Monday, November 17, 2014

Free Speech ... One More Time Part II (Bastions of Free Speech)

In my last blog entry, I repeated some arguments I have been making for some time about what I see as the reasonable limits on free speech. If they are a tad repetitive, then, I apologize, but I did want to set out what I see as an important consideration with regard to free speech both in itself and because I believe that much of the current discourse simply lacks a connection to reality and so lacks the ability to have a positive effect on Canada.

The key points I was making were that free speech is not the right to say whatever one wants whenever one wants. There can be reasonable limits on it and those reasonable limits to not give a lie to support for it. I can support free speech and also recognize that there are some things that should not fall under its rubric (by virtual of the criminality, danger, violation of contractual obligations). This is, largely but not exclusively, contextual. One is perfectly fine for me to say in one context becomes problematic in another. It is fine for me  to product people by alerting them to a danger. Indeed, I'd view that an an obligation. It is another thing for me to endanger people for my own amusement.

Let me pick up this line of discussion to address what I see as some of the problems with the current crop of free speech advocates. These problems are several:


  • Their discussion is not inherently wrong but largely irrelevant because it is so distanced from reality as to be meaningless 
  • They fail to recognize the importance of context and treat everything as it it were an absolute
  • They are involved in a performative contradiction (their defence of free speech, I will argue, is actually and oddly a rejection of it, for some people)
  • They make silly -- not wrong but silly -- claims

I've already commented on the first point and so I won't go over it again. The second point, it seems to me, is largely self-evident and is captured by the "fire in a crowded building" illustration. But, there is an odd ethical point that strikes me as problematic in the discourse of current crop of free speech advocates. I don't want to get their argument wrong and I don't want to insult. Indeed, to do so would be a contradiction on my part and subvert the argument that I am trying to make. If I err, then, please correct me. Everyone stands to benefit from that. 

It seems to me, however, that the ethics of the current crop of free speech activists are about yelling fire in a crowded building. The ethical problem with this might relates to some of the cause celebres in the media over the last few years. Why cannot person X get on stage and insult Muslims or be racist or homophobic? Free speech, I will explain in more detail later, is as Rosa Luxemburg once said, is "freedom for the other." This is a complicated term -- more complicated than it appears -- that deserves a fuller discussion and I'll try to give it that later. Right now, what we need to understand is that Luxemburg is saying this: free speech is not egotistical. It is not about what I (Andrew Nurse) can say but about building a good society for the benefit of others. Much of the discourse of current crop of free speech advocates is egotistical in the sense that it is asks this question "why can't I say whatever I feel like?"

You see the difference? Luxemburg is saying that we need free speech to build a good and free society from which everyone will benefit. I can, and should, be first of all concerned with others and free speech is a mechanism that is good in itself but it is good in itself precisely because it is concerned with other people. It is not about getting more for me, as it were, but promoting conditions of freedom for society. The new advocates, distort this ethic and so tie free speech to a sort of individualized consumerism transposed onto culture. I want to say what I want to say and I want to say it now and ... damn others because simply having me talk is good. I might be making that point to harshly and apologies if I am but I do want to make the point. Where Luxemburg defended others rights to freedom, current free speech advocates don't. It is about what they can say; not whether or not their speech serves the public good. 

To me, this is a problem, but it is not a huge problem. In fact, I might say "fair enough" and move on if it were not for other problems. I just want to note this point because it illustrates the difference between Luxemburg and the classic defenders of free speech and those defending it (or, claiming to) today. There are other more serious problems that we should address.

First, current advocates of free speech quite oddly don't actually defend free speech. Indeed, they often oppose it. Thus, for instance, they are more than willing to defend the right of a racist or homophobe to say racist and homophobic things in the public forma, but criticize those who oppose racism and homophobia. But ... you say, they don't. They all say that they are not racist. 

Good point and true enough. But, again, it is easy to say "I am not racist."  My academic training was in social history and one of the injunctions of social history was, in effect, people vote with their feet. We need to see what people did and not just what they said. If one says one is not racist but defends the ability  of racists to make racist statements ... and then argues that is a good thing ... exactly how not racist is one? 

I'd argue this is a problem. In this case, defending the ability of racists (or, whomever) to make racist (or, whatever) comments is actually facilitating that discourse. It is providing it with a forum and ensuring a safe space from which those comments can be made. In other words, it is not a neutral political position that is simply defending free speech. It is a politically charged activity that facilitates disturbing, dangerous, and anti-humanistic discourses. 

Moreover, there are other options. Rather than simply defending free speech (and ignoring the facts of what this discourse carries with it), there are other options. One could, for instance, argue against racism, rather than simply asserting that one does not agree with it. One could say "OK, so and so just spoke, let me now tell you what was wrong with what they said." In other words, the defence of free speech, in this case, not only facilitating disturbing discourses but ignores other options to counter that discourse (which, make use of free speech) and instead looks to find some neutral political perspective -- some supposedly high moral ground -- that does not exist in the real world. 

But, the current crop of defenders of free speech often go further than this and here is where I think they have serious problems. In addition to facilitating a disturbing discourse and ignoring the options they have to do something good in that context, they actually castigate those who oppose racism. If one unreservedly supports free speech ... why not defend the ability of protestors to state what they want to state. Those who argue that racists (or whomever) should be able to say whatever they want, rarely make this same concession to protestors. But, think about this: why shouldn't they? 

Follow this line of argument. A defender of free speech says "yes, racism is destructive and wrong but I defend their right to say it because free speech is a right that must be defended." They then say something like "and so all you people who are protesting should be quiet and let that racist speak." Hmmm ... you see the contradiction. If free speech is unreservedly good and one should be able to say whatever one wants .... why draw the line at protestors? Why not defend their right to say what they want in whatever forum they want? Why only defend racists and homophobes?  

In this example, the defender of free speech will then say "but these people are trying to stop the racist from speaking and that is wrong because free speech is good." This argument doesn't work because this defender of free speech has already made the case that the propriety of what one is saying is irrelevant to free speech because it is an unreserved good. Thus, he or she, readily concedes that the racist is bad, but they can speak. The protestor is doing something that is also bad but ... they cannot? This is the key ethical problem. It is not that one facilitates dangerous discourses (which, can happen inadvertently to be sure) or fails to stand up the marginalization (which is tough and requires more courage than a lot of us have on a day to day basis), but they use a double standard. People saying negative things either (a) get a free pass or (b) are told to be quiet and let the others speak. The current group of defenders of free speech, in other words, find themselves in a contradictions. Defending the rights of racists but not anti-racists (while giving mouth service to anti-racism0.

The other concern -- my last point above -- is what I called "silliness." Perhaps that is not the right word. Perhaps a better word would be inappropriate, or ill-considered, or lacking evidence. My current pet peeve relates to commentators who say something like "a university should be bastion of free speech." What is wrong with this statement. It seems so self-evidently true that no one could possibly disagree with it unless they are an imbecile. 

The problem is actually multifold:

1. I've already explained that there are reasonable limits on free speech and these limits extend to the academy. Indeed, on of my examples of reasonable limits (teaching) was drawn specifically from my job. But, are we going to allow terrorists to organize on campus? Are we going to allow people to lie about others or falsely advertise because they are on a  campus? Of course not. These laws and these limits apply as much on campus as they do off campus. I can't go on campus and sell snake oil and say "gee, I filched these people but you can't arrest me for fraud because I'm on campus." Indeed, the thought that one could is ... silly.

2. If universities are supposedly "bastions" of free speech ... what about other institutions? Are they not. If universities ... what of public schools? My daughter's high school has a dress code (it is minor but it is there. Clearly a violation of freedom of expression and speech but ... should they not be a bastion and allow anything to go? What about courts of law? Parliament? the media? art galleries? museums? archives? libraries? hospitals? What about ... restaurants? 

Do you think I'm being silly? You see my point, I trust. The idea that universities should be "bastions" of free speech misses the fact that the burden of the university is not any different than many other social institutions. There may be institutions where it is necessary to limit free speech. The military strikes me as a good example, but the "culture of silence" in police forces, on the other hand, seems to have created a great number of problems. 

The word "bastion" in this case is part of a discourse that is attempting to say that the university has a special burden. Perhaps but it misses the point that a whole bunch of other institutions have the same burden and some more so. For instance, I can say things in a court of law or in Parliament (this is called "privilege") that I cannot say in other circumstances. If we were to investigate, we might find that this claim is not silly but it is odd and misplaced and misses the point. 

3. Finally, the idea that universities should be "bastions" of free speech is a confusion of terms. I'd argue that universities should bastion of free inquiry and scholarship. Whether these are the same thing as free speech -- and whether or not they might be more important -- is something that we could investigate. My point for now is that they are different. 

Here is an example: I tell my students who to speak all the time. I am supposed to. I correct their grammar; fix vocabulary; suggest redefined theses. And, as long as one believes in the rules of the English language (and, I concede one might not), this is all fine. By correcting them I am redirecting their speech. I am moving it away from what they said to something else. But, in the process, I am supposedly improving their inquiry and scholarship. I do not limit what they  are investigating, say, in a paper, but I am helping (I hope) to make their language more precise, deepen their analysis, have them consider alternative perspectives. I paper I cannot read because the English is so bad is going to fail and one cannot justify that paper on the grounds of "free  speech" (who are you to fail me for what I said?). 

Scholarship is about evidence. A student who argues that racism is right ... has to prove that. They also, by the way, have to prove that "race" is a fact and not a social construct, but let's leave that complicated point off. If they can't, well ... their grade is again in trouble and free speech does not save it.  Why? It is not that one cannot say X or Y or write X or Y in my courses. It is that the academy is about something more than free speech.

I make this point because I periodically hear people saying "free speech is needed for learning." It might be. But, free speech by itself does not guarantee learning. Simply attending a lecture and listening to a person talk does not make anyone better educated. It helps, but it also might not because, as  I said, so much more is involved. Scholarship, to be clear, is not just about the "free exchange of ideas." It is about rigorous research, commitment, logic, diligence. In short, if learning were just about listening and saying what you thought ... we would not bother to have classes.  Scholarship is about refining ideas, properly presenting those ideas, nuance, sophistication, documentation and evidence.

Take a look at a scholarly journal. I don't care which one: Journal of Canadian Studies, Canadian Historical Review, Studies in Political Economy ... it does not matter. You will notice that the authors have perspectives but you will also notice a lot of source citations. Those source citations are not window dressing or, at least, they should not be. They are supporting evidence. Without them, it does not matter what scholar X or Y said. They might write something with which the editors of, say, the CHR completely agree and that is in sync with what the peer reviewers believe. The piece will still be rejected because it fails the first tests of scholarship: documentation and evidence.

What does this have to do with free speech in the academy? Two things:

1. Those who reduce the academy to free speech as if free speech by itself were the key to learning are just plain wrong. Listening and talking without research, thought, reconsideration, documentation, is little more than an op-ed. There is nothing wrong with op-eds. I read them all the time, but they are not the work of the academy. Its focus lies elsewhere.  In other words, it presents a misguided idea of what my job is all about (including the justifiable limits that are placed on my free speech).

2. It sells students a bill of goods. It does not tell students about the hard work that needs to go into being a good academic. It tells that that simply offering one's opinion is valuable in itself and deserves a stage. It might. But, it might not. No one wants to hear (or, should want to hear) me speak on Chinese history, horticulture, NMR spectroscopy, or a range of other subjects. Even if I can, it would be a waste of your time. Before speaking on these subjects, I'd need to do my homework. I'd need to have something meaningful to say and that comes not from free speech but from doing my homework!
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