Free Speech vs. Human Dignity

Brad Patty

21 days ago

September 04, 2018

This is the introduction to a series by SSG Sr. VP Brad Patty on the historical and philosophical basis for free expression in a free society. We will intersperse video segments on the topic with the text.

Basic Principles of Free Speech part 1

One argument against free speech is that some speech is so hateful that allowing such speech is inconsistent with a basic respect for human dignity. This seems plausible to some, and the position was formally argued in a 2012 book philosopher Jeremy Waldron.[1] As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes:

Waldron argues that the harm in hate speech (the title of his book) is that it compromises the dignity of those under attack. A society where such images proliferate makes life exceedingly difficult for those targeted by hate speech. Waldron suggests that the people engaged in hate speech are saying “[t]he time for your degradation and your exclusion by the society that presently shelters you is fast approaching” (2012, 96). He claims that prohibiting such messages assures all people that they are welcome members of the community.

I will argue against this proposition on three points. First, that the basic dignity of human beings lies in their ability to think for themselves as individuals, and thus that respect for basic human dignity requires defending freedom of speech. Second, that the harm that Waldron describes is more effectively undone by more speech (specifically, speech by supporters of those under attack) than by prohibitions on speech. Thus, the harm can be better contested without prohibiting the speech, rendering the prohibition unnecessary. Finally, third, I will argue that prohibiting speech makes actual violent harm to the groups under attack more likely, both because it tends to obscure the danger in a way that can lead to false confidence, and because it tends to the creation of underground movements that are unrestrained in their movement to violence by countering voices.

Why Dignity Requires Freedom of Speech

Why are human beings due a basic dignity at all? We have two different answers from the Enlightenment. The first, in our Declaration of Independence, is that humans were endowed with dignity by their Creator, who bestowed on all of them an equality of rights. This religious answer is satisfying to many Americans, and for them that answer suffices.

Under the First Amendment, however, one is not required to be religious or, therefore, to accept religious answers. The second answer, from philosopher Immanuel Kant, is that human beings have dignity because they are free. Kant did not mean politically free. He meant that, unlike a stick or a stone, you can reason for yourself and decide how you will behave. Your ability to think for yourself and come to your own decisions thus sets you above sticks, or stones, or most other objects in the universe. It is why you have dignity.

What does it mean to have dignity? It means that you are due a certain respect that is not due to sticks or stones. For example, a person is due the respect of not being harmed without good reason. Not everything has that dignity. Anyone can pick a stick up off the ground and break it without it being thought to violate the stick’s dignity. No one may similarly grab another person and break their arm without having committed an affront.

If your dignity arises from your capability of thinking for yourself, respecting your dignity requires respecting your thoughts. “Respecting your thoughts” does not mean “agreeing with your thoughts,” for requiring agreement would itself be disrespectful of everyone else’s ability to have their own thoughts. It does, however, mean respecting your right to think things through for yourself.  Your free thoughts cannot be prohibited without violating your dignity as a human being – indeed, if Kant is right, such a prohibition is a violation of the most basic source of your dignity as a human being.  

If I may not prohibit your thoughts, though, might I prohibit your words? Speech is only thinking out loud. Knowing what you are thinking may upset others, but it does not do them any physical harm. Waldron’s argument is that the upset others suffer can violate their dignity enough to justify preventing you from speaking your thoughts. Since having thoughts of your own is the source of your dignity, however, such a prohibition is itself a more basic violation of human dignity than any upset that may arise from learning the content of your thoughts.

You cannot use a lesser violation of human dignity to justify a greater violation of human dignity. If speech does not present an immediate threat of physical harm, then the violation of human dignity inherent in telling people that they may not speak their thoughts is greater than any violation that comes from hearing such thoughts. Only if speech acts threaten immediate physical violence do they endanger human dignity more than the bar on being allowed to speak your mind.

[1] Jeremy Waldron, The Harm in Hate Speech, Harvard University Press, 2012.

Why Countering Hateful Speech is More Powerful than Prohibitions

If the concern is that ‘those under attack’ may be upset by the feeling that their place in society is threatened, prohibiting speech is not the most effective response in any case. The most effective way to show that society assures ‘those under attack’ a secure place is for members of society to stand up and say so. A positive demonstration of support is more powerful because it proves that there is no danger of exclusion.

In fact this has happened many times lately. Genuinely hateful speech has tended to be overwhelmed by its opponents. This occurs even when one might reasonably expect people to be in a hateful frame of mind because of recent events. For example, in 2016 terrorists motivated by an extreme interpretation of Islam carried out a series of attacks in Belgium. Speech about these attacks on social media organized around a hashtag called #StopIslam. But, as the Washington Post found on analysis, fully 90% — ninety percent – of the uses of #StopIslam were by people who were expressing support for Muslims and rejecting the idea of excluding them from society.

A speech law attempting to prohibit exclusionary speech might well have stripped away the 10% of presumably hateful uses of this hashtag. However, by preventing the original speech the law would also have prevented the massive display of public support for Muslims in the wake of the attacks. Muslims would probably have felt that their place in society was endangered by Islamist terrorist attacks whether or not anyone was allowed to say so. What the law would have prevented was the clear demonstration that most people rejected that line of thinking. Waldron’s goal is thus more effectively gained by allowing speech than by prohibiting it, and without the violation of dignity inherent in prohibiting speech.

Why Speech Prohibitions Increase Physical Danger

In addition to their violations of human dignity, speech prohibitions actually make physical violence more likely. This occurs in two ways. The first is that an effective prohibition removes the signals of danger that might warn people who are really threatened with physical violence of imminent harm. If people are allowed to express hateful thoughts, that very expression serves as a danger signal. Such signals can warn people who are in real, physical danger of the need to take steps to protect themselves. While we would all prefer that these cases not occur, when they do occur the most important immediate concern lies in preventing the physical harm. Once that is done, the source of the hatred can be addressed without anyone being physically hurt by it.

The second way that effective speech prohibition enhances danger is by making it harder to track what becomes an underground movement. If people who are full of hate are speaking about it in public, it is obvious who they are and we can keep an eye on them. If their speech is effectively stopped, then they will no longer be obvious. Should they find each other, as underground movements do, they will become an invisible bloc whose hateful thoughts go unchallenged because they express them only in this self-reinforcing environment. This is the sort of thing that leads to the formation of terrorist organizations.

Such organizations often overestimate the support they enjoy within the wider community. Their members believe that, because they were kept silent by prohibitions, the wider society probably contains many more people who have been silenced. Whereas public speech that counters their ideas proves that violence by them would be doomed to fail, prohibitions can foster the idea that a sufficiently bold and violent strike would bring a silent majority out to support them. This increases the danger that such violence will seem to them a plausible course of action.

Concluding Remarks

These three arguments should suffice to show that freedom of speech needs to be supported in spite of the existence of undesirable, even hateful speech. First, thought and speech are directly associated with the source of our dignity as human beings. Prohibiting either is a significant affront to dignity. Only physical violence is a greater affront, and therefore only speech that threatens to produce immediate physical violence can be justly barred.

Second, if the concern behind a proposed prohibition is protecting a sense of social inclusion, positive speech acts assuring that inclusion are much more powerful than prohibitions. Indeed, even negative speech acts can ultimately have a positive effect if they produce a clear demonstration by society that it supports and will defend those who felt threatened.

Third, if physical violence is the one violation of dignity that might justify speech bans, nevertheless such bans increase the probability of such violence occurring. Speech that threatens immediate harm, such as incitement to riot, might be prohibited because it prevents the immediate harm. But allowing even hateful speech can be preventive of physical violence if that speech serves to warn potential victims, to allow society to keep an eye on those with hateful thoughts, or to prove to potential terrorists that their cause lacks public support.

For all these reasons, concern with human dignity should impel us to defend freedom of speech. It is a crucial human liberty, closely related to the very source of our dignity. If our dignity is to be defended, our speech must be as well.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia.