Monday, August 11, 2008

Free Speech

Free Speech.

How often have we heard the phrase? Yet, how often do we mistake its meaning.

What exactly is free speech?

The way I conceive the phrase, it isn't about getting a guest lecturer without paying an honorarium. It's not about cheap trash talk proven wrong on the field. It's not even about truth.

Like "free software", the range of thought about what it means and who benefits or suffers is broad. It's worth keeping in mind, though, that the liberty to distribute (or receive) uncensored ideas -- whether in print or face-to-face -- is not without cost.

In Canada, a chapter has closed in the endless war against free speech, as one newspaper man's censors have declared that his words were not, on balance, a prosecutable offense. The long and costly battle he waged against the government officers sicced upon him by political opponents -- persons who preferred different ideas circulate -- certainly taught his colleagues a lesson: speaking your mind can cost you a pretty penny. And worse:
Two months ago, Rev. Stephen Boissoin was given an outrageous sentence by the Alberta HRC for doing the same thing I did. Rev. Boissoin even met [Government censor] Gundara’s goofy tests. Why was I acquitted and Rev. Boissoin convicted, sentenced and humiliated? Because I’m a pain in the neck to the HRCs, and I have been embarrassing them ever since I YouTubed their interrogation of me. They wanted to avoid the PR disaster of a trial. Rev. Boissoin is more their style: a quiet man they can beat up with impunity.
via Ezra Levant
Pugnacious printers probably pride themselves on their battles against oppression under color of law or under guise of protecting some imagined right not to be offended by opinion or foul jokes, and may derive benefit from being swirled all about by controversy. Take George Carlin. Yet, meek men may depend for their liberty entirely on the will of strangers ready to suffer personal sacrifice for mere inedible principles. And there are many, readily cowed, who whose conduct is chilled by mere fear of costly personal entanglement.

If the liberty to share even bad ideas without fear of fines or confinement is to be secured only to those with the means and the will to fight at the first sign of encroachment, and to go down swinging while beset by cowards pretending to enforce some standard of "civilization" that requires keeping one's mouth shut when so ordered, then we do not have freedom at all: we suffer the conduct the strong shall dare, and none other.

Many times, I've heard "sure, that was censorship, but do you really want to hear about _______?" The idea that we should protect from censorship only the right to print ideas we like to hear is a prescription for tyranny by the majority -- and publicly-sanctioned censorship. Voltaire's 1770 letter to M. le Riche may offer the most heroic sentiment on the subject: "Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write."

Blogs focusing on censorship issues include Free Mark Steyn, which seems to have collected examples of people targeted by censorship conducted by purported rights protection programs. This is an interesting psychological game: if it's not politically correct to shut down a source of offensive opinion merely because it offends the censor, it may yet be portrayed as admirable to censor it under the rubric of protecting an imagined right of members of some purportedly oppressed class. This has the benefit of playing into the natural urge toward altruistic retribution[1], and to the extent it is dressed up in the trappings of a formal system for protecting marginalized people, has perfect political cover for oppressing nonmainstream political views. I toyed with posting links to some really offensive blogs, and their efforts to combat censorship -- just to prove my heart was in it -- but I decided to avoid the distraction it would cause.

I'll post later on censorship that doesn't involve the clash of East and West, or the intersection of religions, or the diverse mechanisms by which racial hatreds are exercised. These subjects so illuminate the problem that they are not a bad place to discuss censorship, but they are so emotionally charged they work against dispassionate discussion of the problem and its likely solutions.

Next censorship post will address censorship in the field of peer-reviewed research. (Not the act of peer review to identify substandard work, but real censorship prior to the point articles reach peer review.)

Incidentally, I'm tagging this post with 'information quality' rather than making a tag for 'censorship' because I see the things as too connected to want to separate.

[1] Altruistic retribution seems to strengthen group norm compliance by punishing norm-violators for the benefit of a perceived victim, by motivating conduct in accord with the norms even when victims appear helpless. Altruistic assistance and altruistic retribution appear to have different reinforcement mechanisms and to be triggered differently. As I suggested in an anonymous post before starting this blog, altruistic retribution may lay behind formal systems of justice as a mechanism to give an outlet for such drives without triggering endless waves of retribution that would tend to create a state of unending conflict.

Maybe we -- by which I now refer not to the species, but to those of its members with the good fortune of living in industrialized nations that haven't known domestic warfare and insurrection in a few generations -- experience at this moment a state of unending "conflict" ... but have channeled it socially into outlets that involve less violence than those that might obtain in the absence of the rule of law.

Some links on altruistic retribution:

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