What is freedom of free speech?

freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers

What is freedom of free speech? Seeing Westerners defend countries such as Russia, China, or Iran does not make me angry. On the contrary, it makes me happy! That they can do this without fear of arrest is a hallmark of our freedom and individualism. It is what differentiates us from those authoritarian and collectivist societies. 

Many people on the political left and right admire how those countries deal with “misinformation” and “hate speech”. And it is true, there are downsides to liberties such as freedom of speech just as there are downsides to capitalism. But a top-down approach to the truth will fail for many of the same reasons that centrally planned economies fail. As the examples of Lysenkoism and the Four Pests campaign show, an authoritarian approach to truth can have disastrous consequences. 

Similarly, many people admire the collectivism of those countries. And it is again true, there are downsides to our individualistic societies. But collectivism bears the systemic risk. That pathological beliefs and desires do not receive challenge. National Socialism was first and foremost a collectivist delusion that was both epistemically and instrumentally irrational. 

What some see as the weakness of Western countries is actually their greatest strength. 

Allowing despicable people to challenge truth and societal norms is a hedge against the pathologies of authoritarianism and collectivism. 

You might argue that those people are considered despicable because they challenge those very norms. It’s true, some of those who we consider despicable are probably hurting our societies. But most people are not like you. Most people cannot tell apart groups who are objectively bad. Moreover, from groups that they were just told are bad. 

Take the worst group you can think of right now. How you feel about them is similar to how people felt about Jews, Tutsi, or Bosnian Muslims just before the killings started. And this is why we in the West grant all groups certain inalienable rights and individualistic liberties such as freedom of speech: we don’t trust most people with granting those rights on a case-by-case basis.

What is freedom of free speech?