Re-establishing the cultural value of free speech

We have good legal protection for free speech – meaning that government cannot legally restrict the content of our speech. The government cannot legally punish or discriminate against us for speech bureaucrats or elected officials dislike. But while we are free from government sponsored censorship, cultural discrimination is common, and far too many people have been fired from their jobs because of things they said – often things that are stupid and even offensive, but should not be grounds for upending someone’s life.

What we need is to do is re-establish the cultural value of free speech. This means being willing to work with, shop with and live next to people who strongly disagree with us on politics or cultural issues without trying to punish them for disagreement. This means not joining an online “pitchfork mob” to “cancel” someone who says something offensive. This also means that corporations, who are normally risk averse, must start refusing to bow to an online mob’s demand to terminate someone’s employment for “offensive” speech.

No, this does not mean that we should not expose hypocrisy and corruption, speak against overt racism and anti-Semitism, or openly oppose other corrosive ideas and ideologies. Of course it is free speech to oppose and expose bad speech. Respecting free speech does not require silence, and never has required silence. Those who pretend otherwise are building a straw man to knock over, which is dishonest.

But what censorship does is force truly bad speech underground into an echo chamber, where people are less likely to be exposed to ideas, facts and arguments that may influence their thinking. Censorship convinces no one, and targeting someone’s life or career for destruction may instead radicalize someone who has been targeted by an online mob – or further radicalize that person’s supporters.

If we want to be a unified country, we need to recognize that there will always be people who say things we find offensive. We may even be right to find those things offensive. But while this may be a trite saying, it is true that the answer to offensive speech is more speech. Some people are unreachable and unteachable, but many more people are not. By censoring truly bad ideas and speech and “canceling” those who say things we find offensive, we make it more difficult to educate those who are open to reason.