Against Two Bad Arguments For Free Speech

My aim here is to quickly point out two ways that I think a lot of defences of free speech go wrong. Consider this passage, from Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff:

Liberal Science [roughly, Enlightenment ideals] led to the radical social invention of a strong distinction between words and actions, and though some on campus question that distinction today, it has been one of the most valuable inventions in the service of peace, progress, and innovation that human civilization ever came up with. Freedom of speech is the eternally radical idea that individuals will try to settle their differences through debate and discussion, through evidence and attempts at persuasion, rather than through the coercive power of administrative authorities — or violence. (, bold and italics (or rather unitalics) mine)

Problem I: “a strong distinction between words and actions”?

Haidt and Lukianoff think the invention of a distinction between words and actions was extremely important and beneficial. And my sense is a lot of defences of free speech rest on something like this thought. It underlies the idea that it’s absurd — a category mistake — to equate speech with violence, or again with the idea that there’s some ethereal marketplace of ideas, separated off from the hustle and bustle of the real world, where citizens rationally, as pure intellects, consider what concerns them.

But philosophers of language and linguists are clear: there is no strong distinction. This has been known at least since J.L. Austin’s work on speech acts (see here for an introduction).

Speech act theory is based on the observation that to say, sometimes, is to do. Some actions are performed by moving your head, like nodding, some by moving your head in coordination with another person, like kissing, and some by doing something mental, like thinking. Nodding, kissing, and thinking are all, I take it, bona fide actions.

You might think that language’s function is exhausted by reporting such doings. I say ‘I nodded’ or ‘I kissed’ or ‘I thought’ and thereby describe a bit of the world. We do things; and we report on them with language. If that were so, there would indeed be a strong distinction between words and actions.

But things are more complicated than that. Sometimes we use language not to report on actions, but to perform them. If I, standing in front of the judge, say ‘I plead guilty’ I thereby do something. It’s not just words, and I’m not reporting on some antecedently existing state of the world. Rather, I’m creating a new state: the state according to which I am now guilty and as such it’s legal for me to be imprisoned, have my possessions taken from me, and so on.

That’s the first point: the distinction between deeds and language is not so easy to draw. Sometimes doing is speaking. This, just to emphasise, is completely commonplace among those who theorise about language.

Realising this, we should be more attune to the idea that speaking is not some dematerialised zone of pure reason but rather a doing like any other, and capable of the same harms as any other doing.

Problem II: “free speech is the eternally radical idea”

This second issue is more important: it claims a sort of timelessness for the ideal of free speech, going from the claim that it was a very useful ideal a couple of centuries ago, to the claim that it still is very useful.

But no ideas are timeless; no ideas are eternally radical. Eternally true ideas are the province of theology, not of science. Ideas are meant to develop and to improve as new information and theoretical tools develop. For an obvious example, Newton’s mechanics was a radical idea; but it wasn’t eternally radical. We now know it’s false, that it doesn’t describe reality completely accurately.

The same goes for any discipline that makes progress, and so the same should go for political or social or legal theory (wherever you think the theory of free speech belongs). I grant that unencumbered free speech was a radical and good idea when Milton was writing Areopagitica, and some two centuries later when J.S. Mill came up with his harm principle. But that was before Fox News and Super P.A.C.s, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh, before Trump ran on a campaign of bringing back manufacturing or Brexiteers on giving money to the NHS, before ubiquitous advertisements and campaigns targeted with social media data. The idea that there is a marketplace of ideas and that participants only buy the good ones has been revealed as so obviously wrong it’s surely time to rethink Mill and Milton, as it was time to rethink Newton when Mercury’s weird orbits could be explained by a Einstein’s theory. So that’s the second point: there are no eternally good ideas, so free speech isn’t eternally good, and given the way things stand in media and politics, we should be open to the possibility that it’s an idea whose time has passed.

This has been entirely negative: I haven’t put forward a positive case for limiting free speech. If you support such limits, hopefully this post has given you further reason to. If you don’t support them, at least it’s shown how not to argue for free speech absolutism.

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