Free Speech: At What Cost?

One morning the prophet Zarathustra went into the village square to address the people. Looking around he was happy to see a good number had already gathered in expectation. However a wave of panic washed over him as he discovered, on inserting his hand into the inside pocket of his recently purchased Kanuk Softshell jacket, that his script for the day was not there. What to do?

Thinking quickly, with barely a moment’s reflection, as was his wont, he announced that today he would take questions on any of the topics he had previously touched on in his discourses. Since his audience were simple folk with relatively poor powers of recall, he should, he calculated, be on relatively safe ground. He was relatively surprised, therefore, when almost immediately a young woman in the front row put up her hand and indicated her wish to raise a query. At this, the prophet experienced a slight feeling of trepidation; but what could go wrong?

“You recently gave an eloquent sermon citing the dangers of free speech,” the young woman began. (ed. see Is Free Speech Compatible with the Achievement of Social Justice? ).

“I commend you on your powers of discernment,” replied the prophet.

Somewhat to his surprise she appeared not to acknowledge his flattery, continuing “You referred to those who support free speech as scorpions who ‘do injury to the oppressed victims of unconscious and institutional bias.'”

“Indeed, scorpions they are, these malignant purveyors of the doctrine of free speech. All manner of hate speech do they seek to condone in the cause of advancing their agenda of oppression.”

“So you are suggesting we need to curtail freedom of speech in order to prevent or deter hate speech?”

“Indeed. Those in whom power and privilege reside always seek to use their power to protect their privilege by oppressing those whose views they despise, the vulnerable and downtrodden ordinary people, who are excluded from discussion or debate because they fear the repercussions of speaking up in public. We must outlaw all hate speech which oppresses and causes offence and exclude its purveyors from the public arena.”

“Your intentions seem very noble here, but can you explain to us who will define hate speech and how?”

The prophet should have at this point have been more mindful of his earlier sense of anxiety and become suspicious that the line of questioning being followed was not entirely innocent. But hey! He was on a roll so there was no stopping him now.

“That is a simple matter,” he began bullishly. “Those like myself who understand the dangers of free speech and the way it undermines progressive discourse are uniquely qualified to take upon ourselves the role of gatekeeper. We should be empowered to levy fines and impose harsh punishments as a deterrent to such behaviour and ensure that offenders are no-platformed and excluded from all future public discussion.”

“So, let me be sure I understand you correctly. You propose to prevent those with privilege and power from engaging in hate speech and making offensive and condemnatory remarks, so excluding those with whose views they disagree from public discourse. And your proposed solution is that privileged people like yourself should be given power to revile and condemn those who in your view are engaging in such behaviour, imposing harsh punishments and excluding them from public discourse. Let me think: do I see any problems with taking such an approach?”

“I suspect our questioner is of a somewhat cynical mind, with residual scorpion tendencies,” the prophet intoned rather disparagingly as a comment to the wider audience whom he saw were at this stage listening closely to his explanations. Turning back to his interlocutor, he found to his surprise the young woman had mysteriously vanished, presumably having gone off to cogitate privately on the latent incongruities she perceived in the thesis presented.

But no matter, others in the crowd now seemed eager to ask of him further questions, which gave him at least momentary solace. “There’s somefink not quite right ‘ere,” began one. “How can it be that the problem is them what is in power stopping us from saying what we want ; and the solution is them what is put in their place doing the same thing?” The accent was a Cockney one, but with a hint of Dick van Dyke, which raised our protagonist’s suspicions. But no matter. The box of Pandora was well and truly open and the hate speech against the purveyors of self-serving sophistry was pouring forth as chants of “Down with privilege” “Power to the people” started to arise from the crowd.

“Do you not see the damage that free speech is doing in leading you astray?” he pleaded with the crowd. But his perspicacity afforded him no respite. The only damage that was likely to ensue at this juncture was to himself. Happily, although his freedom of speech was being rapidly curtailed, he still had freedom of movement. Ducking down and making a beeline through the crowd, he legged it as quickly as he could round the corner where his driver had with foresight already started up the new Jaguar he had purchased for just such eventualities.

“I’ve taken the liberty of pouring you a glass of champagne, sir,” the driver intoned as they sped off back to London and the relative safety of his suite at the Hilton.

Disclaimer: references to Zarathustra in the above are an allusion to the eponymous protagonist of Friedrich Nietzche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not to the Iranian religious reformer and prophet, traditionally regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism.

Categorised as Sketch

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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