In the previous post, we examined a very abstract notion of violence as it relates to Speech. In this, we shall look at a more literal expression of violence with regards to Speech.
Violent Speech is a necessary component of violent actions. Ranging from simple ideas of committing violence, to outright insurrection, Violent Speech is about exerting change through force, generally at the expense of others. However, one can leverage Speech which is far from outright violence, and yet is itself also a necessary pre-condition for violent action.
One can look towards Speech which questions the overall value of a race, or people, and see how it can lead to horrific genocides. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every speech which criticizes a people will lead to that. And yet it is generally a necessary pre-condition: lynching, and other mob violence, were always precipitated by first dehumanizing the other, leveraging Speech and “non-violent” Speech to build moral justification for the actions. Clear historical examples would include the Nazis, which built a successful propaganda campaign to dehumanize and delegitimize many groups and demographics, particularly of the Jewish, to lead to effective violence against them.
This argument is weak though: any Speech could be tied to violent actions; as an example, if we are willing to stretch the definition of “violence” to mean a simple monopoly on force, as we did in the previous post, we can see how trivial it would be to label all Speech as “potentially violent” by playing with the definition. Even if we constrained ourselves, one could always build a “slippery slope” argument that within a few logical steps could be said to be a “necessary pre-condition” for genocide.
This is terribly unsatisfactory, though. Sure, we could derive a highly contrived argument that in discussing Utilitarianism it leads to violent outcomes and oppression of a minority for the majority’s benefit.
If there is such an “obvious” and clear difference between discussing a “utilitarian society”, and “no, really, what value or cost does this other group bring to our world?”, then why can’t we tolerate the speech of one, and worry about the possible extremes of the other? The number of degrees’ difference is one defense, but I think not the most compelling one.
I will take a slight tangent to give a more compelling example: imagine if we took the idea of Free Speech literally. Can you imagine waking up every day and having to answer the question, “Did Hitler do anything wrong”, all because we must tolerate every form of Speech always? Obviously, there is value in answering that question with a straight “yes, for X, Y, and Z reasons”. But the question itself just begs for irrefutable proof. What if we one day find evidence that Hitler was an ultimate “good” for society? Proponents of Free Speech would yell triumphant: “see, absolute Free Speech is necessary!”
Yet the modern opposite is true: can you imagine American society answering the question “should gays be allowed to marry” just 50 years ago? Many people in the past would hate to answer that question every day with anything but “obviously not”. They, too, might not find the argument “yea, but what if society would be better for it” compelling, in the same way we didn’t find it compelling to the previous question.
It is easier for society to not have to answer those questions every day. They are uncomfortably far from the “average” notion of what is considered polite speech, and in many cases, it was believed a pre-condition for violent actions: Nazi Germany was a necessary pre-condition for genocide, and some truly did believe gay marriage was a pre-condition for the downfall of civilized society.
Free Speech should be feared, because it is exhausting to explain every day “Yes, what Hitler did was wrong”, and to also defend, “yes, allowing gays to marry is morally fine”. It should be feared because as soon as we can’t always answer those questions, we allow ourselves to forever be trapped by the tyranny of whatever “average” Speech we tolerate.
Violent actions such as suppressing gay marriage (if we expand the definition of violence to include government force, which was used against gay couples and so a valid example) could never have been undone without opposing the social norms; violent actions such as racial bigotry could be allowed to build up to racial genocide.
Yet, Free Speech itself is insufficient for answering what makes those two different. We must, as a society, recognize that Free Speech is merely a tool for allowing society to understand and control violence. Free Speech is as much an enabler of violence, as it is a control on it. Free Speech is inseparable from violence and violent action.
Now, we can return to our original question: how can we separate speech for which “obviously” leads to violence, and for that which doesn’t? The answer is we generally can’t: It is an inevitable outcome of Free Speech.
Instead, we much separate Speech from Morality. Morality is a judgement we make upon Speech. Morality allows us to separate what is Violent Speech, and what is not. Though Morality may have answered the questions I posed above “wrong”, at least we were able to ask the questions at all, which is a crucial difference.
And so, we arrive at a simple contradiction that Free Speech must live by: an individual, so raised as to believe terribly untrue, immoral, or just plain wrong things must feel a real sense of “freedom” of Speech to talk about the ideas they were given, or made for themselves. And society itself must have the “freedom” of Speech to criticize and argue the incorrect notion of that speech and prevent its unnecessary spread. Likewise, society couldn’t progress beyond tired repeated “Morals” without individuals to criticize their wrongs and uncomfortably push forward new Speech.
This does not mean we must tolerate all Speech, but this does mean we must be willing to allow all Speech. This uncomfortable and contradictory view of Speech is what enables Morality to have substance, to have weight, and to have possibility.
Free Speech lives a careful balance. Teasing apart simple questions which seek to control violence, from those that seek to exert violence, is a task that is upon everyone to wake up every day and wrestle with. Free Speech is the ultimate in civic duty, both introspectively and socially, to build a more just and moral society.