Self-help and Free Speech

It is important that speech (along with written communication and artistic expression) be fairly free.  By ‘free’ I mean at least from governmental and other quasi-official constraint, and by ‘fairly’ I mean at least to the extent that it does not constitute fraud, defamation, incitement, group hatred, and the like.  Why? For a number of overlapping reasons that do not add up to anything worth calling a ‘theory’ of free speech.  Speech should be free because: it helps in the quest for reliable knowledge, because it  supports good government, and because it serves individual development and autonomy.   Also (marginally) relevant is the fact that speech that is forced, whether a confession extorted by threat, or a teleprompted lie bought with bribes, tends not to be very interesting as speech.   Together, such considerations support the ‘free speech principle’, a principle that we invoke and contest as such, as a principle of political morality.

Most of the fair and feasible means of protecting speech are already well known.   But once again, there is nothing here worth calling  a ‘theory’.  In one society, a judicially enforced bill of rights may prove vital, in another plural and competing media may be more important, in a third, the willingness of intermediary institutions (professions, churches, universities etc.) to silence the silencers may be key.  And always and everywhere political culture is hugely important.  As we see now in the US, in Poland, and in Hungary, when important political actors, including  senior judges, will not or cannot make good faith efforts to protect speech,  and instead use the principle merely for ideological money-laundering, set to whatever spin cycle their masters demand, no institutional remedies can be counted on to improve things.

But what about self-help?  Two versions of this idea are worth considering.  The first is a matter of hardening one’s defenses.  Along with the Stoics and Jesus, the Buddha says that, even when subject to abuse, we should often turn the other cheek.  We read in the Dhammapada, ‘As an elephant in battle bears the arrow shot from a bow; I will endure insult; For many people have poor self-control.’  Getting angry will often make you unhappy; trying to get even will keep you very busy.   Of course, none of these texts or teachers intend that we should put up with anything and everything.   But before returning fire, it is worth at least considering whether something is an offense against us or is merely offensive to us; it is worth learning the difference between something that is genuinely harmful to individuals or groups, and something that is hurtful to them.  When silencers learn that the elephant can bear the arrow, perhaps they will aim elsewhere or, if we get lucky, lay down arms and proceed by other means.

The other aspect of self-help is more complex.   To silence speakers one needs to find the target.  So it is tempting to think that speech must be more free when speakers are harder to find, for instance, when they are anonymous.   Especially in social media and the rest of the online world, anonymous comment is the norm.   Perhaps some people think of Twitter as the acme of free expression.   But Twitter should give us pause.  What better example of the Buddha’s glum warning, that ‘Many people have poor self-control’?   The availability, and scalability, of  anonymous comment does allow people otherwise at risk of being silenced to get their message out.  But anonymity also weaponizes poor self-control: fraud, incitement, hatred, and defamation–to say nothing of brutality, self-importance, and prideful ignorance– are everywhere that anonymous comment is standard, and it is not clear that what we innocently call the online ‘platforms’ have the means, let alone the will, to cure this.

I’m of two minds, then, when I read that my distinguished colleague Jeff McMahan plans to establish an online Journal of Controversial Ideas where anonymous authors can boldly set out their conjectures and refutations without fear (and, for that matter, also without favour–I can’t see the UK government rewarding anonymous research.)   What then is to stop the JCI becoming a high-brow, polite, version of Twitter: poor self-control expressed in sentential calculus, or blind hatreds ‘proved’ by transcendental arguments or pseudo-Darwinian fairy-tales?  The answer seems to be: peer review, up to the usual scholarly standards.   But we’ve  seen reason to worry about those standards.   Moreover, if the authors are anonymous, how can we know whether the editors are publishing only their students, colleagues, or cronies?  What if they are silencing  people they think we’ve all heard enough of?   And if that is what they are doing, the editors may be engaged in local, mini-, violations of free speech. Of course this is not comparable to governments prohibiting sex-education, or requesting teachers to report on whether and how they are teaching about Brexit.  But it is the kind of thing that the government thinks is wrong with universities.  In my own field, one of the best journals mostly publishes work by: those who have already published in that journal, those who were taught by those who have already published in that journal, those who have slept with anyone in the first two groups, and by members of the editorial board.  (Some of this work is excellent, by the way.)  Moreover, if someone wants to present in academic dress an ‘argument’ that homosexuality is an ‘intrinsic moral disorder’, or that the gender pay-gap expresses women’s ‘choices’, I think it would be decent of them to actually own the argument.

So I’m left with reservations.   I also confess to wondering what the problem in universities actually is that it calls for anonymous journals.  Unlike Jeff  (and unlike our current government), I do not see a general, serious threat to free speech in our universities, though I agree that it is the case in some departments and perhaps in a few institutions.  Nor do I accept his observation that, ‘The threats from outside the university tend to be more from the right. The threats to free speech and academic freedom that come from within the university tend to be more from the left.’  The serious risks to free speech in universities are nearly all from the right.  Since Jeff and I teach at the same University, and since I know we share roughly the same concepts of ‘right’ and ‘left’, Jeff must have a different idea than I do of threats ‘from within the university.’  He must be thinking of the fairly powerless, if noisy, student groups, and of invitations denied people who have no right to our platforms in the first place.   I am thinking of senior administrators, of fundraisers, and of those who manage the university’s real property.  These people have real power, and everywhere I have worked some of them have not been afraid to use it, even if doing so leads to clear violations of free speech (and of academic freedom).

 

 

 

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