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.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (14): Does Confirmation Bias Invalidate Freedom of Speech?

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable. It’s a form of self-deception that we all suffer from, to a different extent, and that leads us to stick with our original beliefs rather than review them, even if a whole lot of contrary evidence is available. We just seem to be very good at ignoring it and focus on other, confirming evidence, even if the quality of this other evidence is dubious. The “stickiness” of beliefs resulting from confirmation bias is in turn an important cause of polarization of beliefs, the “dialogue of the deaf” style of political discourse, and “gladiator politics“.

Now, why is there confirmation bias? We all value consistency in our identity and self-image, and are afraid to acknowledge mistakes, especially regarding values or facts that are and have been for decades the foundation of our identity. We want to feel good about our “original” and fundamental views and affiliations. If our views are intertwined with our group affiliations, then the elements of group pride and loyalty also promote confirmation bias and our disregard of evidence that contradicts our views. It’s then not only our views that are at stake, but also our sense of belonging and the future of our group. Suppose evidence is found that Jesus Christ could never have lived. If we, as Christians, disregard this evidence, taint it or reinterpret it, then we are able to keep feeling good about ourselves and our previous thinking – we feel like consistent human beings with reasonable thinking powers and without a strong propensity to error – but we are also able to support the continued existence of our group, and that’s important for the wellbeing not only of ourselves but of millions of people. Our pride in our belonging, our identity and reasoning powers, as well as our loyalty to the other members of our group are powerful forces that produce confirmation bias. Patriotism and nationalism can also be seen in this light.

How does this relate to freedom of speech? This human right is often justified by and grounded in the argument that the public and equal appearance of a maximum number of viewpoints and arguments for and against something enhances the quality of thinking, much like the observance of a physical object from different angles yields a better understanding and knowledge of that object. It’s the famous concept of the “marketplace of ideas” where opinions have to enter the struggle of competition, review and criticism. These opinions are then either rejected or they come out better at the other end. The same idea justifies democracy because democracies – ideally – use freedom of speech to find and test the best policies and laws. Equal participation of a maximum number of citizens should then guarantee the same market processes. (More on that here, here and here).

That, of course, is an ideal. In reality, we see that even in free societies public discourse is often – but not always – far removed from the search for truth and improved thinking that should characterize it. Confirmation bias is one of the causes of the distance between reality and ideal because it inhibits the public examination of viewpoints and arguments. Propaganda, dysfunctional media, inept institutions, group pressure, vote buying, disregard of expert views, irrational behavior, deliberate polarization etc. are other causes. But here I’ll focus on confirmation bias.

At first glance, confirmation bias seems to undermine the whole “epistemological justification” – if I may call it that – of free speech and democracy. The more information there is (thanks to free speech), the more likely that people can just pick those pieces of information that confirm their biases, and I understand the word “information” in a broad sense, not just including facts but theories and arguments as well, however “wild” they are. So freedom of speech seems to be more like a bad thing, when viewed in this light.

However, in order to know if something is really bad you have to imagine what would happen if it went away. Without freedom of speech, the appearance of new and conflicting evidence is much less likely, and hence it’s more likely that people stick to their biased and pre-existing beliefs. Freedom of speech doesn’t promote confirmation bias, but doesn’t eliminate it either. People have to do that for themselves. However, freedom of speech gives people the tools to combat confirmation bias, if they are so inclined. And therefore freedom of speech is neither invalidated nor validated by confirmation bias.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (13): Why Do We Need Freedom of Expression?

Here’s a list of some of the traditional rationales for the right to free speech (Eric Barendt for example has identified some of these in his book “Freedom of Speech“):

1. Freedom of speech serves the search for truth

There’s a long tradition in philosophy claiming that freedom of speech and the equal right of everyone to express himself or herself in public on any possible topic improves the quality of opinions and knowledge. Rawls, Mill and Kant for example have fleshed out this claim. In the words of Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Or in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

2. Freedom of speech serves individual self-fulfillment

People who can express themselves freely are better placed to develop their personality and identity. When you can say what you think and believe, you can better give shape to your thoughts and beliefs. Also, thoughts and beliefs depend heavily on the possibility to receive information, which is something that in turn depends on free expression. On top of that, persuasion is an important element of wellbeing: people who can persuade others feel better about themselves. And when they can persuade others, they can form communities and associations, and belonging is another important aspect of wellbeing and self-fulfillment. Finally, when the right to free expression is respected, people can better enjoy culture, education and other things that improve wellbeing.

3. Freedom of speech improves the functioning of democracy

Even for a minimal democracy (regular, free and fair elections for representatives) freedom of speech is very important. Candidates have to be able to advertise themselves and their policies and argue amongst themselves. Lobbyists should be allowed to make their case (publicly and transparently, of course). Etc. But democracy should be more than that. Ideally, democracy requires deliberation among the people on the best possible policies. It’s obvious that this deliberation requires free speech. More on democracy and free speech here.

4. Freedom of speech is a check on the corruption of power

People have to be able to receive information about the functioning of government. Free speech is a necessary prerequisite of government accountability. Freedom of information acts are just as much an element of free speech as a free press, and both are required to counteract corruption and abuse of power. At the margin, elements of free speech such as freedom of information, a free press and the right to protest can make the difference between freedom and tyranny, but they also limit the risk of lesser evils such as administrative corruption, betrayal of election promises, covert government activities etc.

5. Freedom of speech is a right that is required for the protection of other rights

Historically, it has been the case that other rights have depended on freedom of speech for their full protection. The civil rights movement and the struggle against racial discrimination in the U.S., for example, would have been impossible without freedom of speech (which doesn’t mean that the right to free speech of the proponents of equal rights was never restricted). Equally, the feminist struggle for equal voting rights for women was made much easier by freedom of speech. And finally, the right to religious freedom cannot be separated from freedom of speech. And there are many other examples.

6. Freedom of speech serves prosperity

Without freedom of speech there is less innovation and less trade. Scientists who develop new products or services need freedom of speech, and business people have a lot of difficulties trading or advertising without it. Hence, it can be said that economic growth is fostered by free speech. But free speech doesn’t only promote prosperity in general (on average); it also benefits the poor. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. If the poor aren’t able to make their case, they won’t get help.

More on freedom of expression.