There IS something outrageous about stamping out dissenting speech

A recent article, by Osita Nwanevu, published in Slate magazine, makes the, superficially, appealing claim that we should stamp out bigoted speech. However, in doing so, he makes a number of logical fallacies and sets up poor standards which we should hope to not find in widespread use.

Before we start, I will say that I am very much on the free speech side of things. I strongly believe free speech is the most important human right there is and that there can be as, without the ability to freely discuss and debate ideas, we can not even begin to entertain the notion of any other human right. The very existence of a right to life or freedom from discrimination is dependent upon one being able to express those thoughts in the first place.

I will concede that there are times when limits on free speech can be acceptable, although such limits are sometimes difficult to draw precisely. I would say that speech which calls for violence against others should not be protected as free speech and I am sure most others would agree. However, declarations of war, orders of execution and the authorisation of legal force are limited calls for violence against others which most would exempt from such an exemption.

Similarly, I would consider deliberate lies not to fall under the protection of free speech. However, a deliberate lie requires intent to deceive and so someone can say something which is false but, if they believe it, then they are not intending to deceive. Furthermore, jokes and satire can employ falsehoods with the intent to deceive but they are not something which should be banned.

What both of these cases have in common is that, by their nature, they are situations which pervert the ideals of free speech. They undermine the use of speech as the process to determine the truth. The details on if and when it is acceptable to limit free speech are, however, blurry and, as long as we recognise that we are, at best, dealing with shades of grey, then we can proceed. I will not spend my time on everything that Nwanevu wrote but will instead of focus on select sections where I intend to show logical flaws and fallacies which harm our discourse in general.

The fact that the research Murray has endorsed is regularly deployed by racists to argue that the education of black students is futile went unacknowledged.

It’s also something which is, largely, irrelevant. You can argue that the research was poorly conducted or false but you can not argue that it is wrong because people have used it to justify racism. Have we so soon forgotten Chibuihem Amalaha, the Nigerian who claimed to have scientifically proven homosexuality to be wrong? He used magnets, chemistry and maths to justify his homophobia. He was wrong but his misuse of science does not, in any way, detract from the science. It might be that the research Murray wrote about is nonsense but whether or not that is the case, the logic Nwanevu employs here can not show it.

Under liberalism in its purest form, you are permitted to promote bigotry, to argue that certain kinds of people—black people, gay people, Muslims, Jews, women—should be seen as inferior or dangerous. You are free, even, to advocate for their mistreatment and oppression. This is part of the right to free speech and expression.

Going along with that, is that you also are free to argue against those ideas. To point out their flaws and mock them for their failure to comply with reality. Furthermore it means you have the right to defend those that are perhaps otherwise seen as indefensible, i.e. to argue for the defence of sexual criminals who are unfairly restricted, as Slate has done.

This paragraph, especially when read with the one above it and a sentence which seems to imply that the reason it’s okay to disrupt Charles Murray’s speech is that he wrote a book where “he argued that blacks are less intelligent than white people” reveals something even more troubling. At no point has he said that the research cited is incorrect. While it almost certainly is, the fact that Nwanevu never states that, seems to imply that it doesn’t matter whether it is true or not; that his beliefs trump reality. That is a dangerous road to travel.

We must always be prepared to at least entertain the possibility that we are wrong. Nwanevu doesn’t allow for that. His piece is arguing that anything which goes against his beliefs, whether true or false, cannot be allowed. One doesn’t even have to choose between one’s beliefs in equality and the truth. We can surely allow a situation where the evidence shows that x is inferior to y in some manner but, based on a principle of equality, we will treat them the same regardless.

It is a great thing to have principles but when those principles conflict with reality then there is a problem. Unless we can say we would support Republican Senator James Inhofe or Republican congressman John Shimkus when their principles allow them to deny the reality of human-caused climate change then we should not support anyone denying reality due to liberal principles either. Even if those principles might be admirable.

Is this such an outrageous point of view? Is it inherently misguided to suggest some speech ought to be restricted not by law but by informal rules?

That in itself is not so outrageous. There are times and places where some speech does not belong but where laws against it would not make sense. I could imagine insults to fall into such a category. Insults should not be illegal but there should be informal rules against the use of insults in any civilised discourse. Or, in the presence of children certain speech could also be inappropriate. But what Nwanevu is proposing actually goes a lot further than that.

On a brief aside, just this week, I have started reading On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. It’s fascinating and brilliant so far and I would highly recommend it, especially to Nwavenu, as it has much more to say than I will say here. It’s just interesting that while there is a lot of focus on the laws against free speech, John Stuart Mill was also quite concerned about the informal rules which restrict free speech. These pressures from society, he argued, despite less severe punishments are more insidious, penetrate deeper and allow little to no options for recourse.

Outright violence of the kind that broke out in Middlebury has been rare among today’s activists, whose militancy, it should be said, pales dramatically in comparison to the literal terrorism of some college students in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I find this statement troubling on two levels. The first level is that, whether it is rare or not, we should condemn it. I even started this post by saying that inciting people to violence was not acceptable as free speech.

The second problem here is that just because the violence and militancy is less severe than it was previously, that doesn’t make it right. We can say things are better than they were but that doesn’t mean that they are good. Whether you agree or not might depend on whether you believe the ends justify the means but surely we can all agree that if we allow violence as a means to propagate ideas then we will only create a world filled with violence.

As of 2014, laws criminalizing offensive hate speech were on the books in 89 countries, including 84 percent of European nations. Is Spain, which bans racist speech, not a liberal state? Should we consider the state of Israel, where one can face criminal penalties for denying the Holocaust, intellectually stunted and fragile?

It’s true that, depending on how you choose to define liberalism, those restrictions might be compatible with it. It’s also true that they can, and do, serve to curtail debate on topics which are both relevant and important as well as criminalising trivial behaviour. And, while I can’t speak for those he is arguing against here, I can say that I have previously made it clear that I do not agree with hate speech laws or the many of the European restrictions of free speech. See here, here and here.

Nor is appealing to the conduct of a majority of nations any sort of argument. In fact it’s not possible to progress as a nation if you are going to assure yourself that your conduct is correct because others are doing the same thing. Someone has got to take the lead.

Why was Yiannopoulos’ invitation to CPAC rescinded? Because he held beliefs that offended and disgusted. When students oppose speakers on similar grounds, hacks shriek about thought-policing. Let’s imagine he had taken the opportunity at CPAC to expand on his controversial views—surely attendees could have learned something valuable from a free, open, and lively debate on whether raping children is in fact OK.

This paragraph has several things wrong with it and will take some time to unpack. I don’t know all the detail about Milo Yiannopoulos, I’ve heard a bit in passing but I don’t follow all the ins and outs of the situation. Let’s just stick to what Nwanevu himself has presented.

Nwanevu presented a straw man. He says here how Yiannopoulos is advocating raping children, a highly emotive topic that few would disagree is wrong. However, just in the paragraph above he writes that “Yiannopoulos believes children as young as 13 can consent to sex with adults.” Now, one can certainly disagree with that but it is important that Nwanevu has somehow jumped from Yiannopoulos saying that children can consent to Yiannopoulos saying that it is okay rape children. Those are two separate and very different positions and it is most disingenuous to try switch them like that.

Secondly, while I think Nwanevu is being sarcastic when he says “attendees could have learned something valuable from a free, open, and lively debate on whether raping children is in fact OK,” a discussion on consent in such situations would not be a bad idea. We’re talking about a time when Bangladesh is considering special cases where children can be married no matter how young! This is also an issue in Europe where child brides from Syria have caused some controversy. There seems to have been a surprising resolution to a child bride case in Sweden this year but I couldn’t find any particularly reliable sources.

Even casting aside the straw man argument and the fact that such debates can be of benefit at the current time, we see that Nwanevu has also endorsed the genetic fallacy; judging ideas by where they came from rather than on their own merits.  Just because Yiannopoulos has offensive beliefs on the subject of children does not necessarily mean that he should not be allowed to speak on other subjects. To use a, hopefully, less emotive example, we can turn to Peter Singer.

Peter Singer is a well-known philosopher for his work on ethics. That includes his efforts promoting animal rights as well as his views of post-birth abortion. However, at an event where his TED talk on effective altruism—using your resources to best help society—was to be screened followed by a Skype Q&A with him, there were protests which disrupted the event because of his views on euthanasia. But, his views on that topic are irrelevant to the topic at hand and so, even if you disagreed with his stance on ethanasia, there was no need to object to his presentation on effective altruism.

This, I think, comes from a misguided hope that public personalities are perfect and we need to agree with everything that they say. That will never be the case. You will agree with some people on some topics and disagree with them on others but just because you disagree on some things does not invalidate what they have to say about others.

This is, to borrow a phrase, a time for choosing. In the Trump era, should we side with those who insist that the bigoted must traipse unhindered through our halls of learning? Or should we dare to disagree?

No one is suggesting that bigots should traipse unhindered. We should absolutely oppose bigotry but that bigotry should be opposed through argument, not by suppressing the speech of those with whom we disagree. I always find myself cautious of those that wish to suppress debate as it brings a nagging feeling to my mind that they are doing so because they do not have any arguments to present.

It is very easy to stand in a position of power and deny others but we should not forget to entertain the possibility that our beliefs could be wrong or that one day we might find ourselves in the minority. In such a situation, I am sure we would wish the freedom to make our own case for our beliefs. I will just finish with a quotation from from John Stuart Mill.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

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One thought on “There IS something outrageous about stamping out dissenting speech

  1. Pingback: Book list 2017 | Evidence & Reason

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