A badly confused piece on free speech

February 27, 2017 • 9:45 am

It’s amusing—though sad—to see Leftist after Leftist confect arguments why free speech isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Isn’t the Left supposed to defend freedom of speech? Sadly, much of that side seems to have abandoned the principle—mainly because they want to suppress what they call “hate speech.” That of course is a dangerous argument, for one person’s “hate speech” (say, criticism of abortion, affirmative action, or Islam) is another person’s free speech—and who is to be the arbiter of which is which?

Nevertheless, the Left persists in its attacks, and now we have a new argument by Mike Sturm at Coffeelicious (reprinted at Medium.com, a venue almost as Regressive Leftist as Puffho). Here’s the title; click on the screenshot to go to the piece—an argument that free speech is overrated:



I’ll let Sturm give the argument himself (indented):

So here I am asking two questions:

  1. What value do we see in free speech?
  2. Does the current free speech paradigm serve the value we see in speech?

The Proposed Value of Speech

In the world of liberal democracy, freedom in general is a cornerstone value of any society. People ought to be free to live their lives in the best way they see fit — with as little interference as possible. In the case of speech, I think that the reasons that we value free speech fall into two basic categories:

  • We value the freedom to express ourselves — how we feel, who we are, and what we want.
  • We value the freedom to effectively drive change through the things we say. We want our words to matter, and to wield real power — the power of making things happen.

I think that the article of faith, especially in America, for the past 200 years or so has been that both of these aims work together. We have blindly believed that expressing how you feel and what you want end up effectively driving change and giving power to your words, and to you, the speaker. But I see very little reason to believe this.

In fact, I believe that expressing yourself as freely as possible tends to diminish the ability of your words to drive real change.

Now why on earth would expressing yourself freely reduce your effectiveness at creating social change?  He claims that the power of speech derives from both the way it’s enforced (as through law of physical force), and through the power of speech “due to its message and its delivery.” Sturm doesn’t say much about power, but is really concerned with “how you deliver the message.” And, he claims, advocates of free speech tend to deliver their message in maladaptive ways.

What ways are those? They include these (these bullet points are mine):

  • Asserting during your talk that you have the right to free speech.  That, says, Sturm, just turns off the listener: “Whenever your defense of what you say is “I have the right to free speech, I can say this if I please” — you’re closing off 80% of the probability of having a real conversation.” This is a recurrent problem for the article: assuming that a speech itself is a “conversation,” rather than a speech. He completely neglects the possibility that listening to a speech can inspire conversations afterwards.  Further, very few speakers lard their talks with “listen to me because I have free speech.” That would just be dumb. Such assertions are made either beforehand, as in the case of the Chancellor of Berkeley’s statement about Milo Yiannopoulos’s appearance, or afterwards, when we’re arguing about freedom of expression itself.
  • Free speech is only effective insofar as it presents rational arguments and not emotions or desires. As Sturm asserts,

The more your message is expression — of your feelings, desires, or other emotion, the less likely it will be received by those who have reason to fear it. Just think of how much you have gotten done by yelling and venting your frustration at people, as opposed to sitting them down, and trying to make your point calmly. The more you frame your speech as expression, the less effective it will tend to be at achieving any other goal aside from expressing your feelings.”

But that’s not exactly right. True, when you’re arguing about facts you should deal with the facts and the issues, and avoid “yelling”, but to leave out emotion and feeling from a speech is to emasculate it (was that misogynist?). Think of one of the most powerful and effective speeches in American history: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech of August 28, 1963. That speech is full of emotions about the moral inequity of segregation. It is by no means calm, but was delivered in the emotional cadences of a Southern preacher. It is the quintessential speech of expression: and it’s not too much to say that it galvanized the nation, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  What Sturm is doing is equating “expression” with “yelling,” when in fact they need not be the same thing at all.  It’s arguments like this that make me wonder if Sturm has really thought about the issue. Nobody equates “free expression” with “yelling at one’s opponents,” except perhaps Sturm.

Now Sturm is correct that you can’t convince people to change their minds about issues without giving them reasons to think, and that simply demonizing your opponent as stupid, racist, or misogynist won’t work. But presenting stories, experiences, and an emphasis on moral issues (which don’t count as “reasons” but can resonate with the values of the listener) are valid ways of emoting,

  • No speech is effective unless it is itself a conversation. I mentioned this above, and it’s just wrong. Conversations can occur after speech, either as verbal discussions or as a silent conversation in one’s mind.

Sturm continues:

“My take is this: social media has made it easy for us to favor one motivation for speech (expression), while weakening the other (conversing in order to affect real change). Because more people are seen as simply expressing unfiltered emotion, very few on the other aside care to listen.”

“The more everyone continue to do this, the less we listen to each other. We stop talking with each other, and keep talking at each other — yelling, as well. The chances for any kind of progress fade away.”

First, it is the suppression of free speech, as in the cancellation (or interruption) of talks by universities, that inhibit conversation. Does anybody doubt that? And if you think these disinvitations are infrequent, have a look at FIRE’s list of disinvitations on American campuses between 2000 and 2014. Virtually all the speakers have been demonized as being conservatives, which shows that it’s the Left and not the Right that most often goes after free expression.

Further, social media, particularly YouTube and chat sites, have effected tremendous social change, especially in the weakening of religion. It is through such media, for example, that isolated nonbelievers come to learn that they are not alone, and are strengthened in their conviction. It is through social media that we can learn the arguments of our opponents, whether they be pro-lifers or creationists, and thus develop ways to examine, hone, or refine our own beliefs and arguments. Sturm’s false belief that “expression” and “social change” are at odds with one another is what leads him to conclude, in the quote just above, that free speech has slowed social progress.

But with such a conclusion, what does Sturm suggest we should do? One can gather from the context that he favors limits on “free speech,” though, given Sturm’s failure to be explicit, I’m not sure what those limits are. Does he see someone like Yiannopoulos expressing “unfiltered emotion”, thus impeding any rational discourse and social progress? If so, then he should listen to the libertarian Ben Shapiro, who is far more fact-oriented and less emotional than Milo. I disagree with much of what Shapiro has to say, but nobody could accuse him of yelling. And I think Shapiro, disagreeing with him as I do, is nonetheless a very valuable resource for liberals, as he forces us to examine our arguments more closely if we feel he’s wrong.  Those who simply yell in response to Shapiro’s claims make the Left look unreflective.

Given that Sturm equates “free speech” with “emotional speech and yelling”, it’s hard to know what he thinks of people like the Berkeley protests who prevented Yiannopoulos from speaking. Were they trying to prevent emotional and non-rational speech that could damage society, and thus doing us a service? Or were they themselves yelling and demonizing their opponents in a way that would turn off those who would otherwise listen to their arguments? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Sturm has no interest in defending Milo, since he says this:

Recently, a big deal has been made about an agitator who lost a book deal about some unabashed commentary regarding pederasty. I won’t dig into the story itself (you can read the link), but the whole thing has made me wonder why we value free speech. I guess like so many of our freedoms, I wonder if it has morphed into a crutch that allows us to be utterly terrible and careless people, rather than making us better.

Milo’s freedom of speech has nothing to do with the subsequent accusations of pedophila that brought him down. Yes, you can say he’s a terrible person, but that’s completely independent of whether, when invited to Berkeley by the College Republicans, he had a right to speak within the limits of the First Amendment.

In the end, Sturm’s piece suffers from a conception of free speech that nobody really holds, from his subsequent conclusion that free speech and positive social change work against each other, and from his failure to be explicit about what he recommends. He winds up sounding like a pablum-fed liberal whose message is simply this: “Why can’t we be nice to each other?”

52 thoughts on “A badly confused piece on free speech

  1. Asserting during your talk that you have the right to free speech.

    Back when I used to debate abortion, I would present some facts, and the right-to-lifer would respond with “I HAVE THE RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH DON’T YOU DARE SHUT ME DOWN!11111”

    And my fellow leftists and I would calmly explain to the person that a difference of opinion is not in fact a suppression of their right to free speech.

    I suppose this is a feature of authoritarians. Disagreement is perceived as a suppression of their rights. If you disagree, you are *oppressing them*. This is why it’s ok to punch Nazis, I suppose. Nazi, of course, being anyone with a different POV.

  2. With speech, one might — or might not — persuade others to adopt a position more favorable to your own.

    Without speech, your only recourse to effect change is through violence.

    If you wish for even the pretense of the possibility of peaceful coexistence, you will embrace free speech for all.

    Only dictators — those who would speak for others, whether the others wish it or not — have any beef with free speech.

    That’s all there is to it, really.



    1. I don’t know that violence is the only other recourse, but in the absence of free speech, any means of change requires power — if not physical force, then economic or some other manifestation. Moral suasion works only where it can be freely expressed.

      1. Historically, it’s been a dramatically stark dichotomy: liberty or death.

        You suggest alternates to violence, such as money…but those are typically merely proxies for violence.

        Consider the French Revolution. The King had all the money, and he used that money to command violence to enforce his word. But he had neither enough money nor violence to keep his head attached to his shoulders.

        Such has been the way of history. Since even before Caesar, the first great Dictator, tyrants have sought to put their own words in the mouths of others. They often succeed…but for a limited time only, as the saying goes.

        Dictator is, typically, a terminal position without retirement options. North Korea’s Dearly Great leaders are a bit of an anomaly, but just look at the joke of a catastrophe of a country that they live in. Were it not for the misery they inflict upon their serfs, it’d be laughable…they want to live in that stretch of joyless, barren, frozen mud…why, exactly?

        …which makes it all the more puzzling that Dictator should be so popular a position for the insecure and mortally terrified. Like moths to the flame, I suppose….



        1. Slight correction, originally the office of Dictator absolutely had retirement built into it (see Fabius Cunctator et al).

          But we know what you mean.

        2. Mercantilism supplanted feudalism with little bloodshed (let alone full-on violent class warfare). Yer Uncle Karl wrote a bit about it. 🙂

      1. I contemplate researching Churchill’s writings on Gandhi’s freedom of speech and on nations’ right of political autonomy.

  3. You can see where he’s coming from, but as JAC notes all he’s really saying is that shouting and being a dick is often counterproductive, but this is of course well known by everybody who isn’t a dick and doesn’t shout.

    “This golden age of communication means that everyone talks at the same time”
    – New Model Army (in about 1985)

  4. I believe that expressing yourself as freely as possible tends to diminish the ability of your words to drive real change…

    …says the man trying to sway people using a several hundred word article.

    Perhaps he should practice what he preaches, and opt to forego speech in his attempts to drive real change.

  5. I must also say there is an ignorance or simply a lack of understanding of our history in this article.

    Before judicial review was established we had the lovely Alien & Sedition Acts (John Adams). It sounds like something we might see from the Trump folks but it was fact and some people went to jail for saying or printing things the president did not like. So how did the government justify such laws in the face of the first amendment? They came up with other definitions for freedom of speech. It was crap but they did it. Sturm is doing the same thing and it is crap.

    1. There’s an ignorance of History in all these arguments against free speech, and not just of American History. Which regime of the past would we look at and say, “Wasn’t it great how they restricted speech!” The only people who could do so would not be democrats.

  6. I’m not a huge fan of Bill Maher, but his quip about the Democrats morphing from a party that protects people to a party that protects people’s feelings rings true every time I hear some leftist’s take on free speech.

    Yes, more speech overall means more speech you will find “offensive.” So what? Your value-ranking of potential speech has absolutely no bearing on the legal basis for keeping it free. Indeed, the whole point of freedom of speech, like freedom of religion, is to keep those in power from adopting a value-oriented take on it. That’s the real danger, and as darwinwins pointed out above, it can cut both ways.

  7. the whole [Milo] thing has made me wonder why we value free speech.

    Because rules limiting speech won’t just be used on Milo, they will be used on you and me.

    The best way to see the value of free speech is to pretend, for a moment, that your worst ideological enemy is in charge of interpreting and enforcing speech codes. This person is not someone who academically disagrees with you but respects you – this person is actively malicious and will go beyond the ‘spirit of the law’ to use whatever tricks within the letter of the law he (or she) can to prevent your ideas from being aired in public. You’re a liberal? Then pretend t his guy hates liberals and will stifle their message at every opportunity. And so on.

    So, with that set up…what legal powers do you give them over speech? Whatever you decide is probably close to a good answer.

    1. It’s even simpler than that.

      Those who would be censors always have targets in mind whom they would silence.

      Just flip that around. Imagine that, through whatever perversion you care to invent, “they” grab the censor’s pen away from you and can now use it to censor you.

      Whatever mercy you would wish that they should show unto you, you should also show unto them.

      Of course, many, especially on the illiberal left, won’t be mentally capable of engaging in this exercise. Their speech isn’t hateful (or whatever), so of course the rules they’re making up wouldn’t apply to them themselves.

      So take it to the next level. Those you would censor now have the censor’s pen, and they’re using it against you as unfairly as you’d imagine they would.

      What’s your response?

      Just smile and shut up and stay meek and mild and properly and humbly subservient like the good little repressed disadvantaged person you’re supposed to be?

      Or would you resort to disobedience, eventually escalating to violence?

      What makes you think those you’re trying to censor won’t respond the same?

      And which side do you think is better at violence?



    2. I don’t understand why the Left doesn’t see this then. Trump is arguably their worst ideological enemy and here they are trying to silence free speech. It’s utterly baffling.

      1. If Trump is as even half authoritarian as they they say, and if he is poised to appoint a record number of federal judges, and his party controls both houses and most states … isn’t it lunatic to abandon such neutral principles and formal restraints on his power?

  8. Ugh. What a mess. Speech is only valuable if it is “effective at driving change”? Emotional speech isn’t effective? Sturm is equivocating by attempting to replace hate speech by emotional speech, but it is a false equivalence. Not all emotional speech is hate speech, and not all emotional speech is ineffective. I consider the whole argument to be intellectually dishonest.

    I have come to the conclusion that anyone that argues against free speech is admitting that their arguments have failed, and that their arguments can only succeed if they restrict the ability of their opponents to challenge their arguments. Make better arguments yourself!

    Why don’t any of these people just come out with an argument for censorship?

    1. have come to the conclusion that anyone that argues against free speech is admitting that their arguments have failed, and that their arguments can only succeed if they restrict the ability of their opponents to challenge their arguments. Make better arguments yourself!

      I doubt that such illiberal folks are that self-aware.

      I suspect that when you really, truly, obsessively believe that you are RIGHT AND CORRECT IN ALL THINGS that any disagreement is simply irrational, bigoted, nee, evil and *must*, by necessity, be shut down.

      That some ideas are so out-moded, so repugnant, that it shouldn’t even be a question of whether or not those ideas are suppressed. It is simply the natural way of things!

  9. This has probably been addressed? But why isn’t hate speech in conflict with free speech? If I in the process of hurting someone and at the moment say I hate your____
    ______ (religion, color, orientation etc), why isn’t that free speech – however deplorable. The whole hate speech thing seems ridiculous and needless and unconstitutional
    and indefinable and ‘feel good’ in a perverse way. Have there been any appeals based on a free speech defense?

    1. It has come up. I think the basic argument that so-called hate speech is considered free speech is that the question of what is hate speech is entirely subjective. I could say Jesus wasn’t divine, and someone could say that is hate speech. It could easily be used just to shut down speech one disagrees with. At the same time if one wants to restrict hate speech, one has to empower someone to determine what is censored, and, given we live in a democracy, those people (and rules) could change with every election — unless one stopped having elections.

    2. You’d have to give me more specific examples for a more specific answer, but “hate speech” in the U.S. is examined under the same Brandenburg test as other speech, and so, yes, is free sppech. It’s something people don’t seem to understand, and something they seem to conflate with so-called “hate crimes” legislation, but the two categories are not the same.

  10. Curiously, Sturm says this about himself: “I am but a boy grown tall.” No argument here. Isn’t he fortunate that even a boy has the right to free speech, even if the speech is nonsensical?

  11. After some wing-nut hate group targeted a local Hispanic church, my wife and I were part of a group of several hundred who showed up the next week to keep the haters at bay. A couple of young people took up residence across from me on the sidewalk. For the next hour they loudly took turns trying to one up each other as to their ideological purity. One accused the other of being an ‘ableist’ due to a comment about right wing crazies and the other counter accused about perceived genderism. They didn’t just talk to each other they made sure they were loud enough for everyone around to hear them lecture. A number of times they asserted that certain types of speech were verboten. They kept looking at me (tall male with short snow-white hair)to see if I reacted. My near-perfect imitation of a Buckingham Palace guard eventually had the desired affect and they moved on.

    1. Your observations remind me of the debates among Russian Marxists shortly before and after the Russian Revolution. The demand for purity in any political or social movement ultimately ends in its collapse or the suppression of the losers of the debate.

      The American Revolution did not end in a Reign of Terror (at least for its supporters, if not the Tories) because of the willingness to compromise. But, this compromise came at a cost — the making of many concessions to the slaveholders. Social and political change is rarely pretty because those in power are not happy in giving it up.

      1. But you must agree, the slaveholders (slave states) were already there so the compromise was – do you want a government or not. The center of Anti-federalism, besides New York was mostly in the slave states. We also know that the hope of those at the Constitutional Convention, political change, first and foremost and social change would have to come another day.

  12. Having read that article I thought our host read too much in it, eitherthat, or I read too little in it.
    It appears superficially that his main point is that shouting, being rude, name calling and not considering your opponents views is counterproductive. I can agree with that (and so does our host, obviously). Sounded quite innocent to me.
    I did not read a defence of disinvitation in it, but now I realise I was probably wrong. After all, these reasonable sounding proposed laws to give students an ‘unbiased’ view, ‘showing the weaknesses and strengths of different theories’ is a cover to smuggle creationism and global warming denial into science classes.

  13. Great article Jerry, and lots of excellent comments.

    I think this person is realizing that the way his “side” responded to Milo, especially at Berkeley, was wrong and ineffectual and he’s working through those thoughts. He’s yet to come to a fully coherent pov. I hope he reads this post and the comments – they might help him.

  14. – We value the freedom to express ourselves — how we feel, who we are, and what we want.

    – We value the freedom to effectively drive change through the things we say. We want our words to matter, and to wield real power — the power of making things happen.

    It’s telling that he only considers why people want free speech for themselves. Can’t he think of any reasons to value free speech in others? Personally, I like to hear a variety of opinions.

    1. This was my response too. When I think of how my beliefs have changed over the decades, it is clear that personal growth and increased understanding depend on the freedom of others to express views we might consider wrong-headed.

    2. Late to this party, but this was my first thought as well. Society has reasons for valuing free speech beyond the personal and individual. More policy options can be considered and in a functioning democracy chances of finding and implementing good or ‘better’ policies is increased when issues are examined from all sides. If an individual who makes a winning policy argument feels augmented by that, it’s merely a side effect, not the raison d’etre for free speech. What ever happened to civics class? Why is everything examined only through the lens of the individual?

  15. I’d rather deal with opposition by free speech, even if hateful, than a punch as advocated for “Nazis”. You may suppress what people are allowed to say, but you can’t yet suppress what they think. As a university student, I learned more from some of my professors whose viewpoints I reacted negatively to than from those I agreed with. I had to do more thinking and more research.

    The more suppression, the more physical violence.

  16. I took the “speech” in the phrase “freedom of speech” as a synecdoche of expression, which becomes apparent as often nobody literally speaks, but writes. Expression simply means any form of communication, be it through gesticulation, writing or saying something.

    The article is indeed badly confused, especially in context of a debate that is not about ways in which expressions take place, or how to improve discourse, but about limitations of Freeze Peach.

    Regressives famously want to silence ideas they don’t approve of, which is exacerbated by the often overlooked fact that they disapprove of most pluralistic opinion outside a narrow (neo-) “intersectional” ideology.

    1. Synecdoche indeed, at least in United States legal terms. I can’t count how many times I have been informed that it is constitutional to ban flag burning because it isn’t “speech,” despite that rationale having been explicitly rejected by our Supreme Court.

      1. Burning is the official way to dispose of a flag which isn’t “speech”, either. So that argument falls flat, again.

      2. A Scalia opinion as I recall.

        He made a nice side point too. Burning the flag as a protest does not diminish it as a symbol, as banners argued. It actually enhances it as a symbol. Not crucial to the decision, but a nice point.

  17. “And I think Shapiro, disagreeing with him as I do, is nonetheless a very valuable resource for liberals, as he forces us to examine our arguments more closely if we feel he’s wrong.”

    I think this is one benefit of free speech that often gets overlooked. The ability to have your own cherished beliefs challenged so that you can either create better arguments to bolster them or to break your belief down and reconstruct it from it scratch.

    Of course this requires the willingness to do that.

  18. They want to silence *dissenting* speech. So called “hate” speech is the pretext not the reason. This is the same as with the right wingers who want to ban “blasphemous ” speech. That’s the pretext not the reason.

  19. Free speech is only effective insofar as it presents rational arguments and not emotions or desires.

    So much for artistic expression.

  20. I think far too much is being read into this. Sturm is simply saying that free speech which in this case he defines as untrammelled speechifying is not enough to undermine opponents whose propositions are best refuted by reason. He is not making a general point about the desirability of Free Speech. A forum dedicated to the power of reason might welcome this however clumsily argued. Praying Martin Luther King’s speech in aid is to miss its point – where is the evidence that it changed a single persons’s mind or was even intended to? It was a call to arms not an exhortation to repent.

  21. “Hate speech” as i understand it, encompasses speaking against a person or group of people based, not on their ideas, but on who they are. Although a difference of ideology could be a basis for disagreement, i wouldn’t necessarily consider it “hate speech”. I would also say that “hate speech” implies the intent or the encouragement of others to do harm to a person or persons as a result of your dislike of them.

    I’d be against this. I don’t believe we need to consider this as something that should enjoy an unrestricted choice of venue. I also believe that where this activity occurs, we have the right (of free speech) to shout it down.

    1. It depends. It can be someone calling a crowd of rioters to attack and lynch some Others. But a conference of scientists and doctors on prenatal diagnosis perfectly fits your definition; and I have actually seen photos of disabled protesters trying to disturb such a conference.

  22. “And if you think these disinvitations are infrequent, have a look at FIRE’s list of disinvitations on American campuses between 2000 and 2014. Virtually all the speakers have been demonized as being conservatives, which shows that it’s the Left and not the Right that most often goes after free expression.”
    The last sentence is a terrible misstatement. What it shows is that the Left has more power on university campuses. Whose idea is the global gag rule – the left or the right?

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