Tolerance and bad faith

In terms of (dis)allowing certain types of opinions to be ventilated in public or not so public spaces, the removal of certain particularly poisonous opinions usually leads to the usual freedom of speech arguments. Especially online, on “social media” one may find such opinions, and first of all I would like to note that, although to some it does not seem that way, Facebook, Google, etc. are not public spaces! Unless you own your own domain and run your own webserver, free speech does not apply, not in any legal sense. That said, the real problem is the lack of nuance in the defence of freedom of speech, which it naturally deserves. Oppression must be fought anywhere and anytime, and free speech is an important ingredient for this fight.

That does not mean all opinions are created equal. A simply one is that proposing to abolish the freedom of speech is not covered by freedom of speech. There is a clear logical problem here. Of course, there are more subtle attack vectors enabled by modern communications tools (aka “social media):

  • Overloading readers with opinions, thereby tiring the mind and so discouraging independent thought (ugh, all those opinions, I’ll play a game now)
  • Producing superfluous (fake) opinions, thereby generating a fuller ‘landscape’, in which the most reasonable opinions are harder to locate, and where extreme opinions appear common and not at all that extreme because they’re on a continuous spectrum and setting limits on what’s extreme is always hard
  • “Fake news”, a kind of combination of the above, resulting in people giving up altogether on weighing the various opinions and just going with their gut, which is easily manipulated by:
  • Targeting through “social media”, where very specific news and opinions can be shared to very specific people. Various companies specialize in characterizing people based on their various “social media” presences, and determining their ‘swayability’ and selling that information to the highest bidder. Is sombeody probably sensitive to migration issues? With two clicks you show them bad migrant stories that (fake or not) enforce their gut feeling on such issues, and make them more likely to vote a certain way. It’s interesting to note groups like IS recruit western muslims in this way.
  • Abusing the benefit of doubt. Most people actually tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. A bad story about a beloved person? There must be a misunderstanding somewhere! Politician makes extremist statement? Perhaps there’s some sense to it.

Some of these techniques I’ve covered here earlier. I came across two interesting writings on the topic of not letting freedom of speech eat itself away, and both revolve around recognizing the limitations and pitfalls of free speech. Two quotes to illustrate:

Karl Popper:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

Jean-Paul Sartre on anti-Semitism:

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.

In short, freedom of speech does not equal anything-goes and not all opinions are created equal: we have rational thinking to tease out the threats to freedom of speech, even when they use that freedom against itself. All it takes is not forgetting that freedom of speech includes rational thinking: the whole point of being allowed to speak is to have more ideas and facts to make up your own mind, where you can weigh the things you have read or heard.

Neatly summarized by komali2:

My point: Restricting hate speech is not a slippery slope for freedom of speech. I personally believe there is no universal morality, but if I had to pick, I’d argue that the best outcome for the human race would be a culture that purges all racist and other arbitrarily prejudiced mindsets that judge entire populations on untenable grounds (race, gender, etc).

It is actually not so difficult, but nobody can do your thinking for you.