Can we please distinguish between speech and actions?

The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.

Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action.

Speech is not violence!

The argument goes that if speech is sufficiently “hateful” then it is equivalent to causing physical harm and is thus “violence”. Given sufficient confidence in the righteousness of ones own ideology, anything that disputes that ideology is obviously harmful to society and so can be labelled “hate speech”, the trendy modern term for blasphemy.

This reasoning can be illustrated by protesters smearing themselves with fake blood in order to emphasize how hateful and violent the speaker is. At that any decent speaker should simply shut up. If he doesn’t then quite obviously he is a fascist and so it becomes acceptable to use force to prevent his “violence”.

Thus one can legitimately punch anyone you consider to be a Nazi — an argument that is now seriously advanced by people who still consider themselves to be liberals. And yet, the tactic of using violence (actual violence!) to clamp down on political opponents is the very hallmark of fascism, an irony that is completely lost on them.

So let’s keep the distinction clear: speech is not violence. As has been emphasized many times, anodyne speech that offends no-one is not speech that needs protection. If free speech is to mean anything it must include speech that you find hurtful and insulting. If you don’t like that idea then at least have the honesty to state plainly that you are against free speech and much prefer regulated speech (provided, of course, that it is you who gets to do the regulating).

Religious freedom covers speech and not actions!

The doctrine of religious freedom is central to Enlightenment values. But, it needs to be clearly understood that religious freedom extends only to speech, not to actions, coupled with the doctrine that you should not be imposed upon for religious reasons.

That means that religious freedom is not a licence to discriminate against people. Many religious people want their freedom to be extended to actions, so that they don’t have to obey the usual rules that everyone else has to obey if they feel that complying would be against their religion. That concept is religious privilege not religious freedom.

Extending religious privilege to actions would be incompatible with the basic principle of equal citizenship and equality under the law. If others are expected to obey a law then so should religious believers. If a law is considered too burdensome to impose on a believer then nor should it be imposed on others. Any other doctrine says that the feelings and consciences of the religious count for more than the feelings and consciences of the non-religious, who are thus second-class citizens with fewer rights.

Understanding religious freedom as being about speech makes the concept clear and easily implemented. Extending it to actions leads to a quagmire. That would require ways of determining what counts as a “religion” and as a “religious” belief (and if you extend the concept to other philosophical beliefs then that just makes the problem worse). It also requires the state to pronounce on what a religion does or does not require, and thus what are “true” versions of a religion. After that, it then requires the state to weigh up the demands of the religion against the wider public interest and reach some adjudication. All of that cannot be done in any sensible or objective way, and is a whole area that the state should simply stay out of.

Discrimination is an action, not speech!

Lastly, to discriminate against someone is an action. If you decline to put someone on the short-list for a job because they are black, or refuse to admit children to a school owing to their parents’ religion, then you are discriminating. But simply criticising someone or making offensive remarks about a religion is not discrimination, it is speech.

This matters since discrimination is often (and rightly) illegal nowadays. There is a tendency, though, for people to complain, on hearing an offensive or hurtful remark, “that’s discriminatory” or “he’s discriminating against me”, as though anti-discrimination laws had now placed restrictions on speech. We should be clear, it is the action of discriminating against people in ways that disadvantage them that is often wrong. But, the right to freely express and criticise ideas, even if they upset or offend someone, should be maintained.

5 thoughts on “Can we please distinguish between speech and actions?

  1. Paul Braterman

    Not so easy. alas, though I agree that hate speech laws are wrong for many reasons. Consider the publicsation of names and home addresses of abortion providers in the US, in conjunction with assertions that abortion is murder and graphic misdescriptions of procedures. We would probably agree that this constitutes an action, being in reality a call to harassment or even, as has happened, assassination, but this is not always such an obvious judgment call.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Paul, yes, good point. I would agree that making public the home addresses of abortion providers sounds more like an “action” and a call to harassment or violence, since one could fully make any argument against them without supplying the addresses. Things like libel are also accepted as restrictions on free speech.

    2. Paul Braterman

      Thanks. The more I think about it, the more co mplex it seems. Speech is intended to have consequences (even trivial consequences, like social lubrication), otherwise whyu bother? And responses to speech one dislikes can range from thinking the less of the speaker through showing anger to formnal or informal unfriending to penalties such as suspension from work to legal penalties. Situation is also relevant; what if someone burnt a Koran in an Indian city on the verge of communal riots? We have a multidimensional array of possibilities, not a siple binary distinction between speech and action.

      I detest hate speech laws, but see a role for public order laws in such circumstances.

  2. Autumn Cote

    Would it be OK if I crodss-posted this article to There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjoyed reading your work. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.



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