Why freedom of expression matters

published Apr 17, 2022

If someone told you it was about the First Amendment, maybe that person never understood what the value of free speech is. Or maybe he understands full well.

Why freedom of expression matters

This is a transcript from a thread by @WokalDistance.

There's a difference between:

  1. The legal doctrine of freedom of speech (i.e: 1st amendment) and,
  2. The liberal value of free speech

In the United States, the 1st is a legal doctrine restricting government power to censor.  The 2nd is a view about why the free exchange of ideas is necessary.

The liberal value of free speech recognizes that the search for truth requires that we be able to discuss and investigate all ideas. It is a pre-condition of truth-seeking that we can discuss any idea in order to determine if that idea is any good.

This means allowing the discussion and defense of ideas that we might view as evil, wrong, offensive, or sinful.

The liberal value of free speech means that it isn't only government censorship we are worried about. What we want is a vibrant marketplace of ideas where we can subject any and every idea to such things as debate, discussion, satire, and rigorous analysis; with the goal of finding out which ideas are true, good, right, correct, useful, etc.

The liberal value of free speech is not just about personal freedom — that no one may justly retaliate for you expressing or hearing an idea — it's also, and most importantly, about how we all get to the truth.  The liberal value of free speech comes loaded with the idea that the ability to expose all ideas to criticism and analysis is how we determine which ideas are best, and every idea must be subjected to this.

If we put a finger on the scale of the marketplace of ideas and refuse to allow criticism of certain ideas, or refuse to allow expression of certain ideas, or interfere with others hearing certain ideas out, then we are short-circuiting the most powerful mechanism through which we adjudicate the truth of competing ideas.

On this view, refusing to allow ideas to be exposed to the marketplace of ideas, either by censoring the idea, or censoring the criticism of an idea, is the intellectual equivalent of cutting the hair off of Samson. It's to take away the thing that gives us — our whole society — our great strength.

And what gives us our strength?  It is the ability for us to ponder and test ideas, figuring out which ones are best by exposing them to analysis and criticism.  However, this only works if you accept certain norms and ideas that come from the liberal order — namely:

  1. That there is objective truth to be discovered.
  2. That we combat biases and falsehoods by creating systems which incentivize analysis of the truth value of claims, rather than the interests of the person making the claim.
  3. That no one person gets to exercise a veto over truth claims, whether coercively or manipulatively.
  4. That anyone can participate in this quest.
  5. That conflicts are resolved via persuasion and debate... not the use of force or through threats.
  6. That the system doesn't work in a vacuum; it requires maintainance of the both incentive structures and the norms which allow the system to function.

That is not a complete or finished list, but it does touch on the main themes of what we are looking for. The point is, of course, that what we are after is not merely the ability to say anything, what we want is the ability to subject any claim to criticism, to see if that claim can withstand scrutiny. This is what we are after.

Sometime soon I'll do a thread on how and why postmodernism virulently attacks these values.

Thanks for reading

If you show this to someone opposed to free speech, and they still remain opposed to free speech, I beg you consider this simple explanation for that behavior:

That someone knows exactly why free speech works — he is simply opposed to you expressing and discovering certain truths he detests, and is determined to impose this perverse wish on you at all costs.  That person is evil; you are advised never to trust him again.

Also, beware of people who deny that any truth-bearing claim can be proven.  These people don't practice such a nonsense belief — their own behavior shows that — they're just using that nonsense to sabotage your search for truth, in many cases due to self-serving ulterior motives.

Finally, beware of terms like "moderation" or "policy" — in this day and age, they are often motte-and-bailey synonyms for intentional censorship of ideas.