This article by Greg Lukianoff over at Areo is a very good list of answers to common arguments against free speech: “Answers to 12 Bad Anti-Free Speech Arguments: Featuring That XKCD Cartoon Everyone Likes to Quote!”
Assertion: Free speech rests on the faulty notion that words are harmless.
Answer: No, it doesn’t. If free speech was not powerful there would be no need either to protect it OR to ban it. It’s not surprising that free speech can be harsh, since it’s meant as a replacement for actual violence!
Historically, freedom of speech has been justified as part of a system for resolving disputes without resort to actual violence. Acceptance of freedom of speech is a way to live with genuine conflict among points of view (which has always existed) without resorting to coercive force.
Words are supposed to hurt.
That’s considered a legitimate way of fighting things out.
And what did it replace in the historical scene?
It replaced actual violence.
Words are supposed to be free so we CAN actually fight things out, in the battleplace of ideas, so we don’t end up fighting them out in civil wars.
If we try to legitimately ban anything that can hurt someone’s feelings, everyone is reduced to silence.
— Greg Lukianoff
Lukianoff’s piece delves into the specific protections in USA from the 1st amendment to their constitution, but most of the points are generally applicable.
And yes, he does go into that xkcd cartoon and while I mostly agree with Randall Munroe, and the comic seems right, it has been used incorrectly for a long time.
A belief in free speech means you should be slow to label someone as utterly dismissible for their opinions. Of course you can kick an asshole out of your own house, but that’s very different from kicking a person out of an open society or a public forum. The xkcd cartoon is often used to let people off the hook from practicing the [democratic] value of listening.
— Greg Lukianoff
This ties into a common tendency I’ve called out in many lefty free-speech takes to swap out difficult questions for easy ones and then pretend the underlying issues have been addressed. It’s easy to replace a difficult question — When should someone be banned from Twitter? — with an easy one: Is it literally a violation of the First Amendment for Twitter to ban someone?
That’s why we need to talk norms. The comic errs because it treats it as automatically shrugworthy when potentially restrictive free-speech norms are enacted, but without engaging at all with the questions of what process led to the institution of those norms, whether those norms are fair, whether it might sometimes do more harm than good to ban execrable speech, and so on. I am absolutely positive that in the hypothetical case conjured by this comic, Munroe is referring to far-right viewpoints, and of course few of us — not even a relative free-speech purist such as myself — is going to lose much sleep over, say, a hardened Nazi losing his Twitter account. “The First Amendment doesn’t shield you from criticism or consequences,” sure.
But if you look around you will see a lot of people trying to punish a lot of people over all sorts of different speech, the vast majority of it not nearly at the level of Nazi propaganda. Humans are tattle-tales — there is perpetually some professor somewhere facing public outrage and professional sanction for an utterance one half of the country finds utterly anodyne, or at least nowhere near worthy of punishment. So arguably the most interesting free-speech debates center not on the law, but on what sort of world we are going to build, especially now that so many private citizens have extensive records of their views online. Do we want a world in which I can get fired for saying something 50% of my countrypeople agree with? Or 40% or 30%? What would that do in the long run?
I do think liberals and leftists should have a bit of humility on these issues. We should recognize that while we do, in a very real way, dominate most cultural and educational institutions (even if we’re pathetic at gaining political power), you never know who will control things tomorrow. Even just pragmatically — even if you disagree with me and my boring old-school liberal beliefs about free speech — you should understand that the more we promote norms that saying the wrong thing can get you fired or ostracized, the more we’re playing with fire.
That’s what this comic leaves out.
— Jesse Singal, “Please Stop Sharing This Viral But Misguided Free-Speech Comic“