No such thing as free speech

A bunch of people have linked to the Quillette article We Must Defend Free Thought, by Claire Lehmann, who is the editor-in-chief and founder of Quillette. The article defends Scott, the author of the popular blog Slate Star Codex and related sub-Reddit, who succumbed to peer pressure for appearing too impartial and complicit to certain heterodox opinions and was forced to re-organize his community by sequestrating such opinions to a new community, to limit his association with them. Anyway, Claire goes on to discuss the necessity of free thought and the free dissemination of opinions, including unpopular ones. She writes:

As long-standing admirers of Slate Star Codex, we would like to express our sympathy and solidarity with Scott. Needless to say, he is not a racist or a misogynist. On the contrary, he is one of the most insightful, reasonable, open-minded, genuinely progressive voices on the Internet. He has now made a full recovery and will continue to blog—and the thread he was forced to disassociate himself from is now continuing under a new banner and can be found here. Courage, mon frère. You have more friends than you know.

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For the past three years, essays written and published on Quillette have nucleated around the core value that free thought must live. The idea is simple. All one has to do is put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and construct a well-reasoned argument—with consideration given to available evidence—and share it with others as widely as possible—and the intellectual legacy that was handed down to us by our forebears will be preserved and shepherded into the future for our descendants.

I don’t totally agree with the article. Characteristic of idealism, it sounds good in theory but it does not work in practice. Her goal is noble, but unsupported by reality.

Her writing evokes a mental image of Plato’s Republic, where the learned congregate to engage in Socratic dialogues with each other, and share opinions. Of course, as we all know, in real life that did not end well for Socrates, which douses cold water on this idealism.

She calls it ‘free thought’ but not ‘free speech’, but this elides a key distinction. Obviously, given that a thought, by definition, is confined to the domain of one’s mind, everyone is entitled to free thought. I can think up as many thoughts as I wish, whatever those thoughts may be, with impunity. Speech, however, is an action, and as cliched as it is to say, all actions have consequences, and therefore speech can never be free. It may not be punitive as losing’s one job or being forced to imbibe hemlock, but perhaps people having a lesser opinion of you or not wanting to associate with you, which is still pretty bad. The 1st Amendment “prevents the government from making laws which respect an establishment of religion, prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble,” but this does not apply to private entities and who individuals choose associate with.

Any community or society in which rules and are not established beforehand and thereafter enforced, will quickly be overrun by obsessives who seek to monopolize the scarcest and most important resources of all, attention and trust. Despise the fact there are 7 billion people in the world, and each adult has on average a network of 50-100 people, attention is still a very limited resource. Billionaires, politicians, and brands/companies spend billions of dollars a year in advertising and PR, in order to procure this resource.

Claire praises Scott effusively, but Scott is not a free speech absolutist; to wit, his blog has a ‘register of bans‘ of people who have been temporarily or permanently banned from commenting for violating said rules. Scott knows that without guidelines, both explicated and implied, his community will be overrun by bad actors. To quote Scott, “the moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.” Witch hunts are bad, but so is having a community overrun by witches.


It matters because forums that give rise to organic intellectual discussion are ground zero for free thought. Scientific and technological progress cannot happen without people thinking freely—so to clamp down on it is to clamp down on progress itself. One could argue that such forums have parallels with the salons which sparked the French Enlightenment or the coffee houses where Scottish Enlightenment thought catalysed. The cross-pollination of ideas is important. While this used to happen within the university, it is now increasingly happening online.

It’s unfortunate she gives this example, because the French Revolution, in which 40,000 people perished and 300,000 were arrested, was inspired by The Enlightenment, shows how ‘enlightenment ideals’ and tolerance are not necessarily mutually inclusive. During the Reign of Terror between 1793 and 1794, thousands of nobles and clergymen were guillotined for expressing their ‘free thought’ of religion. Wars of religion are bad, but so are wars against religion.

Even Qullete itself, although a free-speech blog, has many anonymous submissions. It’s not so much that the controversial idea itself is bad, but rather one’s association with it, which is even worse. I agree it would be nice to get to the point where people can be more forthright without having to hide behind anonymity, but given that freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from the consequences of speech, that will probably not happen anytime soon.