How Free Speech Leads to Moral Progress

And why we should unequivocally support it, even when it's hard

With all of the commotion around free speech, it’s easy to forget why free speech is so foundational in the first place.

People often make the legal case for free speech, but not the practical case for it.

When we look back at all the moral progress of the last century, it’s likely none of it would have been possible without free speech. Free speech is the best tool we have for producing moral progress, and we should unequivocally support it if we want more moral progress. 

Many people don’t appreciate this. They support free speech in the abstract, but not when it comes to certain harmful speech, as they believe that certain views, expressed in public, hinder moral progress. They don’t want to give those views “a platform”, which might “normalize” them. And they want people who espouse them to be “held accountable”. 

I believe these people’s intentions are good: They merely don’t want harmful views to perpetuate, especially if they've caused harm in the past.

However, I think this line of thinking fundamentally misunderstands how moral progress happens. I also think it misunderstands how to eliminate hate. 

If you think about the moral progress we made in the last 100 years—particularly civil rights for various minority groups—there was a time when that exact progress was deemed "harmful".

Society tried to “hold people accountable”—or outright cancel—people who held pro-gay views, to just bring up one example. They didn’t want to “platform” anyone who had pro-gay views, or “normalize” pro-gay sentiment. 

Thankfully, they couldn’t. As I’ll share later, those "harmful" pro-gay ideas entered the marketplace and, slowly over time, began to change people’s minds. 

Without free speech and a marketplace of ideas, pro-gay views wouldn’t have become mainstream. 

It’s easy to look back and say, “yeah, but pro-gay rights were obviously non-harmful”, and think you would have supported them at the time. But they weren’t obviously non-harmful. And if we’re talking 50 years ago, you probably wouldn’t have supported them. Barack Obama opposed same-sex marriage just a decade ago.

We should have this same humility today: We don’t know what views we’re going to look back on and say, “yeah, we were wrong”. We can’t know where we’re on the “wrong side of history”. And we’re always on the wrong side of history somewhere, otherwise we would be finished with moral progress, which of course we aren’t. 

Of course, most unpopular ideas aren’t revolutionary ideas that will lead to moral progress thirty years down the line. Indeed, most unpopular ideas are rightfully unpopular. But one in a hundred or even a million of these unpopular ideas will lead to the wide based acceptance of same-sex marriage. Or women’s suffrage. Or civil rights.

The challenge is we don’t know which ideas will win out in the marketplace in advance. 

That’s why we have a marketplace of ideas—to weed out the bad ideas over time and keep the ones that change the world.

An open conversation allows millions of minds to go to work on these offensive ideas, find the few gold nuggets, the needles in the haystack, and throw the rest away.

There are two rules underlying the marketplace of ideas: Nobody gets special authority, and nobody has final say. So yes, we may end up relitigating bad ideas over and over again. Many times it’s annoying. Other times it leads to a breakthrough. Trust the process that’s given us all moral progress we’ve had today, even when that process is grating.

So we must assume that any entity in charge of “holding people accountable” is likely dead wrong about something—otherwise there'd be no more moral progress—and implement a true marketplace of ideas, even when it offends

Indeed: many ideas that we hold sacred today were once deeply offensive.

The idea, for example, that monarchy is not the proper form of government was deeply offensive at the time. So was the idea of evolution, or that the world is round—or that all people are truly created equal and deserve equal treatment under the law. 

But even if you aren’t trying to catch the ideas that change the world, and you’re just trying to get rid of the bad ideas—even then you want free speech and a marketplace of ideas.

The best way to eliminate bad ideas is to bring them to light so they can be fought. Suppression doesn’t change minds. It may work short-term, but you won’t change minds long-term by suppressing people—you might cause them to double down on their beliefs—and once they have power, they may try to suppress you.

That’s the problem with censoring. You don’t feel the pain of censorship when it is your team doing the censoring. But you won’t have that power forever, and when someone else gets the power, they may arbitrarily censor you. 

You should only create a system that you’d be OK with in the hands of your enemy, because one day it will be.

What people are saying when they favor heavily regulated speech is: “Give some entity (e.g. Government or Facebook) all the power and then let’s hope that my side runs it forever”

Censorship doesn’t eliminate hate. When you curtail free speech, you weaken the quest for knowledge and moral improvement, and knowledge and moral improvement is ultimately the solution to eliminating hate. Hate comes out of fear and ignorance, and you fight fear and ignorance with knowledge and narrative. 

There is a long history behind censoring and punishing people for what they say, and it's not good. Think China, Russia, Germany at their worst stages in history.

If you believe censorship is important, explain why. Instead of focusing on how curtailing free speech doesn't cause much harm, argue how censorship has leads to more moral progress. Make the historical case for it. 

People often retort by saying “free speech doesn’t mean freedom of consequences”. To be sure, free speech goes both ways—people should be able to hear critiques of their speech. But it’s also a matter of scale. If an individual blocks you on Twitter, that's not blocking free speech. If Twitter itself does, then it is. Maybe not legally, since our legal system didn’t take the privatization of the public square into account when drafting the first amendment. But substantively, that’s the spirit of the first amendment.  

(But what about trolls, porn, harassment and other horrible behavior on social networks? IMO, ban any behavior where you can get 99% of people to agree it should be banned. Otherwise keep it. More broadly, 1A absolutism—Branderberg v. Ohio is the standard one should apply. Niche edge cases are outside of the scope of this piece).

I heard a joke once about a Russian telling an American: “In Russia we have freedom of speech. In America you have freedom after speech.”

Not freedom from critique, but freedom from attack (both physically or economically). 

The threat of losing one’s job for one’s opinions is enough to silence a wide swath of people. That “threat” people feel is hard to see in the data, so it’s hard to prove or disprove its existence, but you see it in some polls, and if it gets bad enough, it’ll show up in other areas that are far more consequential, like the voting booth.

My stance is this: If you don’t like someone’s views, hold them accountable by providing such a better counter-argument that it makes their argument look bad in front of people they respect. Then they’ll suffer the consequences of looking dumb, and that’ll prevent other people from adopting that view too.

If you have to use social pressure to silence their argument, you’re signalling you don’t have a better counterargument, and you may unintentionally encourage onlookers to explore their views in secret. 

Don’t threaten the marketplace of ideas and make us all suffer on their account. You may think you’re solely hurting them, but you’re hurting everyone by strengthening the views you wish to eliminate. 

Only by identifying the hate, contrasting the fears underlying it, and contrasting the truth against the hate can you discredit the hate in people’s minds. As they say, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

Frederick Douglas also expressed the sentiment that silencing someone hurts more people beyond the person being silenced: “To suppress speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to hear and speak as it would be to rob him of his money”

We’ve been talking in abstractions. Let's give one example of the marketplace of ideas in action: Gay rights. 

In 1957 a man named Frank Kameny was fired from his government job as an astronomer because he was gay. No other reason but because he was gay.

Remember, gay people in this time were treated especially poorly: They’d get arrested in their own homes for making love to each other; they'd get openly beaten on the streets, and if they called the police, the police would often join the aggressors, arresting the gay person instead of the person who committed assault.

Back to Frank Kameny: unfortunately he never worked as an astronomer again. That was expected, but no one expected what he’d do next.

He believed the Declaration of Independence—specifically the sentiment that all people are created equal and should have equality under the law—was a personal promise the founding fathers made to him, and he decided to ensure this promise was kept.

So he began an opposition movement. First he appealed his firing to the US government—he failed. He appealed it to the Supreme Court—failed again. He appealed to Congress—this time he failed so bad they sent him letters saying “of all the letters I've ever received, yours is the most disgusting.”

Frank was undeterred, saying things like "I went to Europe to fight tyranny overseas, only to come home and discover that I must now fight the tyranny in the US."

He began representing other gay people who'd been fired from their jobs because he was determined—he hoped he would one day win in the marketplace of ideas.

In 1965, Frank and some other people led the first peaceful, openly gay protest, marching in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

In 1970, Frank became the first openly gay person to run for Congress. Though he didn’t win that race, he kept pushing for the cause. He knew he was right.

He challenged the psychiatric diagnosis of homosexuality as a disease. He kept fighting for years, and no one ever listened...

Until they did start listening! 

In the 70s, people begin to notice what he & other gay activists were saying—his ideas started winning in the marketplace.

As society examined its prejudice under critical scrutiny, over enough time the prejudice lost its appeal. It stopped making sense. As soon as it did, the dominoes of hate started to fall, and within a generation we got same sex marriage and people couldn’t even imagine a world where that wasn’t OK. 

Frank Kameny died in 2011 at age 86.

He not only lived long enough to see same sex marriage legalized in multiple states, and sodomy laws overturned, and gay people serving in US government in secure positions, including the military.

He also lived long enough to receive a formal apology from the very same U.S. government agency that fired him.

He received their Theodore Roosevelt prize for public service — their highest prize.

And most interestingly, the director of the agency that had fired him, the same man who was apologizing for his anti-gay actions and words, was openly gay as well.

So this is the power of free speech and the marketplace of ideas.

Frank didn't have money. He didn't have anything but the power of his ideas and a marketplace to compete in.

And that is the thing we must protect if we want to sustainably change minds and enable moral progress.

Book of the week: Kindly Inquisitors. Much of the above is inspired by his work.

Cosign of the week: Ayishat Akanbi. She’s inspiring on the topic of free speech. See here

Podcast: Clear and Present Danger, with Jonathan Haidt. The whole series—which covers the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall—is fantastic. 

Track of the week: Complainers, by Rudy Francisco

Until next week,

Erik