All Commentary
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Which Book Would You Ban?

The right to offend must be extended to all

Invariably, when you live in a country that protects speech and expression, people will push the limits of that expression. You’ll get trolls. You’ll get critics. You’ll get people yelling “fire” in various locations and population densities, and, every day, you’ll find people who simply disagree with you.

That’s why we need to know what it means to support free speech and how to practice toleration.

Over at Cato@Liberty, Jason Kuznicki asks us to consider something:

Meet Dutch politician Geert Wilders. He was a guest of honor at the recent Garland, Texas exhibition of cartoons of Mohammed, where two would-be terrorists armed with assault weapons were gunned down by a single heroic security guard armed only with a pistol. (Nice shooting, by the way.)

Wilders is now being hailed as a free-speech hero, at least in some circles. Unfortunately, he’s nothing of the kind. Besides criticizing Islam, Wilders has also repeatedly called for banning the Koran. The former is compatible with the principle of free speech. The latter is not.

Kuznicki reminds us we have to be careful to distinguish the exercise of free speech from the principled defense of free speech. A free exercise of speech is just that. Maybe you take a position or attack one. Maybe you draw an offensive cartoon or sing an offensive song. You have no obligation to be even-handed. 

But defenses of free speech are a different matter.

Properly speaking, they must not be one-sided. A principled defense of free speech means giving your opponents in any particular issue the exact same rights that you would claim for yourself: If you would offend them with words, then they must be allowed to offend you with words, too. Say what you like about them, and they must be allowed to say what they like about you.

In other words, freedom of speech, the sort defended by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, is radically tolerant. It’s easy to defend ideas you’d like to express and hard to defend those you wish nobody would, but while we may not like what’s said, but we must protect anyone’s right to say it. 

Kuznicki asks us to test our commitment to free speech by answering the following question: “If you had all the power, how would you treat your opponents?”

No, we’re not all going to agree. And that’s actually the point: Given that agreement on so many issues is simply impossible in our modern, interconnected world, how shall we proceed? With violence and repression? Or with toleration, even for views that we find reprehensible?

In this way, free speech and toleration are principles coupled with a virtue: the Golden Rule. These lie at the foundation of a peaceful, liberal order. 

  • Anything Peaceful is FEE's online ideas marketplace, hosting original and aggregate content from across the Web.