Monday, October 1, 2012

On Freedom of Speech

 Will Saletan has a provocative new piece in the recent issue of Slate, arguing that Western Europe must do away with its hate speech laws and other restrictions on free speech before lecturing Muslims on their intolerance for insults to the Prophet. He certainly has a valid point, but his article obscures a larger, more important point: Freedom of speech is neither just a moral imperative nor something to be negotiated in a fair exchange; it is an essential mechanism to ensure the stability of modern societies.

The insulting film that caused the recent furor was made in the United States, not in a European country with hate speech prohibitions. The United States does not have laws prohibiting hate speech against anyone, and the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution guarantees almost absolute protection of speech. This is exactly what gives Americans – uniquely – both the right and the privilege of lecturing others on freedom of speech. Europe can be left to resolve its own dilemmas and exorcise its own ghosts. The principle that all speech – including hateful speech, blatant lies, extreme insults and outright bigotry – must be protected symbolizes a truly optimistic and modern view of human nature – that we are not, as some might insist, slaves to our inner demons or desires, but rational agents capable of analytical thought and self-control. This view of free speech may be somewhat idealistic, but the aspiration towards that ideal should not be obscured by fretting over its imperfect implementation in the here and now - especially when the most powerful, most influential and most diverse country in the world already implements it almost perfectly.

It is also essential that any defense of free speech not be couched in the idiom of Western paternalism, which – rightly – raises hackles in recently decolonized societies. Rather, it should be grounded in an understanding of the essential role freedom of expression plays in the survival and success of any modern society. Those who object to it – notably in the Muslim world, but also elsewhere – hold the depressingly pessimistic view that civilized behavior requires perpetual top-down control through the law, and that without such control, human society would fall apart. This idea – like many other “common sense” notions – is rooted in the belief that order arises only by imposition, that all organization requires an organizer, and that the only natural path for systems without top-down control is descent into entropic chaos. This view of reality, though historically understandable, is increasingly unsustainable for the complex, diverse, globalizing societies of today.
Forget all the examples of bottom-up self organization that we see in Nature. Most people already understand intuitively that human society is, at its core, a bottom-up system – relying on community, the common good, and the cooperative action. For millennia, however, top-down control has proved to be a successful strategy for reaping the benefits of this bottom-up system. From tribal chiefs to emperors and dictators, the wisdom of the few (usually one) has successfully tamed the presumed folly of the crowd, allowing societies to maintain cohesion and – very importantly – increase their influence (at least for limited periods). This is also the framework undergirding organized religion, which is the ultimate form of top-down control without hope of repeal. But the success of this strategy has now created the conditions for its own failure. Modern society and its institutions are arguably too complex to be understood, let alone controlled, by wise individuals or static legal codes. We have no choice but to trust the wisdom of the crowds. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the best example of this trust. To think that it relinquishes all control over speech is a misunderstanding. Rather, it trusts that a responsible, civilized people can determine the proper norms of speech for their time and place through social, i.e., bottom-up, action rather than through rigid legal control – that society itself can regulate what expression is or is not acceptable, and impose societal sanctions to enforce this flexible, unwritten code. Protection of all expression thus creates a flexible mechanism rather than a brittle one, and is a stabilizing influence rather than a destabilizing one. Wisdom, in this case, lies not in choosing what others can(not) say, but to let them choose and live with the social consequences of their choice.

As we understand complex systems better, it is clear that they are necessarily subject to crises of potentially limitless magnitude. No amount of wise management can prevent such crises. The best that can be done is to create the space within the system to mitigate their effects when they do happen. Resilience and robustness, not strength and control, are the best options for such systems. The role of Law must be only to facilitate this resilience. Allowing people to have their say and be ignored (or mocked!) creates a much more resilient society than forbidding such expression and letting it turn secretly into a cause or a revolution. Freedom of speech is not the permission to sow strife but a mechanism to dissipate it - automatically, without effort, at almost no cost. Those who seek to limit it in the quest for stability are, in fact, inviting instability – a fact well demonstrated by history. Modern societies – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – need to learn this lesson. And they will learn it either before or after they destroy themselves from within.  To avoid the latter fate, they would do well to stop using European laws to justify their myopia and look to the much more useful American example.


 1. It is possible to justify freedom of speech in more concrete terms through psychological, social and economic arguments, but those are just details. Another important issue that could be raised is to ask whether this same laissez-faire approach should then be applied to the economic domain – as free-market purists have argued. This is not the place to discuss it, but, in my opinion, the problem is that money is not speech, whatever five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court might say. It is abundantly clear that the free market system within the right context is, by far, the most productive ever devised by humans (see "The Origin of Wealth" by Eric Beinhocker, or "The Birth of Plenty" by William Bernstein), but the relationship between humans and money is not the same as that between humans and expression. No one dies because of the speech of others, but people can be harmed physically by others' economic decisions. Nor is money an essential part of an individual’s being as expression is. Some regulation is, therefore, required for economic systems, but only as much as is necessary to preclude real harm to innocents and no more.

2. There is a very rich literature on the inevitability of crises in complex systems, and on ways to mitigate them Three of the best are Per Bak’s controversial classic “How Nature Works”, Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan”, and Marten Scheffer’s “Critical Transitions in Nature and Society”. Philip Ball’s “Why Society is a Complex Matter” also looks delicious but I have not read it yet. Nassim Taleb’s upcoming book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” is about the flip side of things – how disorder can be exploited. It should be very interesting.

3. Some readers will note the apparent irony that the freedom from laws regulating speech is itself embodied in a law – the First Amendment. The first few words of the amendment reinforce this irony: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is a law prohibiting the making of laws – a “meta-law”, so to speak! The irony is resolved by noting that the target of its prohibition is the legislative body (Congress), not the population at large, which it frees from oppressive laws. It does not say to people, “You must speak freely”, but only that Congress cannot abridge such freedom. However, the ironies don't stop there. The fact that a few rich white men in the 18th century promulgated this law empowering the many is one of history’s wonders. They needed both an immense portion of wisdom and an inordinate capacity for self-delusion to do so – many were slave-holders, and almost all accepted the practice.

4. I have not seen the movie that caused all the recent mayhem, nor do I intend to do so. From its description, it is, to put it politely, a piece of crap. The proper response to it would have been to ignore it and thus deny its makers the one thing they most desired – attention. The reaction that actually occurred has, alas, guaranteed that more such crap will be made and publicized – mostly to the benefit of extremists on all sides.

 5. I am sure that, in response to this post, I will be told that: a) The U.S. kills innocent people with drones (true but irrelevant); b) Insulting Jews or African-Americans is illegal in the U.S. (false); c) Western values are not universal (making wise choices to improve societal survivability is not a Western value); d) There should be some limit to free speech (yes, when it can physically or economically harm someone); and many more. All such objectors would benefit greatly from watching “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. Laughter cures all hang-ups.