Are There Any Limits to Free Expression?

There’s a lot of water under the bridge since my post yesterday on the burning Grenfell effigy case and the dialogue I’d already started with Stephen Knight (GodlessSpellchecker -GS for short). Not least that GS subsequently “tapped-out” (sic) his own post, and overnight has drawn compare-and-contrast attention to another non-free-speech crime against Grenfell (a compensation fraud).

The pile-on continues with a great deal of the whataboutery of seemingly Socratic questions mostly unrelated to the case I’d described. (All questions answered by me incidentally, even where already addressed by the original post and links, except where rhetorical questions implying straw-men.)

However lots, most, of it ad hominem against me a being “a buffoon who hasn’t thought this through”, or some who “can’t spot the difference between different cases”, etc – when clearly I have done little else but address these. The reason the freedom-extremists haven’t is because they stop at first base and don’t feel the need to think, or give any respect to any thought, of alternatives.

A lot of time-wasting could have been saved by GS simply answering the first question in my previous post “When is Free Speech a Hate Crime?“. If your answer is “Never.” – as in the case of GS and his echo-chamber – then not surprisingly, none need ever consider the caveats and nuances of when it might be. No actual dialogue occurs.

In GS’s own post, since he is starting from the “Never.” position, he uses much the same previous examples as I did, without any acknowledgment of any issues I’d raised, but applies the same simple rule. Never. They’re all wrong. There is no discussion of any of the nuances that make the contexts of public bad taste jokes scenarios, their motivations and intended audiences, and their necessary public responses, all different (and all already covered by me). (If there is any motivation to progress this dialogue, with respect, feel free to point out any arguments I might have missed. However please ensure my case is properly represented also – both posts and links read and taken into account. I’d recommend starting with a Steelman?)

It’s interesting to contrast with Peter Tatchell’s position, speaking on BBC R4 PM yesterday. Someone who has experienced both sides of this as the victim, on behalf of LGBTI groups, of prejudiced acts of hate-speech, and as the user of free-speech to (attempt to) ban free speech (!) in the past (Fairy Tale of New York anyone?). Some might suggest hypocritical, I say a sophisticated position given the complexity of any such case. He says pretty clearly this Grenfell effigy case should not be a criminal matter, he’s probably right, but also that we must be very careful because there are exceptions where so-called free-speech becomes an offense that society must sanction, criminally or otherwise. Pretty much my position, he could be my Steelman, after which the devil is in the detail.

An aside to the immediate point of this thread, but there is one agenda item starkly exposed here. This demand for “unequivocal simplicity” in response to a complex situation, if I can’t express my own position in 280 characters I clearly don’t understand it myself apparently. I call it simplistication – that ensures that most of the social-mediated interaction reinforces the simple (bad) choice and drowns out any nuanced (good) discussion, any proper dialogue. Pure memetics that simple ideas spread quickly and easily whereas good ideas do not, when unmediated by any slower variety of rationality – wisdom(?) for short. Not the immediate point here, but related two ways in fact: the (shock-horror) concept of social-media requiring moderation (more anti-free-speech shock horror); and conversely the idea that there are “rules” of free-speech to be respected. Anyway:

How can free-expression be free if there are rules to moderate it?
What does respect – for the rules – have to do with it?

My recurring agenda throughout this dialogue, and indeed the point of the original dialogue – including the post and the linked material on jokes, etc – has indeed been respect. Respect. Respect for what?

Firstly, given the “never” response to the first question, the specifics of Grenfell effigy case are no longer relevant. Knowing that, is why I had already suggested a thought experiment variation – burning an Auschwitz / Jews effigy?

[Now this kind of thought experiment is basically trolleyology; the variation of fixed objective variables in an ethical dilemma framed as an instrumental choice in a physical arrangement – switching points to change the victim of a runaway rail car, etc. I’m only using it to get to the point that there are exceptions to “never”. Trolleyology, like Socratic questioning, never gets much beyond Ethics-101 when it comes to practical analysis of real life complexity. It makes you think, even if it doesn’t satisfactorily answer the questions.]

Is hateful free-speech against (say) Jews a hate crime?

Public expression of hateful thought – burning effigies, daubing gravestones, displaying placards, sharing stereotypical images, explicit and implicit commentary on such acts? At what point is such action incitement or abetting incitement of acts of real consequence against unfairly vulnerable groups in society? It is always a question of immediate victims – who may or not be damaged or “offended” – and the implied or explicit class or group victimised.

If your answer is still never. Free expression, no exceptions, no concept of hate-speech ever, then I can’t help you. I suspect the remaining question here is simply the criminal policing aspect of any social boundaries of gross public bad-taste twattery and consequences for transgressors.

In the Grenfell effigy case public sanction and investigation of transgressor motivations and potential victim consequences was entirely correct. Whether we have any machinery other than police to do that is a separate question as is, having done the investigation, whether any criminal proceedings beyond warning of transgression are taken by the police. Motivations and contrition – name and shame, and sincere public apologies – affect that decision. (Tatchell also agreed on this.)

That decision is a socially negotiated response; cease and desist and reparation or punishment if not, whether police and criminal or not. Society’s message to would be transgressors – to think before you express your free thoughts, and that we take respect for the rules of free-speech seriously. Free speech is so important to us that its rules matter to us.

[Consequences of such decisions do not physically constrain free-thought and expression. In fact, the “martyrdom” of being formally punished is always part of the social campaigner’s armoury towards long-term change to the rules of a free-democratic, death-penalty-free society.]

But motivations and contrition are a matter of whether we and the transgressors respect that any boundaries exist. Free speech is not free of consequences, and we are not free of responsibility for those consequences.

The same is true of any dialogue, any exchange of expressed ideas. This is especially true if the dialogue involves obvious disagreements – which is where this dialogue on respect started – that disagreement is more essential than respect, or that respect is just as important? Respect for the constraining rules of free dialogue. And part of that respect is taking personal responsibility for the consequences of transgressing the rules.

Society is indeed “sick” – but not because it is “outraged” by disrespect.


[Post Note: The pile-on continued much reduced, and GS did respond after this one intelligent intervention:

Time will tell if GS (or his entourage) will take the hint and continue the dialogue with a Steel-man, or whether the spurious Straw-men and Ad-hominems will continue. Until then …. next topic?]

[Try this for a Steelman:

  • There are rules and rules are there to be respected – even if broken and the consequences respected.
  • In free-speech – free-expression of free-thought enshrined right from the top at the UN – the thought and expression are never a crime in themselves. Such thought and expression may always be “offensive” to someone.
  • But, there are rules about motivation for choosing to express them, choosing audiences and contexts for that expression, and choosing to publicise their expression, including questions related to potential victimisation of disadvantaged groups beyond the immediate audience and victims (if any) of the immediate physical expression.
  • These rules will never be simple to legislate for every objective possibility, yet society needs to enforce and sanction their transgression, escalate such sanctions on repeat transgressors, publicly uphold the values in the rules and incentivise potential transgressors to modify their future behaviours and so on.
  • The law and enforcement by police are a blunt instruments for such problematic value-based rules. It’s is only a matter of practical alternatives that police and criminal process are brought to bear in public cases – usually initially to question motives and context and warn of potential consequences where judged necessary. It would take further circumstantial evidence before any consideration of any such case being brought into the criminal justice system – but the possibility may always need to be considered. My personal preference would be something like “community policing” before getting anywhere near the criminal system, but the glare of publicity in such cases generally means a clean audit trail – eg of questioning under caution – is probably unavoidable in practice. I’m not the legal expert. Suspicions under public order offenses is probably as good a fudge as any available. God forbid anyone suggests “thought police” 😉
  • But, these are practical enforcement issues that do not change the basic premise that, even in free-speech, there are rules to be respected.
  • And, my ORIGINAL MAIN POINT, that this respect of rules – mostly the same rules incidentally – applies in ANY discourse, especially where there is obvious disagreement and not just those that escalate to public offense.


[Oh, and by the way, talk about tedious …
During this dialogue I’ve suspended my policy of:

“Block all tweeps who like a mention
but offer no other interaction
and no evidence in their own bio
of genuine interest in the actual topic.”

Used to be my pinned tweet, may have to reinstate it.
Ho hum.]

Also published on Medium.

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