Free speech sucks (and yet we need it)

Everyone who considers themselves to be a sincere defender of free speech needs to admit one thing: free speech sucks.  It’s necessary, it’s important, it’s vital for healthy political discourse, but it sucks.

Free speech includes hate speech: in a society with free speech, every terrible organization from the KKK to Westboro Baptist Church get to spread their hatred.  Free speech includes offensive speech: things will be said that will hurt and offend individuals, as well as entire communities.  And free speech includes falsehoods: when you let everyone talk, expect to hear a ton of lies as well.

Well, what’s the alternative?

The alternative is that those in power get to dictate what it is okay to say and what is not.  That should scare you.  Taking away free speech doesn’t mean shutting up people who you don’t think should be allowed to talk – it means whoever’s in power gets to shut up people they don’t think should be allowed to talk.  Maybe today you’re okay with that – but what about tomorrow?  What if the pendulum of power swings as it always does, or the people you allied with on one issue are your enemies on another?

The alternative involves society being stagnant.  Advocates of social justice have been doing a lot of denouncing of free speech, but it’s through dissent that the world we live in today is far more equal than the world we lived in 50 years ago.  And we’re nowhere near done – how do we make progress if we choose to not tolerate dissent?

The alternative involves hollow victories in bringing about progress.  If everyone is thinking the same thing but no one is saying it, we may have what looks like progress in the short term, but it can all be undone in a heartbeat.  Real progress that involves large massive changes in society’s ideas takes time and it can’t be rushed.  The bad arguments or thoughts that people hold in their hearts need to be exorcized so they can be crushed and replaced with better ones.

The alternative involves a much dirtier war than a war of ideas.  In a divided country of two roughly equally large groups, both sides may hate listening to the ideas of the other and tolerating their existence.  But it’s better than both sides actively trying to bully the opposition into submission whenever they have the chance – whether through firing, shaming, or actual violence.

So yes, free speech sucks.  It’s not a perfect pie in the sky solution.  But it’s the one solution we can all actively work towards: a laying down of arms, an armistice where we decide to counter bad arguments with counterarguments and nothing else.


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