Words as weapons? Free speech requires responsible speech

Whenever I’m asked what sparked my interest in the philosophy of language, I immediately remember two texts that I read almost thirty years ago: one is a short story by Ingeborg Bachmann called “Everything”; the other one is an essay by Václav Havel called “A Word about Words”. Both texts can be read as rather powerful reflections on the social and political dimensions of language. For me, they show a crucial feature of language: language is not merely a medium of describing reality; rather it is interwoven with our actions. Bachmann’s story dispels the illusion that we can freely teach and learn language, irrespective of the social and historical baggage that our verbal categories come with. And when Havel writes that a word can “turn into a baton” that is used to “beat” one’s fellow citizens, this is not entirely metaphorical. A word might carry and pass on the very force that makes someone lift or drop a baton. Thus, a word can hit and harm you. In recent years, these ideas began to haunt me again. If words have such force, then the current appeals to free speech require us to speak responsibly, or so I’d like to suggest in what follows.

Two camps. – Yesterday, the feminist Mona Eltahawy explained that she no longer wants to speak at De Balie, a famous forum of public debate in the Netherlands. The reason was that, after accepting the invitation, she had learned that this forum had formerly hosted a group of speakers who ended up openly discussing the “deportation of Muslims”. Among these speakers were Paul Cliteur, a Dutch academic and active politician in a right-wing party, and Wim van Rooy, a Flemish author with similar political leanings. Already back in the day, the event sparked strong reactions. Some thought that such speech is outright harmful and suggested that this debate triggered associations of the Wannsee Conference. Others thought that the right to free speech entitles us to say anything, or anything as long as it isn’t evidently unlawful. If you’re following the news, you might by now think that this follows a familiar pattern: on the one hand, there are those who deem certain speech acts as harmful and protest against them; on the other hand, there are those who declare that such protests infringe free speech. (See here for an earlier post on misconstruing free speech.) At first glance, then, it looks like we’re dealing with two camps: those who want to regulate speech and those who reject the regulation of (free) speech.

Two camps? – Many people and especially journalists seem to have bought into the idea that we are indeed dealing with two camps, with those who want to restrict and those who don’t want to restrict free speech. But I think that this is a misleading way of plotting the disagreement. It’s not easy to pin down what’s wrong with it, but here’s a try. I think we’re basically dealing with two different ideas of language: let’s call them the action view and the entertainment view.

  1. According to the action view, speech is interwoven with other actions and thus, depending on the kinds of actions, harmful or good. Thinking and speaking are actions, and to be treated accordingly. If I call someone an asshole, for instance, I act in a certain way and can harm others, even in a way that is recognised by the law that sanctions insults.
  2. According to the entertainment view, speech is a medium in which we entertain certain thoughts: we exchange arguments and hypotheses that are detached from action. Thinking and speaking are decidedly distinct from actions. Ideally, we think and speak before we act or instead of acting.

If we take these perspectives as opposites, we can immediately see why they spur so much disagreement. If I take the entertainment view, free speech and open debate will not be a means of harming others but rather a way of preventing bad action. We can argue instead of hurting or harming each other physically. We can anticipate bad consequences, and stop them from happening. – By contrast, if I endorse the action view, then speech is already a way of possibly harming others. Arguing or insulting can be the beginning or incitement of a chain of related and escalating actions. If I start insulting you, I might subtly begin to legitimise stronger harms, possibly ending up with forms of dehumanisation. In fact, ongoing insults might damage your (mental) health already. The upshot is: the disagreement is not about (free) speech, but about how language actually works.

Differences in degrees. – Now, if you ask which of these views of language is right, I have to say: both, in a way. The relation between language and action is not one of different categories but one of degree. Some language use is clearly action-related or even a form of action; other language use is detached from action or even a replacement of certain acts. So if I insult or sincerely threaten people by verbal means, I act and cause harm. But if I consider a counterfactual possibility or quote someone’s words, the language is clearly detached from action. However, arguably the relation to possible action is what contributes to making language meaningful in the first place. Even if I merely quote an insult, you still understand that quotation in virtue of understanding real insults.

Now what does that mean for the debate between the two camps? The good news is that they both have a point: language allows for action as well as for replacing action, even if these views are degrees on a continuum. This should allow for some progress in the debate between the two camps. But the crucial question is how we can deal with situations where the different emphases of these linguistic features lead to conflicts. As far as the general pattern of the opposition is concerned, I’d try to treat such conflicts in the same way we treat complaints more generally. How do you react if someone says that they feel insulted or intimidated? If you don’t understand what the complaint is targeting, you will probably ask what it is that constitutes the insult or threat, rather than continue with the abuse. Insisting that your right to free speech entitles you to say whatever you like is comparable to hitting someone and then, if they complain, saying that they might as well hit you, too.

Appealing to free speech is just a way of pointing out that language opens the possibility of entertaining certain thoughts, but it is no adequate response to someone complaining about an insult or threat. What many people forget is that freedom comes with responsibility. So, whatever we think we are entitled to through that freedom requires us to exercise that right responsibly. Thus, free speech requires responsible speech.*

That said, the right to free speech is important and should not be infringed easily. So what about the concerns regarding this freedom? The first thing to note is that such freedom is not infringed by protest or criticism. In fact, if Mona Eltahawy protests and cancels her attendance for the reasons given, she exercises her right to free speech. The second thing is that speech acts and other acts happen to have consequences. You can secretly think whatever you like, but if you publicly discuss the deportation of people belonging to a certain religion or race or whatever, you should face the consequences of being publicly called out and sanctioned accordingly. Again, appealing to free speech is not an adequate reaction to such complaints.

But if free speech is of no concern in such situations, when does it pose a concern? First of all, we should ask ourselves this: Who can actually infringe our right to free speech? Generally, it’s people who hold some power over us. So ask yourself whether the notorious student protests or other events that fill the media are really a threat to free speech. As long as people don’t have any power over you, it’s unlikely that they pose a threat to your right to free speech. It’s more likely that they exercise this very right. That said, exercising this right can be done in a sincere or in an insincere manner. And it can be done in a hurtful or threatening way. Spotting the difference between sincere concern and tactics is probably a lifelong exercise.


* Here is a follow-up post on how free speech can be turned into responsible speech.

6 thoughts on “Words as weapons? Free speech requires responsible speech

  1. One of the most interesting things I have ever read about the use and abuse of language concerns Thomas Hobbes. In the late 1620s, with the rising tension in English society between parliament and King, Hobbes translated Thucydides (on the Pelopponesian War) in English. Let me quote PW, 3.82 (given by Martinich, 1996, 226):

    “[…] The received value of names imposed for signification of things was changed into arbitrary. For inconsiderate boldness was counted true-harted manliness; provident deliberation, a handsome fear; modesty, the cloak of cowardice; to be wise in everything, to be lazy in everything. A furious suddenness was reputed a point of valour.”

    Obviously Hobbes wanted his contemporaries to learn from the past. As Martinich states (1996, 224): “The purpose of history, according to Hobbes, was to educate people about the past in order to conduct their lives “prudently in the present and providently in the future”.

    So here we have a very interesting philosophy of language.

    Concerning his philosophy of language, I’m not that well versed in this, but it seems he is convinced that normally we do refer to objects and properties and relations in reality (?). That is, he contrast the ‘received value of names imposed for signification of things’ with ‘arbitrary’. Normally, when we are honest and objective, our words just refer to objects ‘out there’ and real ethical properties in reality (like character traits; this is just true modesty or being wise in everything, and it is good. Not sure which meta-ethical theory this is supposed to represent, but okay).

    This reminds me very strongly of another book I read: Vaclav Havel (yes), ‘Living in Truth’. In this, he demasques (just like Victor Klemperer before him did with nazism) the totalitarian language of communism. The phrases of communism were nothing but hollow, capricious terminology with no reference to reality. To take another, quite radical example: during the Rumanian revolution of 1989, when Ceausescu and his wife were dethroned and executed, to keep the population calm before and during the uprising, the media would broadcast a fake temperature (it was a very cold winter, but they increased the temperature by +10 degrees Celsius or something).

    So maybe language as a way of thinking and speaking before acting, and as a relatively neutral and referential medium might be possible in some way, as Hobbes and Havel would argue, I think. If I (when in an argument) refrain from calling a dear friend certain names, or speak in a certain tone to her, I would show a certain respect for her and refrain from hurting her. This would mean that when you use bullying words (whether to friends or minorities) they get (or have) a certain ‘action-character’. Some words have a certain action-character (like the N* word for Afro-Americans) and some words get a certain action-character (by the tone you use). Whether such ‘having’ and ‘getting’ an action-character is more cultural/historical or naturally determined, more research might be needed.

    I just want to say that when we show respect for each other, keep a decent tone and refrain from using certain value-laden terminology, language as a neutral medium that refers to reality and doesn’t necessarily hurt people might be possible. Language as action seems primarily the case with racist slung and in arguments. And, of course, in hollow and reversing propaganda, as Hobbes showed.


    1. Many thanks for your comment and the intriguing references to Hobbes, Klemperer and Havel! While I’m not sure about language being a neutral medium, I wholly agree with your emphasis on showing respect. That’s basically all I wanted to point to in my post.


  2. Thank you Martin for your post! I think that today, more than ever, we need to reflect on what freedom of speech means. Is it a mere, unfiltered expression of one’s feelings, ideas, thoughts? Or shall we rethink it, like I understood from your post, in terms of responsibility? Maybe we could then interpret this word like Levinas did: responsibility is the “ability to respond”. In this sense, freedom of speech would mean that all the people involved in a dialogue are able to respond – that they have the intention to consider the different positions of the others.

    Without this intention-attention to the other, a speech could not be able to respond to them. It would therefore be a monologue (any reference to Arendt, who called this monologizing discourse Totalitarianism, is no coincidence at all)


    1. Many thanks for your comment, Silvia! Coupling freedom with attention to the other strikes me as very powerful idea. Indeed, having to face the potential respondent might restore the necessary sense of responsibility. A sense that seems often lost when the others (talked about) are absent. I guess that it would be way more difficult to use insulting or dehumanising language in the presence of the addressee.


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