Why Protect Extreme Speech?

Brad Patty

2 months ago

September 19, 2018

Basic Principles of Free Speech part 4

When freedom of speech comes under attack, opponents usually have a particularly ugly example to serve as the poster boy for their cause. The chosen example of why restrictions are needed may be actual Neo-Nazis or Klansmen, liars, or hate-filled monsters of one sort or another. The example may be the Westboro Baptist Church, whose hatred for gays and soldiers alike makes them nearly universally despised by Americans. Nobody really likes these people, and few want to be associated with them in the way that you risk being if you stand up to defend their rights.  Nevertheless, we have to do it anyway.

People who are serious about defending any right have to accept that they will always be defending unpleasant cases. It is the unpleasant that society will move against first. The kind of person who values making themselves agreeable to others will not be the one who first provokes society to silence them. However, the successful punishment of the extremist lays the groundwork for the eventual punishment of even the nicest person, if she holds beliefs society disdains. By the time they get to her, those who seek to silence her can point to a long line of successful precedents.

Indeed, right now there is a concerted effort to paint with broad brush-strokes in order to move very quickly from the extreme to the ordinary. Just yesterday as of this writing Rebecca Lewis of the Data Society published a report entitled “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube.” It purports to be a network analysis of the sort created by government agencies for targeting purposes. The network is presented as dangerous radical channels of political speech on YouTube.

By her own admission, however, these are not all of them very radical. The channels in her network analysis range from “mainstream versions of libertarianism and conservatism, all the way to overt white nationalism.” By treating this “network” as a single entity that includes the kind of extreme speech that is most readily banned, she moves to erect bars on speech that she herself concedes is quite mainstream.

One of the more central nodes in her analysis is that of “Sargon of Akkad,” who objects strenuously to the way he is portrayed. Here is his rebuttal.

As he notes, the “alt-right” has withered in the face of free speech. The marketplace of ideas has strongly rejected their movement. Security Studies Group President Jim Hanson and I discussed this very feature a few weeks ago.

Defending the speech of extremists – even inviting them to debate – does not increase the plausibility of their arguments. It does expose their arguments to the rest of us so that we can think about them and respond to them. There is a robust philosophical tradition that explains why this is a reliable process.[1] Beyond that reliability, the Declaration of Independence holds that governments are instituted by human beings precisely to protect rights. Protecting our rights is the only real duty the government has.

Opponents of free speech talk less about rights than about dignity. They claim protecting the dignity of people can justify quashing the rights of other people. That has it backwards. The way you show real respect for equal dignity is by protecting equal rights. This is especially true of free speech. Respect for free speech is at the very root of human dignity. Tolerating the ideas of others is a major way that you show respect for the equality of even difficult and disagreeable people. A firm commitment to freedom of speech, excepting only direct threats of violence, shows a commitment to the equality of all people – even the ugly ones, the fringe figures, the ones most people would rather not have around.

We need free speech because the impulse to suppress speech is a more extreme rejection of others than the harshest words. We show our commitment to this kind of dignity in how we treat those whom we most despise. No matter how much I might despise a man for his ideas, I am showing him more respect if I let him have his say than if I silence him. The truly extreme position, the one that shows less respect even than slurs and hate speech, is that you should shut up.

[1] For an excellent summary, I recommend Lee C. Bollinger, The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

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.