Compelling Bad Faith and Other Threats to Free Speech

It harms a person to force him to say things he doesn’t believe or punish him for saying things others wish not to hear because those actions restrict his cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty is a right to which all are entitled, even if formally unrecognized by the global community; the entitlement to mental self-determination is the principle underpinning the free speech ethic.

Children pledging allegiance to the US flag. Was their expression of patriotism compelled?

On the other hand, it does not hurt a person to hear something he doesn’t believe or that offends his sensibilities—even if it is meant to degrade him. If he think such utterances hurt him, that’s his problem. Indeed, it is to his benefit that he hear opinions and sentiments with which he disagrees or that make him feel uncomfortable; his personal growth and development depends on it. How are we to change minds if we cannot challenge beliefs and offend sensibilities? How do we build resiliency and tolerance? How cruel it is to leave person stuck in the mud of confusion, bitter and resentful over words.

The demand that any of us speak in a manner desired by others, either by formal social control (laws, policies) or informal social control (bullying, mobbing, shaming), either intends or functions to prevent the development of mutual knowledge through the exclusion of other ways of speaking and, therefore, of thinking. An ignorant man loses opportunities for enlightenment when the arguments with which he is unfamiliar are denied him through speech codes.

Consider the arrests of republicans in Great Britain who took the opportunity of the queen’s death to persuade their fellow citizens (subjects, actually) to abandon the monarchy for a more democratic and secular form of government. Consider that Pay-Pal has shut down the accounts of Toby Young, the founder of the Free Speech Union, a non-partisan, mass-membership public interest group in the United Kingdom that stands up for the speech rights of its members, as well as the founder of The Daily Sceptic, a blog Young set up during the COVID-19 pandemic to scrutinize Britain’s lockdown. This action hurts Young for the reasons I gave in the first paragraph.  

Moreover, the acts of compelling and punishing speech forces those who would speak in a different way into bad faith; fearful of speaking in the objectionable manner, they lie, prevaricate, or fall silent (Can I Get an “Amen” to That? No, But Here’s Some Fairy Dust). Bad faith creates a deeply unjust situation in which those who disagree with the prevailing speech norms and the structures they mean to impose are enlisted in at least tacitly affirming the ideology that establishes those norms by denying or lying about beliefs that contradict the prevailing ideology.

One of the most serious abridgments of the freedom of speech is at once among the most subtle, and that’s this notion of “inclusion.” Inclusion, which in practice includes the idea of belonging, aims to ensure that every person feels safe to bring their unique selves to the endeavor at hand. Thus inclusion is in the service of establishing diversity in our institutions and organizations. It follows that speech that makes a person feel reluctant to express their unique self is exclusive. Exclusive speech must therefore be suppressed in achieving the goal of an inclusive space for diversity’s sake. The goal of inclusion may lead to bad faith, wherein a person is afraid to speak his mind for fear of sanction, which can include his own exclusion via marginalization, segregation, or termination. Is there a contradiction?

Yes, there is a contradiction. However, the contradiction is “resolved” via the deployment of a rhetoric that manufactures a theory of power that is alleged to justify suppressing the unique selves of some groups as necessary to allow members of other groups to express theirs. In other words, some speech (and therefore certain ideas and sentiments) are excluded so others may feel included.

Whose views are to be excluded and why? There’s a pattern in the West. If you are white, heterosexual, Christian, and especially male, your beliefs, opinions, and sentiments are justifiably suppressed for the sake of others. The justification comes from a supposed theory of power that imagines a world in which white, cis-gendered, heterosexual people, and some gays and lesbians, and some nonwhites—really any one who voices opinions that are contrary to the tenets of woke progressivism, are oppressors; these are opinions and sentiments that do not affirm the beliefs of those allegedly oppressed by them. Opinions and sentiments are thus assigned to the oppressor category and excluded on that basis.

For example, the desire expressed by a small minority (with a lot of allies) that people believe that males identifying as women are women seeks popular affirmation and is offered as necessary in advancing the cause of an inclusive workplace. One might think that it is fundamental to cognitive liberty for a person to reject the premise that a woman, i.e., an adult human female, a scientific designation, cannot by the other genotype, i.e., an adult human male. However, this view is portrayed as a bigoted one, one that makes individuals who wish others to participate in the illusion they wish to establish feel excluded.

Imagine being told to affirm that there is no God but Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, is His messenger. Is this a violation of your religious liberty? Obviously. Will you be accused of being an “Islamophobe” if you refuse to chant the slogan. Maybe. But you will very likely be accused of being a “transphobe” if you refuse to repeat the slogans of gender ideology. The mark of a free society is the ability to question any ideology and refuse to affirm the slogans of any doctrine without consequence. You cannot force citizens to pledge allegiance to a flag in a free republic. Really, situations should not be contrived in which this end is likely to manifest.

Then there is this absurd problem of how others will use one’s arguments, a question Helen Lewis famously put to Jordan Peterson a few years ago in an interview on British GQ in 2018 (which you can view below), is an attempt to persuade and, if the law or other authority is involved, compel self-censorship. But the notion of holding a person accountable for something somebody else says, besides resting on a fallacious premise, is profoundly illiberal. Freedom demands that each person is responsible for his of her actions and not the actions of others. The attempt to stifle speech because some might use the ideas conveyed to rationalize their behavior should be seen for what it is: a naked attempt to prevent the transmission of arguments, opinions, and sentiments that those who would presume to know better wish others not know.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.