Exactly what type of speech is “free” in a stable democratic society, and what type isn’t?

Arguments for and against free speech are bandied about quite loosely as of late. Recent arguments against free speech include provocation as the cause of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist incident, and insensitivity to the emotional fragility of others when talking about touchy subjects. On the other hand, arguments for free speech often speak of the need to say what is seemingly true about something, or how it is wrong to suppress the discussion of what we actually think about something. The poorly specified nature of free speech is evident in apparent contradictions between these arguments, such is in how it is right or wrong to freely circulate derogatory statements about those we disagree with. Fortunately, the problems presented by free speech are not new to liberty-based societies, and neither are the institutional solutions. Ancient and modern evidence-based theories allow us to specify exactly what is and isn’t free speech in a stable democracy, and to thus establish accurate conventions about it and the proper use of public institutions in protecting it.

Why is free speech essential for democratic society?

Preference falsification [1] inhibits preferential interaction between the like-minded, and this is the main reason why free speech is essential for democracy. Timur Kuran’s model of preference falsification is the difference between your actual preferences about a political issue and your publicly expressed ones. This difference reflects the degree that you publicly falsify your preferences, which depends on the perceived social costs and benefits in revealing your actual preferences and beliefs about the issue. Intelligence analyst Stella Morabito writes that preference falsification is typically exploited by totalitarian regimes in campaigns of political correctness, which manipulates the political process by simultaneously saturating the population with a politically correct “truth” and suppressing any competing alternatives to it [2]. This inhibits the self-organization of rival political forces about a political issue by inhibiting preferential interaction between the like-minded, who discover each other (and thus the relative size of their coalition) by revealing their actual thoughts on the issue. How do people do this? By free speech. According to Pease & Garner [3], the subject matter in our social communication is categorized by clichés, facts, opinions and sentiments. How can anyone who prefers free society argue against the free discussion of these?

Exactly what type of free speech is bad for democratic society?

Machiavelli, however, provides another category: accusation, which he divides into 1/ accusation that is borne out by the facts, and 2/ accusation that isn’t borne out by the facts (calumny) [4]. The politically-motivated accusations that are circulated by calumniators are not bound by any rules of evidence, and thus require very little to get going.  Intuitively, we know that accusations borne out by the facts are right, and that accusations that are not are wrong. Machiavelli goes several steps further, and posits that it is essential to reward/protect the first and punish the second in order to stop factional conflict from spiralling out of control, because “calumnies do not castigate citizens, but exasperate them”. For example, calumnies such as smear campaigns are often used against those who present or endorse alternatives to a politically correct “truth” [2], who in turn privately seek to get back for what has been said about them if the calumny is not checked by institutions [4].

There is no economic free lunch in having free speech, especially in a democracy   

There is no free lunch in anything, and in free speech in this is the institution of public accusation. Machiavelli notes that calumny and disorder is more prevalent in societies where the institutional provision of public accusation is less available, and prescribes increasing the availability of this institution in areas where it is lacking. Since the provision has thus been made so that “anyone can accuse anyone without fear of any kind, and without respect to persons”, there is no excuse for circulating accusations that are not borne out by the facts. When such provision has been made, “calumniators should be severely punished”. Given this logic, did the Islamist perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo murders have any justification, given the slander by cartoonists against the prophet of their religion? Or, given the fact that the cartoonists mocked many religions, were they justified in insulting something that represents an infringement on liberty and democratic sovereignty in their country?

Is the deity or prophet of any religious ideology protected from free speech in a sovereign democratic society?

Note that real people are the subject matter in the preceding discussion. Namely, in a democracy, 1/ real people should not have a problem with discussing facts, their actual opinions and sentiments, 2/ those who make accusations that are borne out by the facts should be rewarded, or at least not punished [4], and 3/ where there is sufficient institutional provision for these things, calumniators should be severely punished. So, should those who slander the deity or prophet of any religion be punished or protected? This is an easy question. The prophet, deity or doctrine of any given religious ideology can be categorized as a politically correct “truth”, and thus is subject to any competing alternative via the use of free speech. However, the caveat here is that this is true in a truly democratic society, where sovereign power is not derived from religious doctrine but from the democratic representation of actual political preferences in legislation and public policy. A democracy that is otherwise is a democracy in name but not in fact.

So, if free society is something that you prefer, what type of speech should you confidently and freely engage in, and what type of speech should you exercise with more self-discipline?

If you actually prefer a free society and have also applied some critical thinking to the preceding discussion, you should have no problem answering this question.

[1] Kuran, T. (1995). “The inevitability of future revolutionary surprises.” American Journal of Sociology, 1528-1551.

[2] http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/08/10737/

[3] Pease, A., Garner, A. (2006). Talk Language: How to Use Conversation for Profit and Pleasure. Buderim, Qld.

[4] The Discourses, 1.8

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