Andrew Coyne: Free speech needs to be guided by judgment and conscience, not rules
2017/02/18 Leave a comment
Another thoughtful column by Coyne:
It is common among some clear-thinkers to reject any allegation of speech suppression — a speaker being shouted down on campus, a boycott of an offending corporation, a Nazi getting punched — unless it involves the explicit use of the coercive power of the state. Anything else is merely the “consequences” of speech, for which one should accept “responsibility.” Suck it up, snowflake.
In a sense, of course they’re right. The obligations of the state are of a different order than private individuals or groups, because of its unique powers of coercion, and because coercion — the power, not merely to punish speech, but to actively prevent speech — is of a different order than mere disapproval, say, or shunning.
But the difference is not so absolute as all that. It is more of degree than kind. As private individuals, we may not be under the same obligations and constraints as the state, but that does not mean we are under none. We have still the obligations of judgment, of conscience, and of respect — for the spirit of free speech, if you will, rather than the legal letter.
At one extreme it is easy to see this. If a mob were to burn down the local newspaper and hang its editor, it is of no use to say, well, it wasn’t the government that did it, so no chilling of speech is involved. One should not have to factor in, among the “consequences” to be expected of speech, the chance that one might be murdered — or punched, for that matter.
Short of actual law-breaking, things get trickier. There is no violence in shouting down a speaker, you may say; neither is a university, as a private organization, obliged to provide a platform for opinions of which it, or a section of the university community, disapproves. No, indeed. But free speech exists, as a legal guarantee, in part because of the foundation of social values in which it is embedded.
The spirit of free speech, that is, is as important: the notion that none of us is in absolute possession of the truth; that the route to truth is through the exchange and conflict of ideas; that the rights we each enjoy are guaranteed only so far as they do not intrude upon another’s; and that, in particular, we do not have a right not to be offended, or to be spared any encounter with disagreeable words, images or ideas. If we do not live by these principles ourselves, we will shortly find neither will our creation, the state.
So far so good. But what of the more benign ways of expressing collective disapproval: boycotts, online campaigns, or Parliamentary motions? Are these mere consequences of speech, or constraints upon it?
Answer: It depends. Anyone who has been the subject of a Twitter mobbing can attest it can be deeply unpleasant, and quite intimidating, even without overt threats of violence. The harm to reputation, for example, of having one’s name broadly associated with sexism, racism — or “Quebec-bashing” — can be a significant deterrent to speaking freely.
Taboos, shunning and other mechanisms of social disapproval, in other words, can raise the “price” of speech to intolerable levels. On the other hand, some things are taboo for a reason. We should not feel censorious for shunning or denouncing someone who expresses hateful or noxious opinions.
Neither should we hesitate to call them what they are. A good many of the participants in the present debate seem to think their freedom to say the most virulently and prejudicially anti-Muslim things should also protect them from being accused of prejudice against Muslims — or Islamophobia — in return. Well, no. That is simply logical, as is the denunciation in the motion before Parliament.
Where do we draw the line, then? Again, it depends. It requires all of us to use our judgment. People should not be labelled bigots or hate-mongers merely for offering an unconventional view on a controversial topic. A reasoned critique of Islam’s teachings on women is not to be treated the same as, say, a blanket claim that Muslims, as a group, are “unintegrateable.” But neither should actual bigotry be excused as merely being “un-PC.”
There are no simple rules to guide us. There are only mutual obligations: not to give offence needlessly, but also not to take offence lightly; not to round up a mob every time someone’s views offend us, but neither to be intimidated by the mob when it is necessary to offend.