Free Speech But At What Cost?

a dialogue between

Daniel Appiah & James Soderholm

JS: I just heard a lecture by Professor Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, who was roundly criticized by many of her colleagues for publishing an opinion/editorial piece about the cultural and ethical superiority of bourgeois values of the 1950s. Social media and the press raked her over their instantly hot coals and in almost every case she was called names (‘racist’, ‘xenophobe’, ‘white supremacist’—all the usual suspects) but very few people addressed her actual arguments. It was more spite than intelligent, pointed criticism, more attitude than argument, more resentment than reason. In her lecture, Professor Wax often referred to the hateful name-calling of current public discourse and at one point she responded to the idea that the people doing this were exercising their right to free speech, as they will often claim if challenged. Wax said, “Just because you have the right to say hateful things about people doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.” What do you think about her remark and the issue of free speech at universities, and the abuse of free speech overall? And should the UK finally hammer out something like the First Amendment to the US Constitution? But if the UK did this, would that established right to free speech enable some to be even more abusive?

DA: Professor Wax’s remark serves as a helpful moral mantra for those engaged in any civil discourse. However, to those who abuse free speech and partake in ad hominem attacks, the rightness and wrongness of a speech act is entirely by the way compared to the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a speech act. What I mean by this is that the nature of their response is entirely contingent on perceived harms. To the civil and rational debater, Wax’s criticism of “the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks” as disadvantageous to social mobility and a harmonious society is a value judgement on a matter of culture. As such, the appropriate response would be to interrogate said value judgement on a rational and evidential basis. However, those who deem personal attacks on Professor Wax herself as appropriate do so because they judge her remarks to be a deliberate personal attack on inner-city blacks both as a community and as individual victims. This bastardised just war theory for civil discourse creates a climate of proportionality whereby any response can be deemed appropriate so long as one can identify the extent of harms of a speech act. In a world where personal experience is sacrosanct, there is no end to the extent of subjective harms, and therefore no end to the extent of appropriate response.

As to a British First Amendment, the nature of such a codified provision can never sufficiently protect people’s right to free speech in the 21st century. It is all very well for the government to commit to never abridge the freedom of speech, but the great danger to free speech is no longer the government in itself, but other people. Those with fringe opinions do not fear government prosecution. They instead fear the wrath of the Twitterati that wrecks careers and lives on a whim, with no regard for debate. The online arena has become a modern-day Salem. Trials are brutal and swift, and any calls for civility and rationality serves as mere proof of one’s guilt. For, in this online culture, to give any credence to non-conforming opinion is to legitimise that opinion. A First Amendment would not make the mob any less vicious, merely empower them in their actions, adding another righteous free speech feather to their moral cap. Speech is no longer judged on its moral rightness, but its ‘right on’-ness; so long as the abusers of free speech have a “just” cause, almost any action is permissible in service of that cause. Most people, even the abusers of free speech, believe that discourse should be broadly polite and civil. Even so, this is only adhered to up until the point that they feel that someone is impolite or uncivil towards themselves. Unfortunately, increasingly few people are willing to take the moral highroad in civil discourse. When confronted with their own abusive actions, they beg that the lord make them chaste, but not yet.

JS: I wonder what John Stuart Mill would say about the phrase ‘entirely contingent upon perceived harm’? That touchiness (no other word comes to mind) is both cause and effect of the ‘post-truth’ era we live in, where one’s emotional response to something determine its truth. That hyper-emotionalism is the death of any idea of the truth, rationally-conceived back to Plato. How close is ‘perceived harm’ to ‘self harm’? I think Roger Scruton has recently referred to ‘the art of taking offense’. It is a low art. If someone insists on being wounded by my words, what recourse have I? In fact, I have recently been on the offended side of the Twitterati and within four hours of being lied about by a malicious student I was in The Guardian, my stainless career besmirched on Google as long as pixels dance before the eyes. And if I take offense at the offence of those who wronged and damned me, then what? But it never seems to turn out that way. This little language game of taking offense seems to run only one way. Unless one wants to sue to libel. Is there any way out of the thicket of post-truth? Or are we going to have to live in world of abject emotionalism and strategically wounded feelings? Or will there be a concerted effort amongst rational younger people to insist on civil discourse even at the cost of having almost no friends or colleagues?

DA: I would make a foray into the ancient Greek conception of pathos. The hyper-emotionalism of which you speak brings to mind the performative milieu in which we live, and the rhetorical utility of pathos. All the world’s a stage, and the private and public spheres are increasingly indistinguishably performative. Scruton is right to call the taking of offence an art. It is pantomime: an exaggerated, self-referential acting out of victim grievances. And like any engrossed artist, they must suffer for their art – but more importantly, be seen to suffer. The power of this suffering is manifest when pathos verges on pathology. He who is seen to suffer greatest is granted a kind of extrinsic pathology by the audience, a legitimacy to their art. This is a theme which has gained credence under the banner of ‘intersectionality’, which I think explains the emphasis on ‘validation’ and ‘legitimisation’ that runs through that victimology. In absence of such pathologies, ‘perceived harm’ and ‘self harm’ go hand in hand; what better way to advance your performance than to perceive for oneself a particularly pathetic (in the traditional sense) harm. And what if we were to deny or merely question the veracity of said harms and pathologies? Then, one is accused of being the exact cause of that pathology, the disease itself that needs to be suppressed and stamped out. How do we dig out of the pit of this new preference utilitarianism in which the victim agents wield seemingly boundless influence? To come back to Mill, what status do specifically perceived harms possess in the Harm Principle of the liberal doctrine? Should we, like Mill, advocate certain moral harms as necessary for intellectual progress? The antidote to the new emotionalism appears to be the affirmation of the distinction between perceived harm and harms that encroach on personal liberty. Easier said than done when one’s ideological opponents are playing an entirely different ball game (or rather, language game).

JS: I think what we are witnessing—or forced to be an audience to—is perhaps a parody of venerable pathos. I associate pathos with actual feeling, with deep emotion and with imaginative flights of sympathy into the suffering of another. Both Oedipus and Antigone generate true pathos. The current cult of wounded feelings traffics mostly in fake/d feeling, with shallow emotionalism and with almost no attempt to imagine the suffering of anyone other than oneself. If this is a new language game, then I don’t want to play. The winner is pre-determined by the early triumphalism of his or her emotions. We are not far off what parents used to call ‘throwing a temper tantrum’—a lavishly ugly performance one associates with spoilt 3-year olds.

Tell me more about the ‘morals harms necessary for intellectual progress’. That sounds a little bit like The Unsafe Space we have recently created, a place to challenge the ideological complacency—and emotional fragility—of many students. I also have to say that turning one’s status as a victim into a virtue (a signal virtue, so to speak) reminds one of what Nietzsche called ‘slave morality’ and associated with the abject servility of Christianity. Is the new Social Justice Warrior creed a religion without God?

DA: Nietzsche’s slaves are not merely composite of those that turn victimhood into virtue, they are said also to possess a soul which “squints”, and a spirit which “loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment”; an apt description of the emotionalists’ recession into aspects of themselves as individuals and over-reliance on their own experiences when engaged in intellectual debate. This is the new narcissism which contaminates the dialectic.

The Unsafe Space is a perfect name for a project which aims to counter and unsettle political and moral positions that most take for granted. Indeed, it is our duty to do so. Jeremy Waldron draws out Mill’s position in his essay Mill and the Value of Moral Distress. For Mill, there is not just an emphasis on what ideas we hold, but on the way we hold them. As Waldron explains, the most entrenched and unchallenged opinions ‘take on the character of an empty prejudice or “a few phrases learned by rote.”’ Whether it be ‘victim blaming’, ‘problematic’, or the various ‘phobias’ and ‘-isms’, all stop us from thinking and turn us into regurgitant machines (as Orwell, true to form, forewarned). The confrontation of these complacencies serves to either rout out poor ideas, or to enrich extant ones. Even if all of society agreed on certain moral judgements, it would be our duty to speak against them as a matter of principle in order to be sure of their coherence. I’m inclined to agree that the emotionalist and social justice creed is akin to a religion. However, as Mill recognised, even the Roman Catholic Church in its apparent intolerances allowed the hearing of an advocatus diaboli or ‘devil’s advocate’ to speak against the canonisation of saints. Christianity operates on the fallibility of man whereas the emotionalist argument relies on the infallibility of experience and of the victim. To err is human, and to reject this humanity is to suppose oneself a God. Do we have here a religion of the self?

JS: I think you’ve hit on something profoundly important: a zealous adherence to an unreflective doctrine. That sounds awfully close to religion, any religion. And you’re right to cite Mill’s modest applause for the Catholic Church for having the courage to invite someone to make the best possible case against a candidate’s canonisation. Christopher Hitchens got there too late when he advocated against Mother Teresa in his book, The Missionary Position (1995). In fact, Hitchens called himself the ‘devil’s advocate’ in 2001 when he testified before the Washington Archdiocese, which was considering the evidence for Mother Teresa’s sainthood.

Where have all the devil’s advocates gone? There are a handful of journalist in our near my generation who are appalled by the abuses of free expression and the zealotry of the social justice warriors, but I fear in your generation there are fewer and fewer people who have the training or inclination to question current left orthodoxy and the political pathologising of all human behaviour. 9 or 10 universities in the UK are in favour of restricting free speech and 63% of students claimed they believed in ‘no-platforming’ controversial speakers (on the right). Do you have any first-hand experience that confirms these grim figures?

DA: The figures do not surprise me. An unconscionable number of people express a willingness to ban speakers they do not like out of hand. If everyone from across the moral and ideological spectrum were to act in the same way, no speakers at all would be allowed on university campuses. The problem we have is the disproportionality of banned or restricted speakers that are right-of-centre. I have even heard of ministers of the Crown being denied permission to speak on campuses! This is largely unsurprising given that academia, as a rule, is more highly populated by those that are left-of-centre, hence why free speech tends to be unfairly branded as a ‘right wing issue’.

On the part of the universities, I think there is a fear that shadows their hand in the matter of no-platforming, namely a fear of the students. The current love affair with ‘well-being’ makes administrators servile to the emotionalists’ cries. So too, an almost palpable guilt that students are currently paying fees of up to £9,250 means that university has become seen as a transaction rather than an endeavour. Both have given rise to a comfort culture in which intellectualism has become incidental; a desert in which provoking questions are desiccated by indifference, what I informally call the ‘silence of the seminar’ – a quietus to academic rigour.

The pathologized nature of current political debate means that many go on thinking that there is something inherently wrong with their political and moral opponents as people, leading to a semi-conscious prejudice that they are somehow less human. As such, the righteous feel they should not have to discuss opposing opinions, nor play devil’s advocate to their own convictions. As you hinted at, it is a worrying prospect especially for the future of journalism. But how to wake from this critical stupor? Need we on our university campuses debater and demagogue alike?

JS: As of this writing, this dialogue, I am not confident that universities which increasingly purvey the ‘silence of the seminar’ are going to be effective stewards of a Western culture that many of them seem to despise even as they snuggle up to its tolerance of them. If the university culture spreads to the culture at large and to national legislatures—as it has done in Canada—then various freedoms will be sacrificed on the altar on a new authoritarianism, complete with witch-hunts, informants, gulags and all the rest that repressive regimes cheerfully establish. How the old ‘Left’ came to this intolerance and censorial arrogance is almost beyond diagnosis. Any thoughts on the genealogy of this travesty of old-fashioned Liberalism?

DA: The scope of this culture is endless. The ‘micro-aggression’ provides new and wonderfully baffling ground on which to restrict personal freedom. Some of what the term highlights is perfectly legitimate, essentially advocating polite and civil discourse particularly around issues of race. However, when it is spun out to its illogical conclusion, we arrive at a stage where mere facial expressions can be seen as harmful. It would be laughable were it not so prescient. I have been informally reprimanded after an academic discussion for my incredulous facial expression as a fellow student uttered the phrase “hegemonic calculus as formulated by Immanuel Kant” (in reference to the hedonic calculus as formulated by Jeremy Bentham). Never did I think that I would have to defend the freedom of that kind of expression!

The genealogy of this movement appears to be increasingly paradoxical. I hope the sense of irony is not lost on UC Berkeley that while so many protests and counter-protests of right-wing speakers have occurred around that campus during the course of 2017, 50 years ago it was Berkeley which was at the centre of the Free Speech Movement. The largely left-of-centre movement arose as administrators banned political information tables and on-campus political advocacy after concerns about off-campus demonstrations. The subsequent sit-ins and protests aimed to re-establish political spaces in which students could exercise their basic intellectual freedoms on campus. Dare I say they advocated the sort of ‘unsafe space’ to which you aspire, where students could advocate and speak about any cause or political ideology they wished within a free marketplace of ideas.

That heroic movement saw students suspended and arrested for their beliefs. What is striking to me is the contrast with the Berkeley protests of today. Notice that in photographs of the Free Speech Movement protests, none attempts to hide their identity behind balaclava or bandana. I think the power and conviction of that movement lay in its counter-cultural spirit, but paradoxically a kind of social authoritarianism of the ‘oppressed’ has become the new established culture. It escapes me how a movement can claim such counter-cultural status when the vocabulary and ideology have become so embedded within certain sections of society.

JS: The paradoxes and ironies are unrelenting. And even Orwell did not imagine what is effectively the ‘face police’ or ‘inspectors of physiognomy’. That anecdote you told brings a new meaning to idea of taking something at ‘face value’. So much for ‘free expression’. And yet, once again, it is remarkable that we do not take offense at the instantly –manufactured offense of others. Why is that? Why can one not say: your being offended about such a ridiculous thing—that your own ignorance brought on—offends me…? It is because we refuse to play such a childish game? What would happen if you simply corrected the student in question in the most matter-of-fact way? It’s as if there are no longer any standards for good manners and common sense. When I was a student I would have been embarrassed but grateful to have been instantly corrected if I said had something so obviously stupid and ill-informed. I wonder if students in STEM subjects have the time and inclination for these ideological games. Are the humanities the seed-bed for all this political posturing? The blind spot regarding free speech is so large it is hard to believe that people cannot, or will not, see it. If ignorance is wilful, how can one overcome it?

DA: Correcting someone, regardless of matter-of-factness, is a minefield in itself. If one’s correction is judged to be too patronising you can now be accused of ‘mansplaining’. Again, I understand where this phrase comes from. Nobody likes to have things explained to them as if they were a child or their ignorance assumed, but that phrase now applies to any who explains, corrects, or dares to simplify information in an authoritative voice. I think this may be why there is widespread ‘upspeak’ among the ideological young whereby every statement sounds like a question. Does this come from a rational insecurity, with every sentence in need of validation? A lot of the time it seems that ‘mansplaining’ is merely the crime of rational confidence. The issue with reciprocal offence is that it is a fixed game. No person can prove the extent of their offence, so instead some rely on perceived societal structures to compete in the victim calculus. If I am black, my offence is more valid than that of a white person because of historical oppression; if I were a woman, my offence would be more valid than that of a man because of systemic oppression; etc. etc. Regardless of whether the person has actually suffered ‘oppression’ (a word I hesitate to use since its over-use has let it pass out of meaning), the very fact of their biology and membership of such a group allocates them a share of the collective power of victimhood, a kind of social reparations.

I think that STEM students tend not to play such games within their disciplines given STEM’s scientific nature, but they are not impermeable to these notions. This was most evident in the ‘Decolonise Science’ campaign in which students at the University of Capetown implored science faculty to acknowledge practices of illusion and superstition on a par with the most seminal theories of western science, purely on the basis of race and cultural power rather than on scientific efficacy. No discipline is immune.

JS: Who could have imagined that ‘rational confidence’ could be a kind of crime, perhaps a thought-crime? Just how Orwellian is our absurdly censorial world becoming? As for the shame and the sham of ‘identity politics,’ I think I must have nosed it long ago when I wrote the following poem and spilt it over a vaguely-disapproving audience in some ratty pub in Milwaukee 20 years ago. It’s mercifully short, like my temper:

I am a dead
Waiting to happen.

Any final thoughts about how best to stand up to this growing weakness that is passing itself off as a strength, this vice of ignorance and close-mindedness that is pretending to be the virtue of a higher justice and inclusiveness?

DA: If I might, I will construct my coda to this dialogue with selected passages from the essays Stoicism and Health and ‘Useless Knowledge’ by Bertrand Russell.

In a most unsatisfactory way, the obvious, and perhaps in today’s world the most individually radical, antidote to the piecemeal culture we have charted is to advocate what Russell called a ‘stoic self-command’. The prevailing theme behind what we have discussed is one of a new uber-individualism intermingling with unpleasant collectivism; there exists in our culture a sanctity of the individual experience wedded to a seldom questioned calculus of societal power. Of course, like so many of the paradoxes we have wrestled with, the collective aspects contradict the individual ones.

As Russell advocated, regarding how best to let children deal with trauma, we need a certain kind of stoicism which doesn’t minimise trauma’s importance, but helps to instil a pride in rising above it. For those whom profess to have taken a deep offence, a “resolute contemplation of the terrifying object is the only possible treatment.” The comfort culture from which the new emotionalism is born is partly to blame, but as Russell recognised, we must be careful not to be complacent in the mitigation of genuine suffering.

“It is impossible to make the whole of life soft and pleasant, and therefore human beings must be capable of an attitude suitable to the unpleasant portions; but we must try to bring this about with as little encouragement to cruelty as possible.”

Underpinning all of this is a discontent with rational method. We need debate and scrutiny of method of argument just as much as content. The issues that free-speech advocates have raised with so many of the emotionalists’ discourses is not necessarily the notion of their offence, but how this offence is then used as a faux-rational tool.

Life is full of genuine emotional harms, but to keep us intellectually honest, and rationally pure, we must affirm that these harms can be mastered.

From the final paragraphs of ‘Useless’ Knowledge, I relinquish my final words to Russell:

“The world at present is full of angry self-centred groups, each willing to destroy civilisation rather than yield an inch. To this narrowness, no amount of technical instruction will provide an antidote… It is from large perceptions combined with impersonal emotion that wisdom most readily springs.”

JS: I would argue that ‘uber-individualism’ is a parody of ‘uber’ and of ‘individualism’ as I understand those words. Nietzsche would have nothing but contempt for the spectacle of university students shouting ‘safety’ and ‘shame’ (as they sometimes do in the US) at public lectures when they have decided in advance that the invited speaker offends them. When Nietzsche was at university he was reading 12 hours every day to become one the most fiercely individual philosopher of the last 2400 years. There is no question that Nietzsche would consider the new Left orthodoxy and its internet army a rabble or a herd. How very far universities now seem to be from Nietzsche’s remark: “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

DA: The university is the key. We have here a crucial turning point for tertiary education. As we have discussed, the intellectually barbarous ideology that has stifled free speech has leaked out of the university campuses into wider society. The university has become the wrong kind of sanctuary: a sanctuary from society and its harms rather than a sanctuary to discover and examine the most sublime and the most disturbing ideas. If the limits of our language mean the limits of our world, I bid students not be dumb, and instead to speak their minds to regain mastery over themselves and therefore over their intellectual world. By way of advice, I offer only the old Euripidean adage:

“Who dares not speak his free thoughts is a slave.”