Free Speech

I believe that blasphemous and offensive speech are victim-less crimes. In a free society, no one has a right not to be offended. Living in such a society means hearing and seeing things that annoy, anger, or insult you. It also means that all ideas, claims, beliefs, and positions face constant challenge, debate, improvement, and exchange. It creates a marketplace of ideas to be tested, applied, or discarded.

I believe we should never censor anything for the sake of hurt feelings or being politically correct. A free society is imperative for progress, innovation, and an evolution in thinking; being bothered or outright disgusted is a small price to pay for such an immeasurable benefit. Oppressive and stifling sociopolitical environments have rarely produced as much in the way of new and beneficial ideas as their freer counterparts. Such societies are often  intellectually, ideologically, and even culturally stagnant.

Of course, even free speech has it’s necessary limits. Context and content matter, especially if the well-being of another person is on the line. The Harm Principle of John Stuart Mills comes to mind: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

But defining what is harmful is subjective enough as it is; from that point, drawing the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t is a tricky, contentious, and often arbitrary process. How do we distinguish harsh criticism from all-out hate speech? For that matter, who is to determine whether hateful sounding speech is truly worthy of suppression? What is treasonous speech versus the highly critical or contrarian kind? What is subversive propaganda versus freedom of assembly or ideological dissemination?

I believe such things, if they must be addressed, should be done so in a case-by-case basis. Attempts at establishing anything statutory or “on the books” are usually ineffective, as it could either be to relativistic, too vague, or too strict. In my opinion, there isn’t any acceptable one-size-fits-all approach to discerning the “rightness” of certain acts of expression (not that while I’ve been using the term speech up until now, I really mean human expression in general; speech is merely the more popular manifestation of this).

Given the difficulty and risk of trying to establish an objective and non-arbitrary legal standard of good and bad speech, it’s safer to accept that the benefits of such a free society far outweigh the costs incurred by those who are offended or bothered. Again, there will always be exceptions, but there you have it: exceptions, not rules.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t things out there that disgust and enrage me, things I wish could go away. I think all of us could relate in wishing that certain reprehensible or just plain stupid ideas could cease to exist. But in the real world, there would be no way of doing so without resorting to harsh authoritarian measures that would probably suppress other beneficial ideas as collateral (even then, killing the expression doesn’t kill the thought; in this case, out of sight (or sound) isn’t out of mind).

So most of us could agree on this much: we’ll put up with each other’s nonsense or offensiveness if it means none of us have to worry about being collectively stifled. It’s an uneasy contract at times, and tenuous to this day, but it’s facilitated a lot of thriving.

I should note that this issue is pervasive among both the left and the right in this country; the former is too prone to political correctness to the point of stifling honest discussion, and the latter often disallows any critical analysis of religion or the United States. Both will condemn contrary views with all sorts of melodramatic and often slanderous labels (for which the right is particularly savvy): bigot, socialist, un-American, unpatriotic, fascists, intolerant, and so on.

Thankfully, by my own experience and observation, most conservatives and liberal alike, and everyone in-between, can broadly agree on the most principle foundation of a just and progressive society. The value of free expression – and it’s promotion of dialogue and innovation – is worthy of utmost support, even at the cost of airing out some of the ugly things human beings have to offer.

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