Shouting "fire" in a Crowder theater.

Some people say that the United States is the only country that has freedom of speech. An example of such people would be the popular conservative personality Steven Crowder. His argument (which you can hear in the video below) is based on the fact that other countries have restrictions on speech that the US doesn't have. For example, in some countries it is against the law to deny the Holocaust. In this post I'm not going to argue that he is right or wrong, I am more interested in the critical thinking element involved, and wanted to use this example to illustrate how pretty simple conceptual analysis can help you evaluate an argument and identify a weak spot.

So suppose it's true that every country except the US restricts speech expressing certain views, such as denying the Holocaust. Is it a good argument to say that therefore the US is the only country that has freedom of speech? I think many people would feel it is. But if we simply clarify the concept of freedom of speech, we can easily find a weakness in the argument and construct an objection. I'll use my answer on Philosophy Stack Exchange to someone asking what exactly freedom of speech means, and whether it means the right to say anything. 

The right to say absolutely anything could be called "absolute freedom of speech", but that does not exist in any country.  

"Regular" freedom of speech is typically understood as the freedom to express ideas, constrained only by restrictions that are considered minimal and reasonable.  In the United States, for example, those restrictions include defamation, threats of or calls to violence, fraud, perjury, sometimes vulgarity, and certain time, place and manner restrictions.

There are other types of restrictions in other countries (such as hate speech laws, prohibitions on expressing sympathy for the Nazi ideology, denying the Holocaust, etc.).  Some people would argue that these would not be consistent with freedom of speech, others say that such restrictions could still be compatible with freedom of speech provided they are minimal/reasonable in scope.  But there is no clear-cut definition of "minimal" or "reasonable", so it's hard to objectively decide the issue.
Nothing particularly profound here, but once we remember the obvious fact that freedom of speech in the US doesn't mean speech with absolutely no restrictions, we can identify a natural objection to Crowder's argument. Basically, his argument has a hidden assumption, or a missing premise. 

Clarifying the concept of free speech can help identify this hidden assumption and realize that it's by no means obvious. We can then construct a reasonable objection by simply bringing that hidden assumption to light. It could go something like this: 

If you believe the US has freedom of speech, then you think some speech restrictions are perfectly compatible with freedom of speech. So pointing to a restriction that some other country has does nothing to justify the claim that there is no freedom of speech in that country. The important question is whether this restriction is compatible with free speech or not. We can't simply assume it's incompatible, so all of the work is still ahead of us.


To wrap up, let me list the main points concerning argumentation and critical thinking I wanted to illustrate with the example of analyzing the concept of free speech:
  • Clarifying a concept can bring to light unstated or unjustified assumptions of an argument.
  • These hidden assumptions may easily be not at all obvious, very hard to justify, or simply false.
  • A good objection to the argument can often be made by simply stating the unjustified assumptions.
  • A good objection doesn't need to prove the conclusion of the argument false, only to identify a hole in the logic of the argument. If a bad argument by luck arrives at a true conclusion, that doesn't make the argument good.

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