(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?