We often hear people say that we should have freedom of speech, but people should not have the freedom to cause physical harm to others. People think that there is a qualitative difference between maliciously uttering a racial slur, and punching somebody. However, I think this distinction is wholly contrived. When I say something evil I am hurting those around me, and plausibly hurting the entire human community through all of history (past, present and future). My words have an effect, and the effect is psycho-somatic. That is to say, it has an effect on the state of mind of all those around me, but it also has an effect on their bodies. Saying something hurtful or harmful to somebody will physically hurt them. The body’s health and the health of the mind are inexorably bound up. When I inflict pain with words, everything from the chemistry of the brain, to the physical pains associated with depression, are in some way inflicted upon the persons to whom I have caused harm. I can physically kill somebody with words alone (and this is accomplished more often than is popularly realized).
Take the example of punching somebody – the harm which is caused is similar. First, there is the physical pain, which is a first order effect of the act of punching that person. However, many of the same effects are associated with maliciously punching somebody as are present with malicious speech. In fact, somebody being punched is often preferable to somebody being verbally abused. For instance, when two martial artists fight, and one hits another, it may well result in happiness, a sense of deepening of friendship and more. If we should take C.S. Lewis’ example, let us imagine two scenarios: in the first, I walk down a hallway, only to be tripped, and significantly hurt myself physically, but where the person who tripped me is sincerely sorry and tripped me accidentally. In the second, I walk down the same hallway only to have somebody attempt to trip me out of malice, and fail. Which is more harmful to me? I suggest it is the second one. Notice that the psychological (and in turn physical) effect of the second scenario will have an effect on me even twenty years hence, whereas the accident will have been forgotten and the effects healed in less than a week or so. We can also demonstrate empirically that mankind prefers physical pains with secondary psychological effects, to psychological pains with secondary physical effects; for instance, every time somebody hits their head against a wall to try to alleviate the pain of a broken heart, or even every time somebody prefers the pain of punching a wall to the psychological pain of not being able to solve some mathematical puzzle. These things may sound insane, but people do them all the time, and yet rarely (if ever) do people seek out psychological pains to alleviate physical pains.
Notice, then, that freedom of speech licenses anybody to physically harm other persons, and there is no real qualitative distinction between freedom of speech and freedom to cause physical harm. At best the difference is quantitative, and it isn’t clear to me which one causes more harm overall. Killing somebody’s body is possible with punches, but killing somebody’s body and soul is possible with words, and is plausibly easier to accomplish. Look at the practice of torture for instance: if all one wants is information then physical pain will suffice for the task, but in order to break somebody’s spirit and resolve, often words are needed.
When people defend the freedom of speech which people like the members of the Westboro Baptist church exercise when they picket funerals and promote their morally absurd and harmful doctrines, but would not allow any member of that Church to get away with simply smacking somebody else, the ridiculousness of defending freedom of speech as though it were acceptably harmful becomes palpable. I am not here arguing that we ought not have freedom of speech, but only that our society’s attachment to this freedom as though it should be an inalienable right is short sighted, naive, and possibly morally wrong of us. I am much more sympathetic to the Medievals who recognized that heresy was so harmful that it deserved the severity of punishment which other serious crimes deserved. Thus Aquinas says:
If forgers and malefactors are put to death by the secular power, there is much more reason for excommunicating and even putting to death one convicted of heresy.
~St. Thomas Aquinas