Bad Ideas, Censorship, Freedom and Liberty, Ideologies, Intelligentsia, Oppression, Philosophy, Political Ideologies, Political Issues

Free Speech Today

(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 and other matters. But nothing about the principle prevents it from tomorrow being applied to people who say abusive and hateful things about nearly anything — even 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?

9 thoughts on “Free Speech Today”

  1. I think this is a problem. Especially nowadays when the federal government is largely in the hands of right-wing nationalists, this left-wing authoritarianism (assault on speech) plays right into the hands of our conservative critics. I think we (the left) need to get our act together and let go of this attack speech. As adults, we should respond to bad arguments with our better arguments, not with threats,slogans, and intolerance.

    1. Exactly, Jon! I could not agree more. Especially the part about it playing into authoritarian hands. I’m getting alarmed by all times I’ve been hearing someone say the extreme left is alienating them from all liberal positions. People should be wiser than that, but sadly, we’re not.

  2. One important correction. When no-platforming occurs at Universities in the UK, it is instigated, not by Government, but by the Student Unions.

    I do not think (information anyone?) that this actually happens very often, and indeed the very suggestion gives rise, as it should, to criticism.

    The National Union of Students maintains a no-platform list. I think this is wrong in principle, though I very much doubt if a representative of any of the organisations listed would ever be invited to speak. I have the impression that the problem is much stronger in the US.

    In the US, at publicly funded universities, no-platforming would probably be a First Amendment violation, though ISTR college authorities blocking speakers on grounds of risks to public order and safety, which in practice may come to much the same thing.

      1. I can’t really tell. IMO, it has become more of an issue because it’s getting more attention, not the other way round.

        In general (not so much in Universities) there has been a recent increase of far right groups pushing the limits of the acceptable, in rder to claim victim status when curbed. For an example, check out the “Nazi pug” case. This incidentally shows that censoring unacceptable speech can be counter-effective, with the act of censorship itself becoming the focus of attention.

        My own view is that the “Nazi pug” case should never have been prosecuted, even though the pug in question was a dog trained to respond to the cue “Gas the Jews” by saluting with his paw, since this was not an incitement to actual violence.

        Did I find the Nazi pug offensive? Yes, monstrously and intentionally so. Should the perpetrator (the trainer, not the dog) have been brought to court? Certainly not, as a matter of principle.

        And as a matter of practice, the court appearance was taken up by all the nasty trollery networks, gaining him untold publicity in return for a fine of £800, with more to come over the appeal.

        I have been on the receiving end of antisemitism (though, thanks to the RAF, never in personal danger of being gassed), and am old enough to remember the first images coming out of Belsen. I have no doubt that when it comes to censorship of antisemitism and related nastiness, the cure is worse than the disease.

      2. Thank you for an informative and thoughtful response, Paul. I cannot see where we would differ on this issue. Given that the consequences of prosecuting the pug case could have easily been foreseen, it is baffling to me why it was ever undertaken.

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