What speech is harmful, how do we know, and what do we do if we find out?
- Modern debates over free speech rage on the internet, but what do experts say?
- Some think it is easy to go too far in limiting public debate by offending parties, others argue limits are part of normal discourse.
- While the debate isn't settled, these thinkers can give you some starting points for your next discussion.
Stance #1: Meta- argumentative allegations are a tool that should be used sparingly.<p>Dr. Hugh Breakey of Griffith University lays out his case in the essay <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10503-020-09538-8" target="_blank">"'That's Unhelpful, Harmful and Offensive!' Epistemic and Ethical Concerns with Meta-argument Allegations</a><em>."</em></p><p>Breakey argues that "meta-arguments," statements that focus on external features of an argument rather than an argument's soundness, can be used to critique arguments by pointing out the harm that an argument might cause. </p><p>As an example, imagine that somebody tells an armed mob without evidence that grocers are the cause of a crippling food shortage. Pointing out that this argument might cause harm provides an ethical good (the speaker might not make the argument now that they know harm may come of it) and an epistemic good (the argument might be improved or abandoned if the weakness of it is pointed out). While meta-arguments aren't good or bad by themselves, this example shows how they can be used positively. </p><p>However, other times critiques that seem clear to one party in an argument can seem groundless to others. In these cases, meta-arguments can derail discussion rather than clarify it. Worse, it can be impossible to get back on track after these allegations are made. </p><p>Big Think reached out to Dr. Breakey, who offered this elaboration on his position:</p><p><br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"When we call out what someone says in an argument as offensive, harmful or unhelpful, it can feel like we are applying an impartial standard. We're setting down sensible, objective rules within which constructive civil debate can occur. But the reality is that our judgments about such matters are likely to be as controversial and contestable—and, unfortunately, influenced by emotional and cognitive biases—as our views on the original topic of the debate. Reasonable people can disagree on the risks of harm created by speech, the ethical weight that should be given to those harms, where the moral responsibility for those harms properly lies, and how these factors relate to the importance of freely discussing the original topic of the debate. These are all complicated and difficult questions, and will be answered differently by people with different political views and life experiences. As a result, we need to exercise great caution in leveling allegations of harm and offence during an argument. Otherwise, the very differences that led to the original debate—and that make that debate worthwhile—will be used to foreclose it."</p><p><br></p><p>Given these concerns, the essay ends with a call for "argumentational tolerance" that is weary of using meta-argumentative allegations in general, but is open to using them when the speech in question is obviously harmful, such as instances of hate speech or calls to violence.</p>
Stance #2: Platforms lend credence, and some people shouldn't be given that.<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0f1b4a4cef6cb4f8c278306a20dd49ed"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/qjDLux9EXCE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Another stance is taken by Professor Neil Levy of The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics<strong>, </strong>in their essay <a href="https://aeon.co/ideas/why-no-platforming-is-sometimes-a-justifiable-position" target="_blank">"Why no-platforming is sometimes a justifiable position."</a></p><p>They agree with many others that free speech is valuable and that good-faith arguments are generally good. However, they find the idea of deplatforming for meta-argumentative reasons more compelling than others might. </p><p>In Dr. Levy's essay, they ask you to imagine that a university has invited a speaker who rejects climate change's existence to speak on that topic. While that position is bunk, the very act of being invited to speak by a prestigious university grants credence to what the speaker has to say, which cannot easily be refuted by other, better arguments. </p><p>Things like being invited to speak by a prestigious school or having seemingly valid credentials can be "higher-order" evidence in favor of their position. Higher-order evidence, Dr. Levy explains, influences how we evaluate arguments. Higher-order evidence in favor of our position can make us more confident in it, while opposing evidence can lead us to moderate our stances. </p><p>However, Dr. Levy points out the difficulty of countering higher-order evidence, or the legitimacy it confers, by rational argument alone. They further out the usefulness of attacking the credibility of the speaker's bunk arguments by focusing not on the argument but on the higher-order evidence's validity. Here, ad-hominem attacks and meta- argumentative critiques of their speaking at all can remove the higher-order evidence. Deplatforming, often critiqued as the suppression of speech, can also be useful, as it prevents a person from being granted the legitimacy that a speaking invitation can bring.</p><p>There is a difference between this position and that of Dr. Breakey. Dr. Levy is more concerned with matters of fact rather than debates over what constitutes acceptable discourse. However, this stance is clearly more open to the idea of using meta-argumental allegations to keep speech non-harmful and productive than other common positions are. </p>
Stance #3: Deciding what speech is “acceptable” is a fundamental aspect of public discourse.<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e6e7eae4f8711c1ba0aed143bbfd5098"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/0foSXKph9wI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Lastly, we have the stance described by the University of Illinois Professor Nicholas Grossman in an essay titled "<a href="https://arcdigital.media/free-speech-defenders-dont-understand-the-critique-against-them-4ed8327c0879" target="_blank">Free Speech Defenders Don't Understand the Critique Against Them</a>."</p><p>Professor Grossman considers the current debate around "free speech" and suggests that the debate is really over what we consider socially acceptable these days—a discussion which we've had before and will have again.</p><p>As he points out, most people would agree that there is nothing wrong with deciding that Holocaust denial is odious. Furthermore, they would likely also agree that private actors can (and should) use their capacities to limit the space available for a Holocaust denier to speak in. Most people would also hardly shed a tear if the denier faced social consequences for their speech. However, not everybody agrees on giving the same treatment to J.K. Rowling in light of her statements concerning transgender individuals.<br> <br> Professor Grossman argues that our current discussions are really about where the line of "acceptability" is. Are people, like Rowling, crossing that line when they imply transgender women are not women? If so, what social consequences should they face, if any? What else might be on the other side of that line now? How do we know? The line has moved before, consider how common the public use of racial slurs was in the past, is the idea of moving the line now any different? </p><p>They agree with Dr. Breakey in thinking that these are big questions without easy answers. However, Professor Grossman suggests that, in determining what speech is socially acceptable, these discussions can, and must, take place for debate to move forward. In contrast, Dr. Breakey suggests that these concerns can derail other debates if not used properly. </p>
How can I use this?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d1134bccc91f9e731c06e8170e010c5b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/0w5Zg9kKg3A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Perhaps the most obvious take away is that all three of these thinkers agree that certain speakers, notably those inciting violence or those deliberately trying to cause harm using racial slurs, can (and perhaps should) be challenged. It suggests a semblance of agreement exists around the idea that some speech does harm and that this legitimizes certain follow up actions to prevent the speech.</p><p>This idea is nothing new; even John Stuart Mill agreed with the idea of censoring speech that could cause immediate <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9IM3ZKNMCk" target="_blank">violence</a>. </p><p>The three thinkers considered here also all agree on the importance of open debate in general. None of them are suggesting that you should be arrested for giving an unpopular opinion. They all argue in favor of using reasoned, respectful debate to advance our understanding of various issues. </p><p>However, they disagree on how easy it is to know what is respectful debate and what is speech worthy of critique, deplatforming, and social consequence, and what to do when that line is crossed. While the three do seem to be concerned with slightly different scales, Professor Grossman focuses on societal debates while Dr. Levy focuses on institutional level problems, the differences endure, and each stance can be applied at various scales.</p><p>Despite this lack of agreement, they all provide strong arguments for their position and a launchpad for further debate. Though, we might need to already agree on a few points before that debate can even happen.</p>
Americans say we value free speech, but recent surveys suggest we love the ideal more than practice, a division that will harm more than it protects.
- A majority of Americans believe we should protect people from deleterious ideas and speech.
- This belief may harm us, both as individuals and as a society, by ironically strengthening the very ideas that do us harm.
- Forced examination provides a means by which we can strengthen our own ideas while weeding the harmful ones from society, but it only works with free expression for everyone.
How the free expression of others benefits us<p>Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU, called the process by which we strengthen our ideas through the opposition of others "forced examination." </p><p>"I wouldn't have enriched my own understanding of my long-standing position had I not been forced to grapple with the exact opposition contention," <a href="https://bigthink.com/videos/nadine-strossen-what-should-americans-be-most-concerned-about" target="_self">Strossen told <em>Big Think</em></a>. "So, one possibility is that we will realize that our original ideas were wrong or at least could be improved, refined. And another possibility is that we will be reaffirmed in our adherence to our pre-existing ideas, but we will do so, we will understand them and appreciate them and articulate them with much more depth and vibrancy."</p><p>As we improve our ideas through forced examination, we in turn improve ourselves by forming self-identities that are anti-fragile and stronger bonds with those who grow with us. </p><p>Many democratic institutions, such as universities, are designed around this principle. Students enter the university with worldviews learned at mother's knee, but through reading history's great thinkers, discussing difficult subjects with their classmates, and exploring new ideas through writing, they put their beliefs to the test, break them, and reforge them.</p><p>According to a <a href="https://kf-site-production.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/pdfs/000/000/248/original/Knight_Foundation_Free_Expression_on_Campus_2017.pdf" target="_blank">survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation</a>: "Majorities of [college] students believe in protecting free speech rights (56%) and promoting a diverse and inclusive society (52%) are extremely important for democracy." That's great news, not only for democracy but also their own growth during their college years.</p>
Free expression in practice<p>Unfortunately, the survey's authors wonder if students may favor free expression more as an ideal than in practice. Sixty-one percent of students surveyed agreed with the statement that "the climate on their campus prevents some students from expressing their views because others might take offense" and 57 percent believe this has pushed discussion of social and political issues off campus and on to social media.</p><p>Another survey, <a href="https://www.cato.org/blog/poll-71-americans-say-political-correctness-has-silenced-discussions-society-needs-have-58-have" target="_blank">conducted by the Cato Institute</a>, found that 58 percent of Americans believe "the political climate prevents them from sharing their own political beliefs." When people are unable to express their ideas, they are unable to engage in forced examination, which can have some unpleasant social impacts.</p><p>Consider the alt-right. Harvard professor Steven Pinker connects the movement's rise in part due to the lack of free expression in public forums such as universities. (Note: Pinker is referring to the alt-right in the sense of tech-savvy youths who found each other online to form far-right ideological groups, though <a href="https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/alt-right-a-primer-about-the-new-white-supremacy" target="_blank">the term has significantly broadened</a>.)</p><p>"Many of [these young people] are highly intelligent, highly analytic but felt that they were ostracized, kept from certain truths by the taboos and conventions of mainstream intellectual life, particularly in universities," <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByGC3Vwaio0" target="_blank">Pinker examines</a>. "And when they stumbled across scientific or statistical facts that were undiscussable in the universities, they felt this enormous sense of empowerment that they discovered a truth that the mainstream couldn't handle. […] And because they then were able to share these facts in their own discussion groups without any kind of push back or debate or refutation from the rest of intellectual life, they could develop into toxic forms."</p><p>Pinker's argument aligns with what the surveys found about youths feeling unable to express themselves in public forums. Taking their ideas online, echo chambers and personalized search algorithms prevented the intrusion of corrective counterarguments. In their more pernicious forms, these echo chambers resulted in social networks like Gab, an online home for identitarians that <em data-redactor-tag="em">WIRED </em>called the "<a href="https://www.wired.com/2016/09/gab-alt-rights-twitter-ultimate-filter-bubble/" target="_blank">ultimate filter bubble</a>." </p>
Free speech is the cure for bad ideas<p>Some may worry free expression merely provides a veiled cover for those who hold noxious beliefs. In a survey on <a href="https://hiddentribes.us/pdf/hidden_tribes_report.pdf" target="_blank">American tribalism</a> from More in Common, 67 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, "We need to protect people from dangerous and hateful speech." The result is various policies designed to protect people against deleterious concepts, such as <a href="https://www.scu.edu/character/resources/campus-hate-speech-codes/" target="_blank">campus speech codes</a>. The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found that nearly two-thirds of students support such policies.</p><p>But as Pinker's argument illuminates, speech codes do not expunge these ideas. Rather, they push them to the fringes where their acrimony can quietly grow. The combination of free expression and forced examination may be a bitter pill, but its medicine is far more robust than the alternative.</p><p>"A more effective response to any idea we hate, or consider hateful or dangerous is not to silence it, but to refute it, to explain why," <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/568498/nadine-strossen/" target="_blank">Strossen told</a> the <em>Atlantic</em>. She points out that while social media disseminates hate speech easily, it easily spreads counterarguments, too.</p><p>Sarah Ruger, the director of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute, agrees. As she told <em>Big Think</em>, "So often when people are rejecting speech or rejecting ideas, they're rejecting things that don't have a place in society like bigotry and prejudice […]. Unfortunately, censoring the ideas just moves them to the basement, to the dark corners of the internet where they fester, where they mobilize with like-minded thinkers and erupt later in uglier ways.</p><p>"So, I believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant and the best thing that we can be doing is [to] teach students in a safe productive environment how to deal with those difficult encounters, to deal with them productivity, to deal with them safely and in a way that doesn't cause a catastrophic moment if they encounter it in real life later."</p><p>Ruger's view synthesizes those of Pinker, Strossen, and Haidt. By preserving free expression, we not only disinfect our society of poor ideas; we also strengthen our resolve against them, growing as individuals and creating a type of conceptual herd immunity. Censorship, like the sterile environment Haidt mentions, merely ensures we will not have the intellectual antibodies to fight such ideas when they inevitably fester in our cultural wounds.</p>
Do you know your rights? Hit refresh on your constitutional knowledge!
The 2nd Amendment: How the gun control debate went crazy
The gun control debate has been at fever pitch for several years now, and as things fail to change the stats get grimmer. The New York Times reports that there have been 239 school shootings nationwide since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre, where 20 first graders and six adults were killed. Six years later, 438 more people have been shot in schools, and for 138 of them it was fatal. Here, journalist and author Kurt Andersen reads the Second Amendment, and explains its history from 1791 all the way to now. "What people need to know is that the Second Amendment only recently became such a salient amendment," says Andersen. It's only in the last 50 years that the gun debate has gone haywire, and it was the moment the NRA went from reasonable to absolutist. So what does the "right to bear arms" really mean? What was a firearm in the 1790s, and what is a firearm now? "Compared to [the] many, many, many rounds-per-second firearms that we have today, it's the same word but virtually a different machine." Kurt Andersen is the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
The 5th Amendment: Do not break in case of emergency
The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution is often talked about but rarely read in full. The reason? Counterterrorism expert Amaryllis Fox explains that it has, these days, simply become shorthand for not saying anything in court to incriminate yourself. But the full text states how important the due process of law is to every American. So perhaps learning the full text, not just the shorthand, is an important step to being an American citizen. You can find out more about Amaryllis Fox here.
The 13th Amendment: The unjust prison to profit pipeline
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery—but it still remains legal under one condition. The amendment reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Today in America, big corporations profit of cheap prison labor in both privatized and state-run prisons. Shaka Senghor knows this second wave of slavery well—he spent 19 years in jail, working for a starting wage of 17 cents per hour, in a prison where a 15-minute phone call costs between $3-$15. In this video, he shares the exploitation that goes on in American prisons, and how the 13th Amendment allows slavery to continue. He also questions the profit incentive to incarcerate in this country: why does America represent less than 5% of the world's population, but almost 25% of the world's prisoners? Shaka Senghor's latest venture is Mind Blown Media.
The 14th Amendment: History's most radical idea?
In 1868, three years after slavery was abolished, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, granting equal protection under the law to every born and naturalized U.S. citizen. For CNN news commentator Van Jones this amendment is, in his words, the "whole enchilada." It's not the most popular amendment—it doesn't get name-dropped in TV courtroom dramas, or fiercely debated before elections—but to Jones it is a weighty principle that was far ahead of its time. "It doesn't say equal protection under the law unless you're a lesbian. That's not what it says. It doesn't say equal protection under the law unless you're African American. That's not what it says. It says if you're in the jurisdiction you get equal protection under the law. That's radical. In 10,000 years of human history, that's radical." Van Jones is the author of Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together.
The 26th Amendment: The act of voting should empower people
Is a 55.7% voter turnout really enough? Bryan Cranston was disappointed with the 2016 presidential election, not for the outcome but for the process. According to Census Bureau figures it was a bumper year for voter engagement with 137.5 million total ballots cast—but is just over half of the eligible voters really that impressive? The Pew Research Center shows that the U.S. still trails behind most developed nations in voter registration and turnout. "I think we've devalued the honor and privilege of voting and we've become complacent, and maybe a bit cynical about our place and rights as citizens and our duties and responsibilities," says Cranston. The good news? Millennials and Gen Xers are on an upward trend in civic engagement, casting more votes than Boomers and older generations in the 2016 election. Cranston reminds us of how empowering the 26th Amendment is in granting voting rights to Americans over the age of 18. "We can't take that lightly," says Cranston. It's a timely reminder too, as 40 million people are expected to drop off that 55.7% figure for the midterm elections, mostly from the millennial, unmarried women and people of color demographics. Bryan Cranston's new book is the spectacular memoir A Life in Parts.
The ability to say what we want, when we want, is an important part of American democracy.
The ability to say whatever we want about whomever we want is a big deal, which is why free speech is the cornerstone of American democracy. But what if that free speech incites hate or violence? Bring it on, says Monica Duffy Toft, Professor of International Politics at Tufts University. After all, you can't throw out the whole idea of free speech just because you don't agree with what someone is saying — that's the whole point of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Even if it's hate speech, the idea that it can happen is more important to uphold than the words themselves. Toft posits to "Let them assemble, let them have their freedom of speech, and redouble your efforts and take measures to ensure that that can happen." For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.
Several interpretations of the Constitution say that Trump has already broken the law by threatening free speech concerning the NFL. When can we start impeachment proceedings?