Free Speech and the Value of Social Punishment

So, this happened the other day:

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The first part was a question by me. The second part was the other guy’s answer. It was part of a discussion about the value of boycotting Barilla pasta. Other Guy was arguing, basically, that people should never be punished for voicing problematic opinions because “free speech.” Needless to say, this is a problem.

Freedom of speech is one of America’s founding principles (no – that does not make it magically a good idea). It is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It has been a stated value of most democratic societies dating back to ancient Greece. It’s an incredibly important bulwark against tyranny. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a free society, without which democracy cannot function.

But here’s the thing: freedom of speech only applies to the government! The reason it’s important is that if the government can censor the public, the government can get away with anything by suppressing all dissent. It also has tons of exceptions, and is a sophisticated legal doctrine, which incorporates a healthy dose of nuance and weighing of factors. “Freedom of speech” does not, and never did, mean that there are no consequences for saying problematic things.

The suppression of ideas is not always a problem. In any movement to change public opinion on a topic, a big milestone is the point at which advocacy of the offending idea is no longer safe to do in public. The fact that voicing an anti-gay opinion in public is now a liability is kind of a big deal. As few as five years ago, it probably wouldn’t have even been news. Now, not only has it cause a public uproar, competitors are now rushing to express their support for homosexual relationships. Not only is this a sign of progress, but it’s actually helpful to the movement.

Descriptive norms are one of the most powerful ways to change public opinion. Saying “support gay rights” is much less effective than saying “everyone else supports gay rights.” When people see negative reactions to anti-gay sentiment and positive reactions to support for equality, people are much more likely to support equality themselves.

And at the risk of stating the obvious – suppressing ideas through social disapproval, far from being a violation of free speech, is a validation of it. Criticism of speech is also speech. Expressing our collective disapproval of an idea is a form of political speech, which is the most protected form of speech.

Tl;dr: if you’re not talking about government censorship, “freedom of speech” doesn’t apply. If your CEO publicly expresses bigotry, I’m not going to buy your pasta.

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