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Free Speech is Overrated

March 16, 2012

Apparently a bunch of feminists think that the government should get Rush Limbaugh off the air. The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf, though no fan of Limbaugh, is “appalled.”

The U.S. has been well served by legal and social norms that stop the government from targeting, punishing or censoring political speech based on the perceived offensiveness of its content. Weakening that norm would result in attempts by the left and right to use speech codes as a cudgel against opponents.

This is right, and the attempt to use the law as a cudgel against political opponents is exactly what we’re seeing here. This is really the reason why speech should be protected.

This is too much, though:

It is, finally, immoral to urge the state to silence or even arrest someone because their words are offensive, an ultimately subjective standard that everyone arguably transgresses against on occasion.

The idea that there is ultimately no more than a subjective standard by which one might try to control speech is unworthy of first-year ethics class, and may be passed over. There’s also nothing immoral per se about silencing speech. The only issue is who will do the silencing, and whether we can trust them. Limbaugh himself deserves silencing. Much deserves silencing. This is especially obvious when we turn our attention to the popular media. Free speech is much more appealing when we contemplate a literati exchanging ideas than when we look at, say, the technology-aided mass consumption of  rap music.

I am tempted to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, and say that while I see much that deserves silencing, I see no one fit to do the silencing. But that’s not really true. I would trust myself to do a lot of silencing. Some caution would be needed, but at the same time there’s so much low-hanging fruit. I would begin by putting a stop to much of the filth in popular music and on television. Nothing would be lost. Absolutely nothing. The same creative minds would just work within new boundaries.

This isn’t arrogance. It’s a sober acknowledgment of the fact that many people need a good deal more moral guidance than they are getting at present. People like me would, ideally, be giving it to them.

*     *     *

It’s worth noting that speech itself is often not the real issue. To the extent that it needs to be addressed at all, there are often underlying social issues that should to be addressed directly. It’s crucial for would-be censors such as myself to realize this.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2012 3:29 pm

    I’m in favour of this. Not you being the arbiter of course, but me perhaps.

    Another thing that needs to go is the idea that anything that is between two consensual adults should be legal.

  2. Gunn permalink
    March 18, 2012 12:11 pm

    Ah, satire. Nicely done, even if slightly heavy handed.

    Just as a side comment: my view is that free speech applies only in the context of what the state is permitted to do. In other words, if someone insults you in a pub, and you punch them in the face, you haven’t denied them their free speech in doing so (and of course, you are liable to facing assault charges as a consequence).

    If the wronged party is the state however, because they have the legal monopoly on violence, special protections need to be provided to citizens or subjects to prevent the state abusing its power.

    In all other cases, i.e. where parties would have recourse via slander laws, free speech doesn’t even need to be invoked.

    And of course, the truth should always be a defence. On that note, I would argue that Limbaugh could actually claim defence in that what he said was what any reasonable person would infer as truthful from the statements made by Fluke; certainly his comments were boorish, but not necessarily untruthful.

    [JH: This was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but not not satirical.]

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