Structural violence is a bad reason to limit speech

It is fashionable to be “nuanced” when talking about freedom of speech. I often read that speech should be restricted when it is harmful, hateful, and violent. The claim looks innocuous, it even bears passing resemblance to that old liberal formula “do and say what you want as long as you don’t hurt others;” a commitment to the idea that freedom of expression is not permission to jeopardize other freedoms. The resemblance is misleading. If the claim were taken seriously, it would impede, not promote, the cause of justice. There are only a handful of legitimate reasons for shutting people up, and this is not one of them.

Free Speech and Violence

Violence has long been a reason to limit speech. Put simply, where speech incites violence, it is not protected. Here is liberal godfather John Stuart Mill in ‘On Liberty‘:

No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

But the link between speech and violence is difficult to prove, as even this canonical example shows. How explicit must the speech outside the corn dealer’s house be? If incite means “to move to action; to stir up; to spur on; to urge one,” how to tell when someone has been moved, stirred, spurred, or urged? Reason dictates that a vague threat be treated differently to an explicit command to violence. If I call for a violent protest three years from now, it is unlikely to have much impact – no one will remember what I said. Demonstrating a link between speech and violence is a difficult problem of interpretation.

When these questions end up in the courts in the US, they apply the Brandenburg test:

  • The speech must be directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action AND
  • The speech must be likely to incite or produce such action.

The Brandenburg test highlights the important questions, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for interpretation. Donald Trump’s rally prior to the Capitol Hill invasion is a contemporary parallel to Mill’s mob outside the corn dealers home.* Some see it as a clear example of incitement to violence, others not at all. A lawyer consulted asked the BBC said: “It’s quite rare that somebody can be convicted of incitement. In applying that to the president’s speech at the rally, it’s an agonisingly close case.” The President told his supporters they needed to “fight like hell,” and that they were “going to the Capitol.” But, he also told them to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” It is fiendishly difficult to link speech to violence, and where political speech is concerned, the burden of evidence is even higher.

Free speech and structural violence

The problem of interpretation deepens when the definition of violence is broadened. Violence is normally understood as a physical act, with a clear perpetrator and victim. In a famous 1969 paper, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung broadened the definition of violence to include avoidable differences between ‘potential’ and ‘actual‘:

Violence is here defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is. Violence is that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual, and that which impedes the decrease of this distance. Thus, if a person died from tuberculosis in the eighteenth century it would be hard to conceive of this as violence since it might have been quite unavoidable, but if he dies from it today, despite all the medical resources in the world, then violence is present according to our definition.

Correspondingly, in a society where life expectancy is twice as high in the upper as in the lower classes, violence is exercised even if there are no concrete actors one can point to directly attacking others, as when one person kills another

This violence became ‘structural’ when social institutions are behind people’s inability to meet their basic needs. Racism, when formalised into rules or institutions that restricts access to quality healthcare for marginalised groups, lowers life expectancy. Poor neighborhoods, where high pollution, perhaps from nearby chemical factories, or a lack of healthy food options, worsen the health of those who live there.

The definition includes both physical and psychological violence, and because of the omnipresence of social institutions, is at work even where there is no obvious agent.

In debates over free speech, this definition of violence is often subtly substituted for the more commonly understood version.

This makes it possible to say that speech contributes to structural violence by perpetuating unjust social institutions; speech can encourage marginalisation, and “protect the status quo, silencing marginalized voices in the name of giving more airtime to those who already have multiple podiums;” speech can deny the rights of others, creating a hierarchy of human worth and causes serious harm to its targets.”

It can also be used to collapse any distinction between speech and violence. For Nyadol Nyuon, hate speech “negatively impacts the health of its victims, and at its worst it inspires hate crimes.” Toni Morrison agrees: oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.” Focusing on the internet, Andrew Marantz argued that “the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood.” Violence becomes a vague gesture to anything bad.

A wider definition of violence necessarily leads to policing more types of speech. As this opinion piece published following the Capitol Hill invasion argues, harmful speech goes beyond incitement to violence. The soapbox outside the corn dealer’s house is now joined by my family friend’s anti-vax posts.


I am not denying that speech can harm. Words can break a person’s spirit clean in two. They can be malicious and malevolent, vicious and venomous, even evil. Language works through speeches, conversations, posters, overheard gossip, text messages, television programs, books, even TikTok. I have difficulty imagining a reaction language cannot elicit or a medium it does not work through.

I am saying that applying this to freedom of speech makes the problem of interpretation harder. Violence which is everywhere, is nowhere in particular. Structural violence rests on a series of value judgements – which categories make up potential and actual, how to measure the difference between them, the causal link, the signs by which we know violence has occurred – that make it precarious and contestable.

Even Johan Galtung agreed:

The meaning of ‘potential realizations’ is highly problematic, especially when we move from somatic aspects of human life, where consensus is more readily obtained, to mental aspects. Our guide here would probably often have to be whether the value to be realized is fairly consensual or not, although this is by no means satisfactory.

“Fairly consensual” is a bad standard for policing freedom of speech.

Why more interpretation is a problem

The right to free speech is not absolute. It is always in tension with other rights. My right to free expression does not give me permission to go into someone’s home and read aloud from my favorite book. It violates their right to privacy – their right to life if I choose Being and Time.

The uncomfortable overlaps between our rights and our values requires constant negotiation, interpretation, and compromise – what Isaiah Berlin in Two Concepts of Liberty calls “haggling.”

Haggling, as anyone who has done it knows, requires speaking, usually in a raised voice. Free speech is protected because we will not agree. To make it contingent on anything except a minimum of principles is absurd and dangerous.

If this principle is insufficient, remember that more interpretation means more interpreters. Do we want organizations who sell soap or sugar water making value judgements about violence, harm, and speech. Where interpretations replace principals, the views of the most powerful dominate. Organisation’s like Facebook and Twitter already possess enormous power without granting them even wider remits for interpretation. Where these organisation are ambivalent, the dynamics of controversy mean the loudest and most invested voices will dominate – precisely the people least likely to be impartial. Passionate voices are vital for healthy politics, but they should not determine who gets to speak.

Demanding greater interpretation is a tactical blunder for progressives. The forces of history tend not to look kindly on left-wing causes. It was not so long ago that socialist ideas were banned, blocked, and frozen out because they were “violent” or “dangerous.”

Those who defend free speech are sometimes called absolutists – presumably blind to the irony – as if we defend it from a lack of imagination or intelligence. The charge insinuates a fear of ambiguity. Quite the opposite. A black and white stance on freedom of speech begins with ambiguity, and sets out to protect the conditions for it to continue.

There is an incredible amount of suffering in the world, and our social institutions are often to blame. But, free speech laws are not the place to solve it.

*A reference to England’s corn laws, which gave birth to The Economist as well as free speech thought experiments

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No end in sight for the debate over inflation

The debate over the Biden’s administrations proposed stimulus I discussed a few weeks ago is still going. If you wanted to keep up to date, here are some useful links:

The debate still hinges around three technical questions:

  • How large is the output gap? This is the gap between what an economy can theoretically produce, and what it is producing today. Think of the gap as representing idle factories or unemployed workers. The larger the gap, the more stimulus can be applied before you hit ‘supply limits,’ and cause inflation.
  • How effective will the stimulus be? Stimulus does not automatically create the demand which fills the output gap. Instead of buying a new TV, people might save the money they receive, or use it to pay down debts. Those who are concerned expect most of the stimulus to be spent, those who are more sanguine, the opposite.
  • How will inflation behave if it arrives? Both camps agree there is likely to be some inflation, but they disagree over how it will evolve. Those in favour of the stimulus as it stands expect inflation to steadily increase, perhaps even to 2% or 3%. They see this as a good thing, given inflation has been below target for almost a decade. There is little risk of it getting out of control because the Fed can always raise rates in the last instance.

    Pessimists are concerned that if inflation starts growing, it could quickly get out of control. Instead of growing to 2% or 3% and stabilising, expectations might change, causing inflation to continue higher. If the Fed has to react by rapidly raising rates, it could have negative consequences for the financial sector and the wider economy.

This says nothing about the politics around the stimulus. Biden does not want to run the risk of delivering an underpowered stimulus as Obama did after the GFC.

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What do jobless men do all day?

From a new study in the AEI by Nicholas Eberstadt and Evan Abramsky: “What do prime-age ‘NILF’ men do all day?” (thanks to Marginal Revolution)

Some excerpts:





A few quick thoughts:

We don’t know why these men are not in the labour force. Does an absence of paid work/income support cause screen time and anomie, or is there a third (and fourth and fifth) factor at work here.

Is this the way things are or the way things must be? Where the paper sees anomie and alienation naturally following from the absence of work, I see it as contingent. We live in a society which extols paid work and demonises the unemployed. Should we be surprised that those who inhabit such a stigmatised rung of society are not a garden bed for the flowering of the human spirit?

A towering infrastructure of education, encouragement, and coercion has been required for people to accept that they must organise their identity and time around the eight hours a day, forty hours a week, they spend in contractual labour. Were we to reach a point where that became economically superfluous, we would need to develop a new infrastructure to encourage and educate people to live as they chose.

Why should we police what people do with their own time? I know many professionals who spend their weekends wedged between a bottle and a baggie who will tell you that the working poor must be kept in place lest they do the same. If you believe in human freedom and human creative potential, you should want to limit unnecessary restrictions on it. When the economy reaches a point where it becomes unnecessary to compel the population into paid work each day, we should cease to do so for the same reason we no longer compel people to serve in the armed forces. If they choose to drink all day, and despite fair and accessible options otherwise, that is truly what they wish to do, I have no issue with it. Freedom-loving conservatives quickly become paternalistic statists at the prospect of more leisure for the masses.

The moralisation of work: We are constantly told about the dignity of labour, usually by those who work for high pay in air conditioned offices. I fail to see what is dignified about being compelled to spend the majority of your day doing something you would rather not, in conditions you would prefer be different, with people you sometimes dislike. I can say it no better than Bertrand Russell: “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

The only reason to compel paid labour is that our collective economic prosperity requires it; the health of the tribe requires that we devote some portion of our time to the modern equivalent of hunting deer or harvesting wheat. Should a day arrive where robots can take our place in the fields, we should consign paid work to the dustbin of history as fast as we possibly can.

Competing visions of the future: Arguments in the vein of, “if we give people X (a good thing), they’ll just do Y (a bad thing), because they’re too uneducated / lazy / ignorant / selfish / unprepared, have been deployed against every social reform from the right-to-vote to the 8-hour work week. Those who use them are pessimistic about human potential, or our ability to realise it. I remain an optimist in both respects. I aspire to a world where people’s decisions about how they spend their time, and exercise their creative energy were not overly constrained by the need to feed, cloth, and house themselves. A world where that is possible will take some building, but as Oscar Wilde said, a map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at.

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The media standoff in Australia

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Facebook shut off news access for Australian users on Wednesday. It’s part of an ongoing brawl over proposed legislation that would create a statutory code for bargaining between news organisations and large technology platforms like Facebook or Google. You can read more about it here or here.

Some initial thoughts:

  • This seems like an misstep for Facebook, especially since Google signed an 11th-hour deal with major news publishers to avoid anything so drastic. It is taking a combative stance against a national government, in an environment where there is already concern about Facebook’s influence. “Large corporation threatening nation-state” is a bad look.

    Who has more to lose? For the Australian government, backing down means giving in to a foreign company – not even a foreign power. For Facebook, acquiescing sets a precedent that regulators in other countries could emulate. I suspect Facebook will try and cut a deal here they can use in other regions.
  • The lady doth protest too much, methinks. As much as Facebook repeats that it is just a mere platform, we now have an incontrovertible demonstration of its power; it put up barriers to news for millions of people with the click of a button.

    The words that come to mind when I think about Facebook are no longer “innovative,” “social network,” “founder-in-t-shirt,” “cringy posts,” or “newsfeed,” instead they’re “fake,” “malign,” “opaque,’ “behemoth.”
  • In the short-term, it might have the consequence of hurting smaller publishers who rely on Facebook to reach audiences. Larger news organisations can still expect traffic through their website.

Trump is performing better than the headlines suggest

Trump has now been acquitted in his second impeachment trial, notching up yet another “first.” Had you scanned the headlines of the New York Times or the Financial Times, you could be forgiven for feeling a modicum of satisfaction amidst the disappointment; Trump got off, but the Republican Party is breaking with him; Trump got off, but his name has been tarnished for good; Trump got off, but is fading into irrelevance in (the surely very tacky) Mar-a-Lago.

The story is a little different if you scroll down.

74% of Republican voters want to see him continue in politics. Only 54% of Americans want him out of politics. I stress only because Trump is, on paper, specifically the paper the NYT is printed on, the most disreputable and tarnished President in recent history.

What about the political establishment, his fellow-travelers? Only seven out of the fifty Senate Republicans voted with Democrats against Trump. Of those seven, three do not have to stand for election for five years, two are retiring, and two – Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski – have long built names as the (only) Republican Senators who dare to criticize Trump. Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, one of the seven, has already been censured by Louisiana’s Republican Party.

Much has been made of Mitch McConnell’s statement: “There is no question that president Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.” A statement he made after having voted to acquit Trump.

All this despite having been banned from Twitter for weeks.

Has Trump’s brand been damaged? Among Democrats and Moderates, yes. Among his base, which encompasses a majority of the Republican Party, probably not.

Are Republicans divided over his future influence? Perhaps in private. For now though, most establishment Republicans have been remarkably reticent to criticize the Teflon Don.

Trump will be the defining question for right-wing politics in the US until at least the mid-terms in 2022. There are a spectrum of possibilities from party moderates neutralising his influence, to Trump retaining control, including a messy collapse into years of internecine war. I suspect Trump will hold the reigns in the short-term. The winner-takes-all electoral system incentivizes party unity, and makes the threat of Trump running as a third-party candidate existential. This will make the mid-term elections in 2022 a litmus test for each faction. I suspect moderates will look for mistakes and failures in the 2022 mid-terms as evidence to try and neutralise him prior to 2024.

Would that we did not have to care about the parochial divisions of an outlandish political party in the United States. Yet, this group has the power to stymie everything from action on climate change, to relief for one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

China’s growing cultural muscle

I tend to discuss China’s growing assertiveness with reference its economy or foreign policy. It’s a pity, because China’s increasingly muscular cultural scene is illuminating. If you want to understand the trajectory of China over the next few decades, it’s vital to observe the stories China tells about itself.

Check out this trailer for the new film ‘The Eight Hundred.’ It is a dramatization of the Battle of Shanghai, a particularly bloody siege in the Second Sino-Japanese war – part of what we would call the Pacific Theatre of World War 2.

A few points to reflect on:

  • The Second World War may be the most dramatized war in modern cinematic history. Were these films your primary source about the war, you would presume its centre of gravity lay somewhere between Omaha Beach and a blitzed out London. The Eastern front, and to an even greater extent, the Chinese theater, are rarely mentioned; I suspect there are more blockbuster films about the American civil war than both combined. One benefit of a thriving film industry in China is that new historical stories will be told.
  • These stories will increasingly be filtered through a nationalistic lens. The FT reports that China’s media regulator required changes to the film, because the troops that fought in the battle were from the Nationalist Kuomintang army. The Nationalists would later fight (and lose) a civil war against the Communists, before retreating to Taiwan.

    Nationalistic depictions of war are not unheard of in Hollywood today (American Sniper was a particularly egregious example), but more often than not, contemporary war films emphasise moral ambiguity, despair, and the senselessness of violence. Based on the trailer, ‘The Eight Hundred’ is more Horace than Owen with regard to: dulce et deocrum est pro patria mori. The trailer ends with the following line:

    “To my dear wife YuZhi, when our kids grow up, they shall join the army to avenge their father. To devote themselves to their country. So that our descendants won’t suffer anymore humiliation.