Respect for Value-Based Boundaries of Free-Discourse

Time to bring this to a conclusion. I used the Grenfell effigy-burning as the recent opportunity to pick up on this debate: When is Free-Speech a Hate Crime? and Are There Any Limits to Free Expression?

In fact, Grenfell was the first item on a particularly excellent edition of BBC TV Question Time this Thursday. Mairead McGuinness as the voice of non-UK-partisan reason, Diane Abbott back on form and with her own perspective as a regular victim of hate-speech, and a treat to see Jordan Peterson in uncontroversial context.

I summarised my own position — as an attempted steelman — as follows, in a footnote to the last post above:

There are rules and rules are there to be respected — even if broken and the consequences respected.

In free-speech — free-expression of free-thought enshrined right from the top at the UN — thought and expression are never a crime in themselves. Such thought and expression may always be “offensive” to someone.

But, there are rules about motivation for choosing to express them, choosing audiences and contexts for that expression, and choosing to publicise their expression, including questions related to potential victimisation of disadvantaged groups beyond the immediate audience and victims (if any) of the immediate physical expression.

These rules will never be simple to legislate for every objective possibility, yet society needs to enforce and sanction their transgression, escalate such sanctions on repeat transgressors, publicly uphold the values in the rules and incentivise potential transgressors to modify their future behaviours and so on.

Criminal law and enforcement by police are a blunt instruments for such problematic value-based rules. It’s is only a matter of practical alternatives that police and criminal process are brought to bear in public cases — usually initially to question motives and context and warn of potential consequences where judged necessary. It would take further circumstantial evidence before any consideration of any such case being brought into the criminal justice system — but the possibility may always need to be considered. My personal preference would be something like “community policing” before getting anywhere near the criminal system, but the glare of publicity in such cases generally demands a clean audit trail — eg of questioning under caution — is probably unavoidable in practice. I’m not the legal expert. Suspicions under public order offenses is probably as good a fudge as any available. God forbid anyone suggests “thought police” 😉

But, these are practical enforcement issues that do not change the basic premise that, even in free-speech, there are rules to be respected.

And, my ORIGINAL MAIN POINT, that this respect of rules — mostly the same rules incidentally — applies in ANY discourse, especially where there is obvious disagreement and not just those that escalate to public offense.

Interesting Mairead McGuinness’ main closing point was that the sad events were really a loss of RESPECT, a public coarsening of public discourse generally. As you can see in that summary above, respect in discourse generally was my primary focus the whole time.

But respect for what? Jordan Peterson’s point, like Peter Tatchell’s in my previous post, was the extreme care needed when calling instances of free-speech out as potential hate crime. Tolerance for free-speech is so high that exceptions have to be seen to be exceptional. As Peterson said, the psychology of motivation — why? — matters most and it cannot be a matter of someone “defining” expressions of hate-crime. In my own “rules” of respectful dialogue, and in “legislating” for hate-speech enforcement in the steelman above my caveat is that attempts at objective definition of the rule is to be avoided, and that a fudge permitting judgement is essential.

It is for this reason that the more objective, scientistic, freedom-extremists struggle with the concept of any exceptional boundaries to free discourse demanding any respect. Fortunately we still have wiser heads in positions of authority. But for how long?


Originally published at Psybertron Asks.