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The classic liberal position is that stated by John Stuart Mill:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

However, in the general interpretation of this principle there is a small problem and a big one. Anti-state libertarians often forget that Mill aimed his injunction not just at Government – as if often imagined – but also at constraints on action imposed by the private sector and by social norms, which complicates things substantially. More fundamentally, it turns out in practice that the distinction between behaviour that only has an impact on the individual and behaviour which has social externalities is rarely clear cut. One example is car seat belts. Of course, it is the person who goes through the windscreen who suffers most from not wearing a belt but there is also a much weaker but much wider impact in terms of the cost to us all from resulting NHS care and higher car insurance.

One of the most fundamental of freedoms is free speech. Here it is generally thought that the right to speak one’s mind is much more important to protect than the right not to be forced to hear things which may be construed as offensive. Nevertheless, there have been many ways in which freedom of expression has been constrained, historically in relation to decency and blasphemy, more recently in relation to attacks on racial and religious groups. Some progressives – among whom I am one – worry that we may have gone too far in protecting the feelings of groups at the expense of individual freedom of speech.

Now, some new and disquieting research adds an extra twist to the debate. The study conducted by two professors at the University of Wisconsin explored the impact of comments made in response to an on-line scientific article about the risks of nanotechnology. Here are their findings in a nutshell:

'The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.'

This was as small study and focused on a subject on which the respondents has little prior expertise (although it was also found that scientific knowledge didn’t act as a barrier to what the researchers call ‘the nasty effect’), but the idea that angry and abusive messages are more influential is clearly worrying.

This may be another example of how our actual responses defy what we would like our reactions to be. Writing on the day of Prime Minister’s questions, there is an obvious resonance with political campaigning. I remember years ago as an idealistic and naïve researcher with the Labour Party talking over a proposed campaign with a senior politician. I was about to caution against an approach which focused on attack. I said something like ‘The thing about negative campaigning’, meaning to end with ‘it turns off voters‘, but before I could finish she butted in; ‘the thing about negative campaigning is, Matthew, that it works’.

Our inconsistency is not surprising. Our basic human reactions evolved in a world before advertising and PR. In this world of authentic communication extreme reactions would be an indication of extreme feelings which would often be an accurate warning of danger. Also, parents will socialise children to assume that 'don't touch that' screamed as the infant reaches wet fingers towards a plug socket is more important that 'don't do that darling' soothingly uttered as she tries to dip her fingers in the trifle.

Whilst we might consciously dislike abuse and name calling, emotionally we react on the basis that it is likely to indicate real threats. This chimes with the way the abusive comments about a balanced article about nanotechnology increased people’s perception of the risk of that technology.

But back to freedom of expression; while I am not for a moment calling for any legal constraint on people’s right to express anger and strong opinion perhaps we should encourage stronger social opprobrium on the grounds that such expressions aren't just the business of the person expressing them but impact on the ability of their rest of us to offer and hear more calmly expressed views. Also, when it comes to structured contexts such as debates, public consultations and on line comment spaces, the research suggests that as well as constraints on things like the time a speaker has, the maximum length of a comment, and prohibitions on slander and obscenity there are grounds in common good for strong guidance on the manner in which people express their views.

I’d be very interested to hear readers’ opinions – politely expressed, of course.


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