocate the distribution of child pornography, nor do I think it should be legal. But it might be time to reconsider the balancing act involved. Does its ban accomplish what we are trying to do? And are the side effects worth the whole thing?

  15. terpsichoral

    MylantaToo: I think of the exceptions you cite as being performative speech acts – either directly or by proxy (rather similarly to “with this ring I thee wed” or “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”). Yes, I do make exceptions for speech which directly incites violence, as well as for deception (“this is a genuine hedge fund account” is not protected speech). A speech act can also constitute clear evidence of a crime (making a child porn film, for example). But the expression of opinions should be protected.

  16. restless94110

    Interesting. I had no idea they were legal, but I don’t need to click on the link to prove it, thanks.

    So if the act is not illegal, why would showing the act be prohibited? I thought it was you that was saying something about prohibition.

  17. restless94110

    Neither one of those acts are legal. So your argument falls apart.

    A free speech absolutist would say that you can film what you wish, but if the act you are filming is illegal you will be charged.

    It’s easy, to be a free speech absolutist. Try it sometime.

  18. Anonymous

    Yeah, I’m familiar with the fire in a crowded theatre trope, as well as its origin. But if the author is truly a few speech absolutist, she should not want there to be laws preventing threats of violence. Given that she indicates that people should be free to speak their minds without threats or violence, this is contradictory.

    This is to say nothing of the final point, that which nobody will touch with a ten foot pole: distribution of animal “crush” videos, much like child pornography, are not illegal acts themselves, but expression of speech. Would a free speech absolutist agree with such limits on speech?

  19. restless94110

    Iona, why do you have sychophants who are telling you to ignore the free speech of those who read your articles?

    This person thinks she/he is not politically correct, but can’t wait tp put down me, Jordan Peterson, and anyone else that does not match his/her sense of what is right.

    Ugh! Again, why are you talking about people you know nothing about?

  20. Phil

    Well said, Iona! Please ignore the comments by the clueless. You did a great job of making the case for free speech in clear and concise terms. I agree with the commenter who encourages you to give Jordan Peterson another chance. I’m an atheist who finds his fascination with religion and myth fairly useless, but he’s brilliant on free speech and how political correctness is destroying academia. Check out his two podcasts with Joe Rogan or the video of his Harvard talk to see him at his best.

  21. restless94110

    Being a free speech absolutist means anything and everything is free to be spoken or expressed. In your examples if Joe Blow told a crowd to burn John Smith’s house down, and if they actually then did do that, that would be something called incitement: a provable crime.

    In other words, Joe Blow is free to say that, but he is also free to be charged with inciting a crowd to commit a crime.

    By the way, you may be referring to the famous quote from a Supreme Court Justice 100 years or so ago, about not being able to shout fire im a crowded theater. I read that that Justice reversed his opinion on that several years later.

    Free speech should never ever be criminalized for any reason.

  22. restless94110

    No, you should edit your article to limit it to only what you actually know. Otherwise, you sound like an ignorant oaf.

    You don’t have to change it to what you know. You can blather on and on and on about what you know nothing about..

    What I was pointiing out to you was that it makes your article meaningless, when you call names and don’t make sense with that.

    But, again, you are totally free to say anything about anything. I’m for ignorant speech, too.

    But, again, you missed the point didn’t you? Why are you capping on the 3 speakers who you obviously know nothing about? Who are you trying to kiss up to?

  23. restless94110

    Someone who can’t even say their name thinks that a spelling error makes any difference whatsoever in a discussion. What an idiot.

  24. MylantaToo

    I absolutely agree with the views expressed here, and the idea that those preventing people from speaking are simply using their speech as well misses the point of free speech, this article counters that argument well.

    The only point I will raise would be that the definition of a “free speech absolutist” is someone who believes in absolutely no restrictions on freedom of speech, this includes death threats, Incitement to violence (Joe Smith lives at 123 Fake Street, go burn his house down) as well as the ever present scapegoat, distribution of child pornography. All the laws forbidding these are restrictions on free speech. While an argument could conceivably be made to get rid of some of all of these laws, one should know that they’re likely advocating doing so by being a free speech absolution. Just a thought.

  25. terpsichoral

    Anonymous: the few spelling errors in the article are not mine, but the responsibility of the editors. Who, I believe, are overworked and fallible human beings. 🙂

  26. terpsichoral

    Reckless, So I should “edit my article” in order to make sure all my statements conform precisely to your world view? You have completely missed the point. I am against censorship and in favour of the free expression of ideas. I have the right to publish what I wish. You will not stop me. You cannot – thank God – control what I think or write, much as you would like to. Thanks for illustrating precisely why I am such a staunch champion of free speech. 🙂

    No I won’t censor my article for your benefit, snowflake. Toughen up and learn to live with the fact that people disagree with you. Have a great day! xoxo

  27. Anonymous

    When you make utterly ignorant, stupid spelling mistakes you show yourself to be an illiterate. Illiterates have trouble with reading comprehension and separating the author’s argument from the author’s personal opinion.

  28. restless94110

    You miss my point entirely. I will help you out, by putting it in a different way.

    When you make utterly ignorant, stupid statements about three speakers that are getting censored by snowflakes, you cashier the entirety of the rest of your article and your thought.

    I say utterly ignorant, becuase no one who actually has heard these speakers would say one word that you said about them. Not even one word.

    There is no point in reading any further after you open with this kind of nonsense. And why would you do that, at any rate? You could have just mentioned them and that they are being censored. Instead you put them down.

    One possible reason for this would be that you are virtue signalling to your “base.”

    I have seen this kind of thing frequently with those infected with Trump Derangement Syndrome, who write articles that point out certain aspects of the left that are totalitarian and dangerous. The writers of articles such as those feel the need to repeatedly say, like 5 times pre article: yeah, Trump is bad or is a narcissist or is a sexist or is the worst thing since baked bread, but……

    It is hysterically funny and hysterically sad, and it is hysterical. Who are these writers attempting to placate?

    Who are you trying to placate with your nonsense about people you know nothing about?

    Edit your article to remove your ignorance. Thanks.

  29. terpsichoral

    Hello there, Restless,

    The point of being a free speech absolutist is that I am willing to defend the speech of people I *disagree* with or personally dislike. I believe everyone should be free to express their opinions without threat of violence or legal action. That is why I gave examples of people whose speech I don’t agree with, but am willing to protect. If you don’t agree with those examples, choose three examples of your own – I’m sure, if you think hard enough, you can come up with three people you disagree with.

    The article is not about Milo, Peterson or Murray. It’s about free speech. Take another look. I’m no snowflake.

  30. restless94110

    I truly do not understand why this author has to do her virtue-signaling thing by puttting down or dissing the Milo, Jordan and Murray.

    These three, more maybe than any other three speakers/writers in the past few years, are strong, fierce advocates of free thought and free speech.

    All three have extremely refreshing points of view and they make these points whenever they write and wherever they speak.

    So, no, snowflakes get nothing right ever. Ever.

    And these speakers are the future. So, Iona?

    Why you gotta say you are uncomfortable or whatever you are with these three? Milo is a naricissist? What does that even mean? And who cares what he is?

    Does what he says make sense? That’s all you should be thinking about when you look at Milo. Not if he is wearing gold lamé. What is he saying.

    Jordan Peterson? He is a religious fanatic? I’m just watching/listening to a 7-part series by him on the complete fallacy and intolerance of moral relativeism. You are calling this man a religious zealot? What is wrong with you?

    And you merely disagree with some of Murray’s views? What views are those, pray tell? Because, you sound like a snowflake, the ones who don’t have the slightest idea of what any of Murray’s views are, just as he recently said: those that shouted and screamed had no knowledge or familiarity with a word I wrote.

    So in saying this about these three right at the beginning, you negated the entirety of your article.

    You did not need to say any of that negation stuff in order to express the thought that speech is free, as thought is free, and that curtailing it is tyranny.

    Why you ‘splainin’ what is so bleeding obvious? In fact, if you were familiar with the speeches of all three of these men, you would know that all three say exactly this: speech must be free, thought must be free. Snowflakes are authoritarian fascists.

    They get nothing right. Ever.

  31. Jesse E. (@BilltheCatACK)

    LOL, If you seriously consider Jordan Peterson a religious zealot then you are most definitely NOT familiar with the body of his work. Otherwise I agree with your article, including the remarks about Milo and Murray.

Leave a Reply