The following statement captures an idea pervading the internet over the last few days:
“Free speech, however, is not a toy. It is a responsibility, a compact, which democracy presupposes we are mature enough to use justly. We are called on as citizens not to use our rights for bacchanals of self-indulgence and emotional expectoration, but to do the work of maintaining society. What does it mean when we see words as weapons that we have no responsibility to use ethically?”
Here the author offers a deeply normative vision of what free speech means. The crucial point being missed here is that ethics is not an absolute set of rules that we can consult to sort out what counts as responsible discourse. Whose ethics? Obviously this writer’s vision of ethics is at odds with those she critiques, and probably even at odds with those who she purports to show solidarity with. Free speech is very much about allowing for the conflict between different visions of ethics. Ethics is the source of the dilemma, not the way out.
Democracy? Pfff. Maintaining society? Get lost. See what free speech entails? There is no underlying logic to be found if we dig deeper and deeper into the notion of free speech that will bound our reasoning and discourse to ethical norms. Free speech doesn’t demand rationality and reasonableness. It allows cheap rhetoric and sophistry.
“You shouldn’t say that, it’s unethical,” is precisely the kind of self-contradictory statement that the idea of free speech simultaneously stands for and against. Free speech is paradox. The notion of free speech contains in it the right to advocate the abolishment of free speech.
The challenge of free speech is not to make discourse answerable to ethics, but to be able to live with a radical relativism of ideas. Even this very statement reveals the deeply paradoxical nature of free speech. Here I advocate a normative vision of free speech that differs from the one offered above. And where is ethics to help sort out this mess?
Not all beliefs can happily coexist. There is no harmony to be found. The blessing and curse of the notion of free speech is that the conflict between competing ideas and ethics is inevitable.
There is simply no inner peace, no resolution, to be found in trying to concretize the norms of free speech. The human desire to have well defined ethical principles to guide our lives is common enough, ubiquitous even. But if it is inner peace that you seek, you need to accept the imminent conflict. Embrace the paradox.