A Philosopher's Blog

Free Speech & Feeling Unsafe

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2017

A somewhat recent talking point on the right is that “the liberals” are trying to violate the free speech rights of conservatives. On the one hand, this is a hasty generalization: the left counts among its numbers some of the staunchest advocates of free expression who defend the right of conservatives to engage in free expression. On the other hand, there are those on the left who are actively trying to silence conservative voices. That said, is important to distinguish between attempts to silence people and legitimate acts of protest.

To illustrate, the incident involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College illustrates how some people try to unjustly silence those they disagree with. In contrast, the students at Notre Dame who walked out on Vice President Pence’s speech were engaged in a legitimate protest—they expressed their disagreement without harassing or silencing pence. However, the Pence incident had an interesting twist that is well worth considering.

Two of the students who walked out on Pence’s speech explained their motivation: “The walkout was in response to the fact that members of our own community felt unwelcome, uncomfortable, and even unsafe…” I do understand why having Mike Pence speak would make some people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable—after all, Pence makes no secret of his views on various social and moral issues. No doubt some conservative students would feel just as unwelcome and uncomfortable in the presence of a liberal speaker. While I do think speakers should endeavor to make their audience welcome and comfortable, this is not a moral obligation on the part of speakers—especially on college campuses. A key part of education is being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone in terms of such things as values, beliefs and ideology. Students do, of course, have every right to resist being pushed out of this zone; but this is typically their loss when they succeed. The students might have benefited from enduring Pence’s words; but they did have the right to refuse to listen. After all, the right of free expression means that one should not be silenced, not that one can compel others to pay attention.

What is worrisome is the use of the term “unsafe.” When I first heard some vague details about this episode, I initially thought the students were concerned that there might be violence at the event—as has happened elsewhere. That would, of course, be legitimate grounds for concerns about safety. After all, to feel unsafe is to feel that one is at risk for harm. However, after listening to a discussion of the incident on NPR, I realized that the claim was that Pence’s mere presence as a speaker made people feel unsafe. They did not, obviously, think that Pence would attack them physically.

One way to interpret the matter is that people thought they would be harmed in some meaningful way by Pence’s presence and his words. While people can certainly inflict harm with words, it would seem to be an odd use of “unsafe” in the context of the Vice President giving a speech. But perhaps some people are so lacking in resilience that the expression of ideas they do not like or the presence of someone they disagree with can cause harm to them. In this case, they would thus be wise to leave the area before sustaining such harm. To use an analogy, if someone was so sensitive to noise that a speech would cause them pain, they should not attend the speech. They do not, however, have the right to insist that the speech not be made simply because they would experience pain.

A second, and more plausible way, to interpret this is that “unsafe” is referring to a stronger version of being uncomfortable and not a feeling that meaningful danger is imminent. While words mean what they do as a matter of convention, shifting the meaning of words in this manner is problematic for communication. As noted above, I initially thought the students feared a riot, which caused some confusion. Another potential problem is that using “unsafe” in this context makes the expression of ideas that one does not like seem dangerous. While this might be a rhetorical point the students were trying to make to justify walking out, this is a misuse of the language. To be specific, it is hyperbole that serves to distort the matter by conflating merely being uncomfortable with being in danger. Because of these problems, the term “unsafe” should not be used in such contexts. Instead, it should be used for cases in which there is an actual threat to safety and rights. Such as the push by some against free expression by conservatives.

 

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Free Speech, Coulter & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2017

Ann Coulter’s appearance at the Berkeley was cancelled in response to threats made by anarchist groups. While some conservatives argue that concerns about security should often trump concerns about rights (such as infringing on religious liberty or privacy to “make us safer”), two conservative organizations have started a lawsuit against the university. The claim that the school is endeavoring “to restrict conservative speech” on campus. Since Berkeley is a public school, the First Amendment does apply and hence the case can make an appeal to this constitutional right. While well-paid lawyers will hash out the legal matters, this does raise an interesting moral concern.

As I have shown in numerous other essays, I hold to a view of freedom of expression that goes far beyond the limited legal protection laid out in the First Amendment. I also hold to the freedom of consumption—that people have a right to, for example, hear whatever views they wish to hear. As such, Coulter has a right to express herself and the student organizations have the right to invite her so they can listen to whatever wicked or foolish things she might elect to spew forth.

Like many classic liberals, my go-to justification of these liberties is based on J.S. Mill’s arguments. The gist is that allowing people the liberty of expression and the liberty of consumption creates more happiness than restricting these liberties. Being a fan of natural rights, I also find the idea that these rights have additional grounding beyond mere utility appealing. I do, however, admit that such rights are certainly metaphysically suspect and difficult to properly ground in reality. In short, while I think that Coulter will say nothing worth hearing, she has every right to speak before the student groups that invited her.

I should note that my view of Coulter is not based on any notion that conservative political theory lacks merit; it is based on my view that she lacks merit. Unfortunately, thoughtful conservative political theorists seem to be out of vogue. This is unfortunate; the past saw many excellent conservative thinkers and they made significant contributions to political and philosophical thought. These days, there seem to be mostly just empty pundits spewing emptiness on Fox News. Or, worse, racists and sexists purporting to represent conservative thought. Then again, perhaps abandoning the intellectual aspects of politics was a smart tactical move: the left might have its intellectuals, but the right holds the power in most states. But, back to the matter at hand.

While I do accept the rights of expression and consumption, these rights are not absolute. If the justification for rights and liberties is taken to be utilitarian, then these rights can be limited on the same grounds. As such, if the harm created by allowing the freedoms of expression and consumption would create more harm, then they can be justly limited. The stock example is, of course, the restriction on people yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

If a natural rights view is accepted, the restriction of a right can be justified by appealing to other rights. In the case of speech, the right to life would warrant preventing people from yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The challenge is, of course, working out a hierarchy of rights. However, it does seem reasonable to make the right to life a rather important right, if only because being alive is generally a necessary condition for the other rights.

If having a person speak could put that person and others in danger, then this can justify postponing a speech until proper security arrangements can be made or even cancelling it if such arrangements cannot be made. This can be done by appealing to a utilitarian justification or by arguing that the right not to be harmed trumps the rights of free expression and free consumption. This is analogous to other cases in which liberty must be weighed against safety.

This does lead to the obvious concern that free expression and free consumption could thus be thwarted simply by threatening violence; thus giving individuals and groups willing to make threats considerable powers of censorship. One limiting factor is that making such threats is a crime. Unfortunately, the internet provides so many anonymous ways of making threats that the police face considerable challenge in dealing with them.

Deciding how to respond to credible threats of violence requires weighing the rights of expression and consumption against the harms that are likely to arise. As a general principle, it seems reasonable to accept that a speech should be postponed in the face of a credible threat that cannot be addressed in time. Such a credible threat should be dealt with by law enforcement and then the speech can be made. If the threat can be addressed so that an acceptable level of public safety is possible (within the available budget), then the speech should proceed normally. This approach can be easily justified on utilitarian grounds: people are kept reasonably safe while at the same time threats are prevented from becoming an effective tool of censorship. This does require that the state take such threats seriously and take appropriate action.

There is, of course, also the moral responsibility of those who make such threats: they are wrong to do this. If they do not like, for example, Coulter’s views, they should ask a campus group to invite them to speak out against her views on campus.

 

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Free Speech & Universities II: Heckler’s Veto

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2017


While the debate over free speech is a venerable one, recent events have served to add a new drama to this matter. When Middlebury invited Charles Murray to speak, the event was disrupted by student protestors and both Murray and Professor Allison Sanger were attacked on campus. This incident has sparked considerable reflection on the campus and beyond. Peter Singer, a philosopher who is no stranger to controversy, also found his talk disrupted by people who disagree with his views. This shutting down of a speaker by protestors has become known as the heckler’s veto.

One of the narratives about these sorts of disruptions is that the left believes that free speech extends only to those they agree with. On the one hand, this does have some merit: recent disruptions have been aimed at speakers whose view are generally regarded as being out of step with the most vocal of the left. On the other hand, there has been strong opposition against these disruptions from people who would also be considered on the left. As such, to say that the left opposes free speech on the part of those they disagree with is no more (or less) accurate than saying that Republicans oppose local control when it goes against the interests of oil companies and the NRA. That said, it is fair to note that the opposition to speakers seen as being on the right does unsurprisingly come from the left. While speculating about whether “the left” is against free speech is interesting, what is philosophically important is the ethics of the heckler’s veto in the context of the right of free speech.

The most extreme version of the heckler’s veto is violence, such as that directed against Murray and Sanger. Richard Spencer, who is regarded by some as a Nazi, was famously punched for his views, igniting a debate about the ethics of punching Nazis. The usual version of the heckler’s veto is revealed by the name: to engage in heckling to prevent the speaker from being heard or interfering with the speaker until they give up trying to speak. The hallmark of this sort of heckler is that they are not trying to engage and refute the speaker, they are endeavoring to prevent the speaker from being heard.

The easy and obvious approach is to follow a stock position on free speech: as long as the speaker is not engaged in such directly harmful speech such as slander or calls for violence, then the speaker should be free to speak without disruption. This can be made more sophisticated by taking the classic utilitarian approach of weighing the harms and benefits of allowing the speaker to exercise the right to free speech. For example, if punching Nazis to silence them sends the message that Nazism will not be tolerated and this reduces the hate crimes committed in the United States, then such punching would seem to be morally good.

An alternative to the utilitarian approach is to argue that there are some things, such as Nazism and sexism, whose inherent badness entails that people should not be permitted to speak in favor of them even if doing so created no meaningful harms. While I do see the appeal in the “there are things we must not allow to be said” approach, there is the significant challenge of showing that even without any harm being caused, such speech is simply wrong. I will not endeavor to do so here, but I am open to arguments in favor of this view.

One interesting approach to heckling is to point out that it seems to be a tactic for those who cannot refute the views they oppose; it is the noisy refuge of the logically or rhetorically incompetent. If the views being expressed by the offending speaker are wrong, then they should be refutable by argumentation. If all someone can do is yell and disrupt, they should remain silent so that someone with the ability to refute the speaker can engage in this refutation. For example, those who disagreed with Murray should have made their points by arguing against him.

A practical reply to this is that a member of the audience might not be given the opportunity to engage in a possibly lengthy refutation of the speaker. As such, they must engage in the rapid and effective means of heckling to prevent the speaker from even getting the words out. A reasonable counter to this is that while a person might not have the chance to engage at the actual event, they have an opportunity at refutation via such venues as Twitter, a blog, or YouTube.

Another reply to this is that allowing the speaker to speak on a campus lends legitimacy and normalizes the speaker’s views, even if the views are not explicitly endorsed. As such, if a speaker cannot be prevented from being invited, then they must be silenced by disruption.

While this does have appeal and schools should consider the educational merit of speakers, having a person speak on campus does not entail that the school endorses the views and does not make them legitimate. To use the obvious analogy, using the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf in a political science class does not endorse or legitimize these works. Likewise, inviting someone with “alt right” views to a debate on American political thought does not entail that the school endorses the “alt right” or make it legitimate. Just as reading books containing ideas one might not agree with (or even hate) is part of education, so too is listening to speakers expressing such ideas. As such, heckling speakers to silence them would be on par with censoring books to keep people from reading them or movies to keep people from seeing them.

This can be countered by making use of one of Plato’s classic arguments for censorship in the Republic. Plato argued that exposure to certain types of art would corrupt people and make them worse. For example, someone who was exposed to violent works of art could become corrupted into becoming violent. Plato’s solution was to ban such art.

In the case of speakers, it could be argued that they must be silenced by heckling because their speeches would corrupt members of the audience. For example, one might claim that listening to Murray talk about his work would corrupt audience members with racism and poor methodology. This argument assumes, as does Plato’s, that most people lack the ability to defend themselves from such corrupting power. Since the hecklers think the speaker is wrong, they presumably think that most people are either incapable of discerning right from wrong or are just awaiting the right trigger to cause them to embrace evil. On this view, the hecklers would be heroes: those strong enough to resist the siren song of evil and loud enough to drown it out. For those who agree with Plato, Aristotle or Stanley Milgram, this argument should be appealing: most people are easily swayed towards misdeeds and few are influenced by either arguments or fine ideals. Those who dislike Trump and attribute his election in part to defects in voters would also find this approach appealing. And, of course, no discussion of this sort would be complete without a mandatory reference to Hitler and his ability to win over the people.

But, of course, no discussion of this sort would be complete without noting how heckling is like any other tool—it can be used by the good and the evil alike. Naturally, the people using it will think they are on the side of good and their foes evil. Their foes, of course, are likely to think the opposite. Since sorting out what is good and bad requires consideration and discussion, silencing people would interfere with sorting out this rather important matter. As such, I am opposed to heckling, even if I disagree strongly with the target. That said, my more cynical self is tempted by Plato’s argument that the ears of the many must be protected from corrupting words and that it is up to the philosophers to decide which words are corrupting and which are wholesome.

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Free Speech & Universities I: Invitations & Exclusions

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 8, 2017


While the right to free speech is considered fundamental in classical liberalism, contemporary liberals have been accused of being an enemy of this right. Some recent examples include incidents at Berkeley and Middlebury. As always, the matter of free speech is philosophically interesting, especially when it involves higher education.

One important distinction in regards to rights is that of the negative versus the positive. A negative right is not an evil right; rather it is a freedom such that the possessor is not entitled to be provided with the means to exercise the right. It is, roughly put, a right to not be interfered with. A positive right, in contrast, is an entitlement to the means needed to exercise the right. For example, the United States currently grants citizens a right to public K-12 education—in addition to having the liberty to seek this education, it is also provided to students. In contrast, college education is currently a negative right: students have the liberty to attend college, but are (generally) not provided with free education.

The right to free speech is generally taken to be a negative right; it is intended as a protection from impediment rather than an entitlement to the means to communicate. To use an obvious example, while I have the right to express my views no one is obligated to provide me with free radio or TV time in which to do so.

While university personnel have no right to unjustly interfere with free speech, they are also under no obligation to provide people with speaking opportunities on campus. Decisions about who to invite and who to allow to speak in official venues are often made on pragmatic grounds, such as which speakers will boost the reputation of the school or who happens to be friends with top administrators. There are also practical concerns about the cost of the speaker, the likelihood of trouble arising, and the extent of the interest in the speaker. While these practical concerns are important, decisions about who to invite (and who to exclude) should certainly be made on principled grounds.

One reasonable principle is that decisions should be made based on the educational value of having the speaker on campus. Since universities are supposed to educate students, it makes excellent sense for them to operate on this principle. Speakers who would offer little or nothing in the way of educational value could thus be justly denied invitations. Of course, education is not the only concern of a university in terms of what it offers to the students and the community. Speakers/presenters that offer things of artistic value or even mere entertainment value should also be given due consideration.

One obvious concern about deciding based on such factors is that there can be considerable debate about which speakers have adequate merit to warrant their invitation to campus. For example, the incident at Middlebury arose because some regard Charles Murray’s co-authored controversial book The Bell Curve as being based on pseudoscience and bad methodology. While these matters can be clouded with ideology, there are already clearly established standards regarding educational merit in regards to such things as methodology and legitimacy. The main problem lies in their application—but this is not a problem unique to picking speakers. It extends across the entire academy. Fortunately, the basic principle of educational merit is reasonable clear—but the real fights take place over the particulars.

Another seemingly sensible principle is a moral one—that those invited should reflect the values of the institution and perhaps the broader society. At the very least, those invited should not be evil and should not be espousing evil.

This principle does have some obvious problems. One is the challenge of deciding what conflicts with the values of the institution. Another is the problem that it is problematic to speak of the values of the broader society, given the considerable diversity of opinions on moral issues. When people use this approach, they are often simply referring to their own values and assuming that they are shared by society as a while. There is the enduring problem in ethics of sorting out what exactly is evil. And then there is the classic concern about whether academic or artistic merit can offset moral concerns. For example, a Catholic university might regard a pro-choice philosopher as endorsing a morally wrong position, yet also hold that having this philosopher engage a pro-life advocate in a campus debate to have educational merit. As another example, a liberal institution might regard an extreme libertarian as having morally problematic views, yet see educational merit in having them present their arguments as part of a series on American political philosophy.  As with the matter of merit, there are rational and principled ways to approach ethical concerns—but this area is far more fraught with controversy than questions of assessing educational merit.

While I do agree that speech can cause harm, I hold to a presumption in favor of free expression. As a principle, this means that if there is reasonable doubt as to whether to merit of a speech outweighs moral concerns about the speaker or content, then the decision should favor free expression. This is based on the view that it is better to run the risk of tolerating possible evil than to risk silencing someone who has something worth saying. As such, I generally favor a liberal (in the classic sense) approach to inviting speakers to universities.

In the next essay I will consider the matter of the “heckler’s veto”, which occurs when the crowd silences a speaker.

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Marines vs Berkley

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 11, 2008

The Daily Show’s Rob Riggle went to Berkley to investigate why the city wants to get rid of the Marine recruiting center. The is video entertaining but also raises some interesting issues.

Mr. Riggle, a former Marine, did the usual Daily Show approach to such mocking interviews: sarcastic yet blended with reason and insight.  In doing so, he raised some rather philosophical points.

Those opposed to the presence of the Marine recruiting center seemed to be primarily driven by their emotional response. They feel bad about war and violence and since they associate the Marines with war and violence, they feel bad about the Marines and want them to go away. The bearded fellow bedecked in buttons did put forth the view that it would be better to resolve matters through peaceful conflict resolution.

I also feel bad about war and violence. It pains me to know that people are being hurt and killed. I also believe that it is preferable to resolve disputes through peaceful means. Killing and violence are best viewed as undesirable and hence things to be avoided.

Some of the protesters espoused the not uncommon view that getting rid of guns would solve the problem of war. Obviously, if no one had weapons, then war would be less likely and far less destructive. But a lack of weapons would not end wars. People do not fight because they have weapons. People have weapons because they are inclined to fight. That this is show is nicely shown by the fact that humans created weapons to aid them in an activity they already engaged in, namely combat.  Thus, the way to properly address the problem of war is not to get rid of weapons but to deal with the true, underlying causes of war. Naturally enough, it is worthwhile to place limits on weapons so as to limit the extent and nature of the destruction. But that is merely dealing with the symptoms and not the cause of war.

When one of the protesters made a remark about crime, Riggles cleverly suggested that, given her reasoning, getting rid of the police would put and end to crime. This seemed to baffle the woman, but she did seem to regard it as a possibility. Once again, this shows the basic flaw in the reasoning of such people. We have the police because people commit crimes and we need a way of preventing and limiting crime. If the police were removed, crime would increase. To think otherwise would be like thinking that the way to prevent disease is to get rid of medicine.

That said, there are thinkers, such as the anarchist Emma Goldman, who have claimed that the state and the police are the cause of crime. In oppressive states that can be seen as a plausible claim. Further, there are cases in which the imposition of unjust laws have caused people to become criminals on moral grounds. However, in the United States, the main function of the police is to protect the citizens from the misdeeds of other citizens.

In another part of the discussion, a protester was talking about the right of free speech. Riggles asked her if it would be good if an organization existed to protect this right. She agreed it was. His point, obviously enough, was that the American military protected these rights.

Riggles’ is quite right. While some people accuse the military of being mere tools of the capitalist state, the American military has stood up against those who would bring genocide and crushing oppression to the world. The protesters advocate kissing and hugging. That is all well and good among people who are peaceful. But, such tactics only work against those who are unwilling to resort to violence to get what they want. Imagine, if you will, a swarm of pink garbed protesters trying to stop the Panzers as they sped across Europe. Imagine protesters in pink scarves trying to hug SS troops as they were exterminating the Jews. Imagine pink clad protesters trying to stop ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass rape around the world. They would, sadly, just be more corpses piled up before the guns.

Being a peaceful hugger is a wonderful thing. But a peaceful hugger is something of a helpless creature and can only survive when protected from people who would be willing to oppress and kill them. It would be a better world if there was no evil. This is something of a truism. But, it would be a far worse world if there were no people who were willing to take up arms in the defense of those who cannot or will not defend themselves.

It might be replied that peace can conquer war. Witness, one might say, the success of Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a reasonable point-peaceful methods can work and are in fact preferable to war. But, such methods require the presence of a conscience and an unwillingness to simple stick with violence until the end. There is an interesting story, “The Last Article”, by Harry Turtledove in which he explores what might have happened if Germany had won and driven the British from India. In the story, the non-violent methods of Ghandi are met with contempt and the Germans act as they did against others-they simply exterminate the problem.

The protesters, though perhaps acting from good intentions, fail to have a sufficient understanding of evil and reality. As sad as it is, the unarmed, the weak and the unprotected are little more than potential victims. As such, America must have a military. On the day when everyone is good and no one will wage war, then we can set aside the weapons and hug everyone.