On freedom of speech: a reply

There is a sad current of opinion among the progressives that the freedom of speech goes „too far”. The „freedom of speech” became a conservative political choice lately, for reasons I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps soon enough progressive will be a stand-in for regressive in the very same way awesome and awe are now positives, not negatives. In this case I will discuss the article of one Raluca Enescu, publishing on the medium platform. Now, it’s hard to be taken seriously when you express your opinions on freedom of speech on a platform that actively stops it, but the irony of this will be the smallest awe inducing part of the article.

The article is sparked by the suicide of a programmer after being harassed on a forum called KiwiFarms. I will not go into details, that is not the point of the matter. After presenting the issue, Raluca wants to raise our sensibilities by presenting her credentials: she was born in Romania and she studied philosophy in school. I will get back to that later. The she proceeds exposing the theory of Mr. John Stuart Mill on freedom of speech, and how freedom of speech should be treated:

The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the “liberty of the press” as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. […] If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Please note that in the selected quote, John Stuart Mill talks about the liberty of the press, and not the freedom of speech. So really, it’s a bad argument in favor of freedom of speech – not being about that. But, Ms. Enescu argues: „It’s difficult to imagine, for example, how we could have ever secured the right for same-sex people to marry or- really- any progress on LGBT rights if talking about it were censored by moral guardians with typical 1950s views on the matter. Therefore, it seems, freedom of speech is necessary for progress.”

So she’s really not sure about how freedom of speech is necessary for progress; in fact, if anything, her point of view seems to be quite the oposite, by doubting her own conclusion there. She then continues to talk about the marketplace of ideas, and how the marketplace should be filtered. For that she uses a chain-letter message she can’t attribute to anyone. The point of that story, for short:

The marketplace of ideas is less like a marketplace, and more like a potluck. Everyone brings their own ideas and you sample others and some are familiar with a twist, some are interesting but not to your taste, some are bad, some are lifechanging […] If someone brings mashed potatoes, you can debate the appropriateness […] But if someone puts a steaming platter of dog excrement on the table, we’re not going to debate it […]

So we’re not going to talk about things that are dog shit. But what Ms. Enescu really misses is that one’s manure is another one’s gold. What is dog shit in the marketplace of ideas? Well, Raluca Enescu has a list of things that are not dog shit:

  • we should be welcoming refugees
  • it’s wrong to misgender trans people
  • Donald Trump did not win the 2020 elections

About the refugees thing, well, Mr. Joe Biden, the president and decision maker for the United States of America decided that they should not be welcoming refugees. The fact that he later bowed to the pressure is a different story. That being said, the idea was in the marketplace of ideas and it had to be discussed.

About the second thing, there are many things that can be said, but I am telling you that whatever potluck you’re bringing this to, if it’s diverse enough, more than half would disagree with you. In fact, this topic is dog turd for most people if you’re diverse enough.

And for the last, I couldn’t care less about what Donald Trump did or did not win. He sounds not unlike Al Gore, who made a documentary on how the Earth would’ve been better of he if didn’t conceede some elections he still thinks he won; a documentary he presented in a grand tour made by private jet. The cult of Al Gore is still alive these days, enjoying the presidency of Mr. Joseph Biden.

Now we can see how Raluca’s definitely not dog shit is really dog shit at least for some people. I’ll offer an example, and I invite you to read N. K. Jemisin’s „The ones who stay and fight”. (Seriously, read it before you read on, I will rely on spoilers). In the utopian view of N. K. Jemisin, the way to preserve the utopia is to kill anyone who might ever have had contact with a „wrong idea”. In her story, there’s the case of a man who received from the outside information that is contrary to the way of life of Um-Helat; and that man is killed, and the killers are offering his daughter some time in a prison until she is reeducated, and can accept the hand of their father’s murderers.

Normally, this would be a utopia gone wrong, but Jemisin stands by her utopia. This puts her in line with every rabid dictator out there, with the excuse that she’s not a politician, and therefore her suggestion of building an ideal world by killing everyone who does not ascribe to their ideal doesn’t strike far from the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, the Gulags, or, funny enough, the black slavery in the US. But Jemisin is hailed as a cultural icon, putting her in the definitely not dog shit pile despite her pushing a genocidal agenda.

Jemisin’s approach to freedom of speech is, of course, an overkill, but we can see traces of that mentality in Raluca Enescu’s argumentation. The invocation of Karl Popper’s tolerance paradox, that is not related exclusively to freedom of speech.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

But this is a philosophical proposition, not a legal one, and therefore not binding. And the legal part is very important. Because most of our „civilized” societies have decided to bind themselves with a charter, called the Human Rights charter, with an article 19 that settles the problem when it comes to freedom of speech.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Note that this charter is adhered to by governments, but not by commercial parties; places like Twitter, Facebook, and other similar venues are constantly going against such freedoms. This UN charter can be invoked against governments restricting freedom of speech, but not against commercial parties. So this charter is not very useful to us, but we know how to search for the source of inspiration for this article. And we can settle for „The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” adopted in August 1978, that states, at article 4:

Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the fruition of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law.

And I think that this is, in fact, the best definition of liberty that I have read; and this is the guide of where should freedom of speech stop. It’s actually the same conclusion as John Stuart Mill’s, which the author of the article invokes, but it’s a bit better because it offers a means of applying this definition via the law.

In the case that Raluca Enescu brings to our attention, there are many illegal things being „talked about”. But the problem is not that KiwiFarms is hosting white supremacists, neonazis, and whatever else; the problem is that KiwiFarms hosted and allowed the doxing of people, the harassment beyond the borders of banter; and for that there should be official investigations done by people who know and understand the law.

The problem is, of course, that of victimhood. When a complaint is made, no matter how bad the complaint is, it should be verified and judged according to our society’s rules. Even if someone’s transgression is so bad to me that I end up taking a very dramatic course towards suicide, we, as a society, need to judge that transgression in a dispassionate manner. Perceived damage is not the same with inflicted damage; and sometimes, even no inflicted damage will cause perceived damage to a person. That’s why we need an objective system, this is why justice is supposed to be blind.

In the chapter on „where do we draw the line”, Ms. Enescu goes on to throw a lot of „citation needed” affirmations. Including the censorship on Twitter of the office of the President of the United States, which is considered a positive thing, although, in my opinion, it was done both too late, and without acceptable cause - I wrote about this back then (in Romanian). Short: if Twitter or Facebook offer free speech, then their decision to ban Trump is wrong, but if they maintain to their commercial privileges, then they can apply any arbitrary rules they like.

Which brings me to KiwiFarms. If we hold them at the same standard as we hold Twitter or Facebook, KiwiFarms should enforce both their own rules and the rules of the land. There should be a legal investigation related to the suicide of said developer, and the faulting parties should be held responsible. But that is my argument; what Raluca Enescu proposes is that this should be left to the marketplace.

But by now, Ms. Enescu already established that her marketplace is ideocidal. She already decided that the marketplace should expunge these ideas, and goes on to advocate for that. She goes for „the pragmatic argument” - deplatforming.

Deplatforming works. And herein is the problem: because deplatforming of ideas is toxic in a way that Ms. Enescu is either too blind or too malevolent to accept.

There is no set of ideas that are universal. For example, many think that her ideas about trans-gender people should be deplatformed, and, if they would have the power to do so, they would do it. ANTIFA is considered by some a terrorist organization, and by their actions, there are good reasons to treat them as such. Black Lives Matter movement is racist in the most open way possible. Feminism is sexist by definition. The LGBTQI+ acronym makes no sense because the first three letters denote normal sexual orientations and the rest denominate mostly physical issues, disphorias, or vague and confusing definitions (and this definition itself went through several tries to get it vaguely not offensively wrong). But I’m not attacking here any of these things; I’m just presenting perspective over the ideas that Ms. Enescu takes for granted and mislabels copiously. We can go to every aspect of our lives, and examine the rules we have in place, and realize that things could’ve been some other way, rules could’ve been very well different, and the whole world we live in would make no sense for the world that chose differently.

But this conversation is tainted by activism and politics. Conservatives are now so much in favor of freedom of speech because it’s their lifeline for access to the public. Were this not the case, progressives would’ve been quite desperate about the virtues of freedom of speech, instead of cherry-picking of the nasty attributes of the thing. In fact, they actively switch from invoking freedom of speech (when organizing LGBT parades in places that are hostile to them) to invoking suppression of freedom of speech (as it’s the case here). So Ms. Enescu, like many other progressives, is very insincere about this topic.

I am always looking for this example whenever I talk about freedom of speech, and there’s always something surprising there. This time, it was the fact that doing the usual google search for this gave me no link for YouTube - only for other platforms. Interesting, right? Anyway, here’s the song, skip at 01:07 if you are not into Romanian hip-hop.

Freedom of speech is not freedom for the thought you love but rather for the thought you hate. Hate the most.

This is a very tough principle to digest. And I’m surprised that Ms. Enescu is not able to digest this.

Now, let’s get back to Ms. Enescu’s credentials. I promised I will get back to them and I will not call back on that. She said she was born two months before one of the worst dictators in Europe fell - She lived for two months under Ceaușescu, and she tries to sell this as „an instinctive distrust of censorship, deplatforming or cancel culture”. Of course, she professes quite the opposite, showing that her studying philosophy in uni didn’t help her to understand the issues very well.

Maybe she fights against her instincts. Maybe it’s the fact that, despite her background, she did not live under the censorship she talks about; and, in fact, she did not. She grew up in a poor country where freedom of speech reigned, she was educated by a faulty system that was unable to instill her with consistent propaganda on what the „right ideas are”. In fact, the faulty educational system is the one that now allows her to make her own choices. In a sense she’s priviledged - she’s born in a world were women were considered equal to men in most respects (ideas that things are otherwise were imported back from the west after the long transition period), and in an ideological vacuum that allowed her to pick random preconceptions, unlike well established societies and educational systems that offer a consistent, ideological „truth” that should be obeyed. Yes, a well functioning educational system, while efficient in producing good citizens, doesn’t allow much flexibility to its victims.

So Ms. Enescu is a person benefiting wildly from a system that preserved freedom of speech more out of negligence than out of intention or by design. This stops her from seeing what sort of ideas would boundaries on freedom of speech keep out of the marketplace of ideas. This stops her from understanding that her own currently held views would’ve been very well heretical if she grew up in a system that wouldn’t have allowed freedom of speech by negligence. And this is the last time you’ll hear from me praise for the Romanian educational system that left me wildly uneducated, and allowing me to educate myself. GGWP, I guess, but it’s a bitter victory.

I’m not invalidating Ms. Enescu’s experience - this is why it’s the last point I wanted to discuss. But, like Larry Flynt says in the interlude in Paraziții’s song, „I can’t believe that Romania, being a country that should’ve learned from the past, is still practicing censorship”. And the thing I’m trying to point out here is that the UK or the US do not have the universal experience of lack of freedoms and freedom of speech in particular. Ms. Enescu does not have that experience either. Her opinion is informed but is rooted in the thoughts of people who wrote in a free society. The fundaments for her discussion are, therefore, purely theoretical.

Not that a theoretical discussion doesn’t help, but by claiming that she shared my experience growing up in a communist country she talks, pretty much, in the name of people that lived through this experience. So, as a Romanian that grew up with the communist brainwashing and speech-control, I’m telling you that you should not touch freedom of speech. It leads to tragedy and corruption, it leads to deaths and torture, it leads to poverty and ignorance.

So what should one do when people talk things that I don’t like?

Well, that’s the big philosophical problem, isn’t it? And, unlike Ms. Enescu, I don’t clain to have the answers for this. But I know that „limiting freedom of speech” is definitely not one; because I had this answer, and it doesn’t work. At least for 90 million of us.

Down with censorship, a single by Romanian hip-hop band Parazitii released in 2004. One of the verses asks „By emigrating en-masse will we solve the issue?”. Good question

Down with censorship, a single by Romanian hip-hop band Parazitii released in 2004. One of the verses asks „By emigrating en-masse will we solve the issue?”. Good question