Missing the point on free speech and retaliation

You have the right to free speech, but that speech may have consequences. While that attitude is legal, is it right? On some level, yes. But in our current political climate that has been poisoned by “cancel culture,” the answer is “no” more often than not. That is the point that Jason Richwine made at Quillette. Unfortunately some folks do not get it. See this comment made when a friend shared the article on Facebook:

Nearly all speech has consequences. Most of us learn that by age five. Sorry that the writer didn’t. 1A only allows us to speak without the government’s permission. It rarely provides a shield to the response to that speech.

But that misses the point, which is that society would be much better off if we could have a robust public debate without fear that someone will go complain to our employer and try to get us fired, or destroy our business or wreck our social life.

We live in an extraordinarily free country, at least in terms of government censorship. But it is bad for society when people are so intolerant of a dissenting opinion that it is not enough to refute a bad argument with logic or facts. No, if someone is a heretic, he must be personally and professionally destroyed. He must not be allowed to live in society. My use of the word “heretic” is intentional, as “cancel culture” carries an almost religious fervor. Unlike traditional religion, even repentance does not cool response to the “sin.”

As Richwine points out, refutation is very different from retaliation. Trying to destroy someone for his opinion (or a harmless joke, or even satire poking fun at genuinely bad people) does not actually change anyone’s mind. It likely reinforces the “sinful” opinion in the first place. The mentality goes like this: “The ____ is too afraid to debate me, so they must try to destroy me.” Worse, driving terrible opinions underground where bad people only reinforce each other on anonymous forums increases radicalization and erases any opportunity to actually convince someone he is wrong.

The concept of free speech is much broader than simply prohibiting government from punishing speech. It means that we all need to be tolerant of ideas we disagree with or even hate. We can emphatically argue against bad ideas or bad opinions ion the public square, and still manage to interact with people in private without venom and hatred. Wouldn’t that make this a much better country?