The punishment for gossip: A thought experiment on freedom of expression

This thought experiment comes from the movie “Doubt”. There was a scene where the local priest, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, delivers a sermon about the sin of gossip. Below is a paraphrasing of that sermon:

A woman went to confession and met with the local parish priest. She confessed that she was guilty of gossiping about a man she hardly knew. And she asks the priest if she guilty of a sin? The priest says yes, because she is guilty of bearing false witness against her neighbour.The woman asks if she is absolved for her sin? The priest says that she must do something first. She must get a pillow from her bed, take the pillow to the roof, cut open the pillow with a knife, and visit me once this is done. She does as the priest asks.The priest asks her what happened when she cut open the pillow. She responds that pillows flew out everywhere. The priest then tells her to leave and collect every feather that flew out of the pillow. She says it can’t be done, she wouldn’t even know where to begin. The priest says “that is gossip!”.

In philosophy, the concept of freedom is often discussed. In many circles, the best way to understand freedom is non-interference. If you are not being interfered with, you are free. Hence, many will understand freedom of speech/expression as not being interfered with speaking one’s mind. And many will claim that is the end of the matter. John Stuart Mill is regularly cited defending this. Mills’ argument is roughly, that allowing everyone to voice their view without fear of legal or social punishment will most likely bring us to the truth. This is because, according to Mill, that all views will be on open display and can be challenged. And from this, the incorrect views will be exposed and the correct ones will come to be known.

The thought experiment above challenges Mills’ assumption. A claim can be made in public and be spread around much faster than attempts to fact-check or debunk it. This is exacerbated by contemporary technology and social media. However, this is a problem that has always been acknowledge. Consider this quote attributed to Johnathan Swift in 1710:

Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…

This observation is recognised in libel/slander laws. These laws are in place to punish speech that has defamed someone. Arguing against these laws on the basis that allowing all views will bring us to the truth would not convince many people.

It is beyond the scope of this post to offer the perfect balance between freedom of speech and the restriction of speech (and I am not sure myself what the perfect balance is), but this thought experiment does offer a challenge to the view that no speech should be interfered with. Simply allowing all speech free reign without consequences will not necessarily lead us to the truth.

If you are interested in political philosophy, I have recently published a book called “Contrasting Identities: Navigating Identity Politics Conversations” It is available on Amazon Kindle and/or as a hard copy through Amazon. See links below to purchase:

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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