We’re not as keen on free speech as we pretend

We’re not as keen on free speech as we pretend. By James Marriott.

A new survey commissioned this week by The New York Times finds that … 84 per cent believe that “some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism”. …

The confounding thing is that the threat to free speech comes from free speech. Never before in history has there been so much of it. Open TikTok or Twitter and there it is, a riotous farmyard of unrestricted speech, screaming, honking and vituperating all over the place.

Before the internet, most people’s speech was free in a way that was essentially irrelevant. You could say what you liked to who you liked but most people struggled to find more than ten people to say it to.

Consequential free speech — the tens of thousands of readers you get with a newspaper column or even the hundred you might get preaching to a congregation in church — was rare. A vanishingly unusual privilege. This free speech was of course imperfect. Newspapers and churches do not employ just anyone to say just anything. As George Orwell wrote in an unpublished preface to Animal Farm, “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy … A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.” …

But now, with enough dedication or viral luck, almost anyone can reach thousands or millions of people. It should be the heyday of heterodoxy.

But, to put it mildly, this new form of mass free speech has not turned out to be a paradise of intellectual exploration and the good-natured exchange of ideas. It is extremely conformist. Ferocious criticism is unleashed on anyone deviating from the handful of competing orthodoxies that have come to dominate online. And because most people don’t like ferocious criticism or don’t care enough about their opinions to face it down, they stay quiet – as The New York Times reports. …

Laws like the UK’s proposed Online Safety Bill that try to prevent hurt feelings online are doomed to fail — either that or become the harbingers of extreme censorship:

But the problem is obvious. What if thousands of people condemning you “with passion and hatred” … result in “serious distress” and a “negative impact” on your “ability to express yourself online”? Whose free speech has priority?

This paradox is related to a larger paradox which is that nobody likes free speech as much as they say they do. The notion of speech causing “distress” is not fanciful. It doesn’t even take passionate condemnation.

Humans simply don’t like different opinions. When the neuroscientist Sarah Gimbel presented 40 people with evidence that their strongly held political beliefs were wrong, the response she measured in their brains was “very similar to what would happen if, say, you were walking through a forest and came across a bear”.

A survey conducted last year by Ipsos Mori found that while respondents overwhelmingly claimed they supported free speech, when confronted with specific controversial statements, that theoretical support tended to crumble. Conservatives were uncomfortable with insults to national symbols, progressives with insults to minority groups.

Obviously the feelings of minority groups supported by the left should have priority. Comrades.