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.