Sunday, November 4, 2018

On J.S. Mill and Free Speech

More on "Just say 'no' to hate speech."

Maverick Philosopher wrote about free speech today, and I'd love to comment there, but there seems to be no means. So I'll bring it here. He's reading Mill and questions two things:

First, he's baffled by Mill's suggestion that we can never actually know any opinion. His example to the contrary is the opinion of Holocaust deniers despite much evidence of the actual existence of the Holocaust. But I'm afraid he's making the same mistake most people make (apparently, particularly us old schoolers) according to this recent study.

The Holocaust is a fact, so denying it is a falsehood. It's a factual mistake, not a false opinion. We can know false facts, clearly, since all we have to do is verify them, but determining a false opinion isn't as clear. For example, consider the opinion, abortion is immoral.  It really can't be known if that's a false opinion. It's just unknowable. We might all come to agreement that it should be legal and that it's the lesser of two evils, but we can't know that it's moral.

That being said, we're also getting pretty comfortable allowing people to spout false facts (aka lies) all over the place.

Secondly, he's amazed at Mill's insistence that we should allow free debate about opinions that are spectacularly disagreeable.

Mill takes that Evelyn Beatrice Hall position of, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It's not unlike the idea that being kind to horrible people is the mark of the truly moral because anyone can be kind to wonderful people. It's really easy to defend free speech when we agree with it.

Whether or not we should stifle disagreeable opinions is an interesting question that I can go on about for ages. Consider this opinion: Muslims/Mexicans/Whathaveyou are going to destroy America. I write from a no-platform stance because of exactly this kind of claim. I fear it will lead to violence, and I strongly agree with Maverick that these kinds of opinions shouldn't be permitted on a public stage.

Why would Mill disagree? I think Mill grew up cloistered by intensely intelligent people who debated heartily but reasonably. If I were only surrounded by the brightest minds, I would be happy to debate any notion raised. However, I think if Mill were alive in these days of social media inanity, he would quickly change his view.


Unknown said...

You may want to read this for an example of how JS Mill would limit free speech. I particular JS Mill argues that free speech should be limited if "it may lead to harm..."

Marie Snyder said...

His criteria for harm is very limited, though, in order to allow as much debate as possible. It's not a matter of preventing hurt feelings or provocations, but, in On Liberty, he says it must be "calculated to produce evil." BUT "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. . . . Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument" He thinks it's better to allow that position to be destroyed by the opposition than to silence it.

He goes on to argue that actions should not be as free as opinions because actions cause harm in a way opinions do not. So, we should be free to talk about this until the cows come home, but we must be prevented from acting on it if it negatively affects the life or livelihood of other persons.This is where I suggest mere talk should be prevented because it has the potential to provoke actions. I want to stop people at the discussion, seeing no benefit to hate speech, and seeing how it provokes harmful actions. Mill wants us to deliberate on it, to get it all out and show our opponents the error of their ways. But he died before the Holocaust, and before Edward Bernays and others taught the powers that be how to manipulate the public without laying a finger on them.

Unknown said...

I do understand your point of view on this and I can see the value in moderating and managing when and how certain debates take place. I am just of the opinion that we cannot forbid speech simply because we do not like the speaker.

I do tend to be more in the Mills view of free and full debate is healthy no matter how wrong we have determined the other opinion might be. No doubt I was influenced by my father who was from Communist Europe and was arrested by the Secret Police because he made a joke in public about the leadership and ended up sentenced to 8 years of hard labour and re-education. He spent the first 2 years being tortured so he would reveal his allies. Of course there were no allies since he just made a joke - but someone must have poisoned his mind to make him think that mocking the communist party was acceptable.

How far do we go to stifle speech that we do not want to hear? If we lived in a society that prevented the discussion ideas that are not main stream would women have ever won the right to vote? Would gays still be in the closet? We need to be very careful about how we "prevent" talk.

Doug Ford and his ilk are in a different camp that also want to stifle and mute free and frank discussion about sexuality and consent and morality. Is he right to do so? Is he right to say that is a lesson for parents since the state has no place in over riding religiously inspired moral codes?

I think that preventing and forbidding words we do not like have unintended consequences that we need to understand. We do have hate speech laws that provide some limitations - is it enough? I don't know.

Marie Snyder said...

I don't think we should forbid free speech. I think we should not give them a platform, which is very different. People have blogs they can write on, freely, and without interference. But that's different from a local university or other educational institution inviting someone like Bannon to take the stage. I don't think they should give him the space to speak.

But that's not because I don't like Bannon, as a person, but because he's shown a pattern of slipping in very cleverly worded statements about specific races or religions in a way that could get a following. That following is dangerous. Unlike Mill, who thought we could all have reasonable debates, I believe that there are too many easily influenced people in the world that can be swayed one way or another with a crafty argument. Most people are not well enough schooled in the art of rhetoric to be able to pick up on fallacies, and if people who are struggling at all think that excluding one group of people from the area will be an efficient way to suddenly have tons of jobs available, they might rally around that idea. But, in the words of Captain America, "We don't trade lives."

I don't want to stop idea that aren't mainstream - that's not the criteria that crosses the line for me, at all. I want to close a few doors on ideas that promote hatred of a targeted group of people because we've got plenty of evidence from the pretty recent past, and over and over, that certain types of speech can lead enough people to hate a group of people to the extent that they start feeling like it's okay to harm people in that group.

Unknown said...

Hmm. Something for me to ponder. Thank you for taking the time to clarify my understanding of what you had written.
The main concern that occurs to me is by relegating "wrong" opinions to the darkness may end up enabling those "wrong" opinions to fester in forums such as 4Chan (and even darker corners of the web). That isn't a new problem - just one that is now more visible/viable because of technology.
I am a regular reader of what you post because you make me think. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and sparking new ones in me!

Marie Snyder said...

That was Mill's concern as well. And it's certainly justifiable. So I think we have weigh the harm done by the malleable masses adopting hate speech as truth, and the few who might alter course after hearing some clear and reasonable arguments to the contrary. Given the way history has gone, I don't have enough faith in people's critical thinking skills to want them to hear any impassioned pleas about ridding the world of some group or another. Hate is such a useful way of blaming someone else for any of the pain or trauma we've experience in life. It's just too easy for people to latch on to one particular group as the cause of all their suffering (rather than taking a look inside or at particulars of their own lives or at the system, which is much harder to fight). Hate is far more comfortable than guilt, shame, regret, and sorrow.

And thanks for reading!!