On free speech and meaningful speech

I thought I’d write a post about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s statement on Simon & Schuster because I think it is a part of a larger trend.

I support freedom of speech but find too many debates about free speech are based on a superficial view of “free” speech that’s like the “free” market. It’s a view that ignores the presence of the asymmetrical power relations through which speech is produced and consumed.

The idea that “free” speech will default to meaningful speech and diverse public discourse is as naive as believing the “invisible hand of the market” will automatically lead to optimal trade for everyone. I’m not saying these ideas are entirely unfounded but reality is not nearly so simple. So while CBLDF’s claim is true that censoring “noxious” views do not make those ideas go away, I’m unconvinced by its rationalization for supporting S&S: that this paves the way to “counter toxic speech” through “vigorous disagreement.” Has CBLDF read the mainstream news or been online lately. Free speech and lively debate do not in any way guarantee that toxic speech (or just plain old lies, rumours and ignorance) won’t come out on top.

It is possible to take a more nuanced view than being simply pro free speech. This is why, when I think about supporting free speech, I am also thinking about power.

Getting beyond CBLDF and S&S, I am most concerned when we see power struggles affecting speech, leading to ideological speech (which includes hate speech), propaganda and censorship. These tactics, used by all points of the political spectrum, compromise the ideals of free speech, but more than that, they degrade meaningful speech. These tactics attack the connective functions of speech by which speech serves as a site of mutual empowerment where we connect and communicate and share important concepts about our reality. These tactics separate us from each other and from reality.*

We need to be concerned with speech that is losing meaning, speech that is becoming disconnected and unresponsive. When speech is divorced from reality, its ability to show us what is relevant and to allow members of society to communicate with each other and share their perspectives is compromised. It seems to me that this is what is happening today. Consider how shocked the majority of people were with Brexit and Trump – even some Brexiters were shocked they won the vote. This blindsidedness suggests to me that public speech is failing us and has become detached from reality despite the proliferation of free speech online.

It seems to me that speech has become dangerously, fatally meaningless on multiple levels. Strategies to address meaningless speech lie beyond the scope of this post but if I were to make one suggestion, it would be to start talking about climate change more. A LOT more. Not just the scientific evidence for it, but how we feel about it, how we can address it – all of it. This is one of the ways by which I will see whether society is returning to more meaningful speech or not.

tl;dr: The value of free speech is limited when we do not have meaningful speech.

* While ideological speech may appear to bind people together – and may bring people together in body and action – it profoundly isolates the individual psychologically and socially.