Speaking Dangerously

A number of years ago amidst the effort in California to eliminate state benefits for immigrants, I became aware of how arguments from constitutional authority can be dangerous. Over and again I heard opponents of the referendum insist the referendum was unconstitutional. They were right. And I heard proponents of the referendum argue why they thought benefits for immigration were a mistake. The referendum won handily. It was later declared unconstitutional. But the non-debate taught me a fundamental political principle. Constitutional arguments belong in the courts. In politics, argue on the merits; don’t retreat to constitutional principle. If we defend something we value, for example free speech, by appealing to its constitutional status and its historical importance, there is a danger that we will forget why free speech matters.

In a long and important essay on free speech, David Bromwich suggests that many in the academy have already forgotten why free speech matters.

“The heroic picture of the individual heretic standing against the church, the dissenter against the state, the artist against the mass culture, has been fading for a while and we have not yet found anything to put in its place. Asked in a late interview how he fell away from his belief in Catholic doctrine, Graham Greene said he had been converted by arguments and he had forgotten the arguments. Something like this has happened to left liberals where freedom of speech is concerned. The last two generations were brought to see its value by arguments, and they have forgotten the arguments. Few have felt oppressed by the rigours of censorship; more have been interested in censoring harmful speech by politicians or members of the ‘dominant culture’ (which includes white people of humble means).”

Examples of our collective forgetting of free speech abound, and Bromwich rehearses many of them in his essay. But perhaps the most controversial and insightful example he offers concerns the question of microaggressions. Bromwich smartly situates the language of microaggressions within the general political discourse of safety.

“The deeper distortions of mass psychology show up first in peculiar tics and involutions of language — the relation is that of symptom to anxiety. Thirteen years ago the United States bombed, invaded and occupied Iraq, and set the Middle East on fire. The event is generally talked of as a ‘mistake’. But there was a legal name for it, a war of aggression, and in the past two or three years in America, colleges and other small communities have witnessed the discovery of a new crime: the microaggression. From a certain distance, the concept of the microaggression has the quality of a repressed memory, a recognition of violence elsewhere that surfaces in denial and displacement. A microaggression occurs typically if, in an encounter between a white and a black person, or between a member of the ‘dominant culture’ and anyone not identified with that culture, the former by word or gesture betrays an assumption that there is something unusual about the latter. Invidious attention is thereby called to an unspoken but glaring fact of inequality, and the dominant assumption is laid bare. This can happen in an awkward motion that is embarrassing but possibly not ill-meant — an 18-year-old white undergraduate asking an 18-year-old black if she can touch her hair. An example often cited is the laying on the non-dominant person the burden to testify about her experience from her special place in a spectrum of diversity. Any word or gesture that is taken to imply such singling out is a microaggression if the person addressed thinks that it is. This makes for a double bind: a white student passing a black and not looking at him could plausibly be charged with microaggression. Replay the same encounter, but with an unusually long look — say, five or six seconds — and the charge of microaggression is just as plausible.
How should the infraction be punished? By re-education, it has been suggested, in the form of additional diversity training and sensitivity training. Persuaded by this concept and by a therapeutic literature and practice that cater to it, young people of more than one race have come to think themselves uniquely delicate and exposed. The counterpart of the microaggression is the microtrauma which makes up in nearness and frequency what it lacks in intensity and duration. Here again one is struck by the action of displacement. The two American presidents since 2001 have said over and over that their primary duty was ‘the safety of the American people’. No earlier presidents spoke in quite this way: the oath of office contains not a word about safety but commits the chief magistrate to uphold the constitution. Safety in argument or debate is of course an unintelligible demand, but the trouble with those who think they want it isn’t that they are incapable of giving reasons backed by evidence. Rather, they have had no practice in using words to influence people unlike themselves. That is an art that can be lost. It depends on a quantum of accidental communication that is missing in a life of organised contacts.”
Arendt in conversation with Günter Gaus in his segment, Zur Person

If we are to resist the call of safety and embrace a culture of the freedom to speak and talk honestly with one another, we need to articulate why it is that free speech matters. Bromwich offers a number of substantive defenses of free speech. First, he writes, “The freedom to speak one’s mind is a physical necessity, not a political and intellectual piece of good luck; to a thinking person, the need seems to be almost as natural as breathing. ‘How do I know what I think till I see what I say?’” Speaking, much like writing as Hannah Arendt expressed it once in an interview with Günter Gaus, is essential in the effort to make one’s thoughts clear to oneself, to understand:

“What is important for me is to understand. For me, writing is a matter of seeking this understanding, part of the process of understanding. . . . Certain things get formulated. If I had a good enough memory to really retain everything that I think, I doubt very much that I would have written anything — I know my own laziness. What is important to me is the thought process itself. As long as I have succeeded in thinking something through, I am personally quite satisfied. If I then succeed in expressing my thought process adequately in writing, that satisfies me also.”
Portrait of John Milton

Bromwich’s second defense of free speech turns to John Milton. Milton’s classic defense of free speech values speech for its expression of evil and opposed opinions, since only the encounter and struggle with real evil can yield the highest and truest insight into the good.

“What drove the early modern proponents of free speech to deny the legitimacy of any form of censorship? The heart of Milton’s attack in Areopagitica lies in his refusal to claim innocence for any human activity. It is the presumption of innocence by the censor that most deeply informs the zeal for silencing opinions that are thought to be intolerable:
Good and evil we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed on Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixt. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil … Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness.
To try to purify ourselves, by renouncing all exposure to dangerous words, is to legislate for the preservation of our innocence, but Milton doubts that this can be done. The censor holds a very different view: impurity invades or insinuates from outside, it is a kind of pollution, and the duty of moral guardians is to secure and deliver us. (It is understood that we ourselves have committed no trespass that needs to be forgiven.) Many people want to be protected against ‘trial by what is contrary’: if others brush against them in a way they don’t like, though no harm was done, they want to penalise what is contrary. But the benefits obtainable through censorship turn out to be delusive once we recognise that good and evil ‘grow up together almost inseparably’. So Milton concludes that censorship cannot make us better. Impurity, after all, springs from us, among others. Any law devised to winnow out the noxious materials can only weaken the very people it protects.”
John Stewart Mill

Bromwich finds a third defense for free speech in John Stuart Mill; not in Mill’s utilitarian thesis that free speech will lead to truth through the marketplace of ideas, but in Mill’s embrace of the moral courage found in the lone dissenter who stands for his truth.

“The possession of such moral courage has nothing to do with measurements of utility, as Mill makes clear in an uncompromising passage:
Let us suppose … that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion [to restrict the liberty of thought and discussion] unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
Quote this passage to a roomful of academics today, withhold the name of Mill and not one in three will credit that any intelligent person could ever think something so improbable. If the ‘power of coercion’ is taken to mean a painful use of force, that, they will agree, is bad. But by coercion Mill also means the affixing of any penalty at all to dissent from what the majority supposes are the components of a better world. ‘The power itself is illegitimate.’ Mill speaks here neither for truth nor for utility, and gives value to something separate: the right of the person who wants to speak not to be silenced.”

That the freedom to speak is a necessity for clear and cogent thinking, that the trials of opposing opinion will deepen and enrich our thinking, and that speaking up is meaningful simply in the refusal to be silenced are three important arrticulations of why the current debate around the culture of intolerance on campuses and in our politics are so significant.

One other essential defense of free speech comes from Hannah Arendt. Free speech is the necessary condition for plurality.

“We know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.”

For Arendt, the freedom of speech means that we will always hear other opinions, other perspectives, and other arguments than our own. Free speech is the foundation of all expansive and right thinking. “Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.” The world is not something that can be true or false; the human and political world is plural in its essence and must be enjoyed and also preserved in that plurality. Freedom of speech is what defends that plurality.

“If someone wants to see and experience the world as it “really” is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another.”

For Arendt, the freedom to speak one’s opinion guarantees that each of us will encounter divergent and opposed opinions that remind us of the basic plurality of the world. Free speech reminds us that our own view of the world is partial; it compels us to listen to the opinions of others and protects the opinions of the majority from uncritical acceptance.

What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views.

Representative thinking is not the same as empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.

Arendt’s focus on representative thinking against the empathy of feelings is reflected in Bromwich’s similar concern about the rhetoric of “feelings” in contemporary discussions about political and social discourse.

“Two contradictory thoughts now dominate the Anglo-American approach to feelings in the context of public debate. For the speaker, feelings must be restrained — a neutral style of rational euphemism is recommended. On the other hand, the emotion felt by the listener in response to a speech must be treated as authoritative, unarguable, closed to correction or modification by other witnesses. ‘The group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place’; so, too, the person who listens and testifies on behalf of his or her group. Reproach from a traumatised listener admits of no answer, only apology, even though apologies are only interesting in proportion as they are spontaneous and warranted. The apology that is demanded and forked out has the moral stature of hush money: it makes a fetish of insincerity. With some help from the jargon of political and religious heresy, one would say these are not so much apologies as formal acts of self-criticism and recantation. Thus far, they have mostly been extorted in communities the size of a guild or a college. At the same time the rigour of exclusion within these mini-communities is itself a cause of the near autistic breakdown of political speech in America.”

The language of trauma and feelings brings a medicalized discourse into politics and seeks to shut down debate with claims of psychological or physical pain and injury. Trauma is real and needs to be taken seriously. But too often trauma is expanded significantly beyond its medical usage to mean simply a feeling of discomfort. When such feelings are expressed, there is no meaningful response outside of embarrassment and apology. Or one must risk saying something like: I am sorry you feel offended but I don’t think offense is the proper or rational response to what I have said or done. These are actually the conversations we must have if we are to preserve the depth of our public life.

Having such difficult conversations is the the goal the Arendt Center’s October Conference, “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion.” Learn more and register for the conference here.


Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College

Bromwich, David. “What are we allowed to say.” lrb.co.uk. lrb.co.uk. 22 September 2016. Web. 22 September 2016.