by Ed West
Monday, 24
February 2020

The danger of free speech zones

by Ed West
Toby Young’s Free Speech Union’s Latin logo translates into ‘Let the other side be heard’

HL Mencken once said that “the trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

I got that quote from Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex blog, and his post on the dangers of setting up libertarian free speech zones.

The main structural problem with media is the incentive systems it creates. If you generally act like a brash, loud-mouthed irritant then your star will rise, because people will form a strong opinion of you.

As David Brooks advised in his book ‘Bobos in Paradise’ two decades ago, the most successful opinion pieces are those which are well-crafted but just essentially wrong on some central point because it means that people will debate your argument. People will strongly overreact to your argument, causing the opposing political tribe to strongly support it.

With social media, of course, those terrible incentives are magnified. As I argued before, ideas markets without gatekeepers or institutional restraint present huge advantages to people with personality disorders.

So one reason that people get mobbed or “cancelled” or no-platformed, or all these other boring 2010s phrases, is that there are huge rewards and incentives for people to ruin someone else’s life or livelihood over some utterly trivial issue; conversely there are very few risks or downsides.

All politics works on incentive structures, and so long as people are incentivised to drive each other out of public life — which is what cancelling is — then lots of people will try to do so. And it is a genuinely important issue; this isn’t just about students saying silly things, as they’ve always done, but about very real-world consequences.

There is no way, for example, that trans activists would have been so successful in moving the political dial had it not been for the intimidation used against feminist writers who opposed them. Intimidation works.

There need to be disincentives, which is why I think Toby Young’s new Free Speech Union is a good thing.

Of the five points, numbers 2, 3 and 5 are pretty important civil liberties issue. Four is maybe more questionable — and I say that as someone with quite unorthodox opinions — but the first point will be the most contentious. Some people will call this an invitation to mobbing in itself, or throwing fuel on the fire; maybe it will turn out that way, but there have to be some costs involved to those who want to launch mobs — otherwise it will keep on happening.

The major downside is that, as Scott Alexander put in this blog:

If you try to create a libertarian paradise, you will attract three deeply virtuous people with a strong commitment to the principle of universal freedom, plus millions of scoundrels. Declare that you’re going to stop holding witch hunts, and your coalition is certain to include more than its share of witches
- Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex

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