I used to believe in free speech. I used to believe in the power of rational discourse.

I used to believe in what Jurgen Habermas called the “unforced force” of the better argument. I used to believe in John Stuart Mill’s riff that free speech is what keeps superstition and stifling tradition at bay. I used to believe the solution to an abundance of bad speech was more speech.

However, I’m currently going through a somewhat unsettling process of reconsidering these deeply held views. The last two decades has been one long demonstration of the failures of public discourse to drive towards better solutions to the problems we face.

I hardly need to cite the failure of public discourse to prevent the folly of the wars following September 11 and the catastrophic regional destabilisation they caused, or to reform the economic institutions that caused the Global Financial Crisis, or to improve the response to it that ended up bailing out the perpetrators at the expense of the victims, or bring peace to the escalating culture wars that are fracturing nations, or prevent the national self immolation that is Brexit, or stop the election of a dangerously ill-informed narcissist of dubious moral character to the Presidency of the United States, or combat the ongoing misinformation campaign that is resisting action on one of the world’s most urgent challenges: dealing with climate change. And that’s not even an exhaustive list.

Free speech has failed to live up to its liberal promise. It has failed to float the best reasons and arguments to the top and sink the worst ones to the bottom.

Free speech has failed to live up to its liberal promise. It has failed to float the best reasons and arguments to the top and sink the worst ones to the bottom. It has failed to prevent those who actively work to pervert speech from winning over the voting public. It has empowered those who would wilfully employ their reach to promote their ideological agenda. Meanwhile, those who stick to the rules of rational discourse are left shuffling footnotes and politely yelling reasons into the void.

So when The Conversation announced recently that it will be taking a “zero-tolerance approach to moderating climate change deniers, and sceptics” in the comments on its articles, I was not shocked.


Only a year ago, I would have agreed with the ABC’s Media Watch that “The Conversation is wrong to ban anyone’s views, unless they’re abusive, hateful or inciting violence.” I would have defended the right of the ignorant, misinformed and outright malicious to say their piece and have it shredded by other less ignorant, more informed and hopefully charitable readers.

After all, what’s the alternative? We shut down speech and enable one particular narrative to dominate? Who’s in charge of that narrative? Can we trust them to have more reliable access to the truth? What do we do if that narrative is wrong?

I’m still painfully aware of the importance of these questions, and how hard they are to answer in any satisfying way. And yet, the evidence is clear to me now that in many cases more speech is not always in the best interests of truth or humanity.

In good faith

What has fundamentally changed in recent months is the way I think about free speech and the possibility of rational discourse in general.

Free speech is not an absolute good; it is not an end unto itself. Free speech is an instrumental good, one that promotes a higher good: seeking the truth. That’s the canonical account from John Stuart Mill that still underlies much of our thinking around free speech today.

But free speech only fulfils its truth-seeking function when all agents are speaking in good faith: when they all agree that the truth is the goal of the conversation, that the facts matter, that there are certain standards of evidence and argumentation that are admissible, that speakers have a duty to be open to criticism, and that there are many modes of discourse that are inadmissible, such as intimidation, insults, threats and the wilful spread of misinformation. Mill assumed all too readily that such good will was commonplace.

But free speech only fulfils its truth-seeking function when all agents are speaking in good faith.

This doesn’t mean that all speech is truth-seeking. In fact, most everyday speech is not about the truth at all. Usually the correct answer to “does my bum look big in this” is “no”, irrespective of the truth. Most speech is about reinforcing relationships, establishing identity or passing the time. Some speech is about subjective issues or values which may not admit true or false answers. Free speech protects this too. But for some speech, the facts do matter, and that’s where free speech is failing us.

In order for truth-seeking free speech to work, we need strong social norms that promote good faith. And it’s precisely these norms that have broken down in recent years (not that they were ever very strong). And this is because humans are not nearly as rational as we (or Mill) would like to think. And we’re painfully easy to manipulate.

When I teach critical thinking, I give the usual cautionary spiel about not flinging out argumentative fallacies, like the old ad hominem, ad populum or slippery slope. But the very fact that I have to give that spiel is because these fallacies work. When employed effectively, you’ll “win” a lot more arguments using fallacies than by playing by the rules – if you consider persuading/intimidating/misleading someone to accept your point of view a “win.”

I similarly caution students to be wary of the power of appeals to emotion and the force of social pressure, and to be mindful of cognitive biases that can lead our thinking astray. Again, these are important because they are the mechanisms that actually motivate many of our beliefs and that can be most effectively used to persuade others.

What I don’t say – but maybe I should – is that critical thinking is useful when it comes to policing one’s own thoughts, but it’s pitifully impotent when it comes to changing others’ minds. If you start throwing syllogisms across the dinner table, or politely point out that someone is affirming the consequent at the pub, or hope that revealing the contradictions embedded in someone’s assumptions in a comment thread on Facebook is going to change their mind, you’re quickly going to find out you’ve joined the ranks of those politely yelling reasons into the void. I know only too well what that feels like.

Anti-social media

Compounding this is the fact that we have gone to great lengths to build new technologies that promote the worst features of bad faith discourse. If you wanted to design a means of communication that made rational argumentation as difficult as possible yet rewarded the use of every argumentative fallacy under the sun, you’d be hard pressed to top Twitter. It only allows enough characters to express conclusions, not premises. The Like button gives the same weight to the expert as the ignoramus. Status is earned through number of followers, which is like institutionalising the fallacy of ad populum.

Facebook is just as bad for different reasons. Not long ago, if you had a penchant for conspiracy theories, racial vilification or fringe anti-science theories, you’d be hard pressed to find enough like-minded nutjobs in your neighbourhood to hold a bi-monthly tin foil hat dinner. Now, you can join with thousands of like-minded cranks from all around the world on a daily basis to reinforce and radicalise your views.

There’s also evidence that a group of people with diverse views will tend to gravitate towards the most extreme views in the group. And that people who believe one conspiracy theory tend to believe in and share many. And that cultivating outrage only promotes more animosity towards one’s perceived opponents and encourages greater retributive invective and bad faith.

There’s also abundant evidence that people find falsehoods to be more credible the more often they encounter them, even if they’re posted by someone who’s debunking them. As such, falsehoods spread more easily on social media than facts. So the outrage industry is self-sustaining, as even those raging against them share them with their friends, thus spreading the poison even further. (This is why I urge everyone to STOP SHARING GARBAGE on social media, even if you’re intending to debunk it, but particularly if it just pisses you off. The beast feeds on your friends’ eyeballs.)

Add the well known bubble effect, which filters out dissenting views and reinforces in-group identity, and bad faith is all but guaranteed. Free speech in this context only facilitates a slide away from the truth.

That being so, it’s with some alarm that I note that Facebook is now exempting politicians from its normal community standards – the same standards that are intended to prevent bad faith discourse like hate speech and harassment. According to Facebook’s new VP of Global Affairs and Communications, the former UK politician Nick Clegg, it’s because Facebook’s crew “are champions of free speech and defend it in the face of attempts to restrict it. Censoring or stifling political discourse would be at odds with what we are about.”

Clegg invokes a tennis analogy to describe Facebook’s approach to speech: “our job is to make sure the court is ready – the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height. But we don’t pick up a racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them, not us.”

Here’s a better analogy. The court was never flat. Human psychology means it started off warped, and it’s twisted even more by the technology created by Facebook itself. The players know this, and some are exploiting it to their advantage, and to humanity’s disadvantage. If free speech is meant to do anything at all positive, then it takes active intervention to flatten the court, not a hands-off wilful abdication of responsibility.

If free speech is meant to do anything at all positive, then it takes active intervention to flatten the court, not a hands-off wilful abdication of responsibility.

Hit prediction: this policy is going to be a disaster, and Facebook will revoke it with grievous apologies either before or after the 2020 US Presidential election after a spate of heinous posts by politicians are left to fester on our feeds.

What worries me the most is that those who understand the failings of free speech the best are the ones who know how to use speech to manipulate us to their ends. It’s the political operatives, the Cambridge Analytica’s, the climate change deniers, the alt-right meme machines, the political demagogues. They are the ones who benefit the most from free speech, not the experts, not the scientists, not the academics, not those individuals who are willing to do some homework and engage in good faith with an open mind.

So, to those who care about facts, evidence and the power of rational discourse to help us arrive at the truth, I say: WAKE UP. We’re losing, and with us, truth and humanity. The mongers of misinformation and agents of bad faith are driving us into the dirt, and we’re down here tilling the very soil that allows the weeds to flourish.

Shut it down

Free speech has failed us. That’s why I think The Conversation is justified in banning certain forms of well established misinformation on its site, whether it’s delivered by trolls or people who are misguided enough to believe it.

The Conversation as a website is predicated on the importance of expertise. It only publishes articles by qualified academics, and only allows them to write on areas in which they are experts. It encourages a diversity of views and debate amongst its authors. I know, because (full disclosure) I used to work there, editing the science and technology section. True to its name, The Conversation also wants to encourage discussion and debate amongst readers. But it is in no way obliged to give a platform to anyone. It is able to determine the standards of discourse in its own domain.

So if the “conversation” in the comments section slips well outside the bounds of respect for evidence, reason or good faith discourse that The Conversation seeks to promote, then it ought to be allowed to disqualify it. It’s not like the readers can’t spread their views on other platforms with lower standards. Sadly, there’s an abundance of those around these days. Freedom of speech doesn’t require everyone to allow just anyone to walk into in their garden and plant whatever they want.

Freedom of speech doesn’t require everyone to allow just anyone to walk into in their garden and plant whatever they want.

That said, I am convinced that we need some forums where free speech can operate in an expansive way. At the moment, I think universities are the best candidates, which is why I resist the deplatforming of academics or speakers on campus, no matter how controversial their views. Universities need to get better at managing this, because they’re one of the last bastions of truly open enquiry.

But I’m increasingly coming to believe that we need to get real about the failures of free speech in many public forums, and fight back against those who would pollute discourse with bad faith. I’m not convinced we should go as far as Herbert Marcuse, who argued that civil discussion was futile, so all that’s left is violence. But I do think we can’t maintain the naive position that “more speech is always a good thing.”

The paradox of free speech

I’ll be the first to say I don’t know what to do. But I have some initial ideas. I suspect there’s a short term and a long term solution. In the long term, we want to rehabilitate public discourse by encouraging good faith. That’s a decades long project, and one that will require the rebuilding of a great deal of social capital that has been degrading over decades.

This is not necessarily a project that is conducted through rational discourse itself. Rather, it’s something that requires constructive social discourse. It requires relationship building, the restoration of trust, the separation of belief from identity, and the buttressing of social norms that make rational discourse a possibility.

And in the short term, I’m increasingly open to shutting down speech that is not only conducted in bad faith, but is polluting discourse itself, so encouraging more bad faith. The problem of dealing with speech that corrupts speech is related to Karl Popper’s famed “paradox of tolerance.” If we believe that tolerance is good, how should we treat those who are intolerant? If we tolerate them, won’t they end tolerance? And if we don’t tolerate them, doesn’t that make us intolerant?

The solution to this paradox is elegantly expressed by Peter Godfrey-Smith and Benjamin Kerr in an article published on – ironically enough – The Conversation. Godfrey-Smith argues that in order to protect “first-order” of tolerance of individual actions – say, certain religious practices or having a homosexual relationship – means we must be “second-order” intolerant of actions that are themselves intolerant of these actions, and it’s in no way contradictory or hypocritical to do so. That’s why we have anti-discrimination laws that are explicitly intolerant of intolerance.

Similarly, in order to protect the power of free speech to help seek the truth, I think we need to be more intolerant of speech that subverts the very possibility of speech to seek the truth. Crucially, that doesn’t mean shutting down speech by people who are just ignorant or wrong. What it does mean is shutting down bad faith speech that muddies the waters, that spreads misinformation, that threatens or coerces, or that exploits known psychological biases to mislead.

in order to protect the power of free speech to help seek the truth, I think we need to be more intolerant of speech that subverts the very possibility of speech to seek the truth.

There’ll be a price to shutting down certain types of discourse in some forums. Some legitimate speech may be hampered. But if the price of not doing it is more polluted discourse, more bad faith, more wars, more Brexits, more Trumps, and a world that is more than 4 degrees warmer, then I know which side of the trade-off I prefer.

I still believe in the potential of free speech to seek the truth. I still believe it ought to be practiced in some forums. I still believe it’s something worth fighting to enable and preserve. But I think you only need to look at the last two decades – and speculate about the two decades to come – to realise that our current approach to free speech has failed. And the stakes are high.