Free Expression And Evolving Standards

The letter in Harper’s magazine has generated a great deal of discussion around free speech, and whether we are in an era of diminished capacity to speak one’s mind. I am quite interested in maintaining a culture of free expression, and have written on the subject in the past, and hope to write more in the future. I think it’s worth noting a few things that may help us think more carefully about our current debate.

1. Free expression is probably at an all-time high right now, at least in the West. There is a huge variety of different venues for your writing, there’s a whole new world podcasts for speeches, and an ever-increasing supply of video outlets. The availability of these platforms and publishers doesn’t guarantee you an audience, but that’s not what free expression means.
2. Related to that, some of the technologies that have enabled easy speech have made counter-speech extraordinarily easy as well.
3. There are a lot more people who are not you than there are people who are you, and so easy counter-speech means that it’s entirely possible to get inundated with unpleasantness.
4. Because of (2 and 3), people are often careful about what they say, and may feel burdened by this.
5. It is hard to get (1) without (2). The ability to broadcast to others means that they can broadcast back.
6. (4) may hit socially well-positioned people, but it hits vulnerable people far more.

Finally, we’re in a period of shifting cultural attitudes, and (hopefully) increasing equality of persons, and everyone is attempting to police different boundaries of what they take is appropriate. There have always been boundaries, there will always be boundaries, and it is a reasonable thing to argue about. Especially as new voices and new arguments come to the fore, some established views and voices may come to look less appealing. What was once ok might now be seen as out of bounds. But that may well be because what was once out of bounds is now acceptable. Likewise, newer voices may be ones that had a harder time being heard before. That there is a shift in the boundaries does not mean that they have necessarily shrunk. They may have just changed. That may well influence whose voices are more easily heard.

I predict that this debate will flare up with some frequency, in part because it is now so easy to pile on, and it’s easy to find examples of social punishments getting excessive. It would be good if we could figure out some better way of dealing with proportionality, but in a decentralized system of speech that is going to be very difficult.