May 04 2017

Free Speech Bias

Insubordinate man with zipped mouth

Free speech has been a hot issue recently, and probably always will be to some extent. This is likely because the stakes are high – free speech is a core liberty essential to any functional democracy. But in a society where you have to live with other people, liberty cannot be unlimited, because it will bump up against the liberty of others. So there needs to be some well-thought-out rules for how to resolve conflicts.

How a society balances the need for free speech with the need to protect people from defamation, fraud, oppression, and harassment says a lot about the character of that society. In the US we have constitutionally chosen to err on the side of free speech, and I think this is appropriate. The courts give people a wide berth to have freedom of expression, and understands that the very speech that needs defending is speech that someone finds offensive.

At the same time, freedom from having your public speech repressed does not translate into a right to access to any venue at any time. The New York Times is not obligated to publish your 10-page manifesto.

The real purpose of this post, however, is not to delve into the nuances of free speech but to discuss how individual people decide on those nuances. This was illuminated by a recent study, the results of which I find entirely unsurprising. This is in line with the general findings of psychological studies.

The researchers tested subjects with a number of scenarios involving speech, including making racist comments at work, criticism of police, and criticism of elected officials. They found that defending racist speech correlated very highly with being racist (on a standard measure of racial attitudes). Those same people, however, did not as highly defend free speech when it was targeted at police or politicians.

This result is unsurprising because the consensus of psychological studies generally show that people tend to assume positions for various psychological reasons, and the back fill justification for those positions. In other words, people do not start with general principles and then work out what positions they should lead to. They arrive at positions because of ideology, culture, ego, or convenience and then search for principles to selectively support those positions.

This also fits with my personal experience, for what that’s worth. When I get into a disagreement with someone, I often try to establish basic principles. I find that people will tend to take a position on those principles that are most convenient to whatever their current position is on the topic of disagreement. That is why, for people with whom I have a long term relationship, I will usually back off when we hit such a wall. I will then later talk with them about the basic principles, but not in the context of the previous disagreement, just in general.

It is a lot easier to discuss such principles reasonably when it is not in the context of a current disagreement. Once you come to an understanding on those principles, you can then focus on fairly and consistently applying them to a variety of issues, including the focus of the previous argument.

This is basically how philosophers function. They begin with basic principles and then work out how they should theoretically work out in a variety of scenarios. It is a good idea to think about such things yourself when there is no controversy at hand. Solidify your thinking about important principles when no emotions are on the line, then those principles will be available to serve as a guide. It will also be more difficult to adjust them as necessary to serve a current emotional need.

We see this historically also. Many people have noticed that Berkeley was the home of liberal free speech, and now the ideological descendants of those liberals are rioting to suppress free speech they don’t like. Again, my goal here is not to get into the nitty-gritty of that argument. There are reasons to argue that the university has no obligation to provide a venue to Ann Coulter, and there are reasons to argue that once she was invited she should have been allowed to speak. Judgment is required to assess individual cases, and that judgment allows wiggle room to defend whatever position is currently in line with your tribe.

Before anyone from the Republican tribe tries to take the higher ground, they are guilty of the same thing. In 2015 employees of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were ordered not to mention or use in official reports the words, “climate change,” “global warming,” or “sustainable.” The entire debate about teaching evolution vs creationism in public schools began with the banning of teaching evolution. To this day creationists are trying to purge the word “evolution” from textbooks.

Trump also denied access to major news outlets he did not like (CNN, BBC, and the Guardian) to certain briefings.

Even worse, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills in at least 18 states designed to suppress protests against Trump.  According to the Washington Post:

From Virginia to Washington state, legislators have introduced bills that would increase punishments for blocking highways, ban the use of masks during protests, indemnify drivers who strike protesters with their cars and, in at least once case, seize the assets of people involved in protests that later turn violent.

This, of course, is nothing new in politics. Politicians condemn an activity at one time that they praise at another. They invoke states rights, for example, only when it is convenient to the issue at hand. When they are in the minority in the Congress they condemn abuses by the majority that they then freely engage in when they are in power.

But we all do this to some extent. It’s not just politicians.

That is also why I do not give people credit for being principled when they are defending a principle that also is in line with their prejudices or interests. You only get credit when you are defending a principle that currently is inconvenient for you. When liberals defend the right of Ann Coulter to speak at Berkeley, they are truly defending a principle. When conservatives do, they may be, but you just don’t know. I’ll need to hear their attitudes about anti-Trump protests.

When confronted with such issues, it’s important to try to remove yourself from the moment. Think of the principles in abstract, and also in other situations. Imagine yourself on the other side of the issue. What if the speech were something you agreed with, or disagreed with?

Humans are really good at motivated reasoning, and this is just one more manifestation of that.

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