Freedom of Expression and the Flight from Reason

Freedom of Expression and the Flight from Reason

Piers Benn
Piers Benn
11 min read

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.

6. Opportunistic Relativism. An opinion might appear doubtful or arbitrary, because it is only from ‘a particular perspective’ that it seems true. This observation is not entirely misguided, since it is obvious that a perspective that is shaped by a certain social background is susceptible to bias (though it is unlikely that the perspective is shaped only by that background). If a British Tory minister proclaims that the state benefits system in the UK is working well, it is certainly worth asking whether he or she has ever had to use it. But the ‘Only from the perspective of X’ rhetoric is responsible for muddying many waters. For example, to say: “It is only from the perspective of evolutionary biology that the theory of natural selection seems true” or: “It is only from the perspective of western medical science that western medicine seems efficacious” conjures up the seductive idea that there must be equally legitimate perspectives from which these things should be rejected. To ask what these alternative perspectives are, and whether they are good ones to adopt, attracts the knowing glance, the sigh and the eye-roll – for these questions naively ignore the fact that talk of what is ‘true’ and ‘good’ is indelibly tainted by some sort of supremacism.

7. A Manichean Mindset. This cannot tolerate the idea that bad things – such as racism and sexism – come in degrees. For example, some behaviour of men towards women is very sexist, while other behaviour is mildly sexist and hence not very bad. But the Manichean mindset perceives the denial that something is very bad as a denial that it is bad at all. This way of thinking is found among many mainstream commentators, frequently exemplified in right-wing TV channels in the US and left-liberal news outlets in the UK, and contributes to the normalisation of hyperbole that I referred to – which, in turn, gives fuel to moral panics.

8. The ‘Born-Again’ Experience. This is a powerful ally of the Manichean mindset. Fresh converts to belief systems can now confidently interpret their pre-conversion lives through the prism of an all-encompassing, all-explaining world-view. Every bad personal experience now ‘fits’ that new view. The convert to a fundamentalist religion now thinks that his new-found faith can perfectly explain everything that was wrong with his life up to that point: perhaps Satan caused his problems, and his conversion is the work of God. The convert to the ‘alt-right’ now ‘sees’ that all his failures and frustrations in life were caused by ‘political correctness,’ whose real aim was to belittle and silence him. Many converts to what now passes for feminism perceive the way their lives have gone as explained by an all-powerful ‘gender hierarchy,’ which only those who accept the interpretations urged by gender studies courses are equipped to detect.

Since so many things in these converts’ lives fit the proposed explanation, they now seem to confirm that explanation. As philosopher Stephen Law points out in his book Believing Bullshit, this leap is easy to make, and hard to refute, even if it is wrong. It is fertile ground for conspiracist thinking. For the underlying evil – be it ‘Satan’, ‘political correctness,’ or ‘patriarchy’ – is exceedingly cunning and well-hidden, and can be unmasked only by initiates who have internalised the necessary theories. Consequently, evidence that might disconfirm that new belief system is not sought, or if it is inadvertently found, is shoehorned into the favoured explanation, by means of immunising strategies.

9. An Absence of Mercy. When you do something wrong, the decent thing is to admit it, apologise, try to do better, and perhaps make reparations. And while the person receiving the apology may be within her rights not to accept it, it is often decent and reasonable to accept it and let go of the matter. But for constitutionally angry people, apologies are nothing but an admissions of guilt, which demand humiliating punishment. Those who hunt down ‘heretics’ and ‘deviants’ make endless demands for apologies and reparations, even though it is obvious that these remedies will never be enough. ‘Offenders’ are reduced to grovelling and even to inventing new charges against themselves, especially if they were once enthusiastic witchfinders who have found themselves hoist by their own petard.

10. Ideological Hypervigilance. The word ‘ideology,’ used colloquially, refers to social or political beliefs, but in the original Marxist context it denotes myths the real, hidden purpose of which is to justify power and hierarchy. The hypervigilance can apply to both these things. It takes the form of challenging the language used or the assumptions beneath what is said. Whether the challenges show excessive vigilance is a moot point that merits discussion. Certainly, challenges can be reasonable: for example, far fewer people than in the recent past now talk of ‘spastics,’ the ‘mentally subnormal,’ or ‘illegitimate children.’ Language like this was among the concerns in the air when the phrase ‘political correctness’ appeared in the early 1990s. Certain ways of referring to people – especially women and minorities – were deemed to, and often genuinely did, reveal a contemptuous attitude towards them, and sometimes functioned to justify their subordination. Drawing attention to this did some good, and I hope the phrase ‘political correctness’ disappears; it has outlived its usefulness and is now mostly uttered by peevish commentators and saloon bar bores.

Nevertheless, whether a form of words is denigrating, or correctly describes something undesirable, can be hard to tell. The hypervigilance shows itself in the unquestioned assumption that the words are harmful, and leads to endless demands for corrections which can make it impossible to say what needs to be said. It also holds up the flow of discussion, re-directing it into unproductive tributaries that go nowhere, and from which there is no way back, since its original subject has been forgotten.

In academia, hypervigilance takes on a more refined form, which is particularly noticeable on social media. In the ‘community’ of academics that I inhabit, there are individuals who enjoy tripping up political opponents on minor points of logic, of demanding precision where none is possible, and finding pedantic, snarky ways to insinuate that people who disagree with them are stupid or professionally incompetent. I am all for intellectual rigour and am embarrassed when shown that I have committed some gaffe. But when the dispute is all about the gaffe and not about finding a charitable way to interpret it, it leads to intellectual strutting and ‘smartness-signalling.’ Intellectuals excel at this, taking cleverness to indicate wisdom.

*     *      *

Here, then, are ten signs of the intolerant mindset. I could add more, but these explain much of the current hostility to freedom of expression and the hawkish obsession with secular ‘sin’ and ‘heresy.’ People who disagree with intolerant people, or implicitly signal their adoption of wrong opinions, are not only mistaken but wicked – and wickedness must be suppressed. Sometimes, indeed, the targets of wrath really are objectionable. The anti-fascist (‘Antifa’) movement in America is intolerant, but its targets – when they genuinely are white supremacists – are even worse. However, bearing Freudian projection in mind, we see how easily censorious fanatics detect their own vices in those they despise. “They don’t want us to speak freely, so why should we let them speak freely?” “They are full of hate, so why shouldn’t we hate them?”

J.S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’

I have long thought that the intellectual solution to this is the classical one, applicable to almost any place and time, and articulated by J. S. Mill in mid-Victorian England. For anyone wanting to understand today’s free speech debates, Mill’s On Liberty should be required reading. Mill’s arguments are not beyond criticism, and the last thing he would have wanted is for his own views to join the ossified dogmas that he so eloquently warns against. But his two most powerful arguments still stand, and have a wonderfully evergreen quality.

First, anyone who wants to stop others from expressing their opinions is, in effect, assuming his own infallibility, and is trying to deprive would-be hearers of the opportunity to decide the matter for themselves. Mill warns that an opinion being suppressed may be true, and that anyone should have the right to work out whether it is true. This is perhaps the most powerful argument for free speech, and in the current climate it deserves to be continually aired.

Second, Mill reminds us that there is usually some truth on all sides of a dispute, even when most of what is said by one side is nonsense. However awful the personality and pronouncements of Donald Trump, there is some truth in what he says. Even if some radical leftist theories are overblown, there is also truth in what they say – for instance, that we should be alert to ideological thinking, in the Marxist sense, and we should acknowledge that many people’s views are unheard because they don’t have the confidence or education to air them persuasively.

But the solution is not to abandon the idea of reason and objectivity, or silence views just because they offend. Instead, the media and institutions of learning should spread an intellectual culture of reason, and an ethical culture of patience, humility, and charity. These intellectual and ethical resources have tremendous power, and for all we know, the future of civilisation – or at least civilised discourse – will largely depend on them.

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Piers Benn

Dr Piers Benn is a Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University London Centre.