Theorizing Free Speech Absolutism

A question that reckons us is where we draw the line when it comes to exercising speech rights. More importantly, is there one to be drawn, to begin with?

“Stop taking jokes seriously”. “Quit acting like a snowflake”. Free speech rights are unarguably one of the most contentious set of rights ever and the discourse revolving around them has been done to death. Varying degrees of morality have made it impossible to arrive at a unanimous objective truth. It’s hardly surprising though, the incommensurate nature of abstract moral commodities makes it a tough task for anyone to develop principles that everyone can agree with. Many brilliant academicians have tried and failed. The Harper’s Letter too, is an outcome of the failure to attain a universal standard to which everyone can be held accountable. Many free speech absolutists were signatories, which brings us to the question I would try to tackle here. Is free speech absolutism desirable? As a sub-question of sorts, should offensive speech be regulated?

The argument oft-used by champions of free speech is that given by JS Mill in his magnum-opus “On Liberty” wherein he talks of the world as a figurative “marketplace of ideas” wherein people with opposing views should engage in meaningful discourse. Hence, the ultimate truth will be achieved via the use of reason by rational human beings. He advocates for the use of this strategy symmetrically for all disagreements. Surely, the prospect of such a world where people could come to a table and discuss ideas in a civil manner is an ideal worth striving for? Of course, but even then, there are a few things we have to take cognizance of. Mill wrote On Liberty in the context of a stifling conservative rule in Victorian England. To use the famous phrase “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” as a description for those striving for social justice isn’t only a gross miscalculation of the situation, but also the criticism of the very value Mill advocated for. Even if this decontextualisation is excused, the very premises of Mill’s argument are that a- people are rational beings; b- that every disagreement constitutes meaningful discourse; and c- that reason will be victorious.

Of course, human beings should be rational, but in the face of populist politics, rationality often takes the backseat to emotions and confirmation bias, which proves that facts do care about feelings, much to the utter dismay of conservative commentator and “champion debater” Ben Shapiro. Moreover, what constitutes rationale and logic is also relative, depending upon the intellectual framework people are predisposed to. At that point, to presume that people are inherently rational beings and that reason will be victorious is fallacious at best and dangerous at worst. Moving on, is every disagreement worth engaging in a civil discourse on? People with bigoted views are often questioning equal human worth on the fault lines of caste, class, religion, race, et cetera. Do we really need to engage with a white supremacist in order to arrive at a certain ultimate truth that black lives indeed do matter? More importantly, do we really need to give popular platforms for these views to disseminate to a larger audience? (which is effectively the Harper’s Letter biggest concern). It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that an overly tolerant society, in reality, is intolerant. When intolerance becomes a norm under the masque of free speech rights, the aggregate freedom of a society is reduced. Occupying public spaces becomes even more cumbersome for the already marginalized because the duty of assimilation unduly falls on them.

The lib-left is often accused of being the sole arbiter of public demeanor. In actuality, free speech rights themselves don that role, not the lib-left. The regulation of speech is beyond justified. The state exists to the end of providing an environment for people to realize their best selves. It exists to determine the boundaries of peaceful co-existence. Liberty means the maintenance of the environment wherein an individual can be his best self- liberty, is the product of rights. Rights do not exist to satisfy desire, for desires can be morally bankrupt; rather rights are useful to the end the state seeks to serve. The utility of a right is the value to all its members and because values can be overlapping, there exists a metaphorical boundary that needs to be maintained. The maintenance of this boundary is a duty, the fulfillment of which grants citizens their rights. Rights are not the possession of claims that are empty of all duties. Of course, we can safeguard our rights in the pressure of vast social forces but our rights cannot exist independently of society. To protect me against vicious attacks is to imply that I refrain from attacking others myself as well. I have my rights so that I can contribute to the common stock of societal welfare. I, or anyone for that matter, have no right to act unsociably.

Rights, therefore, are not inherent in society but in the duties I have towards the society and vice-versa. Rights deserve recognition because of a public interest involved thereof. Libel, hate speech, slurs, inappropriate jokes et al do not deserve formal recognition for they do not contribute to the larger good. Intent is secondary, for utterances that capitalize on already existent stigma always have a larger macro-level impact, even in the absence of an immediate micro-level impact. The absence of malicious intent may only marginally decrease individual culpability, however the responsibility still exists, always will. Even Mill said that we may exercise self-regarding liberty, but the mere exercise of it doesn’t mean that we shall be protected from consequences or that people have to tolerate our actions in silence. Increasing inclusivity requires changing age-old norms, which requires policing. As long as censure contributes to a greater good, there is no reason for anyone to resist it. After all, mean environment begets mean children and the fruit rottens as it ripens.

Featured Image Credits: Monte Wolverton, Wshington Monthly

Ishatva Rajeev



Journalism has been called the “first rough draft of history”. D.U.B may be termed as the first rough draft of DU history.Freedom to Express.