The cost of speech
Posted by aogSaturday, 08 November 2003 at 15:11 TrackBack Ping URL

A key question for a self-ordered society is, to what extent should it protect itself from heresy? By heresy I mean ideologies that threaten the society itself. I think that this is fundamental the same as the “Fire!” in a crowded theatre issue, simply writ at a larger scale. If a heresy threatens the lives and safety of the citizens of the society, is it not permitted to act against the heresy?

As is the case in a society of humans, theoretical answers fail on the fact that mistakes will be made, if in nothing else than judging the actual danger from a heresy. For instance, the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry during WWII is a shameful example of judging their culture and attitudes as dangerous when, in fact, there was no real danger at all.

This is not to say that every single person interned was not a danger. I’m sure that at least some were fifth columnists. But I have yet to see any evidence that it was more prevalent among those interned than those not. Moreover, what danger did exist was individualistic and not a property of those interned as a whole. This is a critical difference. To combat heresy, it must be the case that the heresy itself must be a danger, not that some who believe it are. Moreover, the danger must be to the host society as a whole, not just citizens or their property. In both the other cases, an individualistic response is the proper one.

Because of this history and the very nature of a self-ordered society, legal means used to defend the society must be tightly restricted and require a clear and present danger to justify. A self-ordered society is by its nature resistant to low grade threats and the cost of repressing them is generally greater the cost of permitting them.

However, this applies primarily to legal mechanisms. There is no reason why citizens of such a society need to be so contrained. It is, after all, the essence of a self-ordered society that it is driven as much as possible by the individual choices of the citizens. If holding a particular point of view or ideology makes a citizen unpopular with his fellow citizens then that is simply a burden that must be borne. It is important to have as unrestricted a scope for speech as possible, but there’s not reason to make it easy to speak against the norm. This is the common mistake of “dissidents”, who believe that they should be able to take any ideological position without consequences. I am strongly against legal consequences, but to think that other citizens can’t react is to miss the essential point of free speech. It is a way of privileging oneself above everyone else, where one can speak but others can’t respond. I suppose that makes it no surprise that it’s a common tactic of the self-indulgent Left.

It is a good thing for unpopular speech to be unpopular. A healthy society needs a balance between change and stability. New ideas are critical to preventing the sclerosis and decay of a society but too many leads to decay as well. In my view the best balance is to protect the legal right to speak but not the social right. If some idea makes you an anathema, there’s probably a good reason for it. The important thing is for society as a whole to consider different ideas, but that’s not at all the same thing as accepting those ideas.