Opinion | Column

​The cost of 'free' speech

The “free speech” vs. “political correctness” debate rages on. Liberals claim that there is no issuethat “free speech” is just a right-wing red-herring used to justify bigotry. Meanwhile, conservatives bemoan the dreaded “PC Police” and its alleged chilling effects on rational discourse. To them, PC is just doublethink preventing critical appraisal of minority groups.

I used to be far left on this issue, even writing an article arguing that unrestricted free speechis dangerous in the information age. Since then, I’ve become more moderate because I no longer see it simplistically. I’ve realized that free expression is vital, and that it comes at a cost.

Someone I respect once asked me this: if I must choose between right and wrong, am I faced with an ethical dilemma? I said yes, I would be.

He disagreed. To him, there is only a dilemma when one must choose between wrong and wrong.

That’s how I see this debate. I second Nicholas Kristof’s sentiment here. Two important principles are in conflict. There is thus no universally right answer—only situational and subjective ones.

Free expression is a cornerstone of our democracy. It is more than a legal affirmation written in the First Amendment. It is a societal imperative to protect the voices of all—yes, all—people.

This means that some people will abuse their privilege to spread hate, or to demean and hurt others. This may infringe on the rights of historically marginalized minority groups.

Here is where the conflict lies. How can we both build a more inclusive society and protect the need for free expression?

Since we are dealing with a value conflict, we must find a democratic solution based on the group conscience of all citizens. This works well in situations where there is near universal agreement, such as harassment and direct incitement to violence. In cases like these, judicial precedent is clear: such speech is not protected. Beyond this, there are forms of legally protected speech that most of us would agree are distasteful and unwelcome, such as the use of racial epithets.

This democratic decision-making breaks down when speech is not obviously hateful. What about a reasoned critique of the Black Lives Matter movement? What about a conservative Christian sharing that she doesn’t support gay marriage? What about someone who criticizes radical Islam? In these situations, we tend to go with our gut. Unfortunately, that means our responses are highly subjective. We definite "hate speech" the way Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Here are questions I find myself asking: does speech become hateful based on content or on motivation? As in, would a speciously sensible criticism of black protestors become hate speech if and only if the motive behind it were steeped in white supremacy? If so, how do we uncover such a motive, especially given that it may be implicit?

Should racially or culturally insensitive speech be permitted, but only in an environment where it can be challenged? For example, should we permit a speaker who is critical of Islam provided there is someone to give a dissenting view? Or does “countering” speech mean showing up in force and staging a protest?

I could continue. These are hard questions, and I am not about to claim to have a solution. Having spent months contemplating this issue, my view has become more moderate precisely because it is so difficult to find satisfactory answers.

That said, I have come to realize that open discourse is absolutely essential, even for ideas I dislike.

The key words here are “open discourse.” A problem arises when the discussion is closed or non-existent. This is why activists like Pamela Geller (who arranged the infamous “Draw Muhammad” party) and the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were wrong: they acted within their rights, but they did not encourage helpful dialogue; they merely fomented anger.

That is why I still support the banning of racist and hateful communities on websites like Reddit. They do not violate the First Amendment. Rather, they concentrate people in an echo-chamber where their views are never confronted. This only makes their beliefs stronger via a social-psychological process called "group polarization."

Liberal causes are also vulnerable to polarization. This is why it is wrong to ban or silence speakers with whom we disagree (via a "Heckler’s Veto"). We may be taking a stand that day, but we are not changing anyone’s mind. We are ensuring that our views go uncontested, while we force potentially harmful beliefs underground to fester. We are preventing their exposure to reasoned discourse and argument. This is a self-defeating strategy that leads to the ideological chasms we see in society today. The only way to truly dismantle dangerous beliefs is to air them in an atmosphere where they can be vigorously challenged.

This is the harder road. I wish that everyone would see things my way. It’s tiresome to provide justification for truths that, to me, are self-evident. As much as I wish it weren’t so, however, I know that I must do so. Burying my head in the sand and shouting down anyone who disagrees with me is not only ineffective—it is actively counterproductive.

I know this, and yet I am often still motivated to attack people who disagree with me. Why? Because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that others will listen to them, putting me in a vulnerable position. It seems easier to suppress their voice than to try and counter it.

The problem is, one day I may have to express an opinion that will trigger that same fear in someone else. If their right to expression is not sacrosanct, then neither is mine. I must be willing to pay this cost. I must accept the possibility that harmful views will find an audience in order to protect my own right to speak. I must also accept the reality that despite my best efforts, I cannot win everyone over.

This is the real cost of freedom of expression. It is heavy, but it is undeniably better than the alternative. If we capriciously sacrifice our freedom today, what will happen to the progressives of tomorrow who can no longer speak openly?

I shudder to imagine.

Ted Yavuzkurt is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. If you have a comment for him, he can be reached at tdy@duke.edu.