The “Haidt” of Controversy (Or Why Freedom of Speech is More Complicated Than We Think)

I haven’t written lately — but an unfortunate source of motivation is, I've found, the whirling political mess unfolding in the United States. There are so many things to talk about, but I’m going to zero in on a particular, because, I admit, it’s caught my eye. Freedom of speech. It is fascinating how political instability can dredge up such a dense collection of topics hitherto ignored by “the public” — suddenly we are mentioning philosophers, referencing history, and all with a sense of urgency only made possible by conflagration. History is back to bite us in the ass again, so people are picking up their books.

And so, although it’s somewhat reactive, I’m finding that what irritates me to the point of articulation are strong claims — bravado — masked in some kind of literacy.

Freedom of speech is at once an astoundingly simple topic, and a very nuanced one. We all think it’s good — but what exactly is it, and where did it come from?

I was amazed to see Jonathan Haidt’s take on it. You know the guy — a psychologist — who wrote an infamous piece on the “coddling” of the American mind, outraged as he was at the prospect of what he deems an “outrage culture”.

His piece on Charlottesville is fascinating, and elucidating, if for the wrong reasons. Haidt is difficult to read in a way that I think psychologists enjoy — he wants deeply to be perceived as an objective, hard-nosed scientist, yet occupies a discipline which has spent its time in the modern world adjusting itself from its purely theoretical roots to conform to the Western scientific standard, both in language and methodology. This makes his speech somehow toneless, whispy — he writes like a human attempting to trick onlookers into believing he is a robot.

For instance, Haidt thinks that Trump should condemn Nazis, and has made a mistake compounded by his claim that both sides were at fault. However, he doesn’t find this a problem for the reason you might think: Nazis are bad. No, his problem is that people *think* Nazis are bad. They are a taboo group, tainted. Trump, by association, is now tainted, and so is undermined. This is admittedly a very convincing portrayal of a robot — but despite his efforts to conclude that he has no opinions, only facts, it is also what exposes his real opinion.

Haidt, above all, is furious that Nazis are co-opting the free speech movement — to the point where he paradoxically labels people like Richard Spencer as trolls, who should be denied the right to speak at universities. But a key part of Haidt’s political movement of academic heterodoxy (that diverse [read: more conservative] viewpoints work to produce more truth from examined materials) is the maintenance of an almost selfless detachment, or “objectivity”. His cannot be the language of politics, but cold hard science — otherwise he is consigned to the fate of all the other ideologically-driven squabblers and does not deserve his podium (so, I imagine, he thinks).

So it is with great precision that Haidt works to deny some Nazis free speech by way of orienting them as enemies of free speech, not by way of their political ideology — which, he thinks, is still deserved of a public place, but as an outlawed group whose mental association works to outlaw those associated with them. That is, it is the public’s fault that Nazis are bad, because Nazis are “bad” in the scare-quoted sense. As a psychologist, all Haidt can safely say about Nazis is that people think ill of them. Any further qualification would find him imposing a bias. He is thus unable to defame Nazis outright, and must find some of their figureheads to be “trolls” rather than Nazis — black sheep in the white supremacy movement, rather than real representatives, to be rejected for their irrational provocations rather than their political views, which Haidt must maintain are just as valid as anyone else’s. Haidt can say nothing of Nazis — he does not know why the public should dislike them, or whether it is right do dislike them — all he knows is that their unfortunate social status risks sidelining his own free speech efforts.

This really got me thinking about free speech in general.

I started with John Stuart Mill, because Haidt loves to quote his “On Liberty” and because I’m familiar with his Utilitarian philosophy — I’m admittedly less familiar with Mill’s capital-L liberal politics.

John Stuart Mill’s claim is really simple, and is informed by his utilitarianism — what become complex are his assumptions. In short, JSM, an empiricist, favoured a very rationalist approach to public discourse: Say anything. If it is wrong, we will learn from it. His only caveat is his introduction of what he calls the “harm principle”, which is an invocation of utilitarian ethics — free speech is great, unless it is an incitement to physical violence (psychological trauma did not occur to him to be included). He illustrates this with the obvious choice of “corn-dealer” (was this a common vocation in his time? Corn-slinger?) We are given two cases. The first has a newspaper write apocalyptically about corn-dealers, besmirching the fine profession quite severely. JSM is fine with this, as he believes it can be dealt with rationally and disproven if wrong. The second case has protesters intimidating our local corn-dealer, milling about near his home. This, JSM tells us, is not OK.

The problems abound from here on out. This is a very comical restriction, rubbery enough to be manipulated. If a Nazi pamphlet threatens to export the Jews (or worse), are we to take this as innocent rhetoric? Do we wait until people are being rounded up?

JSM is unfortunately trapped forever in his own era — a time when liberalism was on the rise (not the norm), and the politics of Europe were relatively stable and stagnant. JSM remarks on the inability of dissidents and contrarians to turn their blabbing into real action — something two World Wars, quagmires, and many civil wars in our recent history put a damper on. It is perhaps an ironic truth that, as Nietzsche claims, liberalism is the best promoter of freedom until it cements itself — a horrible statement until you realize that this means a liberal state finds itself clamping down on competing ideologies which, being contrary to itself, despise things like freedom of speech. JSM cannot fathom a world where the state is properly liberal — for him, it is still fighting the good fight, and he has not prepared a contingency plan in case of success — contrarian views, for him, are always liberal ones.

It is similarly naive to imagine that the real world is governed by the results of rational discourse. It must have seemed so for Mill, being a member of the British parliament. Caesar, Hitler, Stalin and many others stand as examples of leaders who did not have to be properly elected to seize dictatorial power. Caesar’s initial consulship, which was supposed to be shared by a second consul, was referred to jokingly as the consulship of “Julius and Caesar”, and within due time Caesar would march on Rome, declare himself dictator, “win” the vote for a second consulship, and then resign as dictator. Hitler’s party was elected as a majority government, awarding him the Chancellorship, which he used to remove legislative checks on the Chancellor, effectively making himself dictator. Stalin, a petty gang member and bank robber, emerged from a power struggle as dictator. None of these men arrived at their positions through the normal channels — they took them. Rational discussion may be what we want to decide our political futures, but it simply hasn’t worked that way — or at least, there are enough disastrous edge cases to caution complacency and trust in a political apparatus to inherently protect against “cheaters”.

Of course, more pragmatically damning is one of Mill’s deliciously caustic outbursts in parliament, during a debate:

“I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.”

It seems clear that JSM did not hold the same metaphysical position as Haidt concerning discourse. Haidt would have us believe that the sheer weight of multiple viewpoints approaching a problem helps reveal its truth. I believe Mill was rather advocating for all views to be able to be presented, so that the poor ones could be torn to shreds and discarded, leaving us with some lessons learned and forever condemning useless ideas to the void.

No doubt, JSM would find it acceptable to say that World War II was an excellent empirical study concerning the fascist ideologies of the world — the result was that they were worthless, and their lesson was nothing but aversion. To pretend that Nazis now deserve a re-examination of their hateful view is, besides irresponsible, an embarrasing misunderstanding of JSM’s own theory. Where it has been determined that there is no truth — discard. And where it has been determined that people will be harmed — discard and suppress.

Stanley Fish, a mercurial, politically ambiguous academic figure (I suppose he resides on the left, but seems to be derided from all sides as a nihilist), has some interesting points to add here. In ’94 he published a book provocatively titled “There is No Such Thing as Free Speech”. While I have not read it, an interview for the book’s release reveals his main points.

First, he claims that free speech is a mistaken term. For Fish, all speech has a motive, and means to communicate something not for its own sake, but for a purpose. Thus “free speech” is something he associates with the endless, moaning songs sung by angels (he is primarily a scholar of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”) — pointless noise, because nobody has anything left to communicate. What is really going on is that speech is necessarily exclusionary in a positive sense — when we choose to say something, we also choose not to say everything else. So speech for Fish always possesses an ulterior motive, and is not representative of some kind of base truth, stripped of clouding ideologies, but rather is necessarily biased (not to say incorrect, but never neutral). Speech is therefore never free (otherwise it would be devoid of meaning), and always both full of intent and lacking in what has not been spoken.

I take this latter bit to mean that Haidt’s own ideological bent has it that there is some kind of base reality to be found in the social sphere, despite his application only of clinical, toneless facts, and that the elimination of any one political view will help bring the truth to bear by eliminating bias. The great mistake, then, would be in not counting himself among those shrouded in an ideological bias. Perhaps the most dangerous rhetorician is the one who really does not think he is producing rhetoric. The real deal may be more clever, but the ignorant rhetorician is all the more brave.

Fish also brings Milton out of legend and into reality, revealing that, like Mill, he has some dirty laundry that should be aired before confidently asserting his connection to the “free speech” movement. Milton wrote a polemic essay concerning free speech called the “Areopagitica” which was published, interestingly, during the English Civil War. Milton wrote (via Fish):

“Now you understand of course”, and the tone in his prose suggests that he assumes that most of his readers have always understood this, “that when I speak of toleration and free expression I don’t mean Catholics. Them we extirpate.”

Fish explains that, to his countrymen, this was so obvious a bias as to be unstated — Catholics would not protect free speech, and so their free speech should not be protected. Not only is Milton’s status as some kind of proto-Libertarian diminished, but he makes a good point: are liberal democracies so nobly comitted to their values that they would sign their own death warrants? Should a liberal state hand over the keys to fascists as a testament to their capacity for tolerance?

That leads us to the next point on the docket, and a more philosophical problem — what about a slippery slope? Surely any general principle concerning freedom of speech, even with their careful caveats allowing action against sedition, hope to achieve unilateral protection. In order to protect the views of minorities, dissenters, and contrarians, we must also protect the views of those who would seek to enslave others or disadvantage those weaker than they. The SEP page on free speech, written by David van Mill, points us toward Frederick Schauer. Schauer delineates two cases, an instant case (present proposed change) and a danger case (future badness, essentially). Shauer lays the burden of proof on the party asserting the slippery slope, requiring a connection be proven rather than merely stated, between the instant case and the danger case. Further, he points out that the proverbial slope is already occupied by the status quo position. That is, we are here because we made it so, and our current position is neither necessarily sacrosanct or correct. TLDR: It is a bit of a mystery as to how to proceed from the instant case to the state of total societal collapse — the slippery slope claim is more of a rhetorical jab, an attempt to scare off an attack on the status quo.

The same SEP article makes an earlier, more fundamental point that dovetails with Fish’s stance as well — that we do not really possess free speech in the status quo, not just because of the semantic confusion Fish identifies, but because state power necessarily can’t and doesn’t let you say or do anything you please. In fact van Mill quotes Fish here as an illustration of the view that free speech is not a cosmic, natural law, but rather a lowly human legal invention:

“free speech in short, is not an independent value but a political prize”

In my search I also came across a curious fellow — John Durham Peters; a former professor of communications at Yale (the work referenced below was written before he retired). He is also a Mormon, and something of a conservative — a strange bedfellow, but while I find his theoretical references to Christianity extraneous and over-reaching, he makes some very interesting points.

In his book “Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition”, Peters proposes a theory of “abyss-artists” and “abyss-redeemers”. These can be read more plainly as just “artist” and “art critic”, that’s the dynamic he’s going for. In short, Peters takes the view that engaging emotionlessly with the darkness of human nature is akin to a form of virtue-signalling in a liberal society. That is — it is cool, and intellectually respectable, to be able to stare into the abyss. What liberals fail to realize is that they are playing the ideology game along with everyone else, and that their abyss-gazing is not necessarily “the truth” or even what is going to make us happier, but is one way to look tough and smart in a culture that values what he sees as Stoicism-derived calmness in the face of the most vile parts of life.

He sees abyss-artists as engaging in the abyss-staring contests, flexing their muscles, and the abyss-redeemers playing slightly-unsettled-but-impressed cultural critic, interpreting their show for the general public as not supportive of evil but as an important session of discovery and learning. I’m inclined to disagree with Peters on the point of this abyss-starting being arbitrary, but I am sort of trapped in an epistemic regress situation — if it truly is such a deep part of my culture, then it would be difficult for me to discern whether I “genuinely” think such performance is heroic and culturally useful, or if it is simply the dogma I myself unknowingly subscribe to.

This is indeed part of the larger problem, that both Haidt and I are bound by — epistemic (to do with knowing) regress is a tough nut to crack, and it is not necessarily satisfying. To expound a bit, the idea is that we would like to ground our views in something more concrete — like citing an authoritative source, or appealing to a mathematical axiom to show the strength of a derivative theory. The problem is that this can be “turtles all the way down”. Where do we stop? At the edge of every cliff, we have to cast off our grappling hook to the next ledge, and there is always another ledge.

When Haidt claims that he knows the truth, or even when I claim that he is wrong, we are both making assertions we can’t honestly ground. This is like a bucket of ice water being poured on your fiery argument. It doesn’t sound convincing to couch your argument in qualifications, especially if they have the potential to undermine your entire point, maybe even rendering it circular (self-supporting) or paradoxical (if it’s true, it’s false).

What to do? I’m not certain, and I’m not well-read enough on epistemology to know of a good way to tunnel out of such an epistemic regress. I find myself erring towards a kind of pragmatism. Nazis should not be protected, or incubated, in the noble but naive program of freedom of speech. But, their access needs to be impeded in such a way as to ensure that, at least theoretically, potentially truthful and just dissenters always have their voices heard — although we may admit the cynical thought that the world does not actually allow them much freedom within the status quo anyways, despite the outward appearance that they are provided the ear of the state.

Ultimately, this regress problem is one often consigned to philosophers to mull over as the world speeds by, so perhaps I should be comfortable in saying that the restriction of free speech for fascists is not so complicated an affair — what is more bothersome is Haidt’s theoretical gymnastics. I strongly suspect that, like the tainted association with Nazis, Haidt simply wants more conservative and/or libertarian voices in the academy, but is aware that it would be blasphemous in the liberal landscape to utter such a thing — and perhaps, just a little, because he knows it means that he is not truly an objective font of knowledge, but is trapped within the confines of his own ideology, and has simply found a very complex way to whine that he hasn’t gotten what he wanted.

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