Skip to main content

Freeing Speech: Free Speech, Milo, and the University

February 24th, 2017 | 31 min read

By Alastair Roberts

A peculiar and noteworthy feature of our cultural conversations around the subject of free speech is their narrow focus upon the non-proscription of expression. If we were to employ Isaiah Berlin’s taxonomy, we could say that these conversations have framed free speech as a ‘negative liberty’, as freedom from coercion or external constraints upon our speech. Our free speech causes célèbres are typically cases where someone’s right to expression of their viewpoint has been unjustly curtailed by some force or threat, often within an institutional context.

Unfortunately, the conversation can be even more constrained by the excessive attention given to the First Amendment to the US Constitution, yielding a framing which can allow for all sorts of mischief on the part of those who want to close down speech using means within the law. We can see examples of such closing down of speech in cases involving the social pressure of the online mob, threats to people’s livelihood for speaking their minds, the unjust freezing of people and groups out of public institutions, or even in cases where people stifle, cow, and control those around them with their intemperate emotional reactions.

Recognizing the broader scope of the negative liberty of free speech reveals something of its complexity. Short of violence, there are a multitude of ways in which we can limit or punish other people’s expression and, indeed, many of these may be legitimate on occasions. An employee who is abusive to customers may well lose her job, her right of free expression notwithstanding. A speaker who openly foments anti-Semitism can expect to find his speaking invitations justifiably revoked.

To the minds of those advocating for more stringent social and institutional policing of speech, this is fatal for the free speech case: ‘Freedom of speech,’ they will insist, ‘doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.’ And, after they have imposed their desired consequences, freedom of speech may not mean much at all. Others seek to suppress unwelcome speech through the pernicious sophistry of conflating speech and ‘violence’.

That even its staunchest defenders may acknowledge that free speech has its limits is not, however, an abandonment of the principle, even though it may expose some of the shortcomings of framing the principle as a negative liberty, as we shall see. Nor, conversely, do appeals to such limits suffice to exculpate those who seek to asphyxiate open discourse. Those who pay lip service to the principle of freedom of speech while employing such casuistry to constrain other people’s expression treat freedom of speech as if a chafing restriction to be minimized, rather than as a social good to be cultivated, protected, and extended in our societies and its institutions.

Freedom of speech must be more than a purely negative freedom.

The closer we look at freedom of speech, the more apparent it becomes that it can’t be reduced to an absence of external coercion against or constraints upon our expression, as it might be regarded when considered as a negative freedom. For freedom of speech to exist, something more is required: mutual generosity and hospitality expressed between people who differ strongly. Freedom of speech is about the positive acts by which we make space for others, especially those who disagree with us, to articulate their viewpoints. Niall Gooch writes:

Defenders of free speech are arguing not only for free speech as an abstraction, but a wider culture of honest debate, factual argument, respectful disagreement, and civilised co-existence with people who see the world very differently from us. Complaints about attacks on free speech can be seen as proxies for concerns about the maintenance of this culture, particularly in the context of the university.

While the concept of freedom of speech as a negative liberty might suggest otherwise, such a culture can only be sustained through the determined and continual exercise of personal and civic virtues and the careful maintenance of healthy institutional and social norms. Freedom of speech is displayed in people’s commitment to give a charitable hearing to those whose views they firmly oppose.

It is seen in a man’s determination to master his temper and practice self-deprecating humour, so that his wife won’t be scared to speak her mind around him. It is seen in the pursuit of healthy institutional structures of discourse, which prevent arguments from overheating. It is seen in our refusal to participate in online shaming. It is seen in a university’s commitment to give unpopular yet learned scholars a platform. It is seen in our civility and friendliness to people whose politics and beliefs are radically opposed to our own and in our determination to make space for them within our communities and institutions.

Considering this, it is rather unfortunate that the cause of free speech has become so strongly associated with characters such as Milo Yiannopoulos, whose manner of discourse, while tolerated by a culture of free speech, is nonetheless detrimental to it. While supporters of free speech may rightly protect the space in society for people to express the sentiment that ‘feminism is cancer’, for instance, such provocations are utterly unconducive to a culture of persuasion and of the respectful and fruitful exchange of perspectives. Indeed, they represent a rejection of the task of making space for those with whom we differ through our manner of rhetoric.

We should be appalled by the illiberalism displayed in the recent response to Milo’s presence at UC Berkeley and should articulate our concern for the university as a site where exposure to a wide range of perspectives is especially important. Yet, in this uncompromising stance, we must beware of treating provocateurs such as Milo as the vanguard of the movement for free speech, when so much that they represent is antagonistic to the culture we need to create.

Freedom of speech requires the positive presence of certain qualities.

Moving from a definition of the freedom of speech as the absence of something—external coercion or sanction—to the presence of something—a generosity and hospitality to difference of opinion and to those with whom we differ—can bring clarity to some further issues. For instance, it reveals that, for the great negative liberties of a liberal society to function well, they generally need to be grounded in a more fundamental social reality. When this social foundation erodes, these liberties can collapse. The quest for a truly liberal society commits us to the defence and pursuit, not merely of abstract liberal freedoms, but also of the robust and open-hearted neighbourliness of a deeply intervolved society that must underlie them.

Here I have some measure of sympathy with those who call for ‘safe spaces’. Freedom of speech in society will be resisted when people feel socially threatened. Societies open up spaces for free speech as they allay people’s fears. Institutions such as the university create and protect zones of free speech by forming distinct yet related spaces: rich and welcoming communities where people can belong provide healthy bounds upon arenas of challenging discourse for the testing and exploration of ideas. Where communities are fractured, the open exchange of viewpoints will be difficult to achieve.

Such free exchange of viewpoints typically occurs in ‘heterotopic’ spaces, arenas of conflict and challenge set apart from yet bounded by community. However, when the communal bond is weak, or where the boundaries between realms are poorly defined or lacking, conflict can burst its proper banks, flooding into the relations of communities themselves, with dangerous effect. We are currently witnessing such an effect in American society, as political antagonisms have spilled over into social relations, producing a breakdown of civility, goodwill, and community.

While we may seek to defend the free speech of every individual in their personal capacity, concerns about free speech chiefly and appropriately focus upon the platforms, contexts, organs, and institutions of public disputation—upon universities, the press, the public square, political bodies, and various public media. It is primarily in connection with these that free speech becomes more than merely one protected right among others, but integral to the mechanisms of societies’ self-examination, self-criticism, transformation, transmission, and renewal. It is in these contexts that the primary cross-examination and stress-testing of societies’ ideas, values, beliefs, and structures occurs and, where these cease to operate effectively, the social order’s commitment to truth itself is jeopardized.

Freedom of speech has an exalted place, for it is a freedom that can be powerfully generative of other freedoms and corrective of oppression. Liberty of expression is a somewhat ambivalent precondition for this process: it does not guarantee it, for this privilege can be lightly squandered in sterile acts of offence-giving or be denied contexts and communities to direct it towards its higher ends.

Different forms of speech are appropriate for different arenas.

Our current struggles may in large measure result from both the excessive or undiscriminating inclusivity of increasingly poorly differentiated realms of speech. As I have already intimated, a society of free speech is a society where people make space for others; it is also a place where various forms of speech have protected niches within which they can occur.

Speech is not a uniform phenomenon, nor are speakers alike in character. Whereas some forms of speech require agonistic contexts of discourse, where combative challenges to prevailing orthodoxies can be voiced and where deeply held beliefs are held open to questioning, other forms of speech require far more protected contexts. There is a need for spaces in which people are freed to explore and develop their viewpoints in company with others of relatively similar mind, without always having to defend their first principles from their opponents.

Likewise, there is a need for spaces that are more supportive, inclusive, and egalitarian, in which people who might lack the confidence to participate or face marginalization in other contexts can be given the opportunity and confidence to speak. Both of these cases could be seen as matters of preserving freedom of speech, yet, not only do they require sharply differing conditions, the conditions one form of speech requires to thrive can be hostile to the flourishing of the other.

In the past, access to the primary media and contexts of public discourse was much more limited by education, vocation, status, wealth, character, office, and intelligence, whereas now they are much more democratically enjoyed. Public speech also overwhelmingly occurred in male or male-dominated realms, according to masculine or masculine-weighted norms, which can be more tolerant, accommodating, and appreciative of combative and oppositional speech.

While differences between the sexes in this area are only probabilistic tendencies, albeit amplified on a group level, the fact that the contemporary flashpoints of conflict over free speech are so often explicitly framed by gendered antagonisms should be no surprise: Men and women as groups frequently tend to prefer different contexts and modes of discourse. What many women may find liberating may be experienced by many men as stifling and vice versa. Unfortunately, a gender neutralizing society is not very good at honestly facing up to and wisely addressing what are in no small measure the results of natural sex differences.

While arenas of open and challenging discourse are of great importance for the functioning of a healthy society, few people are either temperamentally or intellectually suited for participation within them. Most people have traditionally been spectators of, rather than participants in, such discourse. As our academic institutions and new public media have become much more inclusive, however, these forms of discourse have come under threat. The tempered male-weighted virtues that traditionally characterized our more public realms of open discourse are threatened both by the presence of a male-dominated group of belligerent and provocative individuals, who lack the virtues of effective public speech, and by the presence of a female-dominated group of those who find both the traditional expectations of such realms and the abusive individuals that increasingly operate in them oppressive and marginalizing. It is also threatened by the increased democratization of discourse through new online media and by the sinking standards of the university as an institution.

Many of the problems currently faced in our social ecosystem of discourse arise from the collapse of what were once more specific and exclusive cultural niches of discourse into a less differentiated and bounded inclusive realm, where different modes of discourse and social concerns start to come into direct conflict with each other. In universities these pressures often occur as a predominately female social justice left, with its more maternal concerns for inclusion, equality, affirmation, validation, and the like often conflicts with the interests of those who wish for the university to retain its traditional institutional commitment to being an arena for open and challenging discourse in pursuit of truth, even when that discourse might discomfort members of certain vulnerable groups.

Greater inclusivity can create its own dangers.

The no-platforming of characters like Milo Yiannopoulos targets speech that primarily aims at provocation, rather than being driven by a love for the truth. However, Milo and others like him draw attention to a deeper malaise, to the constriction of open discourse that also afflicts the academic life of the university, as the officious maternalism of the social justice left has established an institutional culture that stifles challenges to many of its orthodoxies. In such a situation, it is imperative that universities reflect upon the potential dangers that can come with greater inclusivity and how the changing demographics of their student bodies may, if not handled carefully, compromise their traditional institutional culture and capacity to pursue their internal ends.

As Jonathan Haidt and others have argued, universities may face choices between pursuing the telos of social justice and inclusion and pursuing the telos of truth. While the university has always sought to create a strong community and common life to bound the agonism of its more combative intellectual discourses, for the latter—which are integral to the functioning of the university as an institution—to operate well, the university has always needed to be a somewhat exclusive institution. The more that inclusion—whether of students of a lower intellectual calibre, or of students who effect the closing down of contexts in which their beliefs or identities are open to challenge—is prioritized, however, the less effective it can be in this function.

Although the university certainly won’t altogether cease to pursue truth, it will do so in a much more ideologically constrained, compromised, and conformist manner. The effects of this will be unevenly distributed: what may be a source of relatively minor irritations in the physical sciences, for instance, can radically undermine the academic integrity of the social sciences, where social justice orthodoxies are far more demanding.

At such a point, it seems to me that our champions of free speech should not be the provocateurs who expose the disease of our institutions by exciting their symptoms. Rather, it should be those who are committed to pursuing the health of our cultural discourse, through the careful crafting of well-structured institutions, formation of an ethos, and cultivation of the virtues that equip a wide range of people to participate in and contribute to communities and their arenas of discourse. We should celebrate the union of a jealous defence of the teloi of our cultural institutions and the nerve to resist intolerant minorities who would subject them to social justice orthodoxies, with the patient creation of conditions within which these teloi can be pursued uncompromised in a more inclusive manner than they have been in the past.

Contexts in which the vigorous exchange of radically differing opinions is sustained and bounded by a culture of mutual respect, hospitality, and generosity do not just happen, but must be formed by wise and clear-sighted leaders in union with principled and courageous core communities. Such contexts can deny both those who delight in taking offence and those who delight in giving it much of the prominence and influence they currently enjoy. Those that create such contexts represent a far more thoroughgoing commitment to free speech: a commitment to create well-ordered contexts in which many different modes and events of discourse can occur alongside each other, enabled to challenge each other without stifling each other, each playing their part in larger, carefully coordinated processes of shared reflection and deliberation.

Merely removing external prohibitions and restrictions in the pursuit of free speech as a negative liberty is insufficient to achieve this. Indeed, the loss of restrictions may be much of the problem. The challenge faced is largely an institutional one, the challenge of establishing the necessary bounds on human behaviour so that larger social ends can be achieved. Institutions tend to suffer in an individualistic age, as institutions transcend individuals and their ends, ordering individuals’ behaviour towards social purposes that take priority over their comfort, inclusion, and affirmation.

Deinstitutionalization creates a free speech crisis.

Our society is experiencing forms of deinstitutionalization in several areas—the university being one such area—as institutions are weakened in their capacity to direct and mould people’s behaviour and as the power of individuals to subject institutions to their personal ends through their political, economic, and social power is increased. Where once institutions structured human behaviour, uniting and coordinating various parties towards clearly defined common ends through their rules, we now increasingly have to deal with the ambivalence of platforms or consumer-oriented agencies, which principally exist to increase the power and profits of providers, while they serve the private interests of those who use them. In this new environment, common goods lack definition, if they are perceived to exist at all. The interests of different groups of individuals are far more likely to come into collision with each other and such entities are also often much more vulnerable to being hijacked by the ends of vociferous or intolerant elements within them.

Perhaps one of the greatest reasons to move beyond a negative liberty framing of freedom of speech is because it dulls our awareness of many of the most pressing contemporary threats to this freedom. The negative liberty framing can suggest speech is something that will take care of itself, provided that no constraints or limits are placed upon it. However, as we recognize that free speech is a fragile species of social condition that requires careful collaborative cultivation, we may become more alert to the social, institutional, and technological realities that, while not uprooting it, profoundly stunt its development. Here I want to concentrate on the university and the Internet as two examples of contexts where our cultivation of healthy free speech has gone awry. These examples will also serve to illustrate my points about the danger of losing institutions.

While cases of universities de-platforming speakers and protesting students threatening and closing down proponents of unwelcome positions are widely reported and discussed, much less attention is given to the systemic institutional problems in the modern university that prevent it from achieving social conditions conducive to free speech. A primary internal end of the institution of the university has traditionally been that of fostering a culture of robust and challenging interchange of perspective and argument. The university has also historically served as a sort of intellectual bootcamp, forming a new generation of students into the virtues, culture, and traditions of academia. However, recent decades have witnessed the university as an institution being subjected to the service of external ends. While the university has always served external ends in addition to its internal ends, these external ends have increasingly eclipsed the internal ones, greatly distorting the institution in the process.

The university is no longer primarily about academic freedom.

In particular, the university has been distorted by economic and social interests. The university increasingly serves the function of minting the next generation of a credentialist middle class and preserving the façade of a meritocracy. Our societies’ credentialism increasingly functions as a protectionist measure for middle class jobs and requires an exorbitant investment in one’s education to get ahead. The cost of sustaining this credentialism in the time and money we invest in university education is immense and is arguably both unjust and unjustifiable.

However, the effect of credentialism has been damaging to the internal ends of the university. On account of credentialism, the final degree has become much more valuable than the substance of the education that underlies it. People become driven by the end of producing new lines for their manicured resumés, rather than deepening and developing themselves as cultured persons. The result can often be a polished veneer of excellence over a profound mediocrity, conformity, and lack of depth or passionate self-investment in one’s endeavours.

As Helen Andrews has observed, grade inflation is a natural result of the university’s role in the new meritocracy; one might add the rise of vanity degrees and shallow and incoherent degree programs as another. It has also led to universities being swamped by students who are quite unsuited for academia, lowering standards and diluting the culture of learning for everyone.

Reordered around meritocratic and credentialist ends, risk-taking, creativity, and genius can be stifled in the modern university. One cannot afford to take risks or go off-piste when getting credentials is all-important and the actual substance of learning a constant potential distraction from the task of getting a degree. The university can also become a much less hospitable environment to many of the people who once found refuge in it. The modern university, with its emphases on selecting and producing ‘rounded’ students, its focus on networking, and the greater influence enjoyed by HR departments and other groups that police and maintain the social behaviour of students and staff render the institution a less friendly place for many of the eccentric, awkward, peculiar, yet brilliant people for whom it used to be a sanctuary.

The university has also become more of a consumer-oriented institution. As a business, the university pursues consumers, compromising standards in the process. Rather than being persons to be subjected to a demanding pedagogical formation, students of the contemporary university are increasingly consumers of a service, with academic staff as the providers.

The altered dynamics of power in such a situation are important to notice, and help to explain why an intolerant minority of social justice driven students can wield such power in the contemporary university. The student as consumer can now expect the university to prioritize their emotional comfort and consumer experience over its own internal ends as an institution. Students can be emotionally volatile and susceptible to utopian ideologies and dangerous orthodoxies, like any young people finding their footing in the world for the first time. Millennials and kids from Generation Z are not some bizarre new species in this regard. The greatest differences between them and previous generations probably has more to do with the radically alerted balance of power between them and their institutions.

As the university becomes more and more ordered to business and financial ends, the interests of the administration of the university will take precedence over the concerns of academics. Academics in the business-driven university are increasingly in precarious short term employment situations, with little employment security, discouraging them from speaking forthrightly on controversial issues that might leave them without a renewed contract. Universities and lecturers are also increasingly assessed and ranked by student satisfaction surveys, which tend to reward lower academic rigour, encourage grade inflation, and generally further empower students over academic staff.

For their part, those with tenure may be no less afraid of speaking out lest they jeopardize their department’s funding, which creates perverse incentives of its own. The institution increasingly exists to maximize business and funding, rather than to protect the internal ends of academia or support academics. As a result, academic staff can lack the power to impress an academic ethos upon their students and fear the loss of their jobs in an environment where scholars fiercely compete for the few poor jobs going. In their own research, academics can find themselves desperately running on a publication treadmill in order to keep their careers on track, despite the fact that such career-driven research stifles more exploratory research and encourages bad academic practice.

In a blistering indictment of the humanities, part of an essay that should be read in its entirety, Kevin Birmingham writes:

The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular, and conformist. According to the AAUP, adjunct faculty are about half as likely to undertake risky research projects, and the timidity moves up the ladder. “Professionalization” means retrofitting your research so that it accommodates the critical fads that will make you marginally more employable. It means cutting and adding chapters so that feathers remain unruffled. Junior faculty play it safe—conceptually, politically, and formally—because they write for job and tenure committees rather than for readers. Publications serve careers before they serve culture.

It is imperative that we consider how the university has been systemically compromised as an institution of free speech through its business model, funding and assessment structures, and employment practices. Such consideration is important not only in order better to understand the specific cases where people have been directly prevented from voicing their opinions, but also if we are to appreciate the debilitating blight that is afflicting speech both on campus and in the lecture theatre more generally.

As an institution, on account of the weakening of its internal ends and the empowering of students as consumers, the modern university has become incredibly vulnerable to the dictatorship of small but intolerant minorities, perhaps especially in the form of the victim-cults of the social justice left. We will not adequately address the problems of free speech in our society without far-reaching, root-and-branch reforms of the university as an institution. While the speech-stifling power of the social justice left may be the most visible problem to many in the current context, it is but one of many symptoms of a disease that is in the various roots of the institution. As I suggested earlier, the university is in large measure the victim of powerful economic, political, social, technological, and ideological forces that prevent it from functioning as a well-integrated and differentiated institution. As an academic institution it has been hijacked by parasitic interests that are steadily destroying it from within.

The internet has further imperiled free speech.

The second example of a cultural failure of freedom of speech I wish to discuss is the Internet. To many, the Internet may represent the ultimate liberation of speech, perhaps the apotheosis of negative liberty. The Internet removes many of the old constraints that hold us back and hold us down, delivering us from external boundaries and limits. It enables us to overcome the prison of the body, the constraints of our immediate contexts, and the obstacle of physical distance. No longer do we have to deal with the slow pace, the infrequency, and the common delays of traditional media. We can now engage in instantaneous communication.

The old barriers of status, expertise, and office, which kept us in our social places and privileged certain voices over others have been considerably weakened in the egalitarianism of social media and with the liberty to publish one’s own opinions. The exclusivity of old guilds has been broken open in a new democratic order of widespread participation in discourse. We are now enabled to escape obscurity and present ourselves to the masses. We are rescued from our isolation, loneliness, and alienation to find places in new virtual communities. The walls that divided different groups of people from each other have been dismantled, exposing us to others in their diversity. We are no longer subjected to the demands and restrictions of old institutions of discourse.

However, each of these deliverances has, in its own way occasioned a new bondage. Freedom from obscurity has exposed us to unprecedented degrees of social, commercial, and governmental scrutiny. Governments, businesses, our employers, and our neighbours can now learn far more about our identities, histories, values, and secrets than they ever could before. In a great many respects, such deliverance from obscurity has not made us freer, instead rendering us ever more vulnerable to control and surveillance.

Freedom from solitude and isolation has brought about a stiflingly dense sociality, wherein we are caught up in the viral movements of mass opinion, and increasingly unable to reflection, deliberate, and meditate in a manner that would enable us effectively to form our own minds on matters. This ‘freedom’ from isolation exposes us to the terrifying power of the mob, its outrage, and its shaming of people into conformity. The removal of the burden of solitude has itself locked us in a prison of sociality and group opinion, strengthened by our own natural instincts.

Freedom from the barriers of status and expertise has enabled a host of people to share their perspectives and opinions. It has undermined old monopolies on the formation of the public’s mind. However, it has brought about a competition of self-proclaimed authorities, with a disoriented, and by turns hopelessly distrusting and utterly credulous, population left to arbitrate between them, threatening society’s processes of deliberation. It has led to ever more partisan news and opinion, a tendency to select the ‘authorities’ that most appeal to us, and a socially and politically debilitating breakdown of trust in experts and office-holders, enslaving us to charlatans, demagogues, unreliable media, and to the uninformed and reactive opinions of our fellows. Such freedom from the power of status and expertise has proved disorienting and has eroded trust and social unity.

Freedom from the prison of our bodies has allowed us to converse with people without being constrained by the limits and localities of our bodies. However, in downplaying the part of the body in our social discourse, it has rendered the bodily order of action increasingly invisible and the order of opinion increasingly dominant. It has dulled our awareness of the rough yet rich humanity of the people we are engaging with, encouraging a new incivility. It has lowered our awareness of basic human differences that are revealed by the body—things such as gender, age, race, illness, or disability—alerting us to the importance of treating people differently accordingly, reducing compassion and care for each other. Such freedom from the visibility and limits of the body has often proved alienating and created an unhealthy society where words weigh more than actions.

As the Internet obscures the body and the substantial and given identities that it represents, it establishes a new social order where we must constantly project our self-determined identities through our political and social opinions, consumption preferences, and chosen associations. As we are constantly crafting the spectacle of our virtual identities, doing and saying things in order to be seen by others, social media is a realm where virtue- and identity-signalling becomes integral to almost everything that we do.

Freedom from the obstacle of physical distance has produced a world where context is ever thinner and where there are ever fewer places to establish a self-defining distance from the enveloping crowd. It has enabled others to follow us wherever we are, and increasingly detached our attention from our physical presence. The more invested in communities that exist outside of physical space we have become, the less invested we are in the lives of our neighbours, and the more communities themselves have become polarized.

Freedom from the limits of time has enabled us to enjoy instantaneous exchanges with people around the world and to keep abreast of the very latest happenings, wherever they might have occurred. However, in the process, we have become sucked into the disorienting flux of incessant news, cut loose from deep moorings in history and a temporal horizon beyond the immediate. The sense-making rhythms of healthy social and personal lives have been attenuated and the cycles of nature are ever more foreign to us. Without such regularities and patterns, it becomes much harder for us to see the novelties and changes of life and society for what they are, and to find our bearings in a rapidly changing culture. The increased speed of our interactions has robbed us of the time for deep thought, reflection, meditation, and deliberation, training us to be reactive people, who function on instinct, prejudice, unconsidered habit, and passion, enslaving us to our own uncultivated natures.

Freedom from the exclusivity of old communities and expose to greater diversity has acquainted us with a richer variety of human experience. However, it has produced new tensions and antagonisms between groups as so many of our interactions, shorn of humanizing contexts, are alienating. It has stifled once deep socialities, as we must now operate alongside others that do not share, strongly oppose, or are unsettled by our ways of life and community. It has compromised our freedom of association, as unwelcome parties can easily intrude or eavesdrop upon our new contexts of interaction. It has left many feeling threatened and besieged. Once again, what was once expected to be liberative has often proved to have the opposite effect.

Freedom from the demands and restrictions of old institutions of discourse leaves us struggling with the ambivalence and ambiguity of our new platforms. Phenomena such as sea-lioning result in part from the fact that those active on platforms interpret the rules governing their interactions in opposing ways. The ‘sea lion’ comic exposes, among other things, the conflict between those who regard social media as an extension of the public realm and those who regard it as an extension of obscure, restricted, or private realms. The problem is that our new platforms undermine such distinctions, inviting dysfunctional conflicts of interest as a result. Similar problems can be seen in the tensions between people’s official capacities and individual expression on social media. Where the character of spaces are ambiguous or poorly defined, the rights of individuals to express their opinions are more likely to come into conflict with and be curtailed by the interests of their employers.

In these and a great many other ways the Internet can undermine free speech. It discourages us from saying unpopular things because of the power of online shaming and viral outrage. The social saturation of online social media robs us of the psychological and physical space required to think for ourselves and distinguish ourselves from the crowd and its passions. It makes us wary of being controversial, knowing that our bosses, governments, or others might be watching us.

The acute self-reflexivity it encourages complicates speech by entangling it with people’s identities, making it difficult to challenge or be challenged. Its speed makes us reactive, impatient, impression and impulse-driven, distracted, and unfocused, leading to overheated conversations and arguments. Its relentless torrents of information make us paranoid, unstable, prone to panic, and prevent us from getting perspective. It undermines the social and institutional trust that must ground a community of free discourse, as we struggle with partisan ‘fake news’. It makes reflection, deliberation, meditation, and other necessary processes of thought increasingly difficult. It leaves us bereft of the context necessary for involved discourse and careful interpretation. It makes us feel ever more besieged by opposing communities, drawing us away from the curious, patient, and open quest for truth into ceaseless partisan squabbles and closed mind-sets. It produces uncertainty about the rules and etiquette governing our discourse. Impulsive, reactive, impatient, distracted, extremely self-conscious, paranoid, hurried, fearful, peer-pressured, and disoriented people are poor material for a culture of free speech.

Once again, the problems here are in large measure a result of the fact that the Internet and social media are ordered to ends that are in tension with those of free speech and the public good. The Internet and social media aren’t ultimately designed to serve the end of free speech, but those of business. The business model privileges constant distraction and intrusive demands for our attention. It privileges the triggering of our impulses and instincts to override our attention, purpose, and rationality. It privileges the hyper-legibility, surveillance, and commodification of the user. It privileges the user’s detachment from community and the formation of their identity through acts and habits of consumption.


It is common in discussions of freedom of speech to seek to apportion blame to particular parties who are supposedly attacking other people’s negative liberty of speech. There are occasions where such blame is largely merited. However, one of the purposes of my argument here is to discourage such a rush to judgment. What I have attempted to show is that a great many of our problems of speech arise neither from malice nor from direct opposition to freedom.

Rather, they are a product of weak institutions, of poorly designed technologies, of disordered societies, and of the unchecked power of the market. While exacerbated by various parties and individuals, they are, at their most fundamental level, systemic problems. As such, they will only properly be addressed on a systemic level. Social justice warriors, so-called Millennial ‘snowflakes’, no-platforming universities, ideologically conformist academics, and also the trolls and professional provocateurs are all merely players in a perverse game. It is upon the reforming of the game that our efforts must primarily be expended.

The challenge of free speech that we face in our day is far greater than commonly assumed. It is the challenge of forging and reforming institutions, technologies, and cultures so that they are oriented to the end of productive and open discourse. It is in these areas, rather than in the defence of freedom of speech as a narrowly defined negative liberty, that the far more pressing task awaits us. The manner in which the health of Western society has been compromised by a dysfunctional culture of speech is increasingly apparent in our politics. The cause of freeing our speech couldn’t be more imperative.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0