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Context : FreedomOfSpeech

Something I'm pondering a lot at the moment.

There's a classic saying that my freedom to swing my arm ends at your nose.

And this is intuitive and obviously correct.

Swinging one's arms around is a perfectly innocuous activity that shouldn't be restricted at all. Whereas punching someone in the face has a different moral value. And is sometimes, in fact quite often, a "crime".

Although there are also further contexts, such as the boxing ring, that again modify these moral evaluations.

Now people have no problem understanding this, or understanding how the contexts modify the moral import of what I do with my arms.

Similarly, when I walk out of the bank carrying a huge sack of £10,000 in £50 notes, again the moral and legal value of this depends entirely on the context of whether the money was mine to begin with, and was given to me because I wrote a cheque. Or whether it wasn't mine and I acquired it with the aid of a gun.

The context is complex, involving property laws, and money laundering laws etc that may be hundreds of years old. And depend on data in computers stored the other side of the world. And yet no-one has a problem applying all these contextual cues to make fine-grained distinctions in their judgement of the moral value of my action of walking out of the bank with a bag of cash.

Speech however, is the only place where, somehow, there's a strong bias towards the idea that such contexts can't, and indeed shouldn't, be a moral modifier. We should not expect that why the speech was made, or who said it, or what its consequences were (and perhaps what the intention of the speaker was), or whether it was true or not etc. be allowed to modify the moral evaluation of the speech; because this is inevitably the beginning of a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.

And this is weird. Because we don't think that taking context into consideration with arm-swinging leads to authoritarianism. We have a crime of Actual Bodily Harm, that leads to jail-time for those who swing their arms in the wrong context. And no-one worries that this will creep to penalizing arm-swinging in other contexts, such as aerobics.

Whereas it is widely thought that the risk that punishing speech in one particular context is likely to creep to punishing other speech in other contexts, is so high, that it must not be tolerated.

As far as I can tell, no other action that people perform is considered to be so excused from context when we judge its virtues as speech is.

Even killing someone, which ought to have a pretty clear-cut moral evaluation can be modified by context: was it intentional murder or accidental manslaughter? Was it self-defence? During a war? Etc.

But for those who appeal to freedom of speech, such moral modifiers should be excluded. There is only one big moral evaluation : are you protecting / defending freedom of speech or attacking it? Are you for the Gulag and with the book-burners? Or are you against them? Everything else is to be brushed under the carpet.

And the more I think about it, the weirder this seems.

So why should this intuition be so strong?

Well, my suspicion is that lurking behind our intuitions about freedom of speech is another intuition : that speech is not an action.

We don't have to take the "consequences" of words into account, goes this intuition, because words are not actions and therefore never have consequences.

Or rather what consequences they seem to have, are always mediated through other people. And so words are separated from their effects by a kind of "firewall" : whatever I say to you, your actions are not consequences of my speech, but your own responsibility.

I can spend years pouring poison into your ears about people of another race or religion. But the day you decide to go into their community and shoot them, that is your independent decision, which my words had no causal involvement in.

Now when I hear variants of this intuition, I like to remind people that I am a computer programmer by profession, and so my entire life is lived in that strange grey area where I type words into a box, and they DO become actions without any further human intervention or free-willed decision making.

From that perspective, the idea that words can't have consequences because they aren't causal, is a strange one.

I guess most people would say there's an obvious difference. If I programmed a robot to commit murder, they'd accept that my programming was causally responsible for the murder. But if I lie to people to encourage them to murder then I am blameless. At least legally.

Now, this notion that human FreeWill is such a strong firewall that it prevents words spoken to another having consequences of their own, is repeatedly shown to be wrong by psychological experiments where unconscious cues can lead to measurable changes in action. It's belied by huge industries such as advertising and marketing. And by disciplines such as Captology and other tactics to "nudge" people into acting in certain ways.

We face a world where SocialMedia is continuously experimenting on us and selling its capacity to change our thinking and behaviour.

And yet, we live according to a lie - a lie I think is obviously, increasingly pernicious and dangerous, the more we learn to refine such techniques and capabilities - which is the smug and comforting myth that humans cannot really be manipulated by those who merely manipulate the information that is fed to them

This is patently absurd and flies in the face of everything we know. Humans are an evolved social, language using animal. Our great evolutionary success is based on the principle that we distributed our cognition across multiple individuals and can co-ordinate / construct our actions collectively via the words we send to each other.

We are a swarm, that acts in concert, networked through language. (UnderstandingIsContagious)

And that language, that shared model of reality we build up collectively through our words, is as important to our quality of life and to our survival as the health of our bodies or of the biosphere around us.

Yet we insist that we must do nothing to police or maintain the quality of that shared noosphere. (MemeticEcosystem)

And that even to worry about the problems of false or harmful beliefs in our collective discourse is to open the door to censorship and authoritarianism.

See also :