Posted by: N.S. Palmer | May 29, 2016

What Helps or Hurts Free Speech


Mathematicians are lazy.

I’m allowed to say that, because I’m a mathematician. I’ve got the degree, I’ve got the calculator, and I’ve got a refereed publication. Yes, just one. I didn’t claim that I was an important mathematician. I’m much too lazy for that.

Because mathematicians are lazy, we like to solve problems in ways that are simple and elegant. That’s a lot less work than complicated and clumsy.

Freedom of speech isn’t a mathematical problem, but it is a problem with multiple solutions. Some solutions are simple and elegant, some are complicated and clumsy.

Western governments now enthusiastically promote solutions that are complicated and clumsy. The results are disastrous for anyone who cares about freedom.

Those thoughts came to mind as I was reading Mick Hume’s article in The Spectator: “No, thank you, officer, I will not think before I speak.” Hume writes:

The Greater Glasgow Police (who some might imagine would have their hands full pursuing actual offenders) recently tweeted a warning to all social media users: ‘THINK before you post or you may receive a visit from us this weekend.’ The force spelt out what it wanted Glasgow tweeters and posters to THINK about in order to avoid the knock on the door: T – is it true? H – is it hurtful? I – is it illegal? N – is it necessary? K – is it kind?

Now, I’m generally in favor of obeying the law. I support telling the truth, avoiding gratuitous insults, and being kind. But there are two issues here:

  • Apart from breaking the law, none of those things should concern the police.1
  • What qualifies as insulting, hurtful, or unkind depends on the context and on who’s listening. The Grand Inquisitors of Political Correctness find that almost all dissent from their faith is insulting, hurtful, and unkind.

Consider a relatively homogeneous society, such as Japan (98.5 percent ethnic Japanese) or China (91.5 percent Han Chinese). Or you could consider the United States of 50 years ago (88 percent European-American).

Are there problems and injustices? Certainly. All societies have them. You can’t have a perfect society of imperfect people. Ever. The only questions are about how to minimize injustice to minorities while maximizing the welfare of the majority. Utilitarianism says that’s what you should do, since every person’s welfare counts equally and there are more people in the majority than in minorities.

Minimizing injustice is what the late Robert Nozick called a “side constraint” on what you are allowed to do: it prohibits things like murder even if they would maximize the welfare of the majority.

Because one culture and one part of the population are overwhelmingly dominant, the societies are more harmonious than they would be otherwise. The vast majority of people belong to the same group and they agree on most of the big questions of life. As British writer Walter Bagehot observed in Physics and Politics:

“A nation means a LIKE body of men, because of that likeness capable of acting together, and because of that likeness inclined to obey similar rules.”2

You can even leave out ethnicity. If a dominant majority of a society’s people agree about big issues, embrace a common history, celebrate the same holidays, and follow religions that are at least amicable relatives of each other, then they agree on enough that they can speak their minds in public. The odds of causing offense are very low, and social trust is very high.3

However, if a society has multiple non-dominant groups with incompatible values, different histories, different holidays, and different religions, they almost can’t help offending each other. All you can do to keep the peace is try to intimidate people into shutting up about anything that might offend the most easily offended groups.

And what about the nicer groups that are less likely to take offense and almost never riot? An adage says “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” They don’t squeak, so they don’t get any grease. They get shut up.

Having a society is something like being married. You don’t want a spouse who’s exactly like you and agrees with you about everything, because that’s just boring. On the other hand, you also don’t want a spouse who almost always disagrees with you, who prefers a different lifestyle, and who loves and hates different things. That’s a prescription for non-stop marital discord. You want some difference, but you want it with a lot of basic agreement and similarity.

May I suggest that trying to make society even more diverse and bitterly divided while trying to make nicer groups shut up about it is not a simple and elegant solution to the free-speech issue? It’s too much work and it makes almost everyone unhappy.

Works Cited

Bagehot, W. (2007), Physics and Politics. New York: Cosimo Classics.

Putnam, R. (2001), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.


  1. Note that slander and libel are against the law, although they are civil rather than criminal offenses. 
  2. Bagehot, W. (1872), loc. 170. 
  3. Putnam, R. (2001), loc. 5468ff. 


  1. The same problems are occurring in other countries. YouTube blogger “Computing Forever” has a perceptive diagnosis:

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