Free Speech is Social Justice

A recent Pew Research Survey found 40% of Americans from ages 18 to 34 support the notion that the government should limit speech that is offensive to minorities. Older Americans were less favorable to the idea, while Democratic voters were twice as likely to support the idea than Republicans.

As a member of the American Left’s libertarian wing, and a vocal proponent of free speech, I find any support for state censorship disturbing, especially coming from the political left. I have long sympathized with younger generations and find their support for equal and fair treatment for racial, religious and sexual minorities to be a positive thing. Furthermore, I have long associated desires to censor free speech with the religious right, older generations, and the reactionary and authoritarian wings of conservatism. To see people who are traditionally sympathetic to causes I support now expressing support of government censorship is frustrating and saddening.

State censorship is not only morally repugnant, it is counterproductive. In the age of the internet, one does not have to search far to find bigots, xenophobes, homophobes, reactionaries, neo-nazis, raging anti-feminists, and countless other species of hateful characters. The desire to silence them is understandable, but ill-founded. The best way to de-legitimize bigots and reactionaries is to let them speak and allow the world to see how genuinely evil and stupid they are.

Censoring bigots only legitimizes their claims that they are the ones being persecuted and victimized. It also implies that we are afraid to deal with their rhetoric openly and honestly. Thus, it allows social justice advocates to be painted as authoritarians. Furthermore, it makes it possible for the bigots of the world to blur the distinction between those who wish to criticize what they have to say and those who wish to silence them through force. Reactionaries are already arguing this, and will continue to do so until we vocally disavow such tactics. Many on the political right are happy to conflate criticism of their position with censorship. Let’s not make such conflation easier.

Instead of censorship, let’s demonstrate the superiority of our ideas via free exchange and debate. In a free and open market of ideas, truth ultimately wins out. When censorship is used, those on its receiving end understandably double down and become more righteous in their indignation, in which case, they have a point. There is no reason why society cannot be pushed in a more just and compassionate direction through voluntary means. The use of authoritarian means contradicts and compromises a just and accepting society.

When sticking up for the systematically disadvantaged, let’s not turn ourselves into the bad guys by denying the rights of others. Free speech is meaningless if it only applies to those we agree with. Let our commitment to justice complement our commitment to freedom and opposition to arbitrary authority. There is no social justice without free speech. They are one and the same.

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