The Confused Question of Free Speech | Jake Scott


If there is a deeper question underlying the political issues of today, it is the fundamental question of free speech, and the polarisation between “free-speech fundamentalism” and “PC culture”. This polarisation seems to have turned the question into one of binary oppositionalism, that you either believe there are no limits to free speech at all, or any limits are justifiable based on “offence”. But it misses the fundamentals of the free speech debate, what we mean by free speech, and where the lines can be drawn.


Section One: The Metaphysical Freedom of Speech

The concept of free speech is primarily, not political or social, but metaphysical. We, as human beings, are the only species in the world with a complex language structure, capable of expressing thoughts, emotions and information systematically to one another. Some animals or insects might possess language in a fashion, such as dolphins or bees, and they might be sophisticated, but they do not have the complexity or systematicity of human language. Consequently, when we discuss “free speech”, we have to begin with the basic principle of that metaphysical freedom; that humans possess an unrivalled freedom in the animal kingdom to say whatever they can think. Indeed, this is the core paradox of the free-speech debate, that if someone comments “you can’t say that!” they aren’t making a philosophical statement because, quite clearly, you can.

However, this is part of what George Orwell was so concerned about: the co-constitutive relationship between language and thought. That we can only speak what we can think – but more importantly, we can only think that which is communicable, and therefore speech reveals the limits of thought, as well as defining it. Because of this, the metaphysical freedom to speak ought to be preserved at all costs, as it is only in the ability to think and re-think our every thought that the limits of knowledge can be pushed, as well as preserved. And this preservation is central; knowledge is one of the most fundamental building blocks of identity, both of the individual and the community. The persistence of self-knowledge allows identity to persist also, and the same is true of community, that communal identity can only continue with communal self-knowledge.

This is the metaphysical freedom of speech, but of course the curious thing about speech is that it offers both individual expression, but is only possible in the setting of society. So, speech cannot be considered entirely on the individual basis.


Section Two: The Moral Duty of Respect

“Liberty, too, must be limited in order to be possessed” – Edmund Burke

So now, we must consider that which I put aside at the beginning of this article: the social dimension of free speech. As I say, free speech is the expression of the individual’s capacity for freedom of thought, but speech itself is only ever necessary in the context of society (or more specifically, a plurality of persons), and so it is impossible to escape the implication of society on the individual’s capacity for free speech.

As I note above, human language has the rare capacity to systematically communicate emotion, and therefore please, as well as offend. This leads from a metaphysical right, to a social obligation, or responsibility, based on the recognition that speech is a gift, and gifts must be used with conscience. We all must face the consequences of our actions, and whilst we do have the freedom to speak, we do not have the freedom from consequence. We might have, for instance, the metaphysical right to use force to bend the world to our wills (even if this may mean killing), but we do not have the freedom from the consequence of murder, where we live with the potential of reciprocity. So is the case with speech: we could, in theory, walk around insulting everyone we see, but there is no protection from reciprocal action.

Similar to the concept of consequence, it is important to recognise that speech is significantly different from noise, in that it has order implicit in its very idea. This is evident in syntax, grammar, phonetics and so forth. “Speech” is noise with order – and we can begin to understand the social imposition of order on speech if we understand obligation as “social grammar”.

Consequently, we live in awareness of the potential consequences of the metaphysical freedom of speech, because of that very word – we. We are not merely individuals, shouting incoherently at one another from behind our fences; we live in communities, interacting daily with each other. But society is limited – it is defined by the capacity of its members to reciprocate and obey its stipulated rules. Margaret Thatcher’s controversial statement, that “there is no such thing as society”, was revealing of the truth that there is no single society that every single individual is a part of, but civil society exists as a vast array of smaller societies, the ‘little platoons’ of Edmund Burke, both chosen by consent and bound by obligation.

These two forms of association – chosen, or unchosen – both convey similar bounds of freedom. Either we chose to bind ourselves by the laws of that association, or we are bound by the duties of piety and obligation to the rules that came before us. And the underlying principle of both these forms of association is respect – at least in the West, where our civilisation is built on Judaeo-Christian values and the principles of the Enlightenment (as my article in the previous edition of Bournbrook expounds). As a result, society both defines, and is defined by, the limits of action we impose on ourselves – namely, that of mutual respect.


Section Three: The Decline of Society and Rise of the State

But recent decades in the United Kingdom have seen that social cohesion fall away, in two respects. One, the capacity for freedom of association and self-defined rules has been eroded by statism, and the sinister creep of what we might call ‘sanctionism’ – that only the state has the capacity to sanction the freedom to associate; and two, a loss of faith in the principles of British civil society that evolved over centuries, and a belief that these principles can be replaced from above.

It is a fact (that conservatives must be wary of) that when the bonds of society fall apart, the state must step in to maintain them. Society holds knowledge gleaned from generations of organic experience, learned and re-learned through trial and error, failure and success, innovation and aberration, and it is only when an egotistical generation begins to think it has nothing to learn from those that came before it (as we have now) does this knowledge begin to fall away, and the consequences forgotten. And when this happens, when authority is no longer respected and deference no longer given, the state must be prepared to step in and make those consequences known again. This is why we have always had the powerful laws of libel and slander.

But the knowledge of what is offensive has historically come from knowledge generated by societies formed through free association. It is only by living in a society that we can understand the boundaries of our speech, what is hurtful and (more importantly), what is unforgivable. This knowledge is organic, and learned over long periods of time, and only can be learned through free speech; the state, in my eyes, can never predict that which is offensive, because it does not hold the requisite knowledge to do so.

The state as an institution is built on the governance of individuals, not groups (save “society” as a whole). The bond of citizenship is one that ties the individual to the state, and vice versa, but the weight of that bond can only ever be brought to bear in the individual circumstance. This is why legislation based on group identity is a dangerous game: it homogenises the experience of that group, places a shield of impunity around it, and fails to take into account the individual experience. In this logic, if an individual is offensive to another individual on the grounds of his group identity (race, sex, sexuality, etc.), then he is offensive to the whole group – and British justice has never (and should never) been able to account for such a crime. For an individual can forgive – can a whole group?

And of course, “offence” is a powerful tool, but a tool nonetheless. There will always be occasions that call for harsh words to be used, and it was the aforementioned knowledge implicit in society that knew both the weight of insults and when they ought to be employed. The ability to offend must always be retained, but it must not be phrased as a right, for that would imply a duty on the right holder to offend. Sensible discretion and common sense must always be used and, as is so often the case, the warnings of our parents ought to be remembered: “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all”.  

I think it is worth closing this article by saying that I am not advocating for the right to offend, nor am I advocating for the impunity of free speech fundamentalism – if you are rude or offensive to someone, on an individual or group basis, be prepared to face the consequences. But I do worry about the extent to which the state now has the power to enforce those consequences.


Photo by X on Flickr.

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