Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Some Thoughts on Freedom of Speech in Our Polarized Society

If we care about the founding principles of this country and the values that many have fought and died for, we will stand up (or take a knee?) for the legal right of all citizens to make nonviolent political statements through words and gesture, especially if those statements criticize the government (since the freedom of speech means nothing if not the freedom to criticize the government), and even if we personally think the criticism is misguided. If the statement offends us, we have the freedom to explain why; gratitude for that freedom should inspire us to affirm the right of others to say what offended us without fear of legal punishment.

None of this means any of us has a duty to provide a platform for speech that we think is misguided or wrong. None of it means we are obligated to cut short our time at the microphone to make room for ideas we think are harmful. Part of freedom of speech lies precisely in this right to decide whose voices we use our power to amplify. Another part of freedom of speech lies in the right to vocally denounce and protest the speech of others. This can mean refusing to clear the stage for someone else--refusing, in other words, to cede to them a space to speak without competing voices to distract attention.

We have the right to be a competing or distracting voice.

But the question of rights is distinct from the question of what is the morally best and wisest way to exercise those rights. There are things I have a right to do that I shouldn't do. While my freedom of speech gives me the right to denounce what someone else says based entirely on an unfair misconstrual of their views, that doesn't mean I should.

I should probably try to understand what another person means to say before I denounce it. If another person isn't preaching hate, I might want to hear them out. If good will and human understanding and the cause of justice can be advanced by giving an opposing viewpoint a seat at my table or an hour on my platform, then perhaps I should do that even if I have a right not to.

I should probably make decisions about who to allow onto my platform in ways that enable me to listen to people outside my echo chamber, even though I have a right to shut them out. I should probably also protect myself and others from speech that is just about attacking or degrading me or others--protect myself by refusing to give it a platform. And I should probably make a sincere effort to tell the difference between speech that challenges my beliefs and speech that is just verbal abuse.

The flip side of the freedom of speech is the freedom to listen. The most basic and fundamental way I can amplify another's voice is to turn my attention to it. The freedom of speech is thus inextricably bound up with the freedom to decide who we listen to and why.

And just as with the freedom of speech, we should use this freedom to listen wisely. Cultivating that wisdom is a personal responsibility. One of my most basic convictions about wise listening is this: if people are honestly sharing something of themselves--their values, their experiences, their feelings, their stories, their perspectives and ideas--that calls for more attentive listening than when people are simply repeating party-line talking points as a display of group allegiance or are simply making judgments about others.

When people are simply repeating others' talking points or putting others down, asking honest questions can sometimes inspired them to share of themselves. And this can move us beyond speech that functions as little more than displaying allegiance to "us" while denouncing "them," and towards speech that advances human understanding and community.

What would it look like if we all made the commitment both to protect the freedom of speech and to use that freedom--and the paired freedom to listen--as wisely as we know how? (Such a commitment, by the way, is not a commitment to judging other people for being bad at exercising these freedoms well; it is, rather, a commitment to endeavoring in our own lives to use these freedoms wisely.)


  1. I hope you realize that in the current climate, defending free speech puts you on the Right. You could easily find yourself as a university professor facing charges of "white supremacy" and "racism," even if you are guilty of neither.

    1. I like to think that the vast majority of Americans, on the left and the right, can and do affirm the right to free speech--including the freedom to criticize or even denounce what others use their freedom of speech to say (the targets of such criticism sometimes claim that their freedom of speech is being challenged simply by being subject to criticism, but that is a confusion in the heat of the moment that I hope they recognize as confusion in their more sober and reflective moments).

      The idea that the left as a whole is rabidly labeling people as overt racists for defending free speech strikes me as wildly false--perhaps a mischaracterization based on profound confusion ( a lot of people, I have learned, are deeply, deeply confused when they try to think about these things), perhaps a deliberate mischaracterization introduced to vilify opponents and paint them as anti-American, perhaps some combination of both.

      I would not be surprises if something like the following happened fairly often: Left-leaning Abe makes a comment about the structural and cultural racism in society and the way that it amplifies ill-informed opinions by those who enjoy privilege. He points to a particular example. Right-leaning Ben, who thinks of racism as essentially personal and who agrees with the opinion Abe uses as an example, takes the comment as saying that voicing that opinion is overtly racist, even though that's not what Abe said. Ben thus thinks Abe's comment amounts to labeling HIM as an overt white supremacist for holding the opinion. He becomes offended and responds defensively. Abe, who has little patience with such things, denounces Ben for being blind to systemic racism and reacting with defensiveness rather than trying to understand or trying to taking responsibility for making things better. Ben says people have a right to state opinions like the ones Abe highlighted. Abe says his point is that systemic racism is what hands THAT guy a microphone to voice those opinions even thought he knows nothing and more informed voices are deprived of a public platform. Ben, furious, walks away convinced that Abe thinks people shouldn't be allowed to voice the kinds of opinions Abe was talking about.

      In any event, like all falsehoods, it doesn't become true by repeating it. It IS true that some antifa and anarchist activists, who are identified as far left, have attempted to create chaos to silence far right voices. It is also true that mainstream liberals have sought to distance themselves from this practice even as they resist asserting false-equivalencies between Nazi hate and testosterone-fueled excess in responding to Nazi hate. In my experience, these efforts at distancing are noticed and appreciated by mainstream conservatives but ignored by alt-right and far-right radicals who are motivated to paint the entire political left in terms of these few extremists. The freedom of speech protects their right to engage is such gross misrepresentation of whole classes of people--and the freedom of speech of the rest of us protects our right to point out just how out-of-touch with reality these misrepresentations are.

  2. Have you forgotten the shit-storm at Evergreen where the professor found himself the object of a witch hunt, because he dared questioned the idea that whites should leave campus for a day? The snowflakes he was up against expressed their disdain for "free speech."

    Systemic racism, blah blah blah. Another white progressive making an excuse for black pathology. Instead of encouraging the community to not have kids out of wedlock, to stay in school, to not commit crime, whites are blamed. Does it bother you a little, just a little that you may be infantalizing an entire people?

    1. Your first paragraph brings up the recent Evergreen case, which falls squarely within the scope of things I was talking about and doesn't conflict with anything I would affirm. Prof. Weinstein was not accused of being a racist for defending free speech. He was accused of being a racist for the things he said. He exercised his free speech to make certain comments, and others exercised their free speech to call those comments racist. The alt-right then used their free speech to make an internal dispute at Evergreen into a national firestorm that got in the way of the members of that community working out their disagreement. One issue that did arise was whether protesters of Weinstein and the college engaged in something similar to what antifa activists have done: sowing chaos to silence far-right voices. The college judged that 80 students engaged in forms of protest that warranted sanction--so it's possible that, like those cases in my earlier comment, some of the Evergreen protests fall into the class of things that, while not violations of the right to free expression, are a form of expression that exceeds what people of both the left and right generally find acceptable.

      The question in this case is not about suppression of the right to free speech, since that didn't happen, but about wise and unwise ways to use free speech. I think many in this case used their speech unwisely. Weinstein and his wife resigned from the college as part of a settlement of a lawsuit against the college (the Weinsteins walked away with about half a million $); but the lawsuit was not about their freedom of speech being curt-tailed. It was about the college's failure to protect them from harassment. In other words, it was the Weinsteins who were the only ones claiming that speech should have been legally constrained (in this case, because they claimed the speech crossed the line into harassment). I don't know enough to say whether they are right that some student expression crossed beyond what free speech allows and so should have been restrict. The point is that no one accused Weinstein of being a racist for defending free speech (they accused him of being a racist for what he said); but Weinstein did accuse the college of not sufficiently restricting the speech of the students. In short, there is essentially nothing in the Evergreen case that even comes close to supporting your contention that it functions as a countereample to anything I have said. As far as I can tell, your remark is rooted in pure confusion.

      Reread my original post more carefully, and think through what you say more carefully, and you might avoid these kinds of embarrassing confusions in the future.

      As to your second paragraph, I suspect it is born out of a similar confusion combined with a willful dismissal of ideas you haven't taken the time to try to understand. The suggestion that concern the impact of systemic injustice amounts to blaming whites and somehow infantilizes the victims certainly smacks of deeply muddled thinking--but I can't tell for sure, because in lieu of actually saying anything of substance, you have hidden behind derisive name-calling and the invocation of racist stereotypes. You may be more at home commenting on a blog that isn't hosted by a philosopher.

      That's for you to decide. One of the things I need to decide, as part of my exercise of my free speech, is whose voice to give a platform to. As I note in the original post, free speech does not mean the freedom to demand that others amplify your voice. In the future, remarks that I judge to be as unhelpful, philosophically confused, and morally odious as your second paragraph will be deleted. If you claim that this violates your freedom of speech, then I invite you to reread my original post again.

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