Why Do We Need Human Rights? (20): Does Polarization Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

(Perhaps it’s best to read this post together with a previous one dealing with a similar topic).

One of the justifications of the right to free speech is an epistemological one: free, equal and massive participation in public discourse produces better decisions and opinions because it allows for

  • the appearance of a large number of arguments and perspective and
  • widespread criticism and examination of possible decisions and opinions.

Looking at possible decisions and opinions from a variety of perspectives and listening to a maximum number of critical arguments for and against, improves the quality of decisions and opinions. Freedom of speech is not, in theory, necessary for this improvement, since a single talented individual can, in isolation, imagine perspectives and counter-arguments. However, better than to trust the imagination and the limitless neutrality of an individual, it is better to use the resources of the crowd, and there is no better way to do that than to protect freedom of speech as an equal right for all. This idea has been called the marketplace of ideas.

An added advantage of involving the crowd in public discourse is that individuals will anticipate criticism and will therefore make better use of their imagination and improve their arguments even before entering the quality enhancing public discourse. (I’ve made a somewhat more profound version of this argument here).

Intuitively, one would expect that this marketplace of ideas, protected by freedom of speech, should result in some convergence: bad arguments and weakly argued opinions and decisions would lose support in public discourse, because they are publicly shown to be bad or weakly supported. The majority of people should then gravitate towards the better opinions. However, we often see the opposite, namely polarization, i.e. increasingly sharp divisions in society with groups having extreme opinions that are strongly held and that aren’t thoroughly examined. Often, the strength at which those opinions are held bears no relation to the strength of the arguments in favor of them. That’s the marketplace of ideas equivalent of harmful but popular products.

We then have to ask ourselves which of these two statements is true:

  • Polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. In which case we can hold on to our epistemological justification of that right.
  • Or polarization happens notwithstanding freedom of speech. In which case we seem to lose a possible justification for freedom of speech.

“Both” is probably the best answer. Freedom of speech facilitates public discourse and improves the quality of it, but only if it is used. If people decide not to use freedom of speech, and decide not to listen to opposing views or to argue with opponents, then this freedom can’t improve public discourse. Yet the absence of a proper use of this freedom does not invalidate the freedom itself. It does make it harder to justify this freedom as something beneficial. If many people don’t use freedom of speech to improve public discourse it becomes more difficult to argue that we should protect freedom of speech because it improves public discourse. And yet, this doesn’t undermine the theoretical or philosophical argument that freedom of speech can – in theory – improve public discourse. So the inherent desirability of free speech remains, even if the practical desirability is weak. (Note that there are other possible justifications for freedom of speech, some of which have nothing to do with the topic we’re discussing here).

Also, we often see that polarization is the result of an insufficient or inefficient functioning of freedom of speech and public discourse. Cass Sunstein, for example, wrote about the “law of group polarization” and showed that polarization is to some extent the result of exclusively intra-group deliberation (climate change deniers who discuss their views only with fellow-deniers tend to come out of these discussions with an even stronger version of their initial opinions).

And finally, we should be careful in our estimates of polarization. Some high profile cases of polarization can give the impression that polarization is rampant. But people disagree about the extent of polarization. It all depends what topic you’re dealing with, and things differ from country to country as well. Also, the political class can make polarization look more common than it is among the general population. If polarization isn’t as widespread as we think it is, then its impact on freedom of speech is also smaller.

More on polarization here.

4 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Human Rights? (20): Does Polarization Invalidate Freedom of Speech?”

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