Knowing Your Limits When It Comes To Free Speech

Life and Loss: Reflections on Chester Bennington

I am an advocate for free speech.

From a young age I was moved by powerful exceptional oratory and have admired those who’ve use language to shake the foundations of humanity to its core, and to inspire lasting change among us.

Speech and dialogue, to me, were always methods which were far more beautiful and effective catalysts for change than violence and force ever could be. Violence just seemed so brutish and cowardly. The ones we all remember in the greatest stories are the ones that didn’t rely on a gang of thugs to enforce their will but, rather, the ones who stood courageously, unrepentantly before those thugs and spoke truth in the face of power. Those are the people I admired when I was younger and wished so desperately to be like though, at the time, I couldn’t grasp why.

It took awhile for me to begin to understand the ramifications of censorship, and the importance of allowing those who choose to dissent from conventional trends of thought the right to speak as freely as those whose opinions are in style. When I was younger I was a Christian (as much as going to church every Sunday can determine your beliefs), and a Republican (in name only because I couldn’t vote at the time). I viewed Liberals as the ultimate evil in America who needed to be crushed at all costs. I viewed the LGBT community as the destroyers of “family values” (as if straight couples couldn’t do any wrong), and I just wished everyone could be Christian, like me.

I’ve since come to see the world in its nuance, and much of the reason for that change was beginning to have conversations with those who I’d previously deemed the “others”. It’s funny how a simple conversation or, rather, shutting your mouth once in awhile, can actually help engage your mind. It wasn’t until Obama became president that the value of dissent began to cement themselves in my brain.

It wasn’t that Obama was some iron-fisted dictator, as the Right wing talking heads would have you believe. If anything, he was just an extension of his predecessor George W. Bush, whom I’d given a pass on just about everything because he had a magical “R” next to his name while campaigning. When Obama took office, however, with his own majorities, I began to see what those on the Left had been clamoring about for the previous 8 years. I recognized the Patriot Act for the threat it posed, I began to see the Iraq war as a terrible mistake and play for resources it was, rather than the noble, patriotic mission I’d been led to believe. I saw the nature of political discourse decline and, as a Tea Party supporter, I was exposed to the same ridicule the anti-war Left had had thrown at them during the Bush years. Tea Partiers were branded as racists, bigots, and they even tried to call us “domestic terrorists”. I was just afraid of an over reaching government that surveilled its citizens, participated in illegal warfare, and was spending and taxing its prosperity beyond repair. I just wanted my country back and to fight for more freedom, not less. Unfortunately, these were the things I’d gladly ignored when “my guy” was in power.

It’s easy to demonize people who disagree with you when you’re the one in the position of power. It’s easy to shut down inconvenient opinions when you’ve never been the pariah.

The story didn’t end there though.

I had yet to learn one more lesson about free speech which is this:

While people should be free to speak and voice their opinions on things, it’s imperative that the individual look inward and know their limits when it comes to what they can and cannot handle.

I don’t believe in state censorship of ideas, but it is inevitable that we as individuals will decide what ideas we can and cannot scrutinize within the marketplace of ideas. As the host of a podcast, it is my goal to have a wide variety of opinions and world views on my show. I believe in the great benefit of having a metaphorical marketplace of ideas, rather than having the state determine what ideas are and are not acceptable, because markets tend to bear out excellence even if that means allowing for some toxicity to be thrown in the mix. It’s my hope that as I grow my show, I’ll be able to offer this diversity of thought to my listeners, even ideas and thoughts I utterly disagree with. This is as important to me as an individual, and my growth as a person, as it is for others to be able to hear.

However, even as I strive toward this goal I am a bit hesitant because I know already that there are some views that I will never allow on my platform. There are some views I cannot stomach, even in the interest of the free exchange of ideas. Does that make me a hypocrite? Can I no longer brand my venture as a “free speech project”? Perhaps.

An example of this internal dilemma I struggle with was a live stream that YouTuber Andy Warski hosted featuring Blaire White the purpose of which to was to debate another YouTuber (Omni) who advocated for pedophilia.

I understand the importance of being open-minded, being teachable and knowing you have a lot to learn, but I can tell you for a fact that this person would never be welcome on my channel. I don’t believe his ideas deserve to be heard and I find them, personally, morally reprehensible. Being a father has drastically increased this particular bias.

So, am I a hypocrite for having this particular view of this particular person?

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to…

I will never advocate state censorship against another person simply because I disagree or am repulsed by them personally. Free speech, however, does not exempt one from being socially ostracized. You want to advocate for sexual relationships with children, fine. But I will, in turn, use my free speech to call you a horrible human being, and choose not to associate with you. I don’t need the government to shut you down, your ideas have done just that without any coercive force.

I’m grateful for people like the Warskis and Blaire White who had the stomach enough to tell people like him that via live stream, but I know that my personal limits don’t extend that far. It takes all types to make the marketplace of ideas work. When you go out to eat, you don’t have to stop at every single restaurant and have lunch to say you’ve had a good lunch. The restaurants remain there taking in different patrons, offering their particular brand and style of delivering service. They are free to change, modify and compete for customers but, inevitably, the ones that offer food that makes people sick will go under. They won’t have anyone coming to their store or buying what they’re selling.

That’s how I feel about reprehensible ideas.

If there are people who worry about reprehensible ideas turning to action, I would argue that that’s another discussion and that it is the function of the legal system to sort out harms committed by people against other people. Until action is taken ideas are simply ideas, and nobody should be policed by the state for simply having an idea, in my view.

So here’s where I would advocate an ancient Greek aphorism which still holds true when it comes to navigating the marketplace of ideas:

“Know thyself”.

Know thyself well indeed.

Facebook Comments

About the Author

Josh Carter
Josh Carter is the host of The Resistance Podcast, an independent, Wisconsin-based media project. He is a working class husband, father of two and a student of history and political and revolutionary theory.