The strange origins of the free speech warriors

June 25, 2018 by David Edward Tabachnick, The Conversation

Many free speech warriors today base their position on a proclamation articulated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the early 20th century United States Supreme Court justice.

In his dissenting opinion in United States vs. Schwimmer (1929), Holmes wrote that "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought —not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate."

A similar idea was expressed decades earlier by author Evelyn Beatrice Hall who, interpreting enlightenment philosopher Voltaire's attitude to disagreeable ideas, wrote: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

The modern origins of these views can be further traced back to John Stuart Mill and, specifically, his essay On Liberty. With great conviction, Mill explained:

"If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered… If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

Seemingly in the same tradition, today's free warrior argues that all speech, no matter how offensive or immoral, should be protected from any kind of regulation or persecution. Individuals who make the most hateful statements must be allowed to speak or we endanger the right and capacity of everyone else to properly express their ideas, whether they are controversial or not.

Logic of free speech warriors

Canada's best-known free speech warriors are Concordia professor Gad Saad, University of Toronto professor and self-help guru Jordan Peterson and his acolyte, Wilfrid Laurier teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd.

Along with their U.S. counterparts, such as podcasters Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin, they explain their advocacy as a way to counter the well-publicized and growing crisis of political correctness censorship, particularly on North American university campuses.

Notably, while some of the above are cagey about their political leanings, almost all of their efforts are directed toward protecting what might often be considered conservative viewpoints and ideas.

Whether speaking out against Bill C-16, which adds gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act, feminism, the "breakdown" of the traditional family and unwavering support for the state of Israel, this group can be fairly placed on the right of the political spectrum.

Free speech has progressive origins

This is quite strange because the intellectual and cultural origins of the free speech warriors would normally be described as quite liberal and progressive —as in the case of the Oliver Wendell Holmes' opinion.

The defendant in that case, Rosika Schwimmer, was a prominent feminist and pacifist who was denied citizenship to the United States because she refused to take the oath of allegiance because it conflicted with her beliefs.

Voltaire was a leading philosopher and advocate of progress and cosmopolitanism. John Stuart Mill was a leading liberal philosopher —an opponent of slavery and an early male advocate of women's rights. During his time as a Liberal MP in the British Parliament, he introduced the first women's suffrage petition in 1866.

Not really liberal

The free speech warriors sometimes argue that they reside within the liberal tradition because, for them, what we call liberalism is actually a warped version of the original. Often labelling themselves as "classical liberals," they describe a libertarian "limited government" revision of what it means to be a liberal.

In truth, thinkers such as Mill were far from being libertarians and, what's more, would never have embraced the borderline absolutist position of today's free speech warriors.

Based in what is called the "harm principle," Mill argued for a "big government" approach to situations in which the exercise of liberty might result in harm to others or even to the individual practising it.

In On Liberty, he argues that parents of poor moral fibre may have their children removed from the home, and calls for similar state intervention to stop the harms caused by gamblers, prostitutes and the drug addicts. Even more broadly, he decides that:

"The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation. Those who most need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desire it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights."

In other words, the ignorant and immoral must not have unhindered freedom as they lack the judgement to exercise it responsibly.

Like all rights, free speech has limits

This is similar to the ideas that back Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section One describes the protected rights and freedoms of citizens as subject to "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."

This "limitations clause" permits such things as hate propaganda legislation that makes certain kinds of speech illegal.

One of the favourite whipping boys of the warrior crowd, German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse, would likely cast their advocacy as "repressive tolerance," a "sort of tolerance that strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested."

By this measure, their unflinching support for people to express sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-trans opinions is actually a guise to maintain or return to a more conservative society, where women are primarily mothers and wives, immigration is rolled back, same-sex marriage is prohibited and legislation like Bill C-16 is withdrawn.

Free speech warriors, then, do not really fit within the liberal tradition at all. They have instead co-opted the liberal origins of the freedom of speech while not being liberal themselves.

Explore further: Psychologists: 'There is no alternative to free speech'

Related Stories

Psychologists: 'There is no alternative to free speech'

May 2, 2018

Colleges and universities across the country are struggling with the question of who decides what is acceptable speech on campus. When does a controversial topic become hate speech? When should it be allowed as free speech?

Anonymity, scoundrels, and free speech

July 31, 2017

Christoph Bezemek of the Institute of Public Law and Political Science, at the University of Graz, Austria, tells a tale of his school history teacher who purported that only "scoundrels" sent letters to a newspaper anonymously. ...

Trump can't block his critics on Twitter, judge rules

May 23, 2018

President Donald Trump cannot legally block Twitter users who disagree with him, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in a case with potentially far-reaching implications for social media use by public officials.

Recommended for you

NASA's Mars 2020 rover is put to the test

March 20, 2019

In a little more than seven minutes in the early afternoon of Feb. 18, 2021, NASA's Mars 2020 rover will execute about 27,000 actions and calculations as it speeds through the hazardous transition from the edge of space to ...

8 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Doug_Nightmare
5 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2018
I am glad that I read the article and enjoyed it before I noticed that it is from da Convo. It is exceptional from da Convo.
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 25, 2018
Individuals who make the most hateful statements must be allowed to speak or we endanger the right and capacity of everyone else to properly express their ideas, whether they are controversial or not.

I think when they came up with this notion they did not envision people just abusing this for the sake of contrariness (i.e. voicing opinions just for the shock value instead of the actual substance or as a means to bury other people's voices under a mountain of BS...or simply by voicing so much BS in such short a time that no one can keep up with debunking it all)

which is basically this:
In other words, the ignorant and immoral must not have unhindered freedom as they lack the judgement to exercise it responsibly.

Unfortunately that opens the door to arguments about what constitutes immoral/ignorant, as the immoral/ignorant ones will most certainly disagree with any definition that includes them.
Zzzzzzzz
3 / 5 (2) Jun 25, 2018
Most fee speech advocate arguments assume pure motives, or that the speech is intended to simply be the expression of ideas. We often see this freedom being exercised alongside an insistent claim that the motives are pure, which immediately calls that claim into serious question.

One persons freedom to swing their fist ends when the fist hits another person's nose. When it comes to expression of ideas, that comes down to aim. Expression aimed at impinging on the freedom of others falls into that category.

Right wing whiners almost always fall into infraction territory.

And sorry, whiners, someone else, who you have judged unworthy enjoying the same freedoms you enjoy does not constitute impingement on your freedoms. GET OVER IT.
rrwillsj
5 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2018
To paraphrase the author Donald Westlake. How to tell the difference between a left extremist (an environmentalist or pacifist) and a right extremist (a nazi or klansman) are:

A left extremist wishes to replace their mimeograph machine with a printing press.

A right extremist wishes to replace their mimeograph with a machine gun.

The difference between the moralist, who attempts to convince people that they can do better than awful.

And the inquisitor who will force people to obey even the most awful of dictates.

The denier shills for instance are insistent that improving people's lifestyles is evil because it threatens the sacred profits of the criminally proficient. When the denier shills fail to suppress free speech? They use the opportunity to flood the market place of ideas with insidious propaganda. To confuse the public with their mendacious claims to fake-patriotism and false-science.

Those calling themselves a leftist with machine-gun in hand? Are liars.
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (2) Jun 25, 2018
A crucial point many seem incapable of perceiving.
The implicit censorship even in promoting "free speech".
Note how the alternative, what we as decent people, must extend "free speech" to, always say "offensive", "immoral", "hateful" things.
The alternative to "our side" must always be unimaginably foul. To say that blacks are always inferior to whites does not promote harming them, it states what experience of poor academic abilities, innate violence, unnaturally high crime rates illustrate. Note, too, the admission that it is true by the fact that no one is allowed to perform an experiment examining black abilities compared to whites. A politically unpopular statement with the Democratic Racketeers, who buy votes by pandering to groups, but not necessarily untrue! And that defines its reception among many.
Not surprising, then, that the article should embrace the idea of making certain statements, even if true, illegal!
zz5555
5 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2018
To say that blacks are always inferior to whites does not promote harming them, it states what experience of poor academic abilities, innate violence, unnaturally high crime rates illustrate. Note, too, the admission that it is true by the fact that no one is allowed to perform an experiment examining black abilities compared to whites.

Why perform experiments when your conjecture is so trivial to disprove? I know some white people that believe mind-numbingly idiotic ideas like chemtrails and flat earth. I also know black people who understand both are idiotic. Therefore, at least some black people are superior to some white people and your conjecture is disproven.

You're welcome ;). (And congratulations on outing yourself as a racist. ;)

And since we've proven that blacks are not always inferior to whites, making that false claim is obviously damaging to blacks since it can give racists a reason not to hire them.
Da Schneib
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2018
However, what my Constitution says is that *the government* may not infringe free speech. It says nothing about social or economic consequences of expressing such thoughts, such as not being able to transact public business with people who despise your ideas. Go find another restaurant or baker or florist. Get over it. It's high time Nazis stopped being seated in polite restaurants.
Da Schneib
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2018
At the point where racism includes shooting people carrying no weapons in the back it's time to start hanging people for murder. No matter what color the people shot are.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.