Free Speech Absolutism
In political debates across the internet the issue of free speech has taken on a central role. It is primarily (though not exclusively) people who identify on the centre or right of the political spectrum who are concerned with this issue. The worry they voice is that liberal types in big tech, or other corporate organisations and University admins are sacrificing free speech to appease the PC or so called ‘Woke’ brigade. To address this worry they point to what they think of paradigm as examples of people’s speech being stifled; such as Professors being told they will lose their job if they don’t refer to people by their preferred pronouns, or people being banned from Twitter or YouTube for purported hate speech. The free-speech absolutists take it as a mantra that free-speech is a fundamental right that should not be overrun no matter the cost. Pod-caster Joe Rogan who is a member of a group called the IDW which is obsessed with the notion of free speech, has discussed this issue on many occasions. Rogan holds the view that the solution to hate speech isn’t banning people from public platforms, rather the solution to hate speech is more speech countering it.
Not all theorists who worry about free speech hold the wild view that any speech should be allowed no matter the consequences. Thus, a substantial proportion of the IDW supported Jordan Peterson threatening to sue people who wrote articles critical of his work. Their view was that this wasn’t a free speech issue but rather it was an issue of defamation of character; hence it was legal issue. I won’t get into the issue of whether Peterson’s use of lawyers was justified from a legal perspective, I will just note that those who support Peterson on this issue do agree that there should be some legal constraints on the notion of free speech. Such people presumably wouldn’t support a Rogan type figure who said that the solution to defamation is to simply state why you disagree with what the person said; as opposed to making defamation illegal.
The notion of speech being constrained for legal reasons should not seem overly objectionable to most people. Speech is a form of behaviour, and like all other behaviour, it is constrained in various ways for various reasons. Driving a Car is a form of behaviour. This behaviour is severely constrained for a variety of different reasons. When driving you are only allowed to drive on one side of the road, you cannot drive through a red traffic light, and you can only drive at a certain speed. Walking is a form of behaviour. I cannot just walk anywhere I want. If there is a sign outside a house that says: ‘Private Property: Trespassers will be prosecuted’, then I cannot just walk into the house. My behaviour of walking and driving are subject to many legal constraints. Likewise, my verbal behaviour is subject to many constraints legal and otherwise. A clichéd example is the example of shouting ‘Fire’ in a busy theatre, when there demonstrably no fire and causing a riot. This is a form of verbal behaviour that will result in getting one banned from the theatre. As we discussed above defamation of character is a form of verbal behaviour that will lead to you getting sued if it is proven you engaged in it. Part of living in a complex society means that a lot of your behaviour (whether Verbal or not) is constrained for a variety of different reasons.
Given these obvious facts one wonders why the debate is framed as it is. Why would one side call themselves free speech absolutists? Why would the likes of Rogan argue that the proper response to hate speech is better speech? Is the proper response to people driving on the wrong side of the road to set an example by driving on the right side of the road? All behaviour has consequences and hence there are rules in place that constrain some of our behaviours. So why then do people appear to be more worried about free speech in the case of verbal behaviour than they are with other kinds of behaviour? I think that the reason people have such worries is because of the spectre of Orwell’s 1984.
In Orwell’s 1984 we are told of a totalitarian world where the government has strict rules on the way people think and the aim of the government is to make thoughts critical of their regime unthinkable. This nightmarish world presents a terrifying picture of reality. Few people agree with Orwell that language determines reality to such an extent that governments banning words like ‘Freedom’ from public discourse will stop people from being able to think about freedom. Nonetheless as power gets centralized into massive corporations who hold more power than most world governments do; one can understand why people may be fearful about such people using their power to control the topics we are allowed to speak about. If Twitter or YouTube ban certain topics from even being discussed people some people feel that we are veering towards a state of affairs where a handful of tech billionaires get to decide what people are allowed to say about certain political topics.
The Orwellian worries go even deeper than just worries about whether tech companies are banning people for certain speech acts. The worry is also that these tech billionaires are trying to implement a type of Orwellian thought control where you get people to accept certain patently false statements. In 1984 the party forced Winston to believe that 2 + 2=5 for no other reason than to establish dominance over him and divorce him from any other reality than the reality of big brother. Some free speech absolutists draw a line in the sand, they hold certain truths as immutable facts, or ground works that cannot coherently be questioned. One such line in the sand free speech absolutists draw is on the issue of biological sex. These Orwellian worries take the form of arguing that tech billionaires, university admins, and corporations of all sorts are trying to force people to deny obvious biological facts. Why are these corporations supposedly trying to control our thoughts? The answer to this question depends on which conspiracy theorist you talk to. One set of conspiracy theorist will argue that the corporations are being forced to do this by ‘woke’ people who are unknowingly in the grip of Neo-Marxist ideology. To another set of conspiracy theorists the aim is to get people to lose grip of any objective reality and give those in power the ability to control what you can speak of and destroy any answerability to the world. In this nightmare world the only thing you are answerable to is those in power.
So called Free Speech Absolutists range from people who think that some of our verbal behaviour may be subject to restrictions for various reasons in the same way that all other behaviour is subject to constraints, to conspiracy theorists who think that attacks on our free speech are part of some Orwellian Plot to control us and divorce us from any concept of reality. In addressing these views, it is important to consider how free is our free speech is in general, independently of the contexts free speech absolutists typically care about. In ordinary conversations does the notion of free speech play much of a role.
How Free is Free Speech?
“One fundamental contribution of what we have been calling “Cartesian Linguistics” is the observation that human language, in its normal use, is free from the control of independently identifiable external stimuli or internal states and it is not restricted to any practical communicative function…The limitless possibilities of thought and imagination are reflected in the creative aspect of language use. Language provides finite means and infinite possibilities of expressions constrained only by rules of concept formation and sentence formation” (Chomsky ‘Cartesian Linguistics’ p. 77)
Linguist Noam Chomsky has noted that Language has some curious properties. These properties should be acknowledged in any discussion of Free-Speech. A key feature of language is linguistic productivity which relies on a basic set of concepts and a grammar with a recursive device (the ability to embed concepts within concepts), by using these tools humans have the capacity to construct a potentially infinite amount of sentences. It is not just that we can construct a potentially infinite number of grammatical sentences, we also manage to construct a potentially infinite number of sentences that are coherent. Chomsky gives a famous grammatical sentence ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ while the sentence is grammatically well formed it has no meaning, and the idea of green ideas sleeping furiously does not seem to be coherent. Most sentences humans speak are coherent. Grammatical but incoherent sentences are very unusual in the normal linguistic community. Aside from sentences typically having combinatorial productivity, and coherence they also typically have appropriateness to the situation. If two people were sitting at a table and one of them proposed to the other. There are many different responses that could be offered. Such as accepting the proposal or saying no I am not ready for the marriage. But if a person responded to the proposal by saying ‘No black scorpions are falling on this table’, most people would judge this a very inappropriate response. Normal human sentences are typically appropriate to the situation in which they are spoken.
Linguistic productivity, coherence, and appropriateness to the situation are indeed key features of language. However, Chomsky goes even further than just pointing out these three truisms. Chomsky argues that these capacities are un-caused by environmental factors and social reinforcement or by internal factors ( Cartesian Linguistics p. 77). He goes on to further argue that it is a mystery how we manage to use language freely and appropriately.
Chomsky’s conception of language as an instrument of thought that we can freely use is one that is congenial to so called free speech absolutists. It is also congenial to the individualistic way Western people have been encultured. While there is much in Chomsky’s account that is very persuasive, his emphasis on behaviour being uncaused is very strange. In his ‘Criticism of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour’, Chomsky lambasted Skinner’s use of the notion of stimulus control. Chomsky gave an example of a person viewing a picture in a museum. He noted the absurdity of thinking that every time the person saw the picture they said ‘picture’ or ‘art’ etc. Chomsky was of course correct to note that words aren’t elicited in a crude stimulus response manner. Nonetheless he was incorrect in his belief that Skinner was proposing a stimulus-response account of word learning, and he ignored the fact that Skinner emphasized multiple sources of control of our use of words. I won’t today go into the long complicated debate between Skinner and Chomsky, I will just note that both of them are making contradictory assumptions about role the environment plays in the causation of verbal behaviour and neither really manages to justify their a-priori intuitions. Skinner assumes that our language is under constant environmental control (and control from the environment our ancestors evolved in through genetic constraints), but never demonstrated this fact. Chomsky argues that our ability to coherently an appropriately use language is a mystery which will probably always remain beyond our ken an he even speculates that this ability may not be causally explicable through either internal factors or external factors.
We won’t solve the debate between Chomsky and Skinner on this topic but I think it is worth just thinking through the notion of verbal behaviour and ways that it may be constrained by environmental and psychological contingencies. Thinking through these different constraints may help us understand whether the notion of free speech absolutism makes sense.
In ordinary every-day conversation we implicitly police the type of speech we use. People do not speak about the same things or in the same way when conversing with a very young child, as they would when talking to another adult. A plausible reason why we speak in this way to young children is that they prefer that type of speech so give us positive feedback when we engage in it (Fernalt 1985). Furthermore if we spoke to an adult using motherese they would more than likely find it irritating and condescending and a normal human would pick up on cues from the adult that they don’t find the speech tone appropriate. To some degree the way we talk to a person (whether an adult or a child) is constrained by environmental feed back such as how they react to the speech.
Even in simple conversational things such as slips of the tongue we sometimes indicate a type of implicit policing of our verbal behaviour. A lot of Freud’s theories have been discredited and his reputation has probably never been lower. However, his two books ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’, and his ‘Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis’ offer some plausible speculations as to why we make slips of the tongue. These speculations aren’t scientific but they do offer a mirror into the types of factors that sometimes influence us making slips of the tongue.
Freud tells a story about him and his children staying with a family friend in a summer resort. The host was anti-Semitic and was ranting a series of horrible things about Jewish people. Freud, who was of course Jewish, wanted to reprimand the woman and correct her false claims about Jewish people. However, he didn’t want to start an argument and have to go find another place for him and his children to stay in. Freud’s discretion won out and he decided not to confront his host. But he decided to get his children out of the way of the hosts anti Semitism by asking the children to go to the garden. He turned to the children and said:
“Go into the garden, “Juden [Jews]”, quickly correcting it to Jungen [youngsters]” (Psychopathology of Everyday Life p. 134)
A plausible interpretation of the events is that while one part of Freud wanted to admit to being Jewish, this part lost out because of other pragmatic issues. However, the part of him that wanted to admit being Jewish still managed to insert it into the conversation via a slip of the tongue. One doesn’t have to buy into Freudian Psychoanalysis to see that our every day conversations are shot through with our own pragmatic (largely unconscious) verbal behaviour and don’t just act like free speech absolutists.
In his Verbal Behaviour Skinner makes a similar point:
“One of the two possible responses is differentially selected because the other is also to some extent punishing when the speaker uses a “euphemistic” expression. The euphemistic response has fewer aversive effects upon the speaker, either directly or indirectly through the listener.” (Verbal Behaviour pp 235-336)
In Skinners example we use euphemisms because we have been trained that out right insults typically have punishing consequences. Again, we can see self-policing of verbal behaviour as people try to pragmatically make their way through life.
This self-policing also occurs in jokes and again Skinner has an interesting quasi scientific take on jokes. I don’t entirely agree with Skinner’s take as I think incongruity resolution theory is a more comprehensive theory of jokes. However, I think that Skinner’s take is accurate to some cases of humour. Skinner makes the following point:
“Freud has emphasized the fact that witty responses are (a) automatically reinforcing to the speaker, (b) punishable by the listener or community. Humour is preoccupied with tabooed subjects, in particular sex, and with having aversive effects upon the listeners or others. Freud argued that wit permits the “release” of repressed responses, but the point can be made by saying that the response receiving supplemental support is weak because of punishment. Both interpretations miss an important point…The aggressive nature of the remark no doubt accounted for much of its strength; the function of the wit was to make an aggressive response unpunishable. But it is not enough to say that the speaker could appeal to the “harmless meaning” in a legalistic extenuation ( I was only adding a rather thoughtless conversational remark) because the “aggressive meaning” ( you may not be on the throne for long) was clear to everyone. Rather we have to appeal to a particular characteristic of the witty verbal community. Just as the literary community tolerates weak determiners of strength, so the witty community exacts a quid pro quo for otherwise offensive behaviour. It is almost as if the community had agreed: you may be aggressive provided you are amusing. (ibid pp.287-288)
Skinner’s account of humour is pretty basic, but it is on the money for a lot of cases. We have all probably used humour to lampoon people knowing full well that if we said the same thing in a serious way we would be punished. It seems reasonably plausible to argue that humour is another type of verbal behaviour that we engage in self-policing for a variety of pragmatic reasons.
I don’t want to belabour the point too much, but Chomskian worries aside, most people will admit as obvious that our verbal behaviour in ordinary life is caught in a causal sequence where some verbal behaviour is deemed appropriate, and some inappropriate, and this dictates how we typically speak.
The purpose of this essay was merely to point out that our verbal behaviour is subject to societal constraints in the same way as all our other behaviour. Some of these constraints are self-imposed for the purposes of pragmatic interaction with each other, and some are legal for the purpose of running an effective and moral society containing a complex network of agents. In pointing out that the idea of Free-Speech absolutism makes little sense in terms of how language is typically used I am not giving censorship a free pass.
Above I noted that Verbal Behaviour is a form of behaviour like all other behaviour. We have laws for how-to drive-in traffic which help us have a functioning travel system that is safe for citizens. Accepting constraints on driving behaviour doesn’t commit me to accepting absurd constraints on all behaviour; I wouldn’t agree with a constraint which involves imprisoning people without trial for criticizing the government. I look at verbal behaviour the same way. If a person posts details of how to make a deadly poison on Twitter and encourages their followers to make the poison and use it on certain people; then I think that person should be banned. But while I disagree with a lot of what Jordan Peterson says I think trying to ban his books or ban him from Twitter is absurd. I purposely chose Skinner, Freud and Chomsky to make some of my points. All three of them have at various points throughout their career had people try to ban their books as dangerous abominations. I hope it goes without saying that I am not comparing Peterson with Skinner or Chomsky in terms of intellectual achievements. My only point is that with someone like Peterson the proper course of action is to criticise his works on intellectual grounds (and hope he doesn’t sue you 😉 ) banning his books would be absurd.
There are plenty of intermediary cases which are much more complex than banning people proposing mass murder and banning books with scientific theses you don’t agree with. I don’t have the answer to all of these cases. I would ask people to think of these cases in terms of embodied agents negotiating their way in the world and trying to minimize pain in as pragmatic a manner as possible. Thinking of free speech as some God given right of a disembodied Cartesian intelligence risks us losing touch with the world and the difficulties of negotiating it pragmatically.
 Note the issue of causal accounts of verbal behaviour is not a debate about the existence of the language faculty nor is it a debate that rests on accepting Skinner’s behaviourism. Pinker argues for a language instinct, is a critic of behaviourism but would in no way accept the assumption that our linguistic behaviour is uncaused. I just focused on Skinner and Chomsky above because of their very clear and contradictory intuitions.