“I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to death your right to say it.”
This oft-quoted statement by Voltaire is always invoked in the debate over freedom of speech. But let’s consider. A newspaper publishes false allegations which ruin someone’s career. A group of men calls ‘nigger’ across the street to a lone man. ESPN publishes an article about Jeremy Lin with the headlines, ‘Chink in the armour’. A woman in a male-dominated office faces a constant trickle of sexist language from her colleagues. Was Voltaire seriously suggesting that although we can disagree with what was said in each case, each speaker had a perfect right to say it?
Hopefully not. The principle of free speech which Voltaire so memorably championed certainly applies to the arena of civilized discussion. No opinion is so vile that it should not be discussed openly and rejected on the basis of vigorous debate, not censorship. The open society needs to ensure there is room for all opinions to be heard and discussed.
Problems arise, however, when we fail to see that outside salons and debating chambers, our words are not just audible expressions of thoughts but acts with consequences. The journalist isn’t merely expressing an opinion, she is actually harming a person’s life. The racist creates fear and incites violence. The sexist buttresses unequal practices in the workplace.
As the philosopher J. L. Austin put it, we don’t just utter words – we do things with them. Constant verbal mockery can make a person’s life a misery; spreading falsehoods can turn others against them. Sexist language in the workplace or racist abuse in the street are not contributions to debate, but attacks on the rights of others, deliberate or otherwise. What is going on in such cases is more than just speech, which is why appeals to freedom of speech are not enough to justify permitting language that causes harm.
The complication lies in the fact words are always to some extent acts as well as utterances. Hence the frequent complaint that merely giving prejudiced views a hearing legitimatizes them. It is a complication we must live with. The boundaries of acceptable free speech cannot be drawn precisely and will always be disputed, hopefully by rational debate.