Posted by Curt on 13 January, 2018 at 4:04 pm. 2 comments already!


The last few years have seen acrimonious public clashes about the value of free speech, with activists both on the Left and the Right accusing the other side of trying to silence them. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are, admittedly, not particularly informative terms, since there are significant differences within each camp. But each is concerned that the other is trying to silence it, whether by means of censorship or intimidation.

It is hard to be sure of the true extent of this hostility to free speech, since much of the evidence is anecdotal and, of course, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘compelling data.’ For example, much of the conflict about free speech is focused on university campuses. I have taught thousands of students in the UK, including, more recently, American students studying in London, and I have rarely encountered petulant ‘snowflakes’ crying out to be protected from offence. Nevertheless, there is plenty of credible evidence that my experience is not wholly representative. There is reason to believe that an increasing number of young people regard unbridled free speech as a threat, showing themselves to be in the grip of rigid and intolerant ways of thinking about disagreement. But what are the intellectual tendencies behind this new intolerance, and how do they creep into popular discourse? The following list is not comprehensive, but nonetheless seems to me to cover the key problems.

1. Excessive Trust in the ‘Authority’ of Strong Feelings. Angry rhetoric seems to demand acceptance just because it is angry; to question it would be an affront to the feelings of angry people. We are living in a culture that celebrates intense emotions, spreading the idea that disregarding these emotions somehow invalidates the people who experience them. Patiently trying to unpick the reasoning being angrily expressed is seen as an affront.

2. Indifference to the Principle of Charity. How often do you hear that ‘X says A, but is really saying B’? It is hard to defuse the suspicion created. For example, if you were to remark in the wake of #MeToo that some people accused of sexual assault are innocent, it may be assumed that you don’t care about the victims of assault, or that you think everyone who makes an accusation is a liar or fantasist. The inference is a non-sequitur, of course, but because there are some people who mask their indifference to victims by loudly standing up for the accused, it is assumed that you are one of them. Some people have difficulty seeing that taking complainants very seriously, and being concerned about giving the accused a fair hearing, is not a zero-sum game.

3. Guilt by Association. Make a point that is also made by a widely despised source, and many people will assume you agree with most of the other things the source says. This fails to allow that you can agree with it on one issue, without sympathising with it in general, or that you can agree with it, while having completely different reasons for doing so. You may also falsely be accused of getting your ideas from the hated outlet. In the UK, leftists will contemptuously suggest that you got your views from the Daily Mail, a popular right-wing newspaper that is hated with a vengeance by the Left. Right-wingers will sneer that you got your opinions from The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper derided by the Right. If you agree with one thing that the paper says, it is assumed that you agree with that paper’s stance across the board.

4. Normalisation of Hyperbole. This is now so pervasive that it goes unnoticed. The mainstream media regularly talk up ‘epidemics’ and ‘traumas’ – even if the mundane reality is that there has been a modest, and perhaps short-lived, incidence of a bad thing, and some people suffer some distress. If you question whether there really is an epidemic, you may be accused of denying the occurrence of the bad thing in question, since the term ‘epidemic’ is increasingly used to mean ‘incidence.’

5. The Genetic Fallacy. In textbooks on informal logic, this is roughly defined as the error of basing conclusions about a thing solely from facts about its origins. For instance, saying that ‘Man is really a hairless ape’ suggests that, because humans are descended from ape-like ancestors, humans must be ape-like. Novel versions of the genetic fallacy appear in discussions of several contentious issues.

Take, for instance, the campaign to remove ‘whiteness’ from university curricula, or at least to balance the curricula with ‘non-white’ ideas. This movement has genuine merit. If curricula were originally designed by people with power and influence, some of the ideas they promote probably reflect those people’s interests and viewpoints, to the detriment of other genuinely important perspectives. But it is easy to be led from this to another idea: that the perspectives themselves are ‘white’ and must be bad for that reason. Christianity, science, and the ideas of the Enlightenment were exported to much of the world by white European colonial powers. But it does not follow that the ideas spread by colonisation were intrinsically ‘white European ideas’ (except in the banal sense that the people exporting them were white Europeans). Nor does it follow that the ideas were bad, just because colonial rule was unjust and oppressive in numerous ways. To suppose otherwise shows something like magical thinking: anything touched by, or associated with, something bad must itself be bad.

Moreover, in certain corners of academe, the free speech ideal is being attacked for a related reason: it is oppressive. For example, in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kate Manne and Jason Stanley argue that:

The notion of freedom of speech is being co-opted by dominant social groups, distorted to serve their interests, and used to silence those who are oppressed and marginalized. All too often, when people depict others as threats to freedom of speech, what they really mean is, “Quiet!”

So, at least on one reading of this somewhat ambiguous passage, the very notion of free speech is suspect, because it is used by people who wish to maintain their dominance over others. On the other hand, perhaps the authors mean that, although the ideal of free speech is admirable, it is misused by people who want to silence the oppressed. That would suggest that the ‘dominant social groups’ do not really care about free speech at all. But if this charitable interpretation is the correct one, it isn’t clearly spelt out.

What is one to make of this? Certainly, articulate, assertive and well-educated people might express their opinions very effectively and to a wide public, making it difficult for people who lack some of these attributes to answer them. This may be partly because their parents didn’t have the money to buy them a better education. But this is hardly a good criticism of the “notion of freedom of speech.” At most, what has been shown is that more people should have freedom of speech, not fewer. And I suggest that we bring this about not by silencing discussion, but by spreading it. Curtailing speech because the speaker is privileged risks suppressing good ideas as well as bad ones, and in the long run that is good for no one.

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