Free Speech Is Inconvenient

Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That attitude used to be widely held but the freedom of speech is quickly becoming another casualty to statism. A lot of people are happy to support suppressing the speech of people they disagree with. Fortunately, the freedom of speech hasn’t been slain yet. There are a few holdouts who understand the value of the freedom of speech even if it can be inconvenient:

Rowling gave a brief but exquisite address in which she lauded free speech in the broadest terms, saying, “The tides of populism and nationalism currently sweeping many developed countries have been accompanied by demands that unwelcome and inconvenient voices be removed from public discourse … Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me, a moderate and a liberal, most uncomfortable.” Speaking out about an online petition that sought to ban Donald Trump from visiting the UK, she said, “I find almost everything that Mr Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine.”

The problem with suppressing free speech is the same problem inherent in any political solution: it sounds great while your people are in power but turns out not being so great when your opposition is in power.

Political power in democratic systems tends to change hands frequently. When things turn south the people tend to blame whatever party is in power and punish that party by handing one of its competitors the reigns. Since political power never actually solves the problems facing the people — and in fact is often the cause — entire nations of people end up trapped in a vicious cycle of flip flopping rules.

Consider the situation Rowling discussed. A lot of people in the United Kingdom support black listing Donald Trump from entering. On the one hand I can see their power. Trump is a fascist. But black listing him would set a precedence and that precedence could be used in a very different way at a future time. If the current party in power black listed Trump a future party could use that act as a justification to black list somebody else (for you Bernie Sanders supporters out there, a conservative party could come into power and black list him).

Handing the State more power always carries longterm consequences. If you hand it the power to censor bigots today it could very well use that power to censor political dissidents who are fighting bigotry in the future. The freedom of speech, like all freedoms, should be absolute.

One thought on “Free Speech Is Inconvenient”

  1. Way to go, Ms. Rowling!

    …entire nations of people end up trapped in a vicious cycle of flip flopping rules.

    And it’s not any better if political power stays fixed. There’s no more flip-flopping, but freedom of speech (and, inevitably many other freedoms) goes by the wayside.

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