It’s really just a Prisoners’ Dilemma. Your first choice is you get to listen to whomever you want to listen to and I don’t get to listen to whomever I want to listen to. Your second choice, and it’s my second too, is we both get to listen to whomever we want to listen to. Your third choice – and it’s my third too – is neither of us gets to listen to whomever we want to listen to. And your least preferred option is I get to listen to whomever I want to listen to but you don’t get to listen to whomever you want to listen to. 

For most of our history we took turns. One of us won and the other lost. But since we knew our victories would be short-lived – that neither of us were going to get our first choice for long – some of us, albeit a very small number of us, struck a deal with each other to settle for our common second choice. And that deal came to be known as: freedom of expression. 

The temptation to defect on that deal is notoriously irresistible. You may not know a whole lot about most things. Should the Central Bank raise or lower interest rates? Well, maybe we should allow some discussion about that. But, dammit, you know for a fact that the Holocaust happened, that the Indian Residential School (IRS) programme was genocide, that government mandated Covid vaccinations are both safe and necessary, that anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is real … So you draw the line at what is clearly misinformation. For in the same way that pornography was not what the Founders had in mind when they advocated freedom of artistic expression, neither are outright lies what we meant to include in the aforementioned deal.

Well, not quite. You don’t draw the line at a white lie. Nor at a harmless one. Historians are now telling us that the Exodus and the Alamo are both myths. But you’re not sure you want to disallow a people telling itself its foundation stories. The lie has to be a dangerous one. Holocaust denial, you’re convinced, undermines the justification for the State of Israel. A weakened justification weakens support for Israel, and weakened support for it endangers its security. IRS genocide-denial undermines attempts at reconciliation, and irreconcilability perpetuates the status quo. Covid skepticism discourages compliance, and non-compliance is what’s feeding the virus. ACC denial demotivates efforts to save the planet.

But it doesn’t stop there, does it?.

Nor should it, you say. Accepting that trans women are women doesn’t hurt anyone – at least anyone you care about – but denying that they are does. Acknowledging that the IRS programme was genocide doesn’t hurt anyone – at least anyone you care about – but denying it does. We know it does because they tell us it does. Hurt is harm. Harm is hate. Hence IRS genocide-denial is hate speech. 

Then suppose something is not a lie, but telling it hurts someone notwithstanding. If it’s the gratuitous hurt that’s the problem, why need we allow its truth to be a defence? Think about my fat-shaming you. You are fat. But it hurts you to be told you are. Hurt is harm. Harm is hate. Hence fat-shaming is hate speech.

But hold on. What if you’re hurt not by anything said to you, nor by anything said, even out of earshot of you, about you? What if, notwithstanding it’s not about you, and it’s out of earshot of you, you’re hurt just by knowing that something is being said, the saying of which you find hurtful? Does our deal cover this or doesn’t it? And if it doesn’t cover this, what does it cover?

Okay, so now let’s back up. If the deal doesn’t cover what one of us takes to be a dangerous lie, nor does it cover what might hurt the other’s feelings, nor does it cover innocuous truths the other nevertheless finds hurtful, it covers nothing at all. And that means there is no deal. But if there’s no deal, I guess you better beware of when it’s my turn. 

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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1 reply

  1. I posted a summary of your argument as a comment to Why Evolution is True today, linking this post by way of citation. I think your argument from game theory is a useful development from Mill’s On Liberty because it provides a source for the right of free speech, which like all rights has to be contingent. The Deal is one such contingency.</


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