Freedom of speech and “consequences”
The recent uproar over allegedly “misogynist” comments made by Senator Leyonhjelm in response to Senator Hanson-Young’s implications that men are collectively responsible for the rape-murder of Eurydice Dixon (and all violence perpetrated by any man against any woman) has brought out a familiar slogan: “freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”
Many people whom are critical of political correctness and the shaming, ostracism and character-assassination tactics of “Social Justice Warriors” frequently assert that these “SJWs” represent a threat to free speech. SJWs respond by saying that freedom of speech is protection from the government punishing you for your speech, but it isn’t protection from social consequences for your speech.
But this argument is disingenuous at best, and represents a tactical shift in the definition of free speech and freedom generally.
Negative and Positive Liberty
Negative liberty and positive liberty is a distinction rooted in the works of Isaiah Berlin. Berlin is regarded as the founder of the left-liberal tradition, which essentially agrees with classical liberalism on philosophical and methodological issues but believes a mixed economy rather than a pure market economy is necessary to secure freedom. Berlin justified this by making a distinction between two concepts of what liberty means; the first concept, which he called “negative” liberty, says that one is free to do “X” when other people (or organisations made up of other people, including the State) are prohibited from using violence, fraud or coercion against one in retaliation for doing X. The second concept, which he called “positive” liberty, is that one is free to do X not only when free from violent, fraudulent, coercive prohibition and retaliation, but when one is also free of the inability to do X. In short, someone who cannot afford to buy food is not really “free to eat” and someone who is quadriplegic is not really “free to walk.”
Classical liberals have criticised the idea of positive liberty, but that doesn’t mean classical liberals do not care about expanding positive liberty; indeed, classical liberals typically believe in negative liberty because they think it is the best way to widen the scope of positive liberty. What classical liberals object to is the left-liberal propositions that the State must provide a large level of positive liberty, and that positive liberty is a superior concept of liberty to negative liberty, but neither of these disputes means that positive liberty isn’t a valid concern.
Let us apply this to freedom of speech. Legal protection of freedom of speech, such as the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, protects negative liberty of freedom of speech from being infringed upon by the government. Other laws, such as prohibitions against violence and fraud and coercion, protect the negative liberty of freedom of speech from being infringed upon by other individuals, so long as these laws do not contain exceptions for “this other person said something I don’t like and therefore I decided to kill them” defenses.
But it is not invalid to talk about a positive liberty of freedom of speech either. Even if laws are taken out of the equation, when unspecified consequences are enshrined as acceptable responses to controversial ideas, this intimidates people from discussing or analysing these particular ideas. Where economic harm or character assassination is considered an appropriate response to the violation of broad taboos, even if speech is legally free the marketplace of ideas is constrained.
Freedom of speech has always been conjoined with the notion of uninhibited debates over and discussions of ideas which are controversial and even hated. Everyone agrees with the freedom to say things that are considered approved or non-controversial; it is only speech that challenges orthodoxy which needs to be protected. This concern with positive, rather than exclusively negative, freedom of speech has been enshrined in American First Amendment jurisprudence through the concept of the “chilling effect.”
The SJW Hypocrisy
In short, the classical liberal notion of free speech has never been exclusively legalistic, nor has it ever been exclusively governmental; not only is the State forbidden from using violence against you in retaliation for your speech, but so are other individuals. The SJW notion of free speech exclusively as protection from State retaliation is unprecedentedly narrow even in terms of negative liberty.
But it is when discussing the positive liberty aspect of free speech that SJWs show their true hypocrisy.
SJWs subscribe to an ideology with no intellectual link to the liberal tradition, however SJW ideology is intensely familiar with the concept of positive liberties and how cultural norms can sabotage these positive liberties. Arguments such as “women are discouraged from entering STEM” and “women are discouraged from playing video games or participating in ‘nerdy’ hobbies,” are premised on the idea that social norms other than the law can restrict freedom. Let us take the example of someone growing up gay in a fundamentalist Christian community; even if their rights are protected absolutely under the law, this person is clearly situated within a cultural context that restricts their positive liberty to be gay even if their negative liberty is completely protected.
However, the SJW argument that “freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences” works out to an assertion that there is no such thing as a positive liberty to free speech. Indeed, given how they will engage in defamation in order to sabotage the job prospects of someone who transgresses their beliefs, they don’t even believe in the full negative liberty of free speech.
Why is this hypocrisy? Because it is a strategic redefinition of freedom. If someone is going to say they believe in freedom, they must have a unitary concept of what constitutes freedom and they must apply it consistently. For SJWs, freedom to be a woman who plays video games requires a “non-sexist” gaming community. Freedom for a woman to go into a STEM career requires a culture which not only promotes the idea that women can and should go into STEM, but special programs providing scholarships exclusively for women to study STEM, and a complete change in the internal culture of STEM that moves away from notions like “objectivity” and “meritocracy.”
Yet when it comes to freedom of speech, suddenly the idea that cultural norms matter and that these norms can either enable or restrict liberty is completely thrown out the window.
Indeed, the SJW concept of free speech is so narrow that it even manages to be narrower than a purist negative liberty conception of free speech; the government may not be able to use violence or fraud or coercion in retaliation to your speech, but a private individual who is sufficiently outraged or considered sufficiently “oppressed” could get away with defaming or harassing or stalking someone whom is accused of contributing to oppression.
This is tactical. Because SJWs are not inheritors of any liberal tradition, they don’t actually believe in individual freedom (be it positive or negative) as the ultimate goal of the polity. However, they know most people in Anglosphere societies have liberal sympathies; as such, they cannot outwardly say “we don’t think freedom is the ultimate end.” So they disguise themselves and pretend to be inheritors of a left-liberal tradition concerned with how cultural norms can prevent individuals from exercising rights.
But when freedom of speech comes around, cultural norms no longer matter; freedom is merely freedom from State retaliation, and trying to foster cultural norms that stigmatize dissent and enshrine unquestionable orthodoxies is “just more speech.”
Returning To Liberalism
Of course freedom of speech doesn’t mean people cannot criticise your speech, dislike your speech, or even hate your speech. Nor does freedom of speech allow you to engage in consumer fraud. But this doesn’t make “freedom of speech isn’t freedom from consequences” a profound or meaningful statement. Rather, it is a vacuous truth at best, and a dangerous and deliberate equivocation at worst.
Freedom of speech is not merely protection from the State’s retaliation; it is protection from any person or group thereof (and the State is ultimately just a group of people) using force, fraud or coercion against you in response to your speech. This is the proper negative liberty understanding of freedom of speech; whilst freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from any consequences per se, it does mean others may not inflict particular kinds of consequences upon you.
But freedom of speech has always had a positive liberty aspect to it in liberal theory. Like freedom of religion, freedom of speech grew out of challenging orthodoxies. It grew out of dissent. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, it is important as a means for the discovery of truth that ideas be able to compete and viewpoints be able to challenge each other. Viewpoint diversity is a necessity to prevent the stifling of inquiry that inevitably comes with orthodoxy; no idea must be beyond critique. A culture that encourages the persecution and shaming of dissenters is a culture which, irrespective of its laws, does not truly value or understand free speech.
And as both Ayn Rand and Frederich Hayek correctly emphasized, cultural norms matter. One cannot sustain a liberal polity when that polity has embraced illiberal values. If free speech is thought of merely as a legal formality that protects people from the State alone, free speech is devalued and ultimately is set along a path to be extinguished.