There are a few features that undoubtedly characterize totalitarian regimes. The presence of a paranoiac, often-reactionary leader who lives in constant fear of uprising tries to check the keys to their power — doing so by providing the wants and needs of the crucial individuals of utmost importance to maintaining power, while taking to other means that involve less spending or fiscal intervention to check the power of the people. Censorship of expression was, as such, fundamentally brought into existence to prevent the dissemination of information against the state, thus consolidating political power in subtle intellectual repression.
Unfortunately, the legacy of such ruthless leaders as Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin, and even Adolf Hitler, at least with regard to the censorship of information, continues. This restraint exists simply to consolidate the very same political power that such authoritarian rulers wished to centralize; albeit this repression is subtler, and, therefore, more dangerous to the institutions of democracy. It brings memories of Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror,” an enforced authoritarianism with the claimed objective of replacing the wasteful, totalitarian French monarchy — when all it succeeded in doing was oppressing the people every bit as much as the monarchy did.
This repression continues in modern democracies by methods that seem justified at face value. Laws are crafted to, for instance, prevent defamation or censor what is deemed “hate speech.” We see that in grossly conservative societies such as India, where criticism of certain religions is prevented. But even in substantially more liberal societies, such as the United Kingdom and Norway, the freedom of expression is prevented — with what is deemed “bigotry” being censored or such speech prevented.
Of course, it is possible to appreciate the fact that the United Kingdom and Norway are trying to stop bigotry — for there is no doubt that expression of, for example, neofascism is intellectually and ethically repulsive. But silencing the dissemination of opinion is not the way to deal with the rise of such a blatant threat to liberal society, because then it shines under the hypocrisy of trying to ensure liberty. The purpose of preventing bigotry is to ensure that individuals can enjoy their right to freedom: but by preventing liberty, are you really censoring bigotry? For the intolerance to a perspective — however inane that perspective may be — by means of silencing it is undoubtedly bigotry. But it is not solely the blatant hypocrisy of them that causes me to oppose “hate speech” and “libel” laws. My concerns go beyond that, and branch into three broad contentions.
Note: I do not oppose laws that prevent expression that is a direct threat to security or stability (e.g. banning the shouting of “fire!” in a crowded theater), or that are a threat to confidentiality or intellectual property. I also do not oppose all libel laws — some of them genuinely attempt to prevent the spread of deliberately misleading information. But others are ridiculous, and often abused.
The first concern of censoring expression is political power. For this, we require a critical analysis of the objective of censorship. The reason speech is censored is not “justice” or “freedom,” despite the romantic claims of even liberal societies such as the United Kingdom. It is the spread of ideological homogeneity, grounded in fear of challenge. Challenges to the fundamental political ideology or spectrum of a country prevent the consolidation of political or economic power.
There are two ways in which this objective manifests. First, the government censors expression that it deems “hateful” because it goes beyond the black-and-white political spectrum of the nation. For example, it silences homophobia, not because homophobia is bad and inclusiveness is important (of course homophobia is despicable, and of course inclusiveness is important), but because it goes against a certain specific political ideology that the state tries to spread to consolidate its power. Deviation from these norms is fundamentally criticism of the government, so even censorship of hate speech is fundamentally to prevent criticism of government and to consolidate the state’s power. This consolidation of power blurs the line between “hate speech” and what is now considered “political correctness” (e.g. avoidance of “microaggressions,” etc.).
Second, and even more dangerous, the government creates particularly rigid “libel” laws, intended to prevent criticism of individuals and corporations. It is an acknowledgement of the reality that words have power to change opinions massively, and to centralize corporatist power, you need to censor expression. In modern capitalist societies, capital is concentrated among a few individuals and functions almost exactly like political power. By challenging the current distribution of capital, you are threatening the wealth of individuals who also carry great political power (as a direct result of the fact that they can finance important political campaigns). They will try to prevent that influence by ensuring that the government acts in their favor as well, preventing any hint of resistance. Preventing the criticism of individuals similarly acts to centralize economic and political power.
Both manifestations are vastly problematic, because, in a democracy, political power and capital should be decentralized and evenly distributed as much as possible. The moment power or capital is centralized in a democracy, the public no longer has sufficient influence over political decisions. It is an already existent problem (see, for example, the level of influence corporations hold over political decisions due to broken systems of campaign finance), and any policy that exacerbates this condition ought to be prevented, if you care about democracy at all. Hate speech laws and certain libel laws (though not all of them) exacerbate the condition of near-oligarchic dominance. In other words, “hate speech laws” that seek to censor ideas often espoused by fascism are inherently fascist in nature.
Speech is fundamentally about spreading information, regardless of whether the information is accurate, misguided, or deliberately false. Censorship of expression prevents this spread of information insofar as we are talking about hate speech laws and libel laws. There are three reasons it is critical to not block this flow of information.
First, blocking the flow of information directly contradicts the principle of epistemic humility. A hate speech law assumes that “hate speech” (e.g. expressions of racial superiority) is a bad thing, which in turn assumes that what it censors is false (e.g. that no race is superior to any other). Of course, I agree that racial superiority is a stupid and reprehensible notion, but that doesn’t mean I am unwilling to hear a perspective on it — in other words, I concede that I might be wrong about it. This humility is important because it is impossible to uncover information without questioning one’s own views.
Second, the dissemination of information and opinions is critical for the function of democracy. Democracy is about public participation in the political process. But only if the people are informed about every side of an issue can they participate in said political process. If they are uninformed about any opinion, then the consent of the people in the framing of laws is illegitimate because of the asymmetry of information. But if the public knows the arguments in favor of and against any opinion — including things like what certain corporations are doing, and whether they are ethical entities — they are qualified to act regarding the same. If the knowledge of the public is restrained, then they cannot participate in democracy. But more importantly, lacking opinions on certain private entities and individuals, the public cannot gain background regarding certain policies, and the impact those policies have on them. As an extension of this impact, when people have sufficient information to deal with major issues, they can act, either directly or via protest. Notable examples of this occurring include the fact that the freedom of the press is directly linked to preventing famine (as the groundbreaking work of certain economists such as Amartya Sen suggests).
Third, the presence and dissemination of information acts as a check on the abuse of power. If the people are informed of what the government or certain private entities are doing, they can spread said information and discourage entities from acting against the interests of the people. It works in the same way negative reviews of restaurants persuade said restaurants to change the way they function (but there have been actual instances where the restaurants have sued people who wrote negative reviews for defamation [i.e. libel] and won!). Critiques of major oil and pharmaceutical corporations have successfully created change before.
Thus, abolishing hate speech laws and certain libel laws aid in disseminating information to the public, in turn creating substantially positive outcomes.
The third reason free expression is important is, quite simply, the right to liberty. Individuals have the right to self-ownership and freedom. This freedom entails that they can do whatever they want unless there is evidence of an objective net harm to other individuals resulting from any action. John Stuart Mill wrote:
“The only purpose for which power can be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
In the context of most societies, there is no objective net harm from the freedom of expression. There are objective harms, undoubtedly, of hate speech and defamation — threats to dignity of individuals, and emotional harm, for instance — but when you weigh those impacts against the positive impacts of free expression, and the fact that such harms exist anyway, the right to liberty and democracy substantially outweighs this. The moment the government exercises control over individuals against their will with no good and legitimate reason, then it essentially becomes authoritarian. Indeed, authoritarian governments have consolidated their power in the past by censorship of speech
But more nuanced than control being exercised over the people who speak is the impact of control being exercised over those that hear. I have the right to hear and know opinions of other individuals. The government does not have the legitimate ability to take that away from me. The moment that happens, it essentially controls every process and exchange of information and ideas — becoming an essentially totalitarian entity. Christopher Hitchens writes:
“The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.”
Insofar as the state cannot take away an individual’s liberty to speak and hear, it ought not impose hate speech laws, and certain unjust libel laws.
Censorship of expression strips individuals of the ability to express ideas, and hear them. It blocks the flow of information, while serving to consolidate the power of corrupt governments, ruthless individuals, and oligarchic corporations. Hate speech laws and libel laws both contribute to the damage that an oligarchy causes to our democratic institutions, while allowing the spread of injustice.
Saint Augustine’s declaration that “an unjust law is no law at all” rings true — we have an obligation to fight the battle for democracy and against the endless concentration of political power and capital. Every generation, the battle for the freedom of expression needs to be refought, and in the digital age, that is our obligation — because there is always an endless urge to shut out bad news and opinions that people don’t want to hear. It is our duty to remember that democracy is on the streets, and not on the ballot box. It is our duty to ensure that, no matter what the government tells us, ideas are bulletproof.