On the Value of (truly) Free Speech

by David Ottlinger

In the increasingly surreal unfolding of student protests across the country, the provost of Brown University attempted to address students demonstrating over the status of racial minorities. [1] Having just announced a $100 million dollar plan to increase diversity at Brown, the administration could reasonably have expected some good-will from student activists. Instead the provost was submitted to the same abuse that is becoming a familiar feature of contemporary student protests. “Can we just have a conversation?” he begins modestly. “NO” the crowd returns. Offering an explanation, a protestor proclaimed “Heterosexual white males have always dominated the space.” “Then I don’t count” remarks the provost. The protestor amends his statement. “Well, homosexual, it don’t matter. White males are at the top of the hierarchy. Cis gender white males are at the top of the hierarchy.” Because of who he was and because of his social standing, the provost was not allowed to speak. For the same reasons the protestor was. When I noted the provost’s name I almost laughed aloud. His name is Richard Locke.

It is likely that many will not see the irony. Very few people seem to know who John Locke was or the role he played in shaping the modern, Western world we live in.  Just as few are familiar with John Stuart Mill, John Milton or Immanuel Kant. Certainly, even if aware of them, many people seem unpersuaded by their arguments. The pieces on the internet keep rolling in, with contents as disturbing as their titles: “The free speech delusion” “Quit with the ‘PC’ hysteria: College kids are not trying to steal your freedom of speech” and (my favorite) “’PC culture’ isn’t about your freedom of speech. It’s about our freedom to be offended”. [2] Nor is this sentiment restricted to the internet. Jelani Cobb, writing in The New Yorker, declared debate about free speech a “diversion,” perpetrated by those not serious about reform. [3] Likewise, criticism of protestors’ wildly uncivil behavior in The New York Times has been, shall we say, muted. [4] (Very often moving from respected journals of opinion to blogs to Youtube, I have the sense of listening to the same music first quietly, then louder and louder as though a knob were slowly being turned.) This is worrisome enough but perhaps even more so is the fact that the free speech defenders who have emerged from the smoke seem equally unwilling or unable to draw on the great thinkers of liberal tradition. Conor Friedersdorf has been a lion in defense of free speech and liberal ideals of debate and compromise, but nowhere in his work, as far as I have seen, does he make use of the rich intellectual tradition. [5] In an article on “political correctness” that caused a minor stir, Jonathan Chait managed to use the word ‘philosophically’, but did little to plumb the depths of liberal philosophical arguments and what they mean for our political moment. [6] In fairness to these writers (and others) whom I otherwise admire, they or their editors may not have felt that that discussion of “old, dead white men” would hold their readers interests. Depressingly, they may be right.

Depressing, because, like it or not, the conversation we are having is a philosophical one. As I have argued in the past and in these pages, some questions really are philosophical, whether or not those debating these questions choose to recognize it. [7] Particularly, questions are philosophical when they are made tractable only by philosophical arguments. A question is philosophical, then, when it demands a philosophical answer. In the case of free speech, the arguments for and against are paradigmatically philosophical. They concern abstract moral claims involving rights and duties. They are normative, a priori and conceptually driven. Nearly everything distinctive of philosophical discourse is strongly represented in them, and nearly nothing that would make them ambiguous cases. This being so, it would be reasonable to expect philosophers, past and present, to be consulted. And yet, this rarely happens.

I want to offer what little I may in way of corrective. There are many great works from which to pull. High points of the tradition include John Milton’s Aeropagitica, John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and “Letter Concerning Toleration”, Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” and J.S. Mill’s On Liberty. I am informed by all these works, but I will be pulling mainly from the last. This is only natural, as Mill has enjoyed a unique kind of pre-eminence on the question of free speech. Just recently, philosopher of law Brian Leiter referred to Mill as liberalism’s “patron saint.” [8] The SEP article on freedom of speech gives Mill a pride of place rare for a single philosopher on such a broad question. [9] But more than his eminence, Mill offers us the concept that we most need in this political moment. I will call this Mill’s concept of “social censorship.” We need this concept particularly to combat the idea that freedom of speech is somehow limited to the law. In actuality, most censorship is not legal, but social. It is enforced by opinion, custom and discourse and results in the silencing of opinions and the elimination of debate. A society’s having free speech does not merely mean having legal protections for speech. A society’s having free speech means having a culture of free speech. That is exactly what is missing in American discourse today and is something our politics sorely needs.

Mill lived in a time when there was essentially no legal censorship. He did not need to fear, as Milton and Locke had, the interference of a hostile government. His strongly counter-cultural works were widely disseminated and debated without his suffering legal reprisals. Yet Mill was adamant that the England in which he lived lacked liberty. The problem he fought so ferociously against was not located in the country’s laws or institutions, but in its culture. Too often Mill’s descriptions sound chillingly contemporary: “In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship.” [10 58] On everything from habit to opinion, he saw men and women around him deferring to culture:

I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes. [11 58]

Mill had two basic objections to this society. The first is that it is lacking in the individuality and autonomy that Mill valued not only instrumentally but in themselves. He characterized it as lacking in vibrant and original forms of life and described its people as living  “pinched and hidebound” human lives. [12 61]  But, Mill also criticized such a society’s ability to function as a polity, including its ability to reform itself, to generate innovation and to discover novel truths. For the purposes of the present essay, I will be focusing on the latter aspect of Mill’s critique.

Mill’s argument is simple and easy to formulate. It begins with the simple observation that human beings are fallible. Even carefully considered and deeply held beliefs can — and historically often have — proven to be false. From there, most of the argument is captured in a single, famous quotation:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. [13 16]

Essentially, Mill makes three arguments against silencing speech, all hinted at in the above quotation. [14 50] The first is that a suppressed opinion may prove to be true. Of course it is always difficult to imagine our most strongly held beliefs turning out to be false,  but Mill rightly reminds us of how often this has occurred in history. Mill reflects, “Mankind can hardly be too often reminded, that there was once a man named Socrates, between whom and the legal authorities and public opinion of his time, there took place a memorable collision.” [15 23] Of course now we are almost all on the side of Socrates. In fact one of the most entertaining aspects of reading Plato is realizing just what kinds of horrifying views (by modern standards) were commonplace and even commonsensical.  The views that a Thrasymachus or a Callicles express casually and in public would stun most people today, but for them they were not only inoffensive but pious. Socrates challenged the most deeply held pieties and morals of his society. For patriotic Athenians he was a subversive blasphemer. He struck at every decency and everything that bound society together. Of course, Socrates and his students played a foundational role in the creation of Western Civilization, as we know it today, but the civic-minded Athenians no more knew their future than we know ours. Indeed, Mill’s own suggestion that women may be equal to men in civic and intellectual capacity was considered a shocking threat to the social order and made him the subject of great ridicule. Just as recently the moral merits and demerits of human slavery were a subject for serious national discussion. How certain are we entitled to be that our most sacred beliefs are true?

The second argument is essentially a special case of the first and concerns arguments which are only partially correct. Not only do we lose the insight of true opinions when suppressed, but we lose the partial insight of partially true opinions if we suppress them instead of examining them, critiquing them and separating the truth in them from the error. The third argument contends that not only does free debate establish what is true but encourages us to accept beliefs for the right reasons. Mill argues that “even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.” [16 50] To argue this, Mill considers Christian morality. He (perhaps rhetorically) concedes that Christian morality is not only right but entirely right. Therefore, neither the first argument nor the second argument applies, as no opposing opinion would prove to be true or even partly true. But Mill argues that it still would be better to have argued and debated Christian morals than merely accept them as divinely sanctioned. Mill argues that because it was not debated, Christian teaching was often inchoate and obscure. [17 46-47] He also found it to be “incomplete and one sided,” in that it failed to incorporate a number of the insights of antiquity. [18 47] Objection and free argument would have doubtless revealed these inconsistencies and gaps, as these would almost certainly have been raised in the service of arguing against Christian morals. Christian rebuttals would then have attempted to meet these objections by articulating a more cohesive statement of doctrine and supplementing gaps with further argument. Argument, Mill believes, is the only way we can establish such coherence and completeness.

Mill hints at another reason why doctrines, even if entirely true would benefit from argument and interrogation. As seen above, Mill hopes such argument will produce “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth.” Often, Mill seems to think that this “livelier perception” will lead to more politically engaged and committed populace. Mill’s concept of moral innovation is clarified when we consider his list of moral innovators. Those discussed at length include Socrates, Rousseau, the Protestant reformers and the Christ. Implicitly, he, as well as his contemporary audience, is undoubtedly thinking of his father and Jeremy Bentham. None of these examples is perfect or clear embodiment of his ideals and, in fact, no figure from history is a perfect embodiment of any ideal, but taken collectively they embody a certain tradition of universal moral argument. All of these figures made arguments about what good lives consist of and what is good to be done by people in general. Certainly, the reformers colluded with state power, but they also had certain egalitarian ideals, motivated by implicit and explicit argument. The Christ may also seem an odd example, but Mill treats him as a kind of moral philosopher, which makes better sense of how he was placed in this company. (I’m not certain such a view is supportable, but it makes sense of Mill’s argument.) Mill recognized that this is how change takes place in societies. Moral arguments change convictions, which change culture and, over time, governments and institutions. Mill had witnessed such rapid changes in his lifetime in the successes of the British political left, in which Bentham and his father had been leaders.  Mill remarks on Rousseau’s arguments in favor of a simpler, more rustic mode of life. Mill thought that this had a healthy effect on his culture and was like to have more, “though at present needing to be asserted as much as ever, and to be asserted by deeds, for words, on this subject, have nearly exhausted their power.” [19 45] This remark reflects a certain gap between conviction and action but it also reflects an expectation that those who are willing to argue and debate their convictions are more likely to put their convictions into political practice. Arguments about convictions bring you in contact with the moral force of these convictions. This is the natural progression of events. Moral arguments change convictions which naturally express themselves in actions. It seems to me that modern examples, especially from the civil rights movements and as recently as the animal rights movement, reinforce this understanding of political change.

Of course, our society is quite distinct from Victorian England. Our censoriousness is not their censoriousness. The hostile and dreaded eye of censorship, in Mill’s, time impelled men and women to lead decorous, scandal-free lives of conformity. In our time, social pressures are more concerned with compelling people to walk a certain path of “political correctness” and right-thinking about a number of social and political issues. But Mill’s critique, I believe, remains highly relevant. The features of censoriousness that Mill was concerned to combat are still very much alive and well. Mill opposed the use of social pressure and disapprobation toward Victorians who behaved “eccentrically” or “scandalously.” He believed they should not be shamed or tarred, but reasoned with. If the society believes a person is behaving badly, it should not shame or silence them but present its arguments. If they are unconvinced, those arguing against them must walk away. Of course this is not what actually happened. When someone was believed to be a person of “ill-repute,” they received colder looks from their neighbors, they were disinvited from organizations, social calls ceased to be made, invitations disappeared, in short, life was made difficult. Social costs were imposed on “eccentrics” to enforce their compliance with social norms. [20] Meanwhile if the “eccentric” habit or opinion had some merit that went unnoticed as the eccentricity was not debated or entertained.

It is very clear to me that we have many of the same problems. We are very far from having the free and open debates for which Mill was calling. Instead we fall back on the same social censorship as the Victorians. Those deemed wrong-thinking must be “called out”, “held responsible” or “face the consequences” of their speech. Wrong-thinkers are not debated or offered reasons for their error, or if they are, only perfunctorily. The more important mission of many commenters and political actors is to make life uncomfortable for those who do cleave to the “politically correct” line. Mill asked that each citizen be able to argue and defend their view in the public square. Too many people, as the students at Brown, are instead simply shouting “NO!”  For the reasons Mill points out, this makes us all the poorer.

To Mill’s first argument, I can’t say it fully persuades me. It is true that I can imagine, with some strain, being persuaded to give up even deeply held moral and political beliefs. But there are some beliefs I could not imagine ever adopting unless my conversion involved a sharp blow to the head. If I engage with a neo-Nazi, as some intellectuals do, it would presumably be to either de-convert some among them or dissuade those who might be sympathetic but unconvinced. But my motives would be purely political and not at all intellectual. I would not expect to learn anything from the engagement. Mill notes that people in the past have had equally deep conviction that some viewpoint is wrong and history has judged them to be mistaken. This is true but unpersuasive. It is like noting that once people believed with good reason and unshakeable conviction that the Sun goes around the Earth and now we believe that the Earth goes around the Sun. This is true but after the construction of the Hubble telescope, the development of modern astronomical theories, the flight of the Voyager probe and many, many other lines of evidence I cannot in any serious sense doubt that the world goes around the Sun. I may consider the fact that other people had the opposite belief when I consider epistemology but it in no way calls in to doubt my belief in heliocentrism. Likewise the fact that intelligent people were once convinced of the validity of a Nazi worldview does not seriously undermine my conviction that such a world-view is deranged and hopeless. With some ideas this far outside the norm I think that social censorship, dismissal and silencing is likely the correct path.  However, as far as I can see, taking this path presumes that censorship is more politically expedient then debate. If it is less expedient, we only strengthen a very dangerous social force if we attempt to censor it.

On whole, however, Mill was right. There are many ideas on offer in our intellectual milieu that are shocking and even offensive, by ordinary moral standards. But we should be very slow to conclude that we know they will not turn out to be right. It was wrong to attempt to censor Peter Singer for defending acts that are repugnant to me, including infanticide. [21] Singer’s view is quite remote from ordinary views about morality and has a number of quite alarming consequences. Yet his account is well motivated, carefully argued and often difficult to refute. For that reason I believe we ought to take seriously the possibility that such a sense of morality could someday be vindicated. Likewise, undemocratic ideas should be given a fair hearing and serious debate and for the same reasons. Democracy has well-known imperfections and it is conceivable, though to me highly unlikely, that democracy could turn out in some future era, to be something considered as backward as monarchy appears to us. I must stress that I am quite strongly persuaded that Prof. Singer’s views on morality are mistaken and that some form of a democratic system is and will continue to be the most just. I believe it is wildly unlikely that I will be dissuaded of these convictions. But, as Mill points out, radical changes in moral and social concepts do occur and often they are crucial to the moral improvement of societies. If we do not take the difficult imaginative leap and question even our most strongly held beliefs, we risk suppressing radical critiques that could potentially be decisive steps forward in human society. There are also other reasons relating to Mill’s other arguments to permit these opinions to be debated but for the moment I want to say that this alone would be reason enough to tolerate them.

Mill’s second argument is more salient in today’s political environment. There is much that both the Right and Left could learn from each other, if they consented to a more profitable engagement. I often feel I have profited from engagement with views that I deeply oppose. On the issue of same-sex marriage, for instance, opponents of the concept often stress the importance of social bonds and shared, public reverence for family and marriage that often goes missing in liberal discourse which is too often afraid of appearing judgmental to state its own values. This can often be an antidote to a lazy “Let them be as miserable as we are” arguments, as well as more sophisticated but somewhat artificially “morally neutral” arguments from the Left. [22] Likewise, while I am deeply unpersuaded by the right-wing idea that most or all of the problems in the America’s black communities issue from a self-inflicted “culture of violence,” the right has a point in emphasizing social and cultural factors that may exacerbate the community’s problems and in bringing some influential and irresponsible actors  on to some responsibility. The contrary view, which is perpetuated by many leading intellectuals and which holds that all of the problems in black communities are without remainder attributable to the environment, runs the risk of infantilizing black Americans, by depicting them as the helpless products of their environment. [23] Both of these arguments suggest a pattern that frequently holds. The Left too often emphasizes the importance of public institutions and forgets culture and individual autonomy, while the Right too often stresses culture and individual autonomy and forgets the importance of public institutions. Mill had a very lively sense of how these dialectics can be helpful:

In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity. Unless opinions favorable to democracy and to aristocracy, to property and to equality, to co-operation and to competition, to luxury and to abstinence, to sociality and individuality, to liberty and discipline, and all the other standing antagonisms of practical life, are expressed with equal freedom, and enforced and defended with equal talent and energy, there is no chance of both elements obtaining their due; one scale is sure to go up, and the other down. [24 45]

Again I must stress that I strongly believe that gay-marriage was rightly endorsed and that rectifying the state of black American communities will require public intervention. Neither am I suggesting a false equivalency between these arguments for and against. Given my position, I obviously believe one side is much stronger. My only point is that both sides can benefit from mutual engagement.

The most salient argument is Mill’s third. Reading the pieces I cited at the beginning of the essay, along with many others, there is a sense that the language of American politics is no longer one of debate but one of declamation. Martial metaphors abound. “Social justice warriors” and “culture warriors” do not expect to “exchange truth for error” or to compromise but to overcome, to over-power, to force submission. Many political writers seem to altogether lack the ability to make a serious political argument. Political gridlock cannot be far behind. These student protests are, I believe, a reflection of this. They are an odd mix of passion, engagement and complete political incompetence. They have the capacity to make considerable change, if only they could figure out how to go about it. Their lack of political ability perfectly mirrors what is missing in public discourse. They know how to declaim, but not how to make political arguments. I was first struck by this when watching a Black Lives Matter activist confront Hilary Clinton. [25] Here a former senator and cabinet secretary bent her ear to listen to protestors’ demands. What did he have to say? Well, he knew he wanted to say that Hilary (and Bill) Clinton were responsible for policies that contributed to the plight of black communities. But what were his demands? The Secretary could get no answers. The protestor was sure it was his time to speak—“you don’t tell black people what we need to know”—but was totally unsure of what to say. There was little for the Secretary to do but awkwardly give him a civics lesson. The scene virtually replayed itself at the president’s offices in Brown. The president and provost of an ivy-league institution patiently waited to hear protestor demands. What did the protestors have to say? This time they knew they wanted to disarm Brown’s private police force, almost certainly a political non-starter, but beyond that they listed very few specifics. They were sure that the president was ignoring their demands. They were sure the president was over-payed as one student discreetly pointed out: “You know your salary. I know you know your salary. That has seven digits, I know you know that number.” (In fairness the president probably did know her own salary.) Mostly they demanded that the president accept their demands—before they had submitted their demands. There was little for the president to do but awkwardly suggest they come together and actually finalize their demands. In both cases, students were doing as they were taught to do. Resist. Fight. Overcome. Don’t be silenced. The art of making compromises and articulating entitlements and obligations from a general point of view they knew nothing about.

Mill believed that in order to engender political change one must first change beliefs and convictions, which in turn elicit actions. Modern political actors like the students at Brown reverse the itinerary. They want to force actions and are only secondarily, if at all, concerned about changing moral beliefs. Even their arguments are meant to be appeal only to very definite subsets of the population. They seem to resent having to make any argument for anyone outside their own group—“you don’t tell black people what we need to know.” They refuse to make any case to the provost. On Facebook, as recorded in the Daily Beast article, one student wrote on the protestors’ Facebook page: “This is NOT a space for white students to be offering their opinions for the ‘issues’ they take with the consolidated, working list of demands. People have been building on them for months and have very specific reasons for their asks, but it will never be your place to criticize them. No student of color want [sic] to engage with the foolishness they have seen on some of these comments…”  They emphatically reject the idea of responding to arguments from anyone outside their group to anyone inside their group (the Facebook post) or of anyone inside their group making arguments to anyone outside their group (“CNO” to the provost). It is as if each group has its own private moral reasons for itself that count for themselves but no one else. The problem is that his is not how societies change. Or at the very least this is not how liberal democracies change. For political actors to be effective, they need to present claims that are, if not universal, general enough to compel others’ actions. Lacking such claims, the students will continue to be unable to articulate and argue for demands.

I have said a great deal but am more struck by how much remains to be said. There are many more arguments to consider, many more objections to be met. Above all I hope to have done something to leave two impressions. The first is that there is much more to free speech than the law. The law is only one part of our politics. At least as important is our culture and the way we debate philosophical issues. The second is that classical philosophical arguments can do a great deal to inform our politics and the society we want to see. In the tradition in general and Mill in particular we have a vision of a culture of tolerant, temperate and rationally engaged citizens. Sadly, we are still well short of that ideal. At present we have laws which allow us the space in which to have such a debate, but not a citizenry willing to have those debates within that space. The law only allows us the possibility of free speech. Only when we have a culture that attends to the ideals which underwrite such laws can we be said to truly have not the possibility, but free speech itself.

Notes

[1] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/12/06/brown-university-professor-denounces-mccarthy-witch-hunts.html

[2]http://www.newstatesman.com/2015/11/free-speech-delusion

http://www.salon.com/2015/11/10/quit_with_the_pc_hysteria_college_kids_are_not_trying_to_steal_your_freedom_of_speech/

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/28/pc-culture-freedom-of-speech-freedom-to-be-offended

[3]http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/race-and-the-free-speech-diversion

[4]http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/16/opinion/race-college-and-safe-space.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fcharles-m-blow&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=collection&mtrref=www.nytimes.com&gwh=7843F41262DEFD218A54A38EA636D1B6&gwt=pay&assetType=opinion

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/opinion/sunday/the-seduction-of-safety-on-campus-and-beyond.html

[5] Conor Friedersdorf writes for The Atlantic. A few representative pieces of his work on this subject:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/the-rise-of-victimhood-culture/404794/

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-new-intolerance-of-student-activism-at-yale/414810/

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-illiberal-demands-of-amherst-uprising/416079/

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/race-and-the-anti-free-speech-diversion/415254/

(The last is a response to the Cobb piece listed above)

[6] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/not-a-very-pc-thing-to-say.html

[7] https://theelectricagora.com/2015/11/09/god-is-not-a-scientific-hypothesis/

[8]http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2450866

[9]http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freedom-speech/

[10] Mill, J.S., 1978. On Liberty, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. p58

My citations refer to the standard Hackett version pagination, also used in the SEP article. On Liberty is available free online from a number of sources:

http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/one.html

[11] ibid.

[12] p. 61

[13] p.16

[14] p. 50

[15] p. 23

[16] p. 50

[17] pp. 46-47

[18] p. 47

[19] p. 45

[20] This kind of treatment is well chronicled in the literature of the period, including works of Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton and William James. An especial favorite of mine is James’ “Daisey Miller”

[21] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jun/16/peter-singer-princeton-bioethics-professor-faces-c/

[22] Particularly interesting on this is Michael Sandel:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/oct/31/michael-sandel-interview-oliver-burkeman

[23] This issue has been discussed at length by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter over at Bloggingheads.tv:

http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/35116

http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/36141

http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/37146

[24] p. 45

[25]http://www.salon.com/2015/08/18/watch_black_lives_matter_activists_confront_hillary_clinton_you_dont_tell_black_people_what_we_need_to_know

“This is NOT a space for white students to be offering their opinions for the ‘issues’ they take with the consolidated, working list of demands. People have been building on them for months and have very specific reasons for their asks, but it will never be your place to criticize them. No student of color want [sic] to engage with the foolishness they have seen on some of these comments…”

Categories: Essay, Uncategorized

55 Comments »

  1. Interesting article, and much I agree with.

    I want to re-read for a more thoughtful comment. But I wanted to link with an irony-laced essay I literally just read before coming here, which addresses the issue within the context of a generation that seems to have lost interest in intellectual conversation over political difference; a party politics that has basically closed off serious political debate; and electronic media that enable both by redefining political discourse as a matter of grabbing social attention by any means possible, no matter what the grounds of any cause argued for (or, rather, quarreled for):

    http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/dec/14/politically-correct-culture-millennials-generation

    Solutions to this problem are difficult to see; those suggested in the article here would require a reading program in a post-literate culture – an uphill battle, to be sure. I’ll maintain a certain pessimism, even while offering hopefully helpful commentary.

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  2. It’s a bit amusing reading about what’s going on at Brown (my alma mater). Away from a university environment, if I go into a restaurant or hotel lobby where there’s a TV on a news channel, it’s typically on FOX News, and I hear people on the street saying Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are the smartest talking heads on TV. (I don’t know how many universities O’Reilly or Hannity speak at.) There are alternative sources for ‘information’, but in many places if you live outside a university, FOX-News speech is the “free” speech people want to consume.

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  3. EJWInner: Read that first article. Boy, did that author beg every single relevant question. But as a Gen-Xer, it’s good to hear that he can’t stand us. That means we’re doing something right.

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  4. Social censorship in the U.S., as far as I know, has generally come from the puritanical elements on the political right, but now it seems to be coming from the political left, whereas previously the left was in favor of free speech (didn’t the student protest movement in the 1960’s begin with the Berkeley free speech movement?). That seems to be an interesting change. What is that due to?

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  5. First of all, I would suggest everybody click on the first link below the article, the Daily Beast article and then watch the first video all the way through, which shows the entire interaction, I would suggest you do this before you read any of the slant the Beast puts on it.

    Secondly, are we really to suppose that the only opportunity University Provosts get for free speech is during student protests? The fact that we are getting his side of the story right now suggests otherwise. So those people who did not want to hear from him in that particular place and at that particular time were not shutting down his free speech. They were already having a conversation – with Brown University President Christina Paxson and she is getting plenty of opportunity to speak.

    Thirdly, yes one protestor makes a fool of himself with his “heterosexual white male” remark and the other protestors laugh at his clumsy attempt to recover from it. I am not sure why that is relevant to the free speech issue.

    And does that video really show “yelling and screaming” as the Beasts’s anonymous professor claims? If so then I don’t think you have ever heard any actual yelling and screaming.

    I hark back to my own protesting days, 35 years ago now. If the someone had come out of the laboratory conducting animal testing had come out and asked for a conversation would we have politely said “Go ahead?” I doubt it. Students have been holding these kind of protests for as long as I can remember and back in the 1970’s the University President would not have been given the opportunity to speak that Paxson was given,

    Actually I think the real irony is that so much of the media and internet is taken up by people claiming that their free speech has been shut down. Think about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Daniel,

    We are thinking about it

    Well then, what do you say about the specific thing I was asking you to think about? Why is the media and internet dominated so completely by the people who claim to have no freedom of speech and yet I don’t hear anything from those who have allegedly robbed them of the ability to say the things they keep saying?

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  7. Robin: I have no idea why the media is “so dominated” by such people — if it is. I am simply telling you what my experience has been since I have started teaching. This is the most censorious time I have seen, in the university, since I started teaching.

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  8. Dan. If you had thought about what Robin said, I’d expect you to have some sort of response. He said something rather specific “Actually, I think the real irony…”, to which you gave a “talking point” answer.

    So far, I don’t think you’ve told us any of your experiences with censoriousness, and I hope you will.

    Also, I’ve heard next to nothing about why the culture is going in this direction, or what there might be to do about it. When people go around fomenting a sense of outrage, even about things for which outrage is somewhat justified, you should be wary of where things might be going. The Versailles treaty, and the impossible load of reparations was worthy of some outrage, but that outrage was misused, and I suspect this outrage is or will be too. The last several years have been a time of much fomented anger, hate, intolerance and irrationality. Do you remember the summer of 2009, when congressmen attempting to engage in town hall meetings to discuss health care reform, and whether and what sort of system made sense, were drowned out, in an orchestrated manner? Do you remember a mass shooting that targeted a congresswoman who happened to have been features in ads putting her (possibly just her name, rather than her face) in a gun sight? Do you remember 9 people shot during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina? Did you read this?

    “I have no choice,” Roof wrote. “I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

    which I believe had much to do with proudly “non-PC” relentless criticism of the black community, and a ginned up perception among many and some whom I know that racism and violence by blacks is the real problem, and one about to explode (it being implied) largely due to our having a black president who encourages them.

    Robin was talking about 35 years ago, a time you didn’t experience as an adult, telling us protesters were pretty aggressive back then too. Actually, some of them blew things up, and robbed banks (the SLA).

    Also, David Brock was launched into several years of being a right-wing hack, writing, The Real Anita Hill before he wrote Blinded by the Right, and founded Media Matters for America. According to his telling, the thing that set him off was Jeane Kirkpatrick being heckled and drowned out at his college.

    One thing I am truly tired of is anyone, whether it is Emily Shire of the Daily Beast or Dan Kaufman feeling so superior about their generation. We are being divided.

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  9. Hal: My reply to Robin involved nothing more nor less than characterizing what has been my own experience and why essays like Ottlinger’s — and others — ring true to me. I really don’t know what else to tell you. We see the cultural landscape differently. I can live with that. But I really have no interest in arguing about it, as it is simply going to come down to perceptions, which are relative.

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  10. Why bring up John Stuart Mill if “arguing about it” seems so pointless? I thought we were criticizing people for having one narrow point of view and being unwilling to argue about it. Why just keep stating your point of view without giving any illustrations that you didn’t just read about? I’m not sure you would have like Socrates if you met him.

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  11. ej,
    Look forward to it. Read the article too, and agree with Dan’s assessment. Near the heart of it is just a big tu quoque argument. If Trump can do it, we can do it too. Uncompelling. He also doesn’t take the power of social censorship nearly seriously enough.

    Wallerstein,
    “Social censorship in the U.S., as far as I know, has generally come from the puritanical elements on the political right, but now it seems to be coming from the political left…That seems to be an interesting change. What is that due to?”
    It’s an interesting and important question. I think a lot of it has to do with identity politics. As is explored in the article I find a lot of the left behaves as though each relevant social group has its own moral and political reasons for action which apply exclusively to them and there is no general moral viewpoint. This idea seems to me to be related genealogically to post-modern and new-Frankfurt ideas. These kind of ideas came into vogue in the university in the 80’s and 90’s. They generally critique the standard liberal notion of justice as a general moral viewpoint and argue that it is oppressive in itself. A lot of socially minded young people seem to be taking courses with intellectuals in this tradition and listening to their arguments. (The last time I said this though, Dan was unconvinced.)

    Robin,
    I don’t want this to become another lengthy discussion about how censoriousness has changed. It’s not really what the post is about and anyway we’ve really had that conversation. But I’ll share a few thoughts.

    First I am genuinely very surprised that you saw anything redeeming in that video. I’ll join you in encouraging people to watch it because I thought the protesters’ behavior was hideous from first to last.

    “Secondly, are we really to suppose that the only opportunity University Provosts get for free speech is during student protests?”
    I really find this question bizarre. No I am not saying the provost has no opportunity to speak, but this was a *negotiation*. Showing up to a negotiation and not allowing the other side to speak is a contradiction in terms.

    ” those people who did not want to hear from him in that particular place and at that particular time were not shutting down his free speech”
    No, but again this was a negotiation. Also my point is that they were articulating conceptions of freedom of speech and politics in general which I think are misguided for the reasons I named.

    “Why is the media and internet dominated so completely by the people who claim to have no freedom of speech”
    It very clearly isn’t. As I cited, the most prominent journals of opinion like NYT and the New Yorker are either very muted about the problems of political correctness for free speech or else openly hostile to the idea that it is any threat at all. The Atlantic has been the major exception among liberal publications (yes WSJ and the like threw fits but we all knew that was going to happen). It is even less dominant on the internet where blogs are constantly espousing their identity politics. I gave several examples of this.

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  12. I don’t seem to be able to make the point understood. The question is not why the media and internet is dominated by such voices, it is how can you reconcile the claim that their free speech has been severely curtailed with the fact that their free speech dominates the media and internet?

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  13. Hal,

    “I’ve heard next to nothing about why the culture is going in this direction…”
    See above.

    “… or what there might be to do about it”
    Well I think cultural change is achieved by arguments and discourse. That’s what I am trying to engage in with the piece.

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  14. We want to talk about this issue without considering its historical lineage; I doubt we can. Robin is right about the ’60s. If one ever had to listen to ‘debates’ between campus radicals of that era, one would never take the SJW phenomenon so seriously; for one reason, we who had to suffer such debates know where today’s SJW rhetoric comes from – one of the worst legacies of the ’60s.

    College rebellions of various sorts have long been endemic to Modernity, beginning at least in 1848, although there were precursors in college nationalist clubs in the Germany during the Napoleonic era, mimicking the inflammatory rhetoric of the French Revolution. All these rebellions have had deleterious effects in multiple ways, either by successfully changing society for the worse (as with the right wing cultism between the World Wars); or by failing, and thus producing a generation of disappointed political skeptics, cynics, and paranoiacs. (One odd feature of student movements is that, while the movements are active, the participants feel a greater sense of community; but when they fail, one becomes distrustful of the very notion of community. I know, I’ve been there.)

    Things may be worse today than hitherto, but let’s recognize a trend here that is part and parcel with the Modernity/ post-Modernity that we inherit.

    As to Mill (whose later writings on the social remain a touchstone for me personally): It should be remembered that Mill was addressing an increasingly educated upper middle class that was also increasingly aware of fundamental incoherency in its basic ideological assumptions (aristocratic prejudices, bourgeois tastes; Christian charity expected to resolve problems of what may have been the worst slums of Europe; etc.).

    I note that when I was at SUNY Albany doing research into Melville, who once lived in the area, I was stunned to discover that, at that time, mid-1800s, the newspapers – yes, the newspapers – in the area (Albany, Troy, surrounding towns) proliferated with ‘Letters to the Editor’ debating philosophy – Kant, Hegel, the Transcendentalists, etc.; and poetry, theater, music – I mean, these were not written by professors, but by educated people in an era when lectures on philosophy and the arts, public readings by major authors, political speeches concerning intricacies of policy, were considered a serious form of entertainment, and even something of a civic duty. (Anyone doubting that should read Lincoln’s wonderfully articulate speeches and debates before achieving the presidency.)

    Well, we’ve come a long way since then. I remark a comment by an presumably well-educated physicist on another site (DanK may recognize it): “Having read books and having expertise are means to an end — the end being constructing better arguments.” – That’s the problem right there; people don’t want to be challenged, to learn, to think reflectively – they want to win.

    There’s more to that than I can say right now.

    Meanwhile, as amusing sidebar to this problem, from John Oliver’s ongoing series of short clips, And Now This:

    Liked by 2 people

  15. DanK, David,

    Concerning The Schilling article: Well, since the irony of the text verges on outright satire, I took it to be an expressive piece, rather than an argumentative one. As such, its reading seems more complex than reduction to a tu quoque argument. Indeed, Schilling seems as much concerned with SJW behavior as he is with Trump: “How is Trump’s dismissal of opposing views any different than the no-platforming of feminists who critique trans activists? In both cases, someone is dismissing speech they deem harmful, dangerous to society, or just plain incorrect. The only difference is that Trump’s ideas are now terrifyingly considered acceptable enough that he can find himself on Saturday Night Live.” And his underlying concern would lead to a more general critique of the current status of political discourse: “The practical reality of American society is that most of us would rather not hear what the other side has to say and would quite frankly chew off our own genitals in exchange for the power to pretend like those people don’t exist at all.” In this regard, I think it raises an interesting point – there are reasons, historical and cultural, why the SJW phenomenon and the Trump phenomenon are occurring at much the same time. The biggest point he makes about Trump and his supporters – and its clear it concerns him about SJW phenomenon as well – is that there is *no* arguing with them. It’s not that they’re evading, or dissimulating, or quibbling; their whole attitude is “shut up!” One problem this generates goes to the pessimism I remarked in my previous post. Offering solutions here becomes problematic when the people needing to be addressed refuse to listen.

    The article does move towards arguing for some leniency for the left of his generation (actually his younger siblings, since he’s already 30). But reading this as expressive rather than argumentative commentary, I see that as a rhetorical effort to lift the piece from the dark (if amusing) cynicism of the piece as a whole. (I am strangely reminded of the original version of Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” finally performed by the Cowboy Junkies; the song is really about the arrival of cynical bemusement in the face of the gender confusion in the drug culture Reed was familiar with; but it ends with a curiously sentimental romantic expression of love.) So the question is, does this rhetorical move work? Since you seem to have mistaken it for the point of the piece, perhaps not.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Robin,

    “The question is not why the media and internet is dominated by such voices, it is how can you reconcile the claim that their free speech has been severely curtailed with the fact that their free speech dominates the media and internet?”
    I see. The fact that some do make it through does not mean much. After all Mill managed to publish what he did, when he did but obviously there was still great cultural opposition in his day. Nowadays people have to take considerable professional and personal risk to publish or ever aver certain things. Chait’s piece as an example unleashed a torrent of nonsenical responses which probably hurt his professional reputation. Very likely many pieces do not get published that otherwise would and even when they are they are not discussed in a serious way. People are still facing twitter mobs, people pressuring their employers and sponsers and so on. This leads to debates not taking place.

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  17. Hi David,

    First I am genuinely very surprised that you saw anything redeeming in that video

    I wanted people to watch the video to see the gap between what is claimed about it and what happened..

    For example you say that the students had not yet submitted their demands, but they had. The President can be heard quite clearly saying that she can’t respond because she hasn’t read them yet. You can also see on the Facebook page that the working list of demands had been formulated ahead of the occupation.

    You say that they are not interested in listening to what others have to say, but it was only the Provost who was shut down, the University President spends a good deal of the video talking. Certainly they did not appear to be buynig what they said – but that is different.

    The Daily Beast spends a good deal of the article forcing a particular card about that video for example “…interrupting and shouting at Paxson …”, or “… a conversation, as opposed to the shouting,…” or “… yelling and screaming,…”. You see a theme there? Paxson on the other hand “…calmly counters …”

    So I watch the video, and certainly no screaming. Yelling only to someone who has led a very sheltered life. You might say “raised voices” rather than shouting and I can hear many voices among the students that are perfectly calm.

    No I am not saying the provost has no opportunity to speak, but this was a *negotiation*. Showing up to a negotiation and not allowing the other side to speak is a contradiction in terms.

    No, but again this was a negotiation.

    Whatever gave you the impression that this was a negotiation?

    It clearly wasn’t a negotiation, it was an occupation – a demonstration. It clearly says in the Facebook page that this is an occupation of the President’s office. At the end of the video you can hear the students ask for, and getting, an amnesty for that action. You don’t ask amnesty for a negotiation.

    Now if I turn up at some demo and say “May I make a suggestion?” and they say “No” then I do not consider them to have curtailed my freedom of speech.

    I see. The fact that some do make it through does not mean much.

    Some? The entire Fox Network for example. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian – many others. The USA is a country where political incorrectness can get you to be front runner for the GOP nominee for Presidency. If someone is curtailing free speech in the USA they are doing it wrong.

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  18. I’m also not sure if the Brown University events are a free speech issue per se either, in that they are better seen as
    traditional student v. university politics. I notice the Daily Beast complained just as much 2 years earlier
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/31/brown-university-ray-kelly-protest-free-speech

    The complaints here,
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/12/campus-race-protests-systemic-racism-yale-mizzou
    about a shortage of counselling sessions might be seen as a sign of the new infantilization, of course.

    I think incivility comes to the fore when speaking from low to high, because otherwise no attention is paid to you. And that institutions have learnt, to some extent, how to counteract the tactics of demonstrations, sit-ins etc – note the inefficacy of the anti-Iraq war demonstrations where “between January 3 and April 12, 2003, 36 million people across the globe took part in almost 3,000 protests against the Iraq war” [Wikipedia] and the Occupy movement. Another modern rhetorical (of sorts) technique is the government and private community feedback meeting, where it is hoped this will short circuit effective protest action, without any interest in listening or changing policy or action.

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  19. An aside to ejwinner: “(One odd feature of student movements is that, while the movements are active, the participants feel a greater sense of community; but when they fail, one becomes distrustful of the very notion of community. I know, I’ve been there.)”

    I know this feeling. We seem to have had similar experiences in the 60’s and early 70’s. In part, these communities and their issues became absorbed within and co-opted–sometimes with disastrous results–by larger economic and political entities or institutions. I could only smile sardonically when I first heard The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as the lead-in for the popular CSI TV series.

    “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”

    (Didn’t know you did work on Melville whose fiction I admire. My thesis was on Stephen Crane.)

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  20. I’m not much for popular news stories anymore, which I suppose is because they do seem quite normal to me. A terrorist attack? (Yawn.) School shooting? (Boring.) Black college kids angry about stuff? (Well duh!) I’m far more interested in things which actually challenge my understandings, or at least seem a bit new. Perhaps if I had actually gone to Brown like Philip… but then he also doesn’t seem too surprised by this story.

    I can at least say that am all for David’s position that freedom of speech concerns far more than associated legalities. In general, social pressures surely have far more influence over us than legal pressures do. Nevertheless, if an education in Kant, Mill, and so on would indeed help these kids become less frustrated with their circumstances, I would find this surprising — I very much doubt it.

    I don’t consider it the job of the theorist to judge others, but rather to develop models from which to understand them (and themselves). Do Hume, Kant, Mill and so on bring us theory from which to understand why these kids are angry? Not to my knowledge. If anyone believes otherwise, I’d be happy to consider their argument.

    My own theory, however, is most certainly set up to explain how the human (and conscious life in general) functions. And yes, I do believe this kind of understanding will help us understand how to better lead our individual lives, as well as structure our various societies. My problem however, is that these ideas are indeed quite radical. I can’t go ramming them down the throats of others, so non defended minds will be crucial to find.

    If anyone here is interested in my associated theory, please do ask!

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  21. Hi David “Chait’s piece as an example unleashed a torrent of nonsenical responses which probably hurt his professional reputation.”

    Seriously!? Does he need a safe room maybe?

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  22. At this point, I am interested in talking about what the piece is actually about, which is Mill’s arguments for the importance of free speech and minimal censorship, including social censorship.

    I don’t have much interest anymore in arguing about whether present-day Millennials are more censorious in their attitudes than anything we’ve seen in quite some time. David and I think they are. Robin and Hal and others think they are not. The differences in perception may be generational, but they are what they are, and I don’t see the profit in arguing to the ends of the earth over differing perceptions.

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  23. Eric wrote:

    I don’t consider it the job of the theorist to judge others, but rather to develop models from which to understand them (and themselves). Do Hume, Kant, Mill and so on bring us theory from which to understand why these kids are angry? Not to my knowledge. If anyone believes otherwise, I’d be happy to consider their argument.

    ———————————————————————-

    Given that none of these three philosophers are psychologists or sociologists, I don’t see any reason why one would turn to them to answer the question “why are these kids so angry.” They are moral philosophers and — in the case of 2 out of the 3 of them — epistemologists.

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  24. David,

    “Moral arguments change convictions which naturally express themselves in actions. It seems to me that modern examples, especially from the civil rights movements and as recently as the animal rights movement, reinforce this understanding of political change.”

    One of the interesting issues with Mill’s arguments is that they largely begin here as presumption and end here as conclusion. Not in a completely circular way; but it does mean we are looking at a justification, not just for free speech, but for a certain kind of democratic politics. To see this, compare with the odd formula appearing in the Critique of Practical Reason by Kant (writing under the watchful eyes of a potentially repressive monarchy): “Think for yourself, but obey.” Strangely, this also suggests a kind of limited free speech; and Kant’s political writings prophesy a more liberal government for the future. Nonetheless, it sticks in the craw of anyone raised in a society with democratic pretensions.

    The alternative to politics is not violence (which is the breakdown of politics), but submission.

    Are the Social Justice Warriors ‘”simply shouting “NO!”’ engaging in politics? Well, they think so. In the ’60s , the American far left adopted a premise from Marxist theorists that ‘everything is political’ (the original presumption being that our culture is a manifestation of ‘false consciousness’) – from how we raise our children to how we bury our dead – all behavior re-enforces political opinion. This grounds both post-Modern relativism, and SJW bullying. Even though these phenomena should be mutually exclusive (relativism should imply tolerance), they both suggest that politics is simply a matter of what you can get out of it, or get away with. (This BTW is where the SJWs seem to intersect with Trump in their assumptions.)

    But here we reach the problematic limit of any democratic understanding of free speech – not the danger of offending others, but the danger of a certain brand of speech causing harm to the democratic structures that allow it. In the early ’30s, was it possible to recognize the real dangers of Hitlerism? Yes, of course. Yet the Weimar state was not only unable to take measures against the rising NSDAP, it’s liberal leaders failed to mount a successful political argument against it. Hitler became Chancellor through democratic-parliamentary processes.

    The challenge to Mill’s arguments is in historical results: occasionally, oppressive governments do get elected (or at least arrive via democratic or parliamentary procedures).

    “But, as Mill points out, radical changes in moral and social concepts do occur and often they are crucial to the moral improvement of societies. If we do not take the difficult imaginative leap and question even our most strongly held beliefs, we risk suppressing radical critiques that could potentially be decisive steps forward in human society.” But I think this can only be successfully argued when such changes can achieve improvement of society as a whole. Thus I think Mill’s arguments hinge somewhat on the kinds of radical changes we think will do this.

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  25. Hi Dave, your essay was nice though sort of a mixed bag on how much I agreed with, though more agreement than disagreement.

    I can be added to your and Dan’s side of the list feeling like there is a more censorious attitude among the (generally US and UK) Millenials, though I guess I agree with Robin that the particular case cited at Brown (having watched the video) was not as extreme as was made out to be. Of course what that guy said to Locke made me think of several responses I would have given in his place (or wish I would have given about ten minutes after the fact).

    Maybe what we need is an Al Jaffee-esque “snappy answers to stupid comments by PC-thugs” book, so people can prime themselves for responding to things like “I don’t have to listen to you because you’re a cis-male.”

    Anyway, on your overall argument it is probably not surprising to hear me say I’d disagree that rights and duties are a priori. But we can table that for some other time.

    I agree that censorship is lame, and creates an intellectually (and often culturally) lame society. Or at least stunted. In short, I agree with Mill’s general argument. You have a point that some claims/positions are basically done with and likely will not be coming back. Still, that would seem a reason to spend less time dealing with it, than to shut down (censor) people who have erroneously picked the idea back up.

    That includes Nazis. Or whatever. Such cases would seem to fall into the argument you gave from Mill:

    If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

    It is not enough just to remember “Nazis suck, we won”. As strange as it seems, we are all better for dealing with the arguments they raise, at least while there is someone there raising them.

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  26. EJ: “the Weimar state was not only unable to take measures against the rising NSDAP, it’s liberal leaders failed to mount a successful political argument against it.”

    The state was limited by the Versailles settlement to keep a very small army at most 100,000 were permitted, whereas the SA, Hitler’s private army (though not well subordinated to anyone) was at 400,000 in 1932.

    IMO, Weimar exemplified a “government weak enough to drown in a bathtub”, and why that is not such a good idea.

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  27. As I said before I am a Brown alumnus (ScB-1975, ScM-1975, PhD-1979), so I try to keep up with what’s going on there. So instead of what’s in The Daily Beast, I would look at the The Brown Daily Herald.
    http://www.browndailyherald.com/2015/12/04/a-dynamic-provost-paving-the-way-for-brown/
    http://www.browndailyherald.com/2015/12/04/students-of-color-release-diversity-demands/
    etc.

    (I am a bit curious though when a professor says that they are being censored. What specifically is it that they are saying or want to say that is being stopped, and who are what is stopping it?)

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  28. Nietzsche. Gay Science. Book 1. 50.
    “The reproaches of conscience are weak even in the most conscientious people compared to the feeling: “This or that is against the morals of your society”. A cold look or a sneer on the face of those among whom and for whom one has been educated is feared even by the strongest. What is it that they are really afraid of? Growing solitude! This is the argument that rebuts even the best arguments for a person or a cause.—This the herd instinct speaks up in us.”

    Mill’s fear of social pressure censoring us is all too justified and it happens everywhere.

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  29. David: Thank you for this important and timely essay. We need the JS Mill of “On Liberty” as much as we ever have.

    Indeed, I probably find Mill’s views on the subject more plausible than even you do. I couldn’t tell, entirely, from your discussion of the first argument, as to whether you think that speech like Nazi speech is defensible, on liberal grounds. I think it is and think that, for example, it was squarely in the liberal spirit when the ACLU defended the NSPA’s right to march through Skokie, back in 1977.

    Mill’s arguments for maximal liberty in speech are made entirely on consequentialist grounds, but I would also want to argue that there are procedural and prudential reasons for not granting anyone — whether a state actor or a private citizen — sufficient power to effectively silence another person. There is also the kind of reason that operates behind the veil of ignorance: If one was ignorant of whose speech would be targeted for criminal or social sanction, what sort of regulatory framework for speech would one favor?

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  30. A lot of comments today (for which I am grateful). I’ll do my best to get to everyone. I do want to join Dan in shifting toward the main arguments of the piece but I am not going to be able to resist a few comments on other topics raised. However this will probably be my last responses on such matters, from here on I want to focus more on the central arguments.

    Robin,
    I stand by my characterization of events at Brown and continue to find the Daily Beast piece accurate as well.

    ” you say that the students had not yet submitted their demands, but they had”
    They very clearly had not. They were gathered to write their demands and submit them, as both the president and the students make clear. They may have drafted something on fb but nothing was submitted to the president so there is no way she could have been expected to respond.

    “The Daily Beast spends a good deal of the article forcing a particular card about that video for example “…interrupting and shouting at Paxson …”, or “… a conversation, as opposed to the shouting,…” or “… yelling and screaming,…”. You see a theme there?”
    Yes. Highly accurate reporting.

    “So I watch the video, and certainly no screaming.”
    Remember this is not the only confrontation being referred to by the anonymous professor. There is an earlier incident which absolutely featured yelling and screaming. You can start around 14:00 if you want to hear it.
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/11/16/brown-students-poisonous-uprising-against-their-president.html

    “Whatever gave you the impression that this was a negotiation?”
    The students showed up with demands and expected counter from the administration. That answers to the ordinary definition of “negotiation”.

    “Some? The entire Fox Network for example. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian – many others. The USA is a country where political incorrectness can get you to be front runner for the GOP nominee for Presidency. If someone is curtailing free speech in the USA they are doing it wrong.”
    Look, what passes in the context of a political rally and what passes in a journal of opinion or on a University campus are two very different things. They are completely different contexts. I definitely believe that many arguments are being suppressed and that those who make them are subject to abuse. I adduced many examples of this. Also the fact that there are two factions trying to censor and counter censor each other does not undermine my point. The fact that there are two sides does not mean that there is healthy debate.

    Eric,

    “I can at least say that am all for David’s position that freedom of speech concerns far more than associated legalities”
    You always struck me as a wise and perceptive man.

    “Nevertheless, if an education in Kant, Mill, and so on would indeed help these kids become less frustrated with their circumstances, I would find this surprising”
    I am not at all interested in making these kids less frustrated. I am interested in encouraging them to channel their frustration in directions that lead to political action.

    “I don’t consider it the job of the theorist to judge others, but rather to develop models from which to understand them”
    As Dan pointed out this misunderstands political philosophy. Mill is not concerned with understanding why people act as they do but in how we ought to act.

    Hal,

    “Hi David “Chait’s piece as an example unleashed a torrent of nonsenical responses which probably hurt his professional reputation.”

    Seriously!? Does he need a safe room maybe?”

    Nope. Just the civility and respect owed to journalists and public intellectuals arguing in good faith.

    ej,

    “One of the interesting issues with Mill’s arguments is that they largely begin here as presumption and end here as conclusion”
    Mill, as has been pointed out repeatedly in the literature, does presuppose certain cultural conditions, especially a public capable of arguing and discoursing. However I would say that those conditions obtain sufficiently, if imperfectly, in our own society.

    “relativism should imply tolerance”
    Well not according to post-modern theorists….

    “But here we reach the problematic limit of any democratic understanding of free speech – not the danger of offending others, but the danger of a certain brand of speech causing harm to the democratic structures that allow it.”
    This is an important point. The liberal theory is not saying that speech is not dangerous. Quite the opposite. Consider Milton’s words on this point:
    “For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”

    The liberal theory only circumscribes methods to deal with that threat and argues that counter-debate is the most effective. Again Milton:
    “and though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter. Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.”

    It is always possible that a dangerous movement like Nazism can arise but on a liberal understanding the best response is to mount democratic debate and opposition to such a movement and the best attempt to persuade citizens of the dangers of the opposing view. (Of course the Nazi party also violently turned people away from polls and committed other acts of violence where it is proper for the state to intervene.)

    (Milton: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/areopagitica/text.shtml)

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  31. Dan,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    “from your discussion of the first argument, as to whether you think that speech like Nazi speech is defensible, on liberal grounds. I think it is and think that, for example, it was squarely in the liberal spirit when the ACLU defended the NSPA’s right to march through Skokie, back in 1977.”

    I am ambivalent, especially about social censorship toward this kind of speech. The entire liberal argument is arguing for tolerance on the grounds that it is best suited to produce debate which tracks truth and leads to better political action. Mill acknowledges that this provides limits to toleration. Rude and abusive speech should be subject to social censorship:
    “Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure.”
    Along these lines I am sympathetic to the argument that some doctrines are just so absurd that they (demonstrably) do not productively contribute to discussion and so should be censored. In the case of neo-Nazi’s they are often so free from the facts and so full of wild leaps in logic that it can be questioned whether at times they are really making arguments at all. For positions so outside the realm of possibility it is not clear to me that a chair at the table needs to be pulled out for them. A minimal kind of expectation of reasonableness might be a fair prerequisite for a seat. Now, it seems to me that the question of whether or not to censure sometimes has to be decided on purely political grounds. It might be that censoring Nazi’s leads to their political withering. If so I might be able to countenance it. On the other hand if the Michael Shermer type approach of careful rebuttal works better, by all means use it. Yet while creationist arguments are almost equally ridiculous and free from reality, I cannot leave 45% of the population behind. On purely political grounds I don’t find it wise to try to censor them.

    The Skokie case is really interesting. There are some good reasons to question whether it should be allowed. It is different from some “offensive” speech in that it is something that people in the Jewish communities through which they marched would actively have to avoid (this would not be true of a pornographic magazine or a violent film which one would need to seek out). It is also questionable whether there is any content to their “speech” or whether such demonstrations should count as “speech”. (Then again many marches do not obviously have more and seem to be valuable parts of the democratic process.) That said I do lean towards agreeing with you that it should be tolerated. But it does strike me as a serious question whether it falls within the bounds of liberal toleration that the arguments support. The principles have limits which we should always keep in view when applying them.

    “Mill’s arguments for maximal liberty in speech are made entirely on consequentialist grounds”
    Interestingly this is not clearly true. Although the bulk of On Liberty is obviously pursuing a consequentialist argument, Mill suggests a more deontic style argument before turning to consequentialist considerations:
    “Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this? Doubtless, however, these considerations will not suffice to convince those who most need convincing; and it is necessary further to show, that these developed human beings are of some use to the undeveloped–to point out to those who do not desire liberty, and would not avail themselves of it, that they may be in some intelligible manner rewarded for allowing other people to make use of it without hindrance.”

    “There is also the kind of reason that operates behind the veil of ignorance: If one was ignorant of whose speech would be targeted for criminal or social sanction, what sort of regulatory framework for speech would one favor?”
    That strikes me as right. However, as Mill develops, it isn’t clear that even from such a view that certain speech should not be censored at least socially.

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  32. David wrote: “As I have argued in the past and in these pages, some questions really are philosophical, whether on not those debating these questions choose to recognize it. [7]”

    Yes, we’ve been here before…

    “… questions are philosophical when they are made tractable only by philosophical arguments. A question is philosophical, then, when it demands a philosophical answer. In the case of free speech, the arguments for and against are paradigmatically philosophical. They concern abstract moral claims involving rights and duties. They are normative, a priori and conceptually driven.”

    I agree with dbholmes that rights and duties are not a priori. In my view, they are context dependent, arising naturally from various forms of social interaction.

    You can talk about them in an abstract and a priori kind of way, but this only leads to the sort of confusion and ‘rights inflation’ we are witnessing. A large part of the problem with people claiming their ‘rights’ is that they have latched on to (what I see as) the completely misguided notion of a priori or natural or imprescriptible rights. They have picked up on this way of speaking because they see it as useful, a rhetorical weapon if you like.

    In my view various kinds of thinking (philosophical, but also historical, imaginative, and other modes of thinking which are not easy to define) all have important roles to play in addressing moral and political questions.

    I am inclined to agree that social censorship has become a very negative thing, weighing heavily on academics and professionals whose views diverge from the norm and driving ordinary thoughtful people (who sense that something is amiss) to look outside the established media and institutions for their guides and mentors. Unfortunately many of those who exploit this situation are deluded idiots (or just deluded, or just idiots).

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  33. So people have a general idea that free speech is a good, but what exactly is speech here? Does it require a listener? Do we take turns? Are we allowed to heckle? Do speakers have to act in good faith?

    The concentration here on social constraints as opposed to governmental regulation of political speech seems to suggest it is rude not to listen to speech that I am not interested in. And in former years, there were physical constraints on exactly how much speech one person could engage in, but modern technology (megaphones, spam, super PACs etc) means free speech can be intrusive and annoying:

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lawreport/freedom-of-speech-in-australia/4557962

    Man Haron Monis, also mentioned in that article, eventually went onto a murder-suicide attack in Sydney.

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  34. David, I’ve seen enough of you to realize that you do not say things lightly. Thus if you actually have considered very much of my commentary over the past year, then I most certainly am humbled. (But I’ll always leave you such an escape route, so don’t worry!)

    You and Daniel seem to have pegged my last comment quite well — my own agenda does differ from that of a political philosopher. Perhaps my curiosity aligns better with psychologists and sociologists as mentioned, though this seems questionable as well. For example, according to Wikipedia I may reasonably be referred to as an “total utilitarian” (though not in a “moral” sense, and I would certainly add a “subjective” modifier in front). But how many of our various behavior professionals found their ideas upon such a premise? Zero I suspect (though I would certainly enjoy some company if you know of any!).

    I am a bastard, raised neither under science nor philosophy, though I did at least plan it this way. I noticed long ago that neither side theorizes the element of reality which constitites personal relevance for that which experiences good/bad existence, and so gladly accepted the project myself. Without such a premise from which to work, I believe that our mental/behavioral sciences must remain primitive — they simply cannot get far without addressing fundamental motivation.

    What may get me into hot water here, however, is that an ultimate definition of good/bad should also create a scientific type of ideology from which to teach us how to lead our individual lives, as well as structure our individual societies, for the betterment of any specified subject. Here I may be tagged with the “scientismist” label, and so be deemed disrespectful to philosophers. But it’s actually scientists who ought to be threatened by such an approach, or at least conceptually. Furthermore this wouldn’t inherently steal anything from philosophy, though it could potentially contribute. I envision an entirely seperate branch of ethics associated with, not morality, but rather biological good/bad. If successful, philosophers would either accept this approach as their own, or pass it off to scientists.

    Come what may, though my education here has certainly been helpful. I am afraid that I’ve gotten well off topic however.

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    • Eric: I never take anything you say as disrespectful. You aim to “naturalize” the various subjects of philosophy, an orientation that has a perfectly respectable pedigree (Quine for one), but is one that I simply — though thoroughly — disagree with.

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  35. Hi David O, in case you missed it, I had a reply to you further up the thread (accidentally called you Dave, sorry about that).

    In it I expressed the same sentiments Dan has about the free speech of people like Nazis. I’m glad he brought up Skokie. I lived relatively close to there at the time and it was a big thing. Even as a kid you couldn’t miss the news about it and that helped me form my own ideas on free speech. And I think that case shows, since they ultimately they did march (in Chicago), that it was not necessary to block them.

    Of course it created plenty of discussion, and even some great artistic venting such as the classic scene in Blues Brothers where they end up disrupting a Nazi march… hilarity ensues.

    I have no understanding how you can question whether their march would constitute speech, or whether it has contents? Just because you don’t like it, or find it stupid, or that it would be provocative, does not alter whether an idea or opinion or some form of content is being put forward.

    Hi Mark English, I agree, especially with your description of “rights inflation”.

    Hi Eric, you said…

    What may get me into hot water here, however, is that an ultimate definition of good/bad should also create a scientific type of ideology from which to teach us how to lead our individual lives, as well as structure our individual societies, for the betterment of any specified subject.

    Well then, you may not like my philosophy very much 🙂

    Scientific type of ideology sounds close to an oxymoron to me. But if I read you right it seems you are saying we can discern better/worse ways of obtaining different goals using assessment of evidence? I wouldn’t have much complaint with that idea but what constitutes betterment when two goals conflict is going to stand outside empirical investigation, and I would argue any method of assessment for some cases.

    Perhaps you can give an example with the Brown case, or the issue of allowing free speech for Nazis.

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  36. (other) David,

    ” what exactly is speech here?”
    This is always a question, but one I am not really grappling with in the piece. For the most part I am concerned with paradigm examples of speech especially writing.

    “Are we allowed to heckle?”
    No not really, at least not usually. Heckling is usually part and parcel of social censorship. Everyone has a right to rebut arguments even forcefully but not to try to humiliate people or impose costs on people so until they are silenced.

    “Do speakers have to act in good faith?”
    Yes. If speakers are demonstrably not acting in good faith, they should face rebuke. Mill defends free and open discourse because it has the best chance (on his arguments) of uncovering the truth and promoting social action. Arguments in bad faith consciously undermine this end and so fall outside the bounds of toleration. They are legitimate targets for social censorship.

    “The concentration here on social constraints as opposed to governmental regulation of political speech seems to suggest it is rude not to listen to speech that I am not interested in.”
    Why would that be? On this view you are required only not to silence someone’s speech not to attend to it.

    Eric,

    I’m not sure I understand a lot of your comment here. I hope I have done nothing to offend. It was never my intention to “humble” or humiliate people.

    “Perhaps my curiosity aligns better with psychologists and sociologists as mentioned…”
    And let it be said I am not denigrating that kind of inquiry. It just is different from what Mill (and now I) am pursuing. If you acknowledge this we are on the same page. Seems like you do.

    “I envision an entirely separate branch of ethics associated with, not morality, but rather biological good/bad.”
    If I understand you correctly you might be interested in Peter Railton. I don’t think such a project is possible because I do not believe normative statements can be reduced to causal or natural statements, but a discussion of that would take us pretty far afield.

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  37. db,

    I read your comment it just didn’t seem you wanted to debate too much so I took it as a comment. On Skokie I am not firmly committed to the idea that it did not have content (indeed I raised a thought which mitigated against this) but it does seem to me something worth considering. From the SEP: “The actual intention was not to engage in political speech at all, but simply to march through a predominantly Jewish community dressed in storm trooper uniforms and wearing swastikas (although the Illinois Supreme Court interpreted the wearing of swastikas as “symbolic political speech”).” Does marching through a neighborhood in Nazi regalia make a statement? What statement except an implicit threat (which is not clearly something we should tolerate)? This kind of worry would not apply if Nazi’s rented a space to have meetings or debates or went on television to present their ideas (or, more recently, used a subreddit or a website to disseminate their ideas). But I do suppose BLM activists marching on Black Friday had content so it does seem I have to cede the point. I don’t have my intuitions all in a line yet.

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  38. David,
    Perhaps instead of “humbled,” I should have said “moved,” as well as “thank you.” 🙂

    Daniel,
    While you may have a long standing problem with the goals of philosophers like Quine, and validly interpret my own ideas in this manner, I neither have the education nor desire to pursue such a path. Furthermore I also do not claim that the vast majority of my models should be classified under the heading “philosophy.” There are now only two: My thoughts on definition, as well as my position that there is but one method by which the conscious entity figures things out. (I don’t know if you’d include my morality definition, which concerns empathy and theory of mind sensations, though I do have reason to call this “non-philosophy” as well.) The vast majority of my models instead concern psychology, sociology, and cognitive science.

    Hi DB,
    Yes I can see how the notion of “scientific ideology” can seem quite oxymoronic, but let me demonstrate what I’m talking about. (I’ll keep this simple because the OP has too many issues that I’d need to address.)

    I know that existence can be horrible/wonderful for me, and I presume through a special engineering feature of my conscious mind. I term the good/bad, or punishment/reward which I experience, as the “sensations” input to my conscious processor. Thus the more positive sensations which I experience over a given period of time, the better that existence shall be for me for that specific period, with the negative being the opposite. Furthermore the welfare of any number of conscious subjects, can be assessed this way as well. This would be the society’s aggregate positive minus negative sensations experienced over a given period of time.

    I’m very happy that you’ve asked about the conflicting goals of separate subjects. Instead of trying to resolve them however (as moral ethicists attempt) I simply acknowledge that separate subjects, do naturally have separate interests. If you undergo great pain to significantly help your society, then your society will indeed benefit given it’s improved aggregate sensations. Nevertheless the personal value of your own existence may indeed be severely diminished by this, and so cause your existence to be far less personally valuable to yourself.

    Here I’ve presented what I would call a “true” rather than “moral” ideology, from which to lead our lives and structure our societies. The essential message is that any given subject (personal or social) must maximize its own sensation based interests, in order to promote its own welfare. So does that seem inconsistent with science?

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  39. Hi David, ah well I was setting aside part of my concerns for later but I was wanting to discuss the issue of what one could call “extreme” free speech.

    Since you’ve ceded the point I guess there isn’t much more to say. I suppose I will give an example which might help align your intuitions.

    A group of people walking down the street screaming profanities and grabbing people and shaking them would basically be content free. No one would have any idea what they are doing or why, except being aggressive.

    In contrast, a group of people silently marching down the street in Nazi regalia would speak volumes. What they are wearing is content laden, as good as carrying signs. I suppose it is possible (if they were totally silent) that it could be a bunch of people doing this in an ironic symbolic act, mockery, or as some kind of prank. Still, people would have something to think about and discuss based on the implied meaning of what they were doing.

    As an aside, I would differ that such a march is meant as a threat. These days it is more like any other minority (yes I know they are not a minority), showing that they exist and have a right to exist. If anything, having been in counter demonstrations so seeing them up close, they generally seem to be expressing insecurity. They feel threatened (yes as whites). I would also add the SEP is not accurate for the Skokie march if the idea was that their intention was to march in a Jewish neighborhood since the original plan was to march in a Chicago park, and they only switched it to Skokie when they were blocked. Ultimately they got the right to march in both places, and chose Chicago… not a Jewish neighborhood.

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  40. Hi Eric, while I don’t want to pull this thread way off course, you asked if the theory you described “seems inconsistent with science.”

    I hope I don’t come off as mean or insulting, but the short answer is yes, it is entirely inconsistent. Then again, you would not be the first person to try this form of ethical theory, and there are people who currently believe this is both possible, and correct. I am just not one of them.

    As a longer answer… The main stumbling blocks are: 1) there is no basis for the “must maximize” normative claim (you’d have to come up with that outside science), 2) there would be no objective basis to quantify and so compare sensations, 3) there would be no objective way to set the “correct” quantity of people or amount of time that must be used in an assessment (and to be scientific these would have to be set), and 4) this process would become unwieldy in real life situations.

    For an example (using something topical from this thread), the Nazis believed that wiping out all inferior races would lead to unending wonderful lives for those that were left. Well what if they (or anyone else with that mindset) were right? Let’s say killing a small minority population could be calculated to create maximal pleasure for everyone else for all time. Your system would seem to conclude killing them is good (in truth) and mandate that action. Many people (not to mention those within the group targeted for extermination) would beg to differ. In fact, depending on time scales set for assessment, a clear minority would legitimately be able to wipe out a vast majority of people in the present, if it could be shown that over time they’d have so many more people having so much more positive sensations than the current majority ever would. That is problematic.

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  41. db,

    “In contrast, a group of people silently marching down the street in Nazi regalia would speak volumes. What they are wearing is content laden, as good as carrying signs.”
    That’s the way the court ruled and I feel the force of that but pulling in the other direction, what content would it have. Does it mean “Jewish influence is bad for America” or “You should be loyal to your own race” or what and how could you tell?

    “These days it is more like any other minority (yes I know they are not a minority), showing that they exist and have a right to exist.”
    Thats a really great point I hadn’t thought of.

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  42. db,

    Apparent;y it was a Jewish town:
    “The village of Skokie, Illinois had a population of approximately 70,000 persons, of whom approximately 40,500 were Jewish. Included within this population were thousands who survived detention in Nazi concentration camps.”

    But the march did have content:
    “Collin wrote a letter to Skokie officials stating that the purpose of the demonstration was to protest the Skokie Park District’s ordinance requiring a bond of $350,000 to be posted prior to the issuance of a park permit.”

    https://www.oyez.org/cases/1976/76-1786

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  43. Thanks for the response DB, and I do hope that we’re always able to speak frankly. If it does help, you’ll find that I’m not offended easily. In fact I’m mainly struck with humor by those who mean ill of me given my various ideas. I suspect that you’re similar.

    One minor issue I have with your response above is that you seem to have challenged my ideas in terms of practical epistemology. Without associated data (such as the ability to quantify sensation magnitudes) you’ve inferred that there can be no working science. I do grant you this somewhat, but observe that even string theorists are considered “true physicists.” Furthermore I doubt that any neuroscientist today would presume it utterly impossible to even obtain chemical/electrical evidence of stronger to weaker magnitudes of experienced pain and such, for example. Let’s try to be optimistic! (To the extent that it may be said that physicists have “nothing useful left to do,” I think it may also be said that psychologists have so far “done nothing useful.” :-))

    More problematic however is that you’ve brought in the concept of morality (once even stating the “normative” term), though I did hope for a different discussion. I’ve always stated that my ideas can be quite immoral. I concede your “Nazi” observation, though killing people on the basis of their race does actually seem quite “anti happy.” Let’s say that scientists were to find that better looking, smarter, and genetically more “healthy” people, also tend to promote happiness. Then let’s say that the government of China were to give up its one child policy, to instead provide incentives for associated genetic “improvement.” If its citizens did thus become more happy than they otherwise would have been, this should be socially good — that is unless something is lost here which is more valuable than happiness. And what, theoretically, might be more valuable than happiness?

    (It’s “reality” rather than “morality” which is my focus, and this is because my theory suggests that reality itself can be incredibly immoral.)

    Beyond personal/social policy, however, I believe that our mental/behavioral scientists remain quite primitive, and specifically given that they do not yet acknowledge the role of happiness. Thus I’ve developed potentially founding theory from which to practically develop these fields. I do hope that you’ll continue assessing my associated models!

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