How Far Should We Go To Protect People’s Feelings?

(About a 3 minute read)

In recent years, there have been many cases of people denied platforms to speak to audiences by publicly funded institutions, such as universities and even radio stations.

So, what are the reasons or grounds for denying a speaker a platform on which to speak? And are those reasons or grounds justified?

What has happened is this: There has been a shift or change in the philosophical grounds on which freedom of speech has traditionally been limited. The old, less restrictive, reasons have been kicked out the door, and new, more restrictive, reasons have been adopted. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

To answer that question, let’s take a look first at the old reasons, and then the new ones.

In the mid-1800s, many poor people in Britain were going hungry because they could not afford to buy “corn” — that is grains, such as wheat and barely — because the prices were too high. They were too high because the corn merchants were buying up the grains, storing them rather than immediately selling them, and thus driving up the prices as the demand for the grains increased.

Naturally, some hungry folks started complaining that the corn merchants were immoral and inhumane, and naturally they were denounced as “radicals” by the conservatives, who began agitating for laws limiting the rights of the alleged radicals to criticize the corn merchants.

Into the mess stepped the most influential thinker of the age, John Stuart Mill. He basically settled the issue by arguing that freedom of speech could only be limited by a government in cases where the speech incited people to commit crimes. “Burn down the merchant’s houses!” “Beat up the merchants” Such things were legitimately outlawed, Mill said, but not such things as, “The merchant’s are immoral!”.

Mill’s “harm principle”, as it came to be called, eventually spread across the Western World. And that’s how things stood up until the 1980s.

In the 1980s, an American philosopher with a bit of an authoritarian bent, Joel Feinberg, began arguing that speech can also be limited on the grounds that it is “seriously offensive”. Feinberg argued that some speech was so hurtful both societies and individuals would inevitably find it disgusting, repulsive, and shocking, and feel shame and embarrassment because of it. This became known as the “offense principle”.

Ironically, though Feinberg was a bit of an authoritarian, his principle caught on with the left. Specifically, the extreme left. First in American, and then spreading to Britain. And that’s where we are today.

Now, I see at least three ready criticisms of the offense principle.

First, who gets to decide what is “seriously offensive”. It’s easy to see, I think, how important that question is. Simply ask yourself if you would want people who were politically opposed to you to decide?

Second, there is nothing about the principle in itself that would limit or restrict what might be deemed seriously offensive speech. Today, it is already being applied on some campuses to “unplatform” people who say “abusive and hateful” things about Islam. But nothing about the principle prevents it from tomorrow being applied to people who say abusive and hateful things about cats.

Next, human nature being what it is, there is every reason to suspect some powerful group will take advantage of the principle to crush its enemies That is, the principle not only allows that to happen, but it will happen, given human nature.​

You might think those are obvious and compelling criticisms, but so far as I know, they are being ignored or dismissed by the extreme left.

So there you have it. Is the offense principle a good basis on which governments should limit speech? If so, why? If not, why not?

2 thoughts on “How Far Should We Go To Protect People’s Feelings?

  1. Well, now, I am attracted to the idea of sanctioning people who say abusive things about cats.
    But yes, it is a hard question to parse. Remember when I think it was Justice Potter Stewart said he could not define obscenity but ‘he knew it when he saw it”? Pretty piss poor, coming from someone of that stature in the judiciary, these being the people we pay to define limits of that nature. I mean, by me, what they’re doing to children at the southern border is obscene; Stormy Daniels movies, probably not. (I havne’t seen one, but admit to being curious, she being a new hero of mine).

    My feeling is that overall legal restrictions on speech ought to follow the general rubric of “shouting Fire in a crowded theater (which isn’t actually on fire)” — that is, if the speech is on its face mendacious and could only have malicious or destructive intent, it should be punishable or sanctionable. (Which,incidentally, covers a lot of things the Orange Asshole In The White House says.) A “men’s rights activist” saying scornful and derogatory things about women wouldn’t fall in that category to me, much as I’d love to kick him in the nutsack, but calls for mass rape on the grounds of his negative attitudes about women, if earnest and public enough, could.

    In the case of public institutions where people ought to enjoy a certain level of respect and safety, it’s also delicate. If I walk into an elementary school as a ten year old Latinx child, or step out of my dorm on campus as an older kid in college, I should not have to listen to someone deriding my ethnicity, though if the same asshole parks his car in a public lot festooned with racist slogans (a sight which I sadly viewed just a couple of weeks ago), I would say he is at liberty to do so (and be told he is an asshole by anyone who chooses). Private institutions, I think, entirely get to decide whose speech they underwrite, with the exception that I’d like to see the Fairness Doctrine come back as applied to FCC-licensed broadcast news outlets. Who gets excluded by what fraternal organization or magazine ought to tell us as much about their principles as the excluded speaker could.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent analysis! I wish I combined your sharp mind with your athleticism. I’m getting worried about not exercising enough to keep my brain happy and healthy.

    By the way, I’m all for bring the Fairness Doctrine back — even though doing so might discomfort our friends at Fox “News”.

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