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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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Hyperbole, Again

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2013
English: Protesters at the Taxpayer March on W...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hyperbole is a rhetorical device in which a person uses an exaggeration or overstatement in order to create a negative or positive feeling. Hyperbole is often combined with a rhetorical analogy. For example, a person might say that someone told “the biggest lie in human history” in order to create a negative impression. It should be noted that not all vivid or extreme language is hyperbole-if the extreme language matches the reality, then it is not hyperbole. So, if the lie was actually the biggest lie in human history, then it would not be hyperbole to make that claim.

People often make use of hyperbole when making rhetorical analogies/comparisons. A rhetorical analogy involves comparing two (or more) things in order to create a negative or positive impression.  For example, a person might be said to be as timid as a mouse or as smart as Einstein. By adding in hyperbole, the comparison can be made more vivid (or possibly ridiculous). For example, a professor who assigns a homework assignment that is due the day before spring break might be compared to Hitler. Speaking of Hitler, hyperbole and rhetorical analogies are stock items in political discourse.

Some Republicans have decided that Obamacare is going to be their main battleground. As such, it is hardly surprising that they have been breaking out the hyperbole in attacking it. Dr. Ben Carson launched an attack by seeming to compare Obamacare to slavery, but the response to this led him to “clarify” his remarks to mean that he thinks Obamacare is not like slavery, but merely the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery. This would, of course, make it worse than all the wars, the Great Depression, 9/11 and so on.

While he did not make a slavery comparison, Ted Cruz made a Nazi comparison during his filibuster. As Carson did, Cruz and his supporters did their best to “clarify” the remark.

Since slavery and Nazis had been taken, Rick Santorum decided to use the death of Mandela as an opportunity to compare Obamacare to Apartheid.

When not going after Obamacare, Obama himself is a prime target for hyperbole. John McCain, who called out Cruz on his Nazi comparison, could not resist making use of some Nazi hyperbole in his own comparison. When Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand, McCain could not resist comparing Obama to Chamberlain and Castro to Hitler.

Democrats and Independents are not complete strangers to hyperbole, but they do not seem to wield it quite as often (or as awkwardly) as Republicans. There have been exceptions, of course-the sweet allure of a Nazi comparison is bipartisan.  However, my main concern here is not to fill out political scorecards regarding hyperbole. Rather, it is to discuss why such uses of negative hyperbole are problematic.

One point of note is that while hyperbole can be effective at making people feel a certain way (such as angry), its use often suggests that the user has little in the way of substance. After all, if something is truly bad, then there would seem to be no legitimate need to make exaggerated comparisons. In the case of Obamacare, if it is truly awful, then it should suffice to describe its awfulness rather than make comparisons to Nazis, slavery and Apartheid. Of course, it would also be fair to show how it is like these things. Fortunately for America, it is obviously not like them.

One point of moral concern is the fact that making such unreasonable comparisons is an insult to the people who suffered from or fought against such evils. After all, such comparisons transform such horrors as slavery and Apartheid into mere rhetorical chips in the latest political game. To use an analogy, it is somewhat like a person who has played Call of Duty comparing himself to combat veterans of actual wars. Out of respect for those who suffered from and fought against these horrors, they should not be used so lightly and for such base political gameplay.

From the standpoint of critical thinking, such hyperbole should be avoided because it has no logical weight and serves to confuse matters by playing on the emotions. While that is the intent of hyperbole, this is an ill intent. While rhetoric does have its legitimate place (mainly in making speeches less boring) such absurd overstatements impede rather than advance rational discussion and problem solving.

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Cruzing & Obamacaring

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 27, 2013
English: Logo of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ted Cruz undertook an almost marathon talking session against Obamacare. Not surprisingly, he does not have any need of Obamacare. As a senator, he already has access to government funded healthcare. However, he also does not need this coverage as, apparently, he falls under his wife’s Goldman Sachs’ coverage. Interestingly, while one of the anti-Obamacare talking points is that the cost of providing insurance will destroy business, the top executives at Goldman Sachs have their $40,500+ family premiums paid for by the company. As a point of comparison, the median household income in the United States is $50,000.

Naturally, to attack Cruz’s claims by pointing out his health care situation would be a mere ad homimem. However, his situation does serve to illustrate the incredible health care gap between the wealthy pundits and politicians attacking Obamacare and average Americans. It is certainly a thing of beauty to see a man with incredible coverage provided for by his wife’s employer rail against a law that would require almost many employers to provide lesser coverage to their employees.

It also illustrates an interesting inconsistency, namely that he seems to hold to the position that his wife should receive health care benefits from her employer but that the same is not true for other Americans. Of course, it is consistent with the view that the wealthy should be treated differently from everyone else.

It might, however, be objected that Cruz is right. After all, Goldman Sachs is incredibly profitable and can easily afford such premiums as part of the very generous (some might say excessive) compensation packages they offer to their “top talent.” Lesser businesses, those run by and employing the little people, cannot afford to provide even the minimum health care benefits required by Obamacare and, apparently, the employees do not deserve such coverage. As such, health care benefits from employers are for the wealthy but not for the little people.

While this approach has some merit when it comes to small businesses, the obvious counter is that the smaller businesses are exempt from this requirement. However, the potential economic impact of Obamacare is worth considering. As is the potential economic damage of the threatened government shut down.

It has been claimed that the cost of implementing Obamacare will cause businesses to fire people and to cut employee hours so that they are not full time employees. Presumably this will not impact the wealthy—Cruz did not seem worried that Goldman Sachs would fire his wife or cut her hours so they would not need to provide healthcare benefits.

While cost is a point of concern, there is the obvious question of whether businesses actually need to fire people and reduce hours or not as a rational response to Obamacare. That is, would the increased cost be so onerous that the firing and cutting would be a matter of survival? Or would it merely be a matter of slightly less profits?  After all, some businesses obviously believe they can afford to provide extremely generous health care benefits to some people, so perhaps those affected can afford to provide lesser benefits to their workers.

This does, of course, raise some interesting questions about what benefits employees should receive and what constitutes economic necessity. However, these matters go beyond the scope of this essay. However, I will note that I do agree that health care should not be linked to employment and that I do agree that it should not be the responsibility of businesses to provide health care coverage. Unfortunately, the structure of health care benefits in the United States is such that having businesses as the provider is the main viable option. The other is, of course, having it provided by the state. Unless, of course, health care could be reformed to the point where average individuals could afford quality health care on their average incomes.

Oddly enough, Cruz and others have spoken of all the terrible damage that Obamacare has done and is doing. While this might be merely a slip of tenses, Obamacare cannot be doing any damage yet—it has not gone into effect. As such, it is an error to speak of the damage it has done—at least until it starts doing damage.

Cruz also made use of hyperbole and a rhetorical analogy by trotting out the absurd comparison of Obamacare to the Nazis. In the past, I have advocated a bi-partisan ban on this (Democrats use it, too) and I still support this proposal. As a general rule, only things that are comparable in badness to the Nazis should be compared to the Nazis. Even if Obamacare does all the awful things that certain Republicans claim it will do, it will obviously fall far short of starting a world war and engaging in genocide. Making the Nazi comparsion seems to show that a person has nothing substantial to say or that he has an impaired grasp of reality.

While Obamacare will certainly have problems, Cruz and his fellows have not offered any alternative plan of any substance. For the most part they make vague claims about market reforms and some even advance the absurd idea that people can just rely on the emergency room. While it is fair to be critical of a law when one does not have an alternative, the Republicans need to offer something other than threats to shut down the government. This makes these Republicans seem rather crazy.

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FAQs for Obama’s Health Care Plan

Posted in Humor, Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2009

Q: Does Obama have a health care plan?
A: Yes. Much like Hitler had a plan.

Q: Speaking of Hitler, I heard that the health care plan will be a Nazi plan. Is this true?
A: Nothing could be further from the truth.

Q: Whew, that is a relief…
A: Wait, I’m not done answering. It will be ten thousand times worse than the Nazis. At least. Probably much worse.

Q: Um, yeah. I also heard that Obama plans to kill old people. Is that true?
A: Not at all. Killing them would waste valuable resources. His plan is to put them to work at GM. After they drop dead assembling socialist cars, any usable organs will be harvested and the leftover bits will be made into pet food. Or maybe people food, perhaps something called Soylent Gray. You know, like in the movie.

Q: Soylent Green?
A: Yes. That one.

Q: Health care sounds expensive. How will Obama pay for it?
A: He’ll tax the f@ck out of everybody. Especially people like you. He’ll double f@ck you. I bet you won’t like that.

Q: What if the tax money isn’t enough?
A: He’ll sell the old people’s organs to the Chinese. Plus, there is already a deal in the works with Purina and McDonalds for the other bits.

Q: Really?
A: Yes. Here, try a sample McPerson burger.

Q: Any trans fat in it?
A: No. McPerson meat is 100% trans fat free. Plus it is free range and organic. By that I mean that the old people sleep outside when they aren’t making cars and they mostly eat what they can find around the factories. Things like weeds, mice and pigeons. Sometimes each other. It is best not to ask, really.

Q: Back to health care. What can I expect to get from the plan?
A: Taxed. And double f@cked taxed.

Q: I mean, what about my medical care?
A: Well, a Nazi bureaucrat will get between you and your doctor. Plus, you’ll have no choice. If the bureaucrat says that you need a hysterectomy, then you get one.

Q: A hysterectomy? But I’m a man.
A: You won’t be after that operation. But that was just an example. Maybe he’ll decide that you need to be euthanized. It is all up to the bureaucrats. They will probably just spin a wheel or something to see what to do. But in any case you’ll have to wait a long time before seeing a doctor. You’ll probably be dead long before your appointment.

Q: Can I keep my old insurance? I have Blue Cross and Blue Shield?
A: No. Obama is going to round up all the people who work for insurance companies and put them into camps. Like I said, it is a Nazi health care plan. You can keep your old plan, but everyone who worked for that company won’t need health care anymore. If you get what I mean.

Q: Is this all true?
A: As far as you know.

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