Freedom of speech is more than just freedom of speech

Q: Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union, just like in the USA?
A: In principle, yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House in Washington, DC, and yell, “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished. Equally, you can also stand in Red Square in Moscow and yell, “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished.

(This particular wording of this joke is from here)

So what is freedom of speech?

I remember this BuzzFeed video from a little while ago (look for it yourself; if I looked for it, that would mean I would have watched a BuzzFeed video twice. Ugh.). The subject of the video was something about transgender pronouns, and how having more pronouns and other associated words increased the words available to use, which results in greater freedom of speech. More words equals more speech, right? I don’t understand the logic myself, but I knew the video missed the point.

Freedom of speech isn’t just about saying words. The speech part of it is the outward expression that everyone can hear, or read, or feel the Braille of, or whatever. Our poor Russian friend in the joke at the beginning was free to speak; however, all he was allowed to speak was words against another country, not his own. Outwardly, he was disallowed from using speech to criticize his own country, but this was intended to achieve a more sinister purpose: The restriction of freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought is essential to a prosperous society, and it’s easy to see why. Restricting thought means that you have to have people to enforce that restriction of thought; those people and resources could be better spent elsewhere, doing something more productive. Further, having to spend thinking-time on censoring yourself reduces the time available for other, more creative and productive endeavors, essentially making you a thought-slave to the ruling order restricting your thought.

OK, but surely there’s some limit on freedom of speech, right? Well, not really. Sure, there’s the “fire in a crowded theater” example, and no one will get let off of murder charges simply because they only used their speech to order someone else to actually carry out the murder. But other than situations like that where the speech causes direct, provable, physical harm to another person, there isn’t any restrictions.

Does that mean you can advocate for the idea that other races are inferior and should be slaves? Sure. Does it mean you can call for the takeover of the government install a communist regime? Yep. Does it mean you can profess your admiration of Justin Bieber? I guess so.

Here’s the important part, though. For a free society to continue existing and being free, the citizens of such a society must use their own free speech to counter bad ideas such as those. (Countering Bieberism should probably be put on the back burner until the more pressing issues have been resolved.) Engaging those who espouse these ideas in debate, arguing the merits of the positions, and providing evidence to the contrary, is crucial to keeping society free. While you may not be able to persuade the people who hold these ideas, you will likely be able to persuade the people sympathetic to these ideas who haven’t fully committed to them yet.

What you shouldn’t do, however, is use violence to shut down speech. Why? By using violent means, you are basically admitting to the world that you aren’t capable of countering such ideas with your own speech. You’re admitting that you’re an idiot who can’t even come up with a coherent argument about why you believe something that you profess to believe, and why you don’t believe those who hold an opposing viewpoint. You’re revealing that you really haven’t given much thought to your positions, and quite frankly, you’re raising suspicions in those watching you that you’re actually just doing this for the opportunity to commit violent acts. And by the way, the only way restrictions on freedom of speech can work is if there is a threat, implied or explicit, of violence, so no, government restricting speech is no better than a violent mob.

Freedom of speech, and freedom of thought, is essential to a free society, and it is essential to ensure that freedom is recognized in everyone. If bad ideas get out there, then it’s essential that you are informed enough about your own good ideas that you can debate those who hold bad ideas. If you resort to violence, though, then your brain is holding up a white flag and surrendering to whatever idea you’re trying to oppose.