Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, chose free expression as the subject of his welcome address to freshman this year. In particular, he singled out the tension between two ideals of the university–community and knowledge–which is important to understanding why so many people attracted in the abstract to free speech often oppose it in practice. But moreover, this tension illuminates a distinction that’s often overlooked in “humanitarian” objections of free expression: objections to free expression in the context of background injustice, and objections to the intrinsic value of free speech.
Some people (such as the dissent in Yale’s Woodward Report) object to free expression on grounds that it perpetuates background injustices. To put it far too briefly and clumsily, free expression advantages people with more power over people with less. In an unjust world, therefore, where powerful groups oppress power-less groups, free speech should be regulated so as to limit the powerful and empower the power-less.
Importantly, this objection to free speech should be distinguished from the objection that free speech leads to error. The “humanitarian” objection does not object to the truth-value of the particular propositions or implicit claims a speaker makes, but rather the effect that speech-acts have on individuals and groups. It objects to free speech on the grounds that speech can make people feel unwelcome and even lose their dignity.
What is often overlooked in the “humanitarian” objection so formulated is that the objections is really to the existence of background injustice and inequality. That is, the objection says, “Free speech would be great if we lived in a just society. But in an unjust society, we have to limit free expression in order to help the victims of injustice. Once we get to a just society, we’ll enjoy the full bounty of free speech.”
My point is that there is different kind of humanitarian objection to free speech, one that holds that even a just society, free speech would not be very important. Rather, community and solidarity would trump the value of free speech. In ideal conditions, we would prefer not to have the rough-and-tumble of free speech with all the potential for hurt feelings and conflict it causes. We would prefer a gentler, more harmonious community. Free speech would be an unwelcome interloper in a scene of tranquility.
The humanitarian objection to free speech under ideal conditions is more severe than the objection under non-ideal conditions. It claims that we should prefer the ideal of community to the ideal where a thousand flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.
Salovey’s deep point is that the ideal of a university and a society characterized by free speech is in fact desirable. Free speech will of course generate friction and error, but a system that permits us to make, recognize, and learn from our mistakes is the only one that can generate truth. Free speech allows us to develop and mature by allowing us to hear the opinions and views of those with whom we disagree. Free speech reflects the humble judgment that we don’t know where knowledge will emerge, and that the speaker who we would wish to silence may in fact have something to teach us. Free speech is a constitutive feature of a society where no one has the last word–a profoundly rare and precious kind of society.
Critics of free speech still of course have the non-ideal objection available to them. It is a separate question whether in an unjust world, free speech harms victims of injustice more than it helps. Salovey’s remarks, however, suggest that defenders of free speech have the moral high ground. In a perfectly just world, we should embrace free speech rather than shy away in favor of some other value.