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  • Peter Anson

Bad Arguments Against Free Speech: Harmful Speech

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

Following on from the debut of ‘Humanizing the Speaker,’ I move to the next phase, Harmful Speech. This is quite a wide umbrella, so I’ll have to explain some core ideas of the harm principle, the issues with it, how it’s used today and its issues.

The Harm Principle:

Though by no means perfect, one of the most famous texts regarding freedom of speech would be John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty,’ published in 1859. From a perspective of utility, it argued the necessity of freedom of speech in its endeavours of finding, justifying and serving the truth while dispelling wrongs. In particular, it was directed at government censorship, or indeed majority rule, attempting to safeguard freedom of expression towards those of minority opinion within the community that they situated themselves in. Without going in depth into it, it is recommended that any individual interested in freedom of speech give it a read, or brush over its core ideas.

As part of this writing, J.S. Mill created ‘the Harm Principle.’ While he advocated for all to have freedom of speech, he noted that 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.' He recognized that using speech to incite violence against another was paradoxical to his core argument as it would naturally inhibit another's freedom of speech. Therefore, the Harm Principle sought to create a stopgap against this, as a protection for the minority opinion. At the time, the minority opinions that he sought to protect were dissent against the government and religion. Without scrutiny, most would agree with this, but practically it’s hugely problematic. The core issue is what we constitute as harm.

Not Such a Good Principle:

Perhaps in the 1800s the concept of harm was easy enough. That was someone actively conducting violence onto another and physically suppressing them into submission. However, as our understandings have become more sophisticated, the application of harm can potentially extend far beyond that. Indeed, as mental health has become further recognised, a particularly abrasive argument could be argued as inducive to damaging someone’s mental constitution. Alternatively, is harm just extendable towards their own person? If someone presents myself, my possessions or ideals as negative, these are all negative effects on me in some form. Could harm be as wide spreading as damaging the interests of an individual or a group and thus the ability to expedite personal means? Say if one were in possession of business, a potential call for boycott could seriously impact their personal livelihood, success of their business, and therefore their interests. The point is, that any form of expression could be perceived as harmful to someone or something should one wish to stretch it. One only needs to look at Maoist conceptions of Bourgeois liberalisation, historical views of blasphemy or heresy to see how harm can be applied as justification to prevent freedom of expression.

So Where Are We Today?

In referring to examples, harm is used as a generalistic term, as proponents of censorship may not necessarily frame it in this context. I’ll choose a couple of case studies and outline the issues that arise.

Sargon of Akkad

In April 2018 Liberate the Debate Sussex chose to host Carl Benjamin, the Youtuber Sargon of Akkad in a debate with a Marxist Youtuber about where one would draw the limits of freedom of speech. We invited Carl Benjamin under the purview that a few months prior he spoke at a panel with the KCL Libertarian Society whereby students protested the event. Therefore, in solidarity of freedom of speech we invited Carl. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of his content, or him, but out of principle we invited him nonetheless. We spent a considerable amount of time working with the Students’ Union planning for reasonable safety, including security and other measures.

However, only a few hours prior to the event occurring, we received an email from the welfare officer stating that his presence would make students feel ‘unsafe,’ and that for some students campus was their home and shouldn’t feel this way. There was no explicit qualification of what this harm would do to these students, or a true risk assessment, and frankly amounted to little more than the fact they didn’t like him there. It’s often quoted among some students that they believe in freedom of speech but contend that if an event makes anyone feel uncomfortable or affect their safety (whatever that means), then it isn’t freedom of speech and shouldn’t go ahead. It’s worth iterating that the understanding of freedom of speech becomes completely superfluous – after all, if everyone was fine with the speech, then what’s the point of free speech?

Speech Critical of a Certain Group

In any time period, there will be groups of people, or a set of ideals that have historically been marginalized, in which criticism of said characteristics can be contentious. I’m not giving any explicit examples, given that this changes with time, and I’m sure we can all think of an appropriate case. Say you share an article that is critical of the actions a certain sect of that group has made. Some would contend that the distribution of this information can negatively paint the reputation of the marginalized group and may contribute to increasing prejudice and/or violence inflicted on this group. Your action, regardless of its truth, is tacitly complicit in inflicting harm as others with prejudiced views cherry pick the article to fuel their hate.

It’s a compelling narrative and while hard to describe without attributing it to a marginalized group, it has some flaws , regardless of its good intentions. We can make two core assumptions:

1. It’s implied that the distribution of this information will go to people who will not objectively evaluate articles like this and could act upon false premises they’ve kept for years.

2. The creation, distribution of, and sharing of these articles contributes to affecting the safety of said group because of who may read this information and therefore, the author and distributors of the articles are implicitly complicit in said action due to not evaluating the reach of this information, therefore causing harm.

But can we quantify how large this harm is? Can we seriously pinpoint where this information would go and how it would be used? Of course not. The largest assessment we could make is that it certainly doesn’t perform any favours, per se, for the reputation of the marginalized group.

To present an analogy of this example, let’s take safe spaces:

'An individual is an advocate of safe spaces because certain negative comments do not have to be heard which may damage the mental health of the individual.'

This effectively argues that a comment could be negative to an individual's mental health in the long run. Do we know what sort of comment it would be? No. Do we know how much it would affect the mental health of a person? No - because none of us, including the victim can quantify it. It could be a drip in the well of negative comments that contribute to the individual's slide into depression, or more terribly, suicide, or a massive single comment that could swing things. But, due to the lack of quantifiability, this argument suggests that even if a comment caused minimum harm, it still contributes and therefore it shouldn't really have been discussed in the first place. But where is freedom of speech in this world? If any disturbing, unpleasant or unwelcome content was categorised as a harm because it could affect the mental health of someone(and by extension susceptibility to depression or worse) then important truths would never come out, as we take precedent of the unquantifiable, but invariably perceived harm it may contribute to the victim.

The sheer ambiguity of how the concept of harm is applied completely defeats the point of freedom of speech. Short of deliberately inciting violence, why should one be considered responsible for the irrational actions of others upon interpreting the information you provide?

So, What Now?

It’s clear that the harm principle has deep flaws in its system, just by how we define what harm is and isn’t. That said, if we are to respect freedom of speech in any form, extending harm to constitute reputational slight towards a group even in its most ambiguous form, or the sense of feeling unsafe, utterly destroys the point of freedom of speech as it becomes harmful in any form. This becomes particularly acute when most of these claims are levelled within universities whereby, of all places, we should be best equipped to maturely tackle controversial topics for what they are, not for their social context.

This issue has become particularly acute as, whether for better or worse the intersectional approach of power structures(think privilege, with white men being at the top) has risen to prominence at universities. It explicitly dictates what information needs to be discussed and suppresses arguments that may undermine the overall political motive of these power structures, recognizing the smallest slight to an individual being a contributing part to the systemic problem that they define. Freedom of speech has no place here.

I don’t intend to argue what is and isn’t harm, but rather to elaborate how out of hand the concept of harm has become. Indeed, many individuals have forgotten that the point of freedom of speech means evaluating information that is discomforting, shocking or repugnant, by the very least, rather than just elevating issues that deemed politically salient yet under-recognised. We need to remember that freedom of speech can be hurtful - if it wasn't, we wouldn't have freedom of speech, and contemporary applications of harm are unworkable and impractical.