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Is it possible for someone with strong leftist values to support freedom of speech, even if it means hate speech?

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    I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. Would you have any more context you could provide for the question? Are you reading someone that is suggesting this question to you. The context would help make the answers less likely to be personal opinions. – Frank Hubeny Aug 15 '18 at 13:44
  • 'left-wing' is a bit vague. 'Libertarian' is certainly a bit more clearly defined ... and supporting free speech seems to be rather important to the libertarian. – Bram28 Aug 15 '18 at 15:57
  • There is hate speech and hate speech. At least in the U.S. not all hate speech is protected as free speech. According to Wikipedia: “True threats of violence” that are directed at a person or group of persons that have the intent of placing the target at risk of bodily harm or death are generally unprotected." – Bram28 Aug 15 '18 at 16:03
  • Like I said earlier, 'left-wing' is pretty vague, but 'personal liberties' seem to be something that is typically important to some on the 'left', and with that comes a sense of tolerance of different perspectives ... which would suggest that freedom of speech is typically quite important to someone on the 'left' ... So, at first glance I am unsure why you question the compatibility of 'having strong leftist values' and supporting freedom of speech. But maybe you have a different view of 'strong leftist values'? Again, it would help if you could clarify some of this. – Bram28 Aug 15 '18 at 16:25
  • I am still quite baffled by your question, because supporting free speech is something everyone would seem to support, no matter what political stripe. In fact, as I commented earlier, possibly even more so if you are on the 'left'.... So ... I am wondering if maybe you tried to ask 'Is it necessary for someone with strong leftists values to accept all forms of free speech, even it is hate speech'? Put differently: if some from the left rejects hate speech, wouldn't that go beyond their support of free speech? Is that your question? Is it maybe inspired by the Alex Jones thing? – Bram28 Aug 15 '18 at 18:59
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LIBERTARIANISM IS LIBERTARIANISM

Libertarianism is a certain viewpoint as regards the state. The scope of the state's activities should be restricted to the enforcement of contracts and a minimum body of criminal law (protecting citizens from murder or battery, for instance). It is not the state's job or entitlement to enforce a moral code, let alone to support a particular or any religion, or to increase the aggregate benefit to the citizenry by redistributive policies (if there is private, non-communal property to redistribute). Further, free speech is protected; anyone can express any ideas whatever their content.

If this is, at least approximately, what libertarianism is, then whatever one's motives for embracing libertarian - left-wing, right wing or whatever - the nature of libertarianism does not change. In this sense a libertarian as such is neither left-wing nor right-wing. Someone on the left who rejects the private ownership of capital, and someone on the right who believes we all have inalienable rights to acquire and retain private capital, will both (for entirely different reasons) deny that the state is entitled to increase the aggregate benefit to the citizenry by redistributive policies.

But if you are left-wing, supporting (say) the communal ownership of capital, direct participatory democracy, and no enforcement of Christian or any other religious morality, there is no logical tension or contradiction between support for such views and full rein for free speech. 'Free speech' needs a little conceptual digging into, however.

LIBERTARIANISM AND FREE SPEECH

On free speech a libertarian adopts what may be termed 'viewpoint absolutism' :

We can start with both a 'positive' and a 'negative' definition of viewpoint absolutism. The differences are essentially linguistic, as the two are functionally interchangeable. Under the positive definition, viewpoint absolutism is (i) protection of speech or assembly that (ii) expresses any ideas, including those deemed to be, in themselves, iniquitous or dangerous, including racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-religious, extremist religious, and other such forms of speech deemed to be intolerant. Under the negative definition, viewpoint absolutism is (i) rejection of prohibitions on speech or assembly that are (ii) imposed solely because the state deems some ideas in themselves to be iniquitous or dangerous, including those same types of speech. (Eric Heinze, 'Viewpoint Absolutism and Hate Speech', The Modern Law Review, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Jul., 2006), pp. 543-582 : 546.)

The question, or problem, is whether 'absolute' really, truly and literally does mean 'absolute'. Here's some more from Heinze :

On the theory of viewpoint absolutism that I shall adopt, a mature, stable and prosperous democracy cannot legitimately ban the expression of a general opinion in favour of, eg, racist theory, sexism, al-Qaida, blasphemy or homophobia, on the grounds that such ideas are inherently dangerous (or, in the case of Holocaust denial, on the grounds that they are factually false). I shall argue ... that a ban or penalty is permissible only (a) during a legitimately declared state of emergency, or (b) if government can materially demonstrate either (i) the commission of some independently illegal act, such as a murder or battery, or (ii) the likelihood of imminent lawless action. Although terms like 'materially', 'demonstrate', 'likelihood' or 'imminent' are not always clear, that is a problem in law generally, and not unique to hate speech. Accordingly, I shall argue that any indeterminacy caused by the viewpoint absolutist standard is far smaller than the pervasive arbitrariness caused by hate speech bans: hate speech bans insert vast amounts of added uncertainty into law, while viewpoint absolutism adds no more than is already in the law. (Heinze : 547.)

'But if you allow a ban in order, say, to prevent murder or battery, then you betray viewpoint absolutism.' This is true but here the libertarian is caught in the dilemma that faces all politics. Values clash : circumstances can arise in which it is not possible to give equal weight to all the values libertarianism stands for. The same is the case with socialism, conservativism, anarchism and the rest.

I'd advance two points in support of Heinze's position - his strictly limited endorsement of a ban on free speech in certain circumstances.

The first is that the ban is imposed to protect other libertarian values - security of the person from murder or battery. The second is that if free speech is suspended, this is not as such to limit or suppress the expression of ideas because of their content but because the expression of ideas is also, here and now, open to another description - namely, the exposure of citizens to murder or battery. (All actions have a variety of descriptions.) My ordering of values doesn't let me in a particular situation for action put free speech ahead of murder or battery.

[A tentative thought I'll slide into a parenthesis. One might even say that when the description, 'protection of citizens from murder or battery' applies the description, 'free speech', no longer holds : it has been superseded by the ethically more dominant description, 'protection of citizens from murder or battery'. The situation has been removed from the box of free speech and put into the different box of citizen protection.]

What can be added is a third point : viewpoint absolutism remains normal politics. Once the dilemma has been resolved, viewpoint absolution is restored.


ENDNOTE ON ANARCHISM

I have assumed a libertarianism that tolerates the state. An anarchist libertarianism is possible if instead of the state we talk of the collectivity, the commune, or in similar language. Everything I've said about the state can be revised in these terms.

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I have strong leftist values, and I believe in free speech. Empirically, then, the answer is "yes".

Edit: This depends on how "strong leftist values" is defined. They could be defined as favoring legal restrictions on hate speech, in which case the answer is trivial. In this case, let's assume that leftists are against hate speech.

We assume (correctly) that I'm against hate speech. I would like to stop having it around. This doesn't mean I want the law to be changed. Allowing the government to restrict speech for anything but the most necessary cases carries the risk of suppressing useful speech at the very least, and likely allowing the government to become dictatorial. There are advantages and disadvantages to restrictions on speech, and they have to be balanced. I favor something like US laws on speech, and am happy with what we have. That means that I want free speech. I also don't want speech suppressed by private violence.

Some people find it expedient to use definitions of "free speech" that are impractical and in some cases inconsistent. Some people advocate speech without consequences, but we use speech to cause things ("please pass the salt" is intended to cause a consequence, the passing of the salt shaker). Unless those people want to make speech meaningless, they want freedom from some consequences that they consider inconvenient. However, requiring that people treat those who say Nazi things the same as those who say Episcopalian things is a really large impingement on personal freedom.

Some people claim that free speech means that they should be able to use any platform to say what they want, and this also breaks down. There's plenty of empirical evidence that shows that, if a platform allows completely free speech, it becomes largely useless. Facebook has to censor what people say, or they will lose lots of users, and lose lots and lots of revenue.

The advantage of the internet is that you can create your own platform for whatever you want to say. Even the Daily Stormer (a Nazi publication) found an internet host. As long as people can find ways to say what they want and make their words available to the public, they have free speech (if not the right to demand that anyone pay attention to them).

  • This might need more explanation why the two positions make sense. I am not saying they don't, but the OP seems to be looking for a reason why they make sense or do not make sense. – Frank Hubeny Aug 15 '18 at 18:45
  • I too am a far-left libertarian. As a libertarian, I think individual freedoms are paramount; indeed, free speach trumps even democracy itself. The purpose of government is to protect free speech, even hate speech. Where my socialist/left values enter the mix is that I accept that we are a planet of 7 billion interconnected and interdependent people; I am, to some extent, my brother's keeper, and I have no problem with limiting some theoretical freedoms in a minor way (say, taxation, or anti-discrimination laws) that will increase practical freedom for everyone. But speech is untouchable. – Lee Daniel Crocker Aug 15 '18 at 20:17
  • Hate speech is fine. Hate speech coupled with incitement to violence however.. if a guy stands up and rants for an hour about how much he dislikes Samoans.. who cares.. if he then invites the audience to punch passing Samoans.. that's not hate speech... It's incitement to violence. – Richard Aug 18 '18 at 0:55
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This question is quite baffling, as supporting free speech is something everyone would seem to support, no matter what political stripe. In fact, one could argue that someone on the 'left', who is typically concerned with 'personal liberties' might possibly be even more concerned with free speech than someone on the 'right'. And certainly a libertarian would support free speech. So, why are you questioning whether someone with 'strong leftists values' would not support free speech?

I am wondering if your question wasn't inspired by the recent event of the taking down of Alex Jones' website, to which we can add the many student protests (from the left) to try and prevent speakers (from the right ... often with a message seen as 'hate speech') to speak on campus. If that is the case, then maybe your question wasn't so much:

"Is it possible for someone with strong leftists values to accept all forms of free speech, even it is hate speech?"

But rather:

"Is it necessary for someone with strong leftists values to accept all forms of free speech, even it is hate speech?"

Put differently:

"Shouldn't someone with strong leftists values accept all forms of free speech, even it is hate speech?"

Or differently yet:

"if some from the left rejects hate speech, especially if they are libertarian, wouldn't that go beyond their support of free speech?"

And the version most likely expressed in conversation:

"Aren't people on the 'left', especially if they are libertarian, a bunch of hypocrites for rejecting hate speech when it comes from the 'right'?"

Well, it depends on how 'hateful' the speech is. Hateful speech hurts people, and one can argue that at some point the right of that person not be hurt outweighs the right to free speech (just as it is with so many difficult ethical issues, there is tension between different sets of rights ... in fact, that's the whole basis of why we have politics). Indeed, within the U.S. not all speech is protected under free speech. According to Wikipedia:

“True threats of violence” that are directed at a person or group of persons that have the intent of placing the target at risk of bodily harm or death are generally unprotected."

In other words, supporting free speech does not necessarily imply that one has to support all forms of hate speech, and so there would be no inconsistency here.

Also, if your question was particularly inspired by what happened to Alex Jones, there is the further complication that maybe hate speech wasn't the only factor in this particular case: legal scholars apparently have also pointed out that spreading just plain falsehoods, that can also have damaging effects, is also unprotected:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/07/business/media/alex-jones-free-speech-not-protected.html

And finally, please know that just because someone is inconsistent does not mean that they are wrong about everything: that would be committing the inconsistency ad hominem .. I hope you're not doing that.

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