Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Avoiding harm destroys free speech

Just a short revelation that I had. It starts with the definition of free speech, which is considered free if it does no harm. This is what is called the principle of harm. But what is increasingly happening all over the world is that more and more of what people do is considered harmful. Things like racism or misogyny have been now joined by online bullying, pro-life discussions, fat shaming, you name it. The result is a reduction of free speech.

If you want free speech, then brave the words of others. It is the penchant of humans and all life in general to categorize the world and then act in different ways based on discrete cases. It is not entirely correct, but it is how nervous systems work since worms were invented. It is a biological impossibility to be confronted with human behavior and not consider one category of people better than another based not only on color, but whatever you see differentiate them. And while I understand the need to push back with legislation against some biases that have become counterproductive, we have to eventually dial back even on those. Adding more exceptions to how thinking and feeling works just pushes people away and stifles the ability to speak freely.

An especially worrying trend puts copyright and commercial interests higher and higher on the list of things you should not cross. It is becoming so powerful a concept that it is increasingly used to stop people from expressing themselves. Online reviewers are being sued for not liking a product, people are being stopped from reading controversial material by buying the rights and then not publishing it and so on. But even small things that seem proper at first glance are just as toxic, like protecting children from all kinds of perceived threats. Forget they are children, just analyse the social cost of having them exposed to something; people learn from experience, there is always a balance between harm and evolution.

When will it end, you might ask yourself. Think of border cases like Snowden. Do you side with him, for disclosing information that affects all of us, literally, or do you side with the people that say he committed treason? Do you think encryption should be banned, so that governments can better take care of us by knowing everything there is to know about what we communicate? How about getting fined by the hotel you've just been to because you write a negative review. Are all these worth stopping people from calling you fat, gay, colored, old, stupid, or whatever you feel offends you most?