Free expression is much more than a legal concept

I want to like the website 1000 word philosophy and generally I do, but this is a very bad essay, at least for a site about philosophy.

The essay is about free speech, and it is by a fellow named Mark Satta. I looked him up. He’s an attorney. Not that you can’t be an attorney and a philosopher, but it does seem that once people really learn law they tend to conflate “the law” with “the world.”

I liked how Willie Stark put it in All The King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. To paraphrase: Stark said he learned a little law, but he was never a lawyer.

I think it’s pretty rare to have anyone trained in the law today who doesn’t end up a full on lawyer, in the sense Stark meant. This is definitely a lawyer’s essay, not a philosopher’s.

This is an essay about the law. The law is not philosophy. Philosophy is about everything. The law is how societies deal with concepts. This essay explains what free speech is from a legal perspective.

This is misleading and unhelpful.

I’ve been in a bit of a study of free speech recently and I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which is the text people in the West tend to look to first on the subject of free expression.

For Mill, free expression was about much more than just constraint by the state. Mill was also very concerned about society’s tendency to restrain expression by unofficial means, by mockery and shunning and criticism.

Mill wrote variations of this several times in his book:

“Society … practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

Mill was concerned because he knew the geniuses who really move society forward are often weirdos that people don’t really like. Everyone looks back on geniuses like Nikola Tesla and Malcolm X and says: Oh yes, they were great.

But in their time they get endless resistance and doubt. In Malcolm X’s case, eventually, a bullet.

Mill was trying to caution people to give less resistance to strange and unsettling ideas and the people who offer them. Everybody doesn’t have to embrace everything, but they also shouldn’t shut down people who make them nervous. And “shutting down” doesn’t have to be something so extreme as putting them in jail (using the state, which is all Matta concerns himself with) or burning books. Just humiliating a person can be enough unless you have a particularly study character.

Mill writes at the end of his book:

“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.”

The question of free expression is much larger than state censorship. It’s true that censorship by the state is the only censorship that the Constitution is really concerned with, but that doesn’t mean it should be the only kind that we should be concerned about, as free and curious people hoping for a more evocative world.