When Bad Speech Does Good
Mary Anne Franks
University of Miami School of Law
January 18, 2012
Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Vol. 43, p. 395, 2012
Free speech defenders generally treat bad speech – hateful, offensive, obscene speech – as a necessary evil, not something that should be celebrated in itself but an inevitable byproduct of a system that protects expressive flourishing. This essay instead praises the content of bad speech, arguing that the very badness of some bad speech can serve to dilute and delegitimize other forms of much more dangerous speech. To see how this is possible, it is important to differentiate between "confused" bad speech and "focused" bad speech. Confused bad speech makes declarations, targets wide-ranging or poorly defined groups, and seeks primarily to aggravate or provoke its audience. Focused bad speech issues imperatives, targets specific individuals or groups, and seeks primarily to aggregate supporters. Focused bad speech is dangerous because it can be transformed into violent action, as genocidal speech does, but it relies on a strong signal-to-noise ratio to do so. Confused bad speech can often provide beneficial "noise" to drown on focused bad speech's "signal." The more confused and noisy the variety of speech is, the harder it is for any one form of speech to emerge as a dominant discourse. Speech overload produces effects similar to "choice overload," which produces disorientation, fatigue, and general passivity. While these effects may be regrettable in many contexts, they can be beneficial in the context of violent calls to action.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 18
Keywords: hate speech, marketplace of ideas, free speech, genocide, Rwanda
Date posted: March 12, 2012 ; Last revised: March 17, 2016
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