Some thoughts on free speech, the public sphere, inclusion and virtue

Often, when someone is ridiculed for publicly saying something that others deem offensive, the person who made the initial statement claims that they have freedom of speech and thus are being unduly criticized for their statements. The response to this is typically that while people have freedom of speech they are not free from criticism and ridicule for what they say. This final response reflects the libertarian conception of free speech in which each is free to speak freely, but must deal with the fact that others can criticize them for their speech.

The libertarian conception of free speech is very intuitive in that it suggests that each should have equal liberty to express themselves, while allowing a similar liberty for others.  But if we think about what a public sphere looks like that operates according to this libertarian conception we will see that the public sphere will never be a space where everyone will feel free to express all of their beliefs. If I hold beliefs that I know others find offensive I will not feel free to express these publicly in a public sphere operating according to the libertarian conception of free speech for fear of offending people and any further consequences that flow from that offense such as diminished career opportunities. This means that creating a public sphere that allows each to speak their mind freely will not necessarily create a public sphere in which each feels free to express their beliefs.

Now of course this does not mean that the libertarian conception of free speech is problematic; it just means that societal inclusion will not be completely fostered by adopting a libertarian conception of free speech as some will always fear condemnation from the majority, at least as long there is diversity of belief. The result of this is that it seems impossible to create a public sphere that is free in the sense that each can speak their mind without legal condemnation and one in which people feel free to speak their minds.  But there seems to be a yearning for a space in which we feel completely free to express ourselves. If the public sphere cannot provide this what space or spaces will?

My provisional answer is that the public sphere is not meant to be a space where we feel free to express our deepest convictions, but instead friendships, romantic relationships and other smaller communities, such as book clubs, sports teams and political associations, form these spaces. Having people who we can talk to about our deepest beliefs without fear of judgment is deeply important as it allows us to open up to others and have authentic, genuine conversations where we fully connect with another. But, the public sphere cannot provide this space to people as the diversity of opinion within the public sphere means that being fully open about one’s beliefs will always be a challenge for some.

However, while the public sphere cannot offer a space where all can feel free to express themselves, fear of the judgment and censure of others can negatively affect the public sphere, and the political community as a whole. if people are deeply afraid to express their beliefs,  because they fear they will be ostracized or isolated ,they will not feel included in the society, and will consequently be marginalized to some extent.  So we cannot just pretend that the idea that the private sphere offers the space in which we can feel free to express ourselves is completely adequate, as this would mean that we would be condoning marginalization and exclusion within the public sphere. To my mind the solution to this issue is not to try to limit speech as this would destroy the very core of freedom of speech. Instead, one strategy that allows us to limit the pernicious effects of fear of condemnation, isolation, and ostracism for the things that one says is the encouragement of particular virtues and the discouragement of particular vices in the citizenry as a whole.

The main virtues that need to be encouraged to deal with this issue are free spiritedness and courage. Free spiritedness allows us to see that our beliefs do not need the approval of others to be valid or valuable, and courage allows us to face our fears of condemnation. These two virtues thus allow us to more strongly speak up for what we believe in, rather than just trying to say what we know will please others, and a public sphere full of these kind of voices is better than one in which people avoid saying anything that may offend others.

Similarly, the vice that needs to be discouraged to deal with this issue of inclusion is fanaticism.  By fanaticism I mean the tendency to see your beliefs as the only reasonable set of beliefs that a person can hold, such that you wish to eliminate the influence and ostracize all of those who disagree with you. If this vice is avoided, or at the very least its influence is limited, this will allow people to feel more at ease expressing their deepest beliefs because while they know that others may deeply disagree with them, they do not have to fear being ostracized, or seen as someone whose influence is toxic to the public sphere. Even if fanaticism is discouraged and free spiritedness and courage are encouraged in this way this will not mean that people will feel entirely free to express their beliefs as some beliefs will undoubtedly offend many, but it should help to foster inclusion while still allowing all to freely express their opinions.

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6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on free speech, the public sphere, inclusion and virtue

  1. If you’re about to say something offensive, it might mean that you need to rethink things. Having public opinion against you is no measure one way or another, but fear of being ostracized might make you think deep and hard about what you’re about to say. Then, of course, if you find yourself right it’s a matter of mustering the courage to say it, to have a sense of truth being more important than public backlash. (If it is…I’m sure it depends on the content.)

    Maybe I think of it as a sort of system of checks and balances.

    I have my blog and I’m on Facebook, but I rarely post anything on FB (it still freaks me out for some reason; I don’t really know what it’s for except to post selfies no one wants to see, silly videos of cats running into things to amuse people, etc. I use it to tell my OKC friends when I’m coming.) I keep my blog limited to my more objective insights. I also try to keep the vulgar language down to a minimum; I’ll reserve my offensive comments for my friends, because they’re often just meant to be funny, not true. 🙂

    One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s often the WAY you say things rather than WHAT you say. Offensive comments are often fairly tame on further inspection, or when the author is pushed for clarity, or they’re just plain wrong because they are meant to be offensive, so the author takes up a one-sided (incomplete) stance to start a fight. I’ve spoken with people on my blog who disagree with me, but when we disagree, we are always respectful and both after the truth in an earnest way, so no one needs to get offended. In fact, we appreciate each other. I wasn’t sure this kind of back-and-forth was possible on blogs, but I’m pleasantly surprised to find it is. Perhaps the reason this is the case is because my blog is not huge, there aren’t tons of people trying to make a splash in my comments section, so I can find a sort of peace in relative obscurity!

    • You make some interesting and insightful points.

      I completely agree that when confronted with the fear of public opinion the best kind of person will muster the courage to say what they actually think if they judge themselves to be right after consideration.

      Although I think expecting most people to meet this level of courage and integrity is problematic. In most societies there are certain things that you cannot say without fear of severe consequences not because they are inherently offensive, but because they reject the basic values of the society at large. I think here the issue of gay rights is particularly instructive. Many critics of gay rights are not espousing a coherent view, but merely espousing hate. For example those who compare gay rights to a cancer that threatens the moral decency of society. But there are those who are critical of gay rights because they view homosexual desire, or interaction as sinful or morally problematic. Unfortunately there is a tendency for public opinion in countries like Canada to see both of these types of critics of gay rights as people who espouse hate, and thus should be silenced or ostracized. As a gay man the idea that some of my most basic feelings are viewed by others as sinful bothers me. But I have to distinguish between those people who seem to want to see gays eliminated and those who have moral objections to homosexuality, but are not simply crusaders trying to destroy it. In this context the more reasonable objector to gay rights is put in an awkward position and must risk being seen negatively if he is to stand up for what he or she believes in. Of course the best and most courageous person would be honest about their thoughts, but many would not and we should not be surprised at the fact that many would not speak out. I am not sure if you were arguing against this point, but I just wanted to clarify my thoughts.

      I also completely agree that in many cases the way something is said is what makes a statement offensive, rather than the basic idea that the statement is trying to express. My point about gay rights above demonstrates this well I think.

      Facebook is a weird world. I also do not post much on Facebook for many of the same reasons as you, but also because I don’t see many of my Facebook “friends” as people who I can have an intelligent conversation, as while they may be nice, I find them fairly vapid, so I do not want to get in a serious argument with them. Now this is perhaps a bit snobbish of an attitude to have, but it originates with the experience of people overreacting and becoming belligerent with me when I say something that flies in the face of public opinion. Part of this is a problem with me as I should be more courageous and less conflict averse, but also there is a danger in the kind of fanatical conformism that sees those who reject the status quo as an other to be destroyed. I think both Mill and Tocqueville were onto something when they warned of the dangers of the way in which public opinion could encourage unthinking conformity and be quite stifling in democracies.

      You are also probably right that the size of a blog’s audience will impact the civility that can be expected in the conversation it generates. In addition, I think having a blog that seems to be more interested in exploring ideas to try to find the truth, rather than merely ranting against what upsets you, as your blog does, and I hope mine does, will also encourage more civility.If I were to post an entry about why libertarians/liberals/conservatives/socialists are wrong and idiotic then I am pretty sure that I would receive commentary that was far more vitriolic, and less civil.

      When I was thinking of the public sphere in my initial blog I was thinking of societal forums like the mainstream media, and the public discussion that is mediated through it, as opposed to Facebook and blogs. Facebook and blogs are public but they are public in a different sense, so I think I drew an overly simple distinction between private and public that does not take into account those spaces that are nominally public, but also are related to friendships/acquaintances or specific communities of interest.

      • I’m very impressed by your thoughtful response! Also impressed that as a gay man you are willing to admit that some critics of homosexuality are not necessarily “haters”. It’s quite true that this is the case, but most people have a knee-jerk reaction when someone criticizes something like this. I totally see your point about why people might not be able to muster the courage to speak such views, because there’s the knowledge that even a nuanced and careful explanation of such an opinion will make people think there is something ugly underneath, that what’s being said is not really what’s meant. When maybe what’s said IS what is meant…but who would believe it? Only those who can accept nuanced opinions, and that, I’m afraid, is not the majority.

        As you can see, you don’t have to worry about sounding snobbish with me. I make snobby comments all the time! (It’s gotten so bad I often don’t even realize I sound snobby, until I get that flabbergasted reaction.) 🙂

        I suppose I was thinking of offensive comments in a different light.

        I certainly have views that I don’t share readily, but I will share if I know I’ll have the proper time to explain them fully. Especially when it comes to feminism. That’s a muddy field.

        Also true that on a larger public forum, mainstream media and the like, there’s no sense of trust established between speaker and audience…it’s just too big. So the speaker has to be very careful. Whereas on blogs (well, small blogs) we get to know each other better and are less likely to take offense.

        I wonder how anyone on FB could find what you say offensive? Well…I have maybe 30 FB friends, so that probably changes things! Maybe I just don’t know what it can be like. All I know is it’s pretty boring, but it’s great for rounding up folks for a party. And good for funny videos of cats.

    • Thanks for sharing. The article is definitely interesting, and I largely agree with David Brooks perspective here.

      When I spoke of fanaticism in my entry I think I meant something very similar to what Brooks means when he refers to those who are unable to laugh at themselves.

      • You’re welcome. I thought you might like it.

        I think you’re probably right. Some people just need to learn to take it down a notch or two or ten. Or however many notches it takes to prevent people from going on a killing rampage.

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