Back to blog

The clash of expression

See blog

Readers' comments

The Economist welcomes your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful of other readers. Review our comments policy.

The True Friend of Liberty

Some opinions which in the historical record have been censored as so dangerous, hateful, and offensive that to express them was (no exaggeration) subject to penalties ranging from social and financial ruin to long prison terms or even to death by torture:
.
All men are created equal.
.
People have the right to belong to the church of their choice.
.
Slavery is immoral and should be abolished.
.
Witchcraft can not make your cows give sour milk.
.
The earth goes around the sun.

The True Friend of Liberty

People who believe that offensive speech should not be censored should be posed the following question:
.
"What are the names of some specific people whom you would agree can decide for us all whether your own speech should be allowed or censored?"
I

guest-aanswlmi

All historians agree that censorship always is introduced for noble motives. Never, ever in the history of the world was censorship justified by silencing valid criticism. Always, it was for the good of society, to silence warmongers, fools, violent behavior so on. Once censorship was in place, simply the definition of 'hate speech' or 'warmongering speech' or 'speech aimed at instigating violent disorder' changed.

CaptainRon

I would more question those institutions for feeling they need to give a platform to people like Ann Coulter or Yano what's his name. Why should they invite speakers who are not interested in an honest conversation themselves? Why should we be giving a platform to a troll or a racist? Should those institutions next invite the guy on the corner holding "the world is going to end" placard?

guest-aanswlmi in reply to CaptainRon

You are wrong . First, many critics may point a valid criticism of our society, although their form is divisive, their views not well articulated or well proven.
Second, I may accept that one should counteract organized, founded campaigns aimed to lobby or to disinform, but it is not the same as silencing one controversial person.

guest-lsmssae in reply to CaptainRon

CaptainRon: Why should you be allowed to express your opinion? I may find it 'offensive'. If people do not want to hear a particular person speak at a presentation, they are completely free to not attend - particularly if they feel they will not 'like' what the person has to say.

If we, as a nation, curtail who may speak and where (particularly at colleges and universities, which are places where young people are intended to explore different ideas - not to cling ever more tightly to their current beliefs), how are you going to feel when it's YOUR turn and you're told to 'shut-up'?

Those people, with whom you may not necessarily agree, have a RIGHT to speak. You, and your closed-minded ilk, have a RIGHT not to attend. You do NOT have a right to heckle and/or harass some speaker simply because you do not agree with his/her agenda or beliefs.

Do you really believe you have a monopoly on 'right' belief and thought?

Guess again...

Sense Seeker

"How to guard against malicious falsehoods while preserving as much access as possible for as many people?"
.
Indeed. And much as I like the simplicity of TE's solution of doing nothing, I don't think that is a safe course of action. One can hope that people will chose to abandon sources that serve them falsehoods, but alas, a large proportion of the population either doesn't recognize falsehoods and cannot distringuish a reliable source from one that is probably biased, or simply doesn't care about facts. They only want a story that they can understand and that benefits them personally.
.
As Kahneman and others have shown, our thinking tends to have a number of biases that can be exploited.
.
Couple that with the enormous growth in the sophistication of marketing, the concentration of wealth with a shrinking number of individuals (at least within countries, if perhaps not on a global scale), and the use of some of those funds to create armies of astroturfers and - bots, and we have a problem.
.
Consequently, I do expect platforms like FB, Twitter and TE to do all they can to ensure that claims to factuality, if not censored as personal attacks etc., are at least not left unchallenged. And more importantly, that the opinions voiced are those of real people, not paid PR trolls or bots.

guest-aanswlmi in reply to Sense Seeker

Writes a guy who produces righteous bull***t in comments about Poland, although several weeks in a row others explained him the truth.
The terrible thing about freedom of expression is that fools cannot stop their own mouths betraying them.

umghhh

There is a difference between taking a soap box and going to the next public square with the only official oppressor being the state and taking a virtual soap boax and going to FB. On the face of it, digital version looks freer than analog one. But is it really? FB, Google and many more of the big ones have a massive problem with (pseudo-)liberal bias of their employees. On top of that countries like Germany task FB etc with removing hate speech - whatever definition of that may be with obvious consequences of concentrating on persons not ideas for instance. New German Justice Minister voice opinion recently that each and everyone of the social media on the market will be forced by law to include corners for transgenders etc.
Now how that can be taken as a free speech I do not know. German citizens willing to take a risk can voice their opinions but there is no guarantee anymore that just discussing facts will not be considered hate crime. This actually happens and has real life consequences.

Andruze

No opinion should be suppressed as long as the debate is conducted with civility. As soon as insults arise the debate should cease.

DT7iKbzPPK

History’s lessons like Galileo’s “e pur si muove” should be enough to show us free speech pays off and to cure us of censorship, but that requires all of us to learn those lessons. And that brings us to education, to be more precise free quality education for everybody. But that is not in the best interest of dictators, autocrats, religious extremists and the likes, cause after all, it is harder to manipulate an educated nation. That’s why history gets to repeat itself, until we will finally learn not to empower those dictators, autocrats, religious extremists and the likes. One can only hope…

guest-aaniosnn

Tolerance can no longer be imposed and discussion can no longer be limited. One who limits uncomfortable topics only marginalizes himself. People simply move to another medium of discussion and make a nasty surprise at the voting booth or on the streets.
In the 20 century, one could control media and newspapers. Now people discuss their views on social media. If the government and lobbyists move to control Facebook too, the discussion will shift to other technologies.
TE learned it hard way. A 175 year old newspaper, making a discussion on great topics. How many nicknames joined? A dozen? I think TE will never re-gain the interest of audience like in 2015, when tens of readers shouted abuse at the TE one-sided treatment of migration. People no longer care what they write in TE or talk on TV.

Peace Love and Understanding

“Never try to silence views with which you disagree. Answer objectionable speech with more speech. Win the argument without resorting to force. And grow a tougher hide.”

Ah I see. And which of these principles was not violated when you removed the ability for public comment on your website for the vast majority of the articles you publish?

CA-Oxonian

Opinions are ten-a-penny and worth about as much. But facts are what matter. Hence any policy designed to protect citizens against malicious propaganda should focus on the question of verifiable facts. If someone promotes a position based on demonstrable falsehood then that position is untenable and may be subject to penalty. If someone promotes a position that is unpopular but based on verifiable fact then that position should not be subjected to repression. We live in a world of trolls and bogus information; consequently the notion of protecting all information flows on the basis of "free speech" is untenable. Most citizens are too indolent to bother to do the necessary background research to determine whether or not they should credit any given story. And we know from research that "fake news" spreads faster and is accepted more readily than "real news" for the fundamental reason that falsehood is generally simplistic (and thus is easy to absorb) whereas reality is complex (and therefore is antithetical to easy absorption). So we cannot argue for blanket "free speech." Just as we attempt to protect citizens against the harms of smoking and over-eating, we likewise need to protect ourselves against the harms of propaganda and nitwit opinions.

The argument that any restriction of free speech in a Western nation influences the actions of repressive regimes is misguided. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, et al pay no attention to Western norms (unless utilizing them as objects of derision). The notion that if in the West we define "free speech" more carefully then it will lead to greater censorship elsewhere is a charming but utterly naïve argument. So instead of chasing red herrings, we really do need to consider our own societies only, and determine what sort of societies we want. Do we want nations in which uninformed citizens become more fearful and intolerant because we permit the spreading of lies? Clearly not. Yet that is what is happening.

Just as people are in general incapable of making adequate lifestyle choices for themselves (e.g. without government intervention they'd still be smoking as much as they are presently over-eating) people are likewise in general unable to make adequate information choices for themselves. No civilized nation can permit the unchecked spread of untruths. So the question becomes: how best to limit the lies and nitwit opinions while retaining the ability for truth to be told? Which brings us to the proposition initially outlined: use fact as the basis for decision-making. Russia did invade Ukraine; ergo we do not censor comments about Russia invading Ukraine. The Nazis did build concentration camps and kill 6 million people; ergo we do remove comments about "fake death camps" and the like.

While the truth is today more unfashionable than it has ever been, we must nevertheless recognize that reality does exist. We do not live within solipsistic universes of "individual truth." And so we can use reality as the means by which to apply appropriate restrictions on the flood of harmful noise that is flooding our societies and carrying away our citizens on a great wave of misinformation.

Ed Zimmer in reply to CA-Oxonian

Good post. Pre-internet media were limited by regulation and competition - if they printed material that harmed others, they could be sued (meaning they were careful to double-check their facts) and competition pressured them into being reasonably balanced in what they published. The same regulations need too be applied to the online media. Their participants are their "reporters" and need to be treated as such. Their claims that they cannot exercise that control or that it's too expensive are simply unfounded.

guest-aaniosnn in reply to Ed Zimmer

You do not have enough courts or prisons for everybody writing nonsense on the internet. And if you try to do it centrally (lets force Facebook to employ 30,000 censors and an algorithm removing what we called hate speech!), people will always move to a new app, a new program, a new messenger, which the State does not control yet.

Ed Zimmer in reply to guest-aaniosnn

Regulation isn't aimed at those writing nonsense - it's aimed at the businesses that allow them to write nonsense. A new business needs freedom from regulation while it finds its market and proves the value of its service. But if there are then negative societal effects resulting from that service - if the business does not establish policies to minimize those effects - government needs to step in with appropriate regulations. Facebook is an obvious example. They long ago proved the value of their service. They could have stepped up and said, "If you want to participate in my service, here are the rules. Abide by them or you're out.". They didn't, so government needs to (& eventually will). Would that have slowed down Facebook's growth. Of course. But it would have ensured their longevity. Facebook has passed their point of no return. With a MEDIAN employee payroll of over a quarter million dollars, they've just set themselves up to be plowed under by rational-business competition.

L-gharef in reply to CA-Oxonian

What absolute rubbish.
.
Take a penalty at a football game. One journalist writes the penalty was justified because the penalty was given. Another journalist writes that the penalty was a miscarriage of justice. Thirty years down the line and football historians (with video evidence to prove their 'verifiable facts') will still argue whether the team which lost because of a penalty was cheated out of a win.
.
Your approach goes against the academic adages of carrying ever more research and holding nothing sacred. Journalists and authors often write 'facts' which are unverifiable because only they have access to the information they are writing about. People write 'facts' about things they experience when there are no witnesses. Hundreds of thousands of people report being visited by or raped by aliens. Millions of people worship unverifiable gods in churches, mosques and temples across the world every day.
.
A crusade against 'unverifiable facts' would destroy folklore, religion, imagination, storytelling, the power of the human mind and the human spirit. It will also, most disconcertingly, destroy many 'facts'. People like you is why the Holocaust happened, CA-Oxonian. That Aryans were a superior race was an undisputed and verifiable fact by all Nazi scientists and researchers. You would have obliviously clapped along.

Duckdodger

“How to guard against malicious falsehoods while preserving as much access as possible for as many people?” This goes to the question of what is truth in today’s “post truth” or “alternate facts” society. Can truth still be absolute? Can truth be malicious and therefore supressable by those in power? Certainly that is the case in the world’s autocracies. Rather than leading those societies toward respect for truth by our example of tolerating free speech in the search for truth, it seems as if theIr are powerful forces in the West that are legitimizing autocratic thinking by arrogating to themselves a monpoly of the true spoken word ... and everyone who is a naysayer is lying. The wonderful Laura Ingraham (FOX News) impression by Kate McKinnon on SNL comes to mind where she declares her right to bully without being bullied in response. When comedy and humour starts to be forcefully supressed by the arrogant (dare I say it) fascists who are supported by the fearful ignorant masses, then our Western values of openess, search for truthand freedom of speech are truly in jeopardy.

guest-aaniosnn in reply to Duckdodger

The truth is absolute. However, if elites supress the truth, people have freedom to pick the lie which they think is less harmful. This why Democrats talk about Trump 'post-truths' made no difference to the polls of Democrats.

Duckdodger in reply to guest-aaniosnn

True enough! Put another way - that Trump's lies appealed to his supporters' deep seated prejudices and impossible longings to return to a state of superiority over "the others" could not be assailed successfully by the Democrats. Which statement is truer?

Arbitrary

TE, more articles like this please.
This style of writing and thought is what drew me in 20 years ago, but it has seemly become less frequent.
Thank you.