Free speech in the marketplace of ideas.
In a couple of weeks, the verdict in the case against Geert Wilder’s for inciting hatred will be announced. Wilders is charged under laws that have been enacted in many jurisdictions, but which are controversial. I don’t know whether these laws are good or bad. Here I just want to address one argument in favour of unfettered free speech.
The argument is a familiar one. It might be called a Millian argument, after John Stuart Mill who was an influential proponent. Mill argued in favour of a ‘market place of ideas’; in this marketplace, good ideas – that is, truth – would displace bad. “Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it”. On these and other grounds (including the claim that only if we know and can refute rival ideas are our own views justified), Mill argued for complete freedom of speech. For proponents of this idea, we ought not ban hate speech; we should allow its expression so that it can be tested and publicly refuted.
The idea is very attractive. But it seems – at least in its more optimistic form – to rest on an implicit presupposition of greater human rationality than is in fact warranted. The evidence suggests that we are less good at assessing ideas than the optimists suppose, and, moreover, that our rational assessment has less effect on our attitudes than might be thought.
We are especially bad at evaluating arguments about topics about which we already have strong current views. When we encounter apparent evidence against a view we hold strongly, we devote considerable of effort to discounting it, whereas we are quick to accept arguments for views we already hold (Ditto and Lopez 1992). In a classic study, Lord, Ross, and Lepper (1979) divided subjects into groups depending on their attitudes toward capital punishment. Each group was then presented with the results of (fictitious) studies examining the claim that capital punishment has a deterrent effect on crimes, one of which presented evidence in favor of the claim and one which gave evidence against it. For one group, the study supporting the claim employed a cross-state comparison to establish its conclusion while the study opposing it used within-state figures (ie, comparing the crime rates before and after the introduction of capital punishment). Subjects were quick to find fault with the methodology employed by the study that argued for the conclusion they reject, while finding the other study to be methodologically sound. Thus, attitude toward methodology is best predicted by the subjects’ attitude toward the conclusion offered, rather than by features of the methodology.
Even after we have evaluated claims, with whatever degree of success, we remain vulnerable to psychological mechanisms that leave us with unjustified beliefs. The sleeper effect produces a delayed increase in the persuasiveness of a claim (Pratkanis, et al. 1988). Subjects who hear negative statements about unknown individuals are left with more negative impressions of those individuals then subjects who hear neutral sentences about the same individuals , even if the subjects are later told that they are not true (Wegner et al. 1981). This bias towards acceptance may explain people’s well-know tendency to persevere in beliefs about themselves, even after they told that the feedback upon which their self-assessment was based was systematically misleading (Ross et al. 1975). Wegner et al. (1985) told subjects that the feedback they would receive would be systematically misleading before they got it; nevertheless, they tended to accept it as valid.
We can therefore predict two things, with reasonable confidence. One: even if the intellectual case for a view – such as a racist or sexist opinion – is weak, many otherwise intelligent people will fail to be convinced of its falsity. Two (and to mind more disturbingly): the refutation of racist or sexists opinions will probably nevertheless leave those who hear them with residues; their attitudes to people who fall into the stigmatized groups will be more negative than they would have been had they not heard the claims. And this will be true regardless of whether they accept the claims.
This does not entail that we ought to ban hate speech. There are predictable costs of government intervention as well as of an unfettered marketplace of ideas. It does entail that a marketplace of ideas will likely have costs, and that these costs will likely fall more heavily on racial minorities. If we come down in favour of a marketplace of ideas, we ought to do so in full awareness of these costs.