There is a troubling misunderstanding of the principle of freedom of speech gaining momentum right now. It fundamentally misunderstands two central concepts of the principle — individual freedom and the “marketplace of ideas.”
Before these can be discussed, it will be necessary to explain what we mean by “freedom of speech” or more precisely, what we do not mean.
We are not talking about the legal aspect of freedom of speech such as specific laws or constitutions of specific countries around the principle of freedom of speech, e.g., the US First Amendment. These legal structures relate to the principle of freedom of speech, but they are not the principle of freedom of speech. That principle is much, much broader and extends much further than how governments may or may not interfere with public speech.
We are also not talking about some non-existent right to make any words at all with one’s mouth or keyboard. The “speech” defended under “freedom of speech” does not refer to literal verbal utterances. Some of these are rightly illegal — commissioning a crime, perjury, fraud, false accusations, breaking confidentiality laws, and espionage, for examples. Defenders of freedom of speech are not attempting to change this.
We are talking about a principled defense of the free exchange of ideas on many levels of society; an acknowledgement that this is a basic human freedom and an understanding that viewpoint diversity and the whole process of arguing, questioning, challenging, doubting, refuting, and revising ideas is essential to the advancement of knowledge, to social progress, and to liberal democracy itself. In short, we are talking about what Jonathan Rauch describes as “liberal science,” the development of which in Western modernity has a long and multi-faceted intellectual history. It includes key liberal philosophers such as John Stuart Mill but also thinkers and political activists as diverse as Puritans and secularists, Marxists and Libertarians. Though rarely seen this way, it is, in fact, an advanced social technology. Establishing the “marketplace of ideas” as the most positive model for a successful and progressive society took hundreds of years and much hard work.
The principle of freedom of speech is often misunderstood. Lately, seemingly following the democratization of information and communication via the Internet and social media, the misunderstanding of the key tenets of the principle of freedom of speech most often takes the form of an accusation, which we might call the Fallacy of Demanding to Be Heard. These accusations can be broadly paraphrased like this:
“You say you are an advocate of free speech, but then you don’t allow everyone to talk to you. You advocate for the ‘marketplace of ideas’ as a way to advance knowledge and say that it must be open to everyone, but you don’t allow everyone to engage with yours. Therefore, on the one hand, you are saying that shutting down speech is wrong but on the other you are shutting down speech. This is, at best, inconsistent, and at worst, downright hypocritical.”
This is very confused on two central concepts of the principle of freedom of speech and these work on an individual level and on a societal level.
On an individual level, the Fallacy of Demanding to Be Heard misunderstands the concept of freedom.
Within freedom of speech, there are four essential freedoms:
- The freedom to speak — Individuals may express all ideas without hindrance or punishment.
- The freedom to listen — Individuals may listen to all ideas without hindrance or punishment.
- The freedom not to speak — Individuals must not to be required to express any ideas or speak to any person.
- The freedom not to listen — Individuals must not to be forced to listen to any ideas or any person.
Given that, alarmingly, so many of the people who seem confused about freedom of speech in this way describe themselves as secularists and skeptics and have long fully understood and argued that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, perhaps a direct comparison with the freedom of religion will be helpful here.
Under freedom of religion, people are free to believe any creed they want to, and they are also free not to believe that creed or any creed at all. People are free to practice their religion but not to compel others to practice it, observe its obligations, participate in its rituals and customs, or accept its dogmas, doctrines, or premises. Freedom of religion entails the freedom to worship and to believe in accordance with one’s community or conscience, and it also contains freedom from being compelled to worship or believe any particular thing at all. A secularist mentality understands this, and only those who reject liberal secular values — that is, fundamentalists — feel others should be compelled to believe or worship in any particular way.
In the same way that it is clear that a defense of freedom of religion does not equate to a commitment to allow everyone else to impose their religion on you, it should be clear that a defense of freedom of speech does not equate to a commitment to allow everybody else impose their speech on you. Nowhere within freedom lies the right to be heard. You have the freedom to speak, yet every other individual has the freedom to ignore your speech by whatever means are necessary, including by removing themselves from the vicinity of it. Being ignored does nothing to infringe upon your right to speak, to hear, not to speak, or not to hear. Your freedom of speech remains fully intact because nowhere in that is the freedom to impose your speech upon others. The right to decide what one listens to remains as inviolable as the right to decide what one believes.
This is the “freedom” bit of freedom of speech.
On a societal level, the Fallacy of Demanding to Be Heard misunderstands the marketplace of ideas
Some people concede that freedom from speech should be a right even for people who defend freedom of speech but add that they think it is clear that those who argue for the importance of viewpoint diversity to advance knowledge and then refuse to listen to (certain) other views are not putting their money where their mouth is. That is, they are behaving hypocritically because they fail to consistently hold a principled line on viewpoint diversity.
This would certainly be a just accusation of hypocrisy if an individual who argues for this then refuses ever to engage with any different ideas. This is not a just accusation, however, if they merely refuse to engage with every idea and every proponent of every idea. Far too often, the criticism “You refuse to listen to other ideas (or your critics)!” means “You refuse to listen to me.” That may be, and there could be a number of reasons someone who is committed to freedom of speech might not be listening to you.
First, your ideas could simply not be within their area of interest or knowledge. We all have to be selective in what we discuss. People have approached me (Helen) recently to discuss economics, drug laws, and adoption policies. I am not well-informed on any of these things, neither do they interest me to the extent that ideology and psychology do. I declined to discuss because my opinion would not be worth much.
Second, they could find your ideas foolish, tedious, or unsupported by evidence. We have recently declined to discuss whether women should be able to vote, metamodernism, metaethics, certain framings of the issues with firearms, and the claim that God exists. We have discussed all these in the past and find such discussions fruitless. You might think we are wrong to think so but again, we all have to be selective, and we retain the right to decide what is worthwhile to give attention to.
Third, you could be personally rude or dishonest in your style of conversation. We are simply not going to enter a conversation with someone who is gratuitously abusive, snarky, insincere, misrepresents our position, or deliberately misses our point. You could be giving off every signal of discussing in bad faith, particularly in wishing to prove yourself right more than to discuss the issue with someone you know disagrees with you. There is no point in pretending that what follows from such a situation is going to be a conversation. At best it is a winding debate, and at worst it’s just a frustrating monologue from the effective equivalent of a street preacher. Conversation requires give and take, and ideally, when there is disagreement, it requires both participants to be willing to change their minds about some or all of the issues. When this condition is not met, there is no onus placed upon us to participate or to listen because, again, we all retain the right to decide what is worthwhile to give our attention to,
Fourth, your ideas could be being presented much better by someone else. We have often been accused of refusing to engage with disagreement when, in fact, the person disagreeing with us is just doing so badly whilst other people are doing it well and presenting us with a much more challenging and therefore interesting and potentially productive conversation. It is quite possible to have highly intellectually & ideologically diverse discussions by choosing to talk to and listen to the most thoughtful, reasonable, knowledgeable and honest proponents of a variety of ideas and not to engage with the abusive, the incoherent, the ignorant and the dishonest.
This last point is particularly important to note. There is a terrible sense of entitlement to insisting that someone must listen, not only to counterviews but your counterviews. We are small social and political commentators and writers, and we already have to be selective with the views we engage. If the person you seek to disagree with is a prominent public intellectual, realize that they will be receiving vast amounts of critical feedback, some of it of a very high quality and much of it off-point and downright rude. If you want yours to be one of the ones they engage with, you’ll have to earn that. It’s nothing personal; everyone faces this same difficulty in being heard by busy and prominent figures.
This is the crucial element of the metaphor called “the marketplace of ideas,” which is being so badly misunderstood. The metaphor appeals to a marketplace. If you were to show up at a farmer’s market with your tomatoes, it doesn’t matter if they are the best tomatoes in the world; it is still your job to attract interest in purchasing them. You cannot force people to buy them. You cannot force prominent individuals to try your tomatoes and then promote them.If someone is allergic to tomatoes, doesn’t like them, or isn’t in the mood for them — or yours, or you — at the time, they have every right to pass your tomatoes by, and you have no standing upon which to demand that they change their mind.
Within the marketplace of ideas, the responsibility is on each vendor to present his ideas to the public by showing them as best they can and hoping people will want to “buy” them, that is, take them seriously and engage with them. No one is obligated to buy any product they believe is inferior or, in fact, any product they are not interested in — for any reason — in a real marketplace in a free society, and it is a blatant infringement of their rights to attempt to force them to buy something they do not want. Likewise, no one is obligated to listen to, engage, promote, or be interested in any ideas within the marketplace of ideas, and it is a blatant infringement of their rights to attempt to force them to do otherwise. Furthermore, people can refuse interest for any reason, which includes any bad behavior on the part of the vendor, regardless of the quality of the product.
This is how the marketplace of ideas works, and it works well. There is no point complaining that your stall has been shut down if people decline to buy from it. It remains open, but it is your responsibility to improve your product by making your argument strong, your evidence substantial, your point clear, your ideas engaging, and your sales pitch courteous. In this way, even if any individual is genuinely badly motivated to avoid your justifiable and insightful criticism, other people will still hear it and your ideas will ultimately win out over theirs in the marketplace.
The Fallacy of Demanding to Be Heard is often leveled in terms of freedom of speech accompanied by gleeful (and reckless) accusations of hypocrisy. Not only is this a misunderstanding of the freedom part of freedom of speech and the marketplace part of the marketplace of ideas, it is a form of entitlement which can even lead to harassment and bullying. It is an attempt to insist that someone who isn’t interested in you or your ideas is somehow failing to uphold critical liberal, intellectual, or academic virtues and then, often, using that against them. This can create a vicious spiral in which the entitled and insulting behavior of someone demanding to be heard will encourage the other person to ignore them even more leading to the former becoming yet more intrusive and defamatory. A better approach for advocates of freedom of speech is to speak when you have something to say, listen when there’s something you want to hear, stay silent when it’s better you don’t speak, and be selective about what ideas and individuals you listen to in a way that upholds your belief in the productivity of viewpoint diversity. Allow people who want to talk and listen to each other do so and you will uphold the principle of freedom of speech. Don’t think you can force anyone to talk or listen to you.