So You Want The Freedom To Be A Racist

A common counter-attack from the left against free speech arguments is that, “you just want the freedom to say racist things”. This argument always annoyed the hell out of me, because I sensed intuitively that it was missing some vital point. Then it occurred to me that “freedom to” implied a fundamental problem in how the left understood freedom.

My first guest post for Whale Oil blog.

Possibly the greatest freedom we ever experienced as youngsters were those endless days at the lethargic end of summer when we’d aimlessly wander the neighbourhood trying to invent ways to enjoy the liberty of having nothing to do, and endless time to do it in.

Often we’d just drift wherever our feet took us within the world that was our neighbourhood. Other times we might choose to turn down this street, or cut across that yard, with a specific goal in mind: someone’s swimming pool, say. Then there were the times, simply bored with the freedom to go wherever we pleased, that we invented a game: at each corner, we’d toss a coin. Heads turn left; tails, right.

What this reminiscence illustrates is the vital distinction between two different kinds of liberty: negative freedom and positive freedom. These are also known as the freedom from and the freedom to.

The difference may seem subtle – and certainly at first hard to grasp – but, as Isaiah Berlin showed in the 50s and 60s, the practical ramifications are actually profound and far-reaching. The inability to understand that difference, and its practical results, are starkly demonstrated in the contemporary political left’s hostility to free speech.

One of the favourite retorts from the left aimed at those of us who defend a liberal understanding of free speech – the kind of liberal view espoused by Voltaire, Mill, Paine and Hitchens – is, “oh, you just want the freedom to say racist things”.

This is a prized argument among the left, I suspect because it too often dumbfounders its targets. But, like “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” attacks, the effectiveness of the retort is no guide to its soundness as an argument.

Note: “the freedom to say racist things”. This argument is assuming a very specific kind of freedom: the freedom to, or positive freedom. Yet free speech advocates, especially Millsian free speech as noted above, assume the very opposite: the freedom from constraints on speech, or negative freedom.

The anti-free speech left are, therefore, from the start attacking a straw-man. They’re attacking an argument that free speech advocates are not even making in the first place.

Free speech advocates don’t really want to be free to say racist things, they just want everyone to be free of constraint on what they may say. By necessity, yes, that freedom applies to the racist and the non-racist both. But that’s how freedom works: freedom for me but not for thee is not freedom at all.

To return to my opening analogy, negative freedom was the freedom to wander where we would in the neighbourhood. Positive freedom directed our wandering towards a specific place. With negative freedom, someone might occasionally suggest a foray down Racist Street (and not liking the looks of the rough kids there, we’d quickly scarper again), but the left, imagining only positive freedom, assumes that Racist Street was the only place we ever wanted to get to all along.

A final note: Isaiah Berlin also showed that, politically, negative freedom is associated with classical liberalism. Liberals and libertarians argue that individual liberty necessarily requires freedom from undue constraints by the state.

Positive freedom, on the other hand, is associated with political collectivism. Freedom is the freedom to act in accordance with the collective will of society.

In this formulation, the danger of authoritarianism inherent in positive freedom is readily apparent. This is, indeed, the source of the “tyranny of the majority” that bedevils democracies.

It also suggests why the anti-free speech left reflexively gravitate to positive freedom: born authoritarians, they are naturally attracted to a philosophy that promises freedom, but is too often the handmaiden of tyranny.

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