↑ comment by Aaro Salosensaari (aaro-salosensaari) ·
2020-10-31T23:49:50.698Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I noticed this comment on main page and would push back on the sentiment: I don't think there ever has been such conditions that "more speech" was universally agreed to be better way than restrictions to fight hate speech (or more generically, speech deemed harmful), or there is in general something inevitable about not having free speech in certain times and places because it is simply not workable in certain conditions. (Maybe it isn't, but that is kinda useless to speculate beforehand and it is obvious when one does not certainly have such conditions.)
Free speech, in particular talking about and arguing for free speech is more of commitment to certain set of values (against violence to dissemination of ideas etc), often made in presence of opposition to those values, and less of something that has been empirically deemed to be best policy at some past time but the conditions of those times are for some reason lost. Freedom of speech is not an on-off thing; the debate about free speech seems to be quite a constant in the West since the idea's conception, while the hot topics will change. (When Life of Brian came out, Pythons found themselves debating its merits with clergymen on TV: the debate can be found on YouTube and feels antiquated to watch.)
Moreover, there is something that bugs me in the claim that with certain technological and social conditions, free speech becomes unworkable. The part about social conditions is difficult, as one could say that social conditions in places with free press were the necessary social conditions for free press, and places without had not the necessary conditions, but that feels bit too circutous.
If we allow some more leeway and pick an example of place with some degree of freedom in speech, one can quite often point to places in the same historical period with broadly similar conditions where nevertheless the free speech norms were not there. Sometimes it is the same place just a bit later where the free speech had broken down some way or other and maybe in spectacular fashion. (History of France provides many fascinating examples of this.) Obviously there is a difference in social conditions between such pair of societies, but are the differences inevitable in the sense of resistance to great tidal wave of history being futile, or is the difference of there being just not couple of more individuals putting in effort or making the right move at some crucial point?
Anyway, for a specific example how Enlightenment ideals about relations in society (freedom of speech veing one of them) were argued for because the society was very much not like the ideals, I'd like to highlight Voltaire's Treatise On Toleration. (While the Treatise is not exactly about free speech and more about religious and political toleration and also good judicial procedure, I refer to it because I am familiar with it, and in any case, it is close enough. Anyhow:)
The treatise deals with Voltaire's indignation at a case of the cruel injustice, a brutal murder of one Jean Calas, a Protestant, committed by local authorities with the cheers of local populace against in Toulouse (I recommend reading it for details; it is a fairly short text). Voltaire presents various arguments and rhetorics to convince the reader that what happened was morally wrong and also the primary reason why it happened, religious bigotry, is not a good or useful thing to have in a society.
Voltaire is one of the most famous Enlightenment era thinkers known as proponents of ideals like religious toleration and free speech. This is not because France (or rest of Europe) of his time was very tolerant or had lots of free speech; as he found ample evidence in form of the case of Jean Calas, it was not. In general concerning matters of free speech, the French royal government had active press censorship bureaucracy. The French public life was restricted: there was no formal avenue for political opposition to the establishment. During approximately same period of time, Rousseau spent much of his time in exile from various authorities for his writings, which were banned and burned several times. (The hand on censorship was evidently imperfect.) D'Alembert and Diderot faced various troubles and widespread condemnation for their Encyclopedie. France and Europe had intoleration and restricted speech in abundance (not as effectual and totalitarian restrictions as in some parts of Europe in 20th century). At the same time, Britain generally had wider freedoms of press; many hoped to change conditions of France to be more like British ones, which was one cause why Revolution played out like it did).
However, the two reasons I launched on this bit longwinded tangent was this: To me it is quite unclear what to make of the "big" societal or technological forces in France at Voltaire's time, and we have the benefit of retrospection. Today's future is more difficult to judge.
Also, people who wrote and acted in defence of Enlightenment values such as free speech did it because they felt they had an opportunity but a reason to defend such ideals. It was often unclear how the dice would fall, both for them personally in immediate future and in grand societal or historical scale later on. Sometimes they were successful in increasing the amount of liberty in the world.
(Phew, well that was a bit of mouthful and I think I got a bit too excited and may have lost my train of thought)