Following events in Charlottesville, Virginia – discussed in our latest podcast – there is naturally a great deal of discussion on the limits of free speech.
Plausible arguments in favour of censorship, made by the well and badly intentioned alike, hinge on the idea that some views are too dangerous to air. (The implausible arguments rely on some definition of offence. In plain English, the advocates wish to abolish butthurt.)
Even those who call themselves free speech absolutists tend to accept that certain information should be restricted out of fear of harm, such as military intelligence or illegal pornography. I think the justification for such restraints is obvious, and though it has some comparison to the main argument, it is tangential to it.
In our era that main debate over speech restrictions concerns political speech, or speech made to advocate a certain cause.
Both the latest US presidential elections and the EU referendum brought accusations (with basis), of outright lies, half-truths, and distortions. A recent and excellent essay from Quillette makes the case that none of these things are new. Fake news is indeed old news.
In the related debates over false speech and harmful speech, it has not been noted widely enough that true speech may be harmful – at least for a broad enough definition.
It is possible to argue that pointing out there are a lot of Jews in Parliament may incite hatred against Jews. It is also a genuine question among philosophers whether some truths are too inflammatory to be aired publicly.
There are a lot of working parts then. The pro-free speech view on all this is well-summarised by the Economist:
‘As long as the advocates of such [flawed] ideas stop short of inciting violence, however, well-aimed ridicule and tough counter-argument are generally a better response than jail terms or fines. The most effective answer to fake news is accurate news. And for those with strong convictions about spiritual matters, the best response to a theological challenge is to argue back, not to brandish a pair of handcuffs.’
In the post there is no evidence advanced for this assertion, other than the difficulties in arbitrating and enforcing such laws, as were put froward in the Quillette article cited above.
This tallies some of my own misgivings about hate speech regimes that are common across the West. But I doubt that fake news is best beaten by accurate news, or if on the marketplace of ideas the best notions always win. Certainly in the short term falsehoods and poor arguments can carry the day, and by the time they are corrected the damage is done.
I could well believe that vigorous state fines could reduce false news reports, or that the best ideas – for a given definition – would be better protected by similar tools than by letting things be.
My main opposition to such measures is that I do not trust the state to pick a side in political disputes, other than when authorised by the voters. And entrusting the police with tools to prosecute wrongthink is probably as dangerous as it sounds.