Addendum to Conversations: The Cost of Free Speech
This essay is a response to an earlier blog post I had written on the importance of free speech, and its function in conversation; an addendum as it were, to points not touched upon, that need be addressed.
I think it is assumed, and goes without saying, that there is a great deal of importance in speech and the expression of thought in our culture; and not just American culture, mind you, as I am most certainly the product of, but of all cultures; insofar as they have anything to say. When you have something to say, you ought not hold back, especially when its implications could mean a great deal to the rest of us. And not as some contrarian position, but as something that could have great effect on us all, positive or negative, that is actually, truly, worth considering. If you do have something mighty to tell us, however, the responsibility of its implications do not solely rest on your shoulders. At least half of that responsibility is imparted onto the rest of us, as listeners. After all, you could be the bravest, and most intellectual being on Earth, but if no one listens, you are no more better than just simply a passive animal, going through an eternal list of determined motions.
The act of listening to one’s position, taking it seriously, is a vital part of our common project. What I mean by common project is not some humanist take on the world and the suffering found within it, or even a utilitarian take for that matter, but a project that undergoes a kind of cultural force, as it were. When we best understand this force, it is wholly creative, leading to great advantageous achievements; and not necessarily for the sake of progress either. Achievements such as the taming of wild animals, in the process of domestication, is one feat that has lent us amazing advantage over the world. It may have come before actual speech, but free speech needs to be defined, which I will do later on in this essay; and speech, at least as an expression of thought or ideas, nonetheless holds importance to the act of domestication. This cultural force can also be interpreted poorly, however, and this can be clearly shown by the likes of certain religions of the world. The Catholic Church has had such a strong pull over Western society, for such a long time, that Western language and thought, e.g. English, French, Spanish, German, are steeped in concepts like free will, personal responsibility, repentance, punishment and retributive justice, the value of meekness, and life after death. Of course, some of these ideas were certainly transformed and interpreted by Enlightenment thinkers, whom had their own sway over the Church and the plebeians. The point here being, that when it comes to ideas being disseminated through to the public, if we do not take the proper time to understand the context and implications behind them, then they could have consequences, that we as a collective, may not be entirely fond of.
A perfect example of this would be that of Adolf Hitler and his book Mein Kampf. It’s first volume had been originally published in 1925, and the second in 1926. It wasn’t a very popular piece of work when it was published, and few outside of the Nazi party took it seriously, as it was largely full of nonsense, according to reviewer Sunny Delaney. But when Hitler came to power in 1933, his ideas began to be implemented into German society and politics. The dangers of targeting large groups, or populations, with the intent of extermination, based upon essentialist views of racial superiority, specifically that of antisemitism, is the kind of idea that if not taken seriously, can have disastrous effects on the group being targeted, clearly. We should make note here, that there had been a long history of antisemitism throughout Europe, which highly influenced Hitler and his resentment, as well as others like him, against the Jewish people, among other marginalized groups. It isn’t all dark and foreboding, however, as there have been wonderful and awe inspiring things achieved in the face of not being taken seriously; I look to someone like Elon Musk and Space X, one of his founding companies. In a 60 Minutes interview, when being asked about a recent congressional hearing at the time, on the privatization of space travel, Musk was asked about how he felt when some of his personal heroes, like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, testified to Congress on how privatization was ultimately a folly endeavor, and how it would cost billions of dollars, and was ultimately irresponsible. His response was authentic and emotional, bringing tears to his eyes, saying that he wished his heroes could come see the great work Space X was doing, in a pioneering and growing industry. Now the company has seen tremendous success, making space flight increasingly more affordable, and innovating on new fronts, such as reusable rockets and sea-based landing platforms; potentially paving the way for broader space travel/tourism, industry, and colonization.
Having seen the consequences of not taking ideas seriously, I want to nail down the importance of listening. In my previous piece on this subject, I was hostile to the notion that we are living in the postmodern era. I realize now that it wasn’t clear to me what exactly postmodernism was, nor its scope and many subdivisions. However, what still holds true to me, and is relatively clear, is that it is a rhetorical tool to critique tradition and treats absolute truth with skepticism. And we should find some value in that after all. While there may be a negative outlook on the deconstructionists today, coming from the political Center and Right, it seems foolish to me to appeal to a kind of dogmatism over tradition. Looking at the present, when it comes to the very public conversation surrounding the oppression of marginalized groups, whether it be on Twitter or on University campuses, there is a deep and entrenched failure to have productive conversations; or at least nuanced reasoning and structured arguments. It appears to revolve around the issue of empathy.
Lived experience is important to every individual, I don’t think that is something one could argue against; mainly because it is such a subjective matter, but also because one’s personal experience is the only way we can account for suffering in this world, and its utility in growth and ambition. Of course, a problem arises when blind empathy is attempted to be applied in the face of oppression, to which group identities subsequently arise, but also when an attempt to form a bridge of compassion, or understanding, is thwarted for the sake of an inability to empathize with the oppressed, and taken as either an act of oppression or at least further marginalization. When dealing with the request of blind, irrational empathy, we run into the issue of possibly being blind to the consequences. Paul Bloom argues in his book, Against Empathy, that empathy is often morally one-sided. Bloom says that when it comes to the political debate of moral and social issues, there are inevitably winners and losers, and it’s difficult to see the consequences of those decisions, of who wins and who loses, when the issues are something like: the jobs of police vs. the gunning down of unarmed black teenagers, or the rights of a mother vs. the rights of a fetus, or even of something as ambiguous as climate change vs. the entire population. These moral dilemmas are so pernicious, because of their argument from passion, and they usually ignore statistics, especially how many people are actually involved in suffering. Bloom further argues for a kind of distant compassion, a rational way of viewing empathy, where facts aren’t ignored, and doesn’t require us to explicitly put ourselves in the shoes of others.
The second issue that I pointed out is the refusal to build bridges, for the sake of either compassionate understanding or rational discourse. I’ve personally been met with the criticism of lacking empathy, almost being viewed as an oppressor, simply because of my immutable characteristics, or the historical context in which my family came to be; which in turn fed into my ‘white privilege.’ As a writer, one of the things I do is to write about suffering, one of the most fundamental human phenomena. Using dark themes, and sometimes playing devil’s advocate, I have attempted to elicit a specific response from readers; a response that sometimes may make one uncomfortable, especially when confronting difficult issues and ideas. I had wrote a short, historical fiction piece, based in Nazi Germany. I thought the plot was actually fairly typical, being a wartime espionage drama. A British spy took up the persona of a German army officer, in an attempt to collect information, on a mountainous Nazi death camp, where research was being done to create an especially deadly nerve agent. *SPOILER* The twist was that the head researcher was the daughter of Jewish parents, and that she had infiltrated Nazi command to take revenge on their killer; the advantage being that she studied chemistry very closely with her father. I thought that it would be received fairly well, as my other short stories were very much enjoyed in our writers workshop. I was very wrong. Silently, it felt as though I was perceived as a Nazi sympathizer; vocally, I was met with much disdain from my readers, so much so that the workshop was very much derailed, coming close to the point of cancelling for the day. Specifically, there were two other writers who explicitly raised their concern, who will remain nameless out of privacy, where their personal experiences of oppression in society drove their problems with my story. The first writer said that they were sickened by my story, and couldn’t give the time of day to even finish reading it, as I withheld the main character’s identity until it served the plot to reveal his spy status. They said that their view, as a trans person, personally made them disgusted of my work. The second writer was much more vocal, who actually read the entire story, and that as a gay person with Jewish family who survived the events of the Holocaust, took it as a personal attack on their identity; not being able to bring it upon themselves to critique the actual work.
This is a problem. Intent was entirely lost in this debate, to which hardly was, as I wasn’t allowed to defend my writing. Which brings me back to my point on listening. Undoubtedly, oppression is a real issue that is nowhere near to being solved. But I know that there are real solutions, and wrong answers to this problem. I have often been in group discussions at my university, where the question inevitably arises in how to tackle issues of oppression, especially with the many conflicting worldviews in society, and the Leftist echo chambers present on some college campuses. I think the solution is staring at us right in the face: have a continuing dialogue with each other, and be willing to sit down and have open, honest, and free conversations.
Unfortunately, the response that I’ve hoped to receive to this solution hasn’t been met with praise; it’s been met with the sentiment of fear of not being heard or listened to. It’s a perfectly honest and genuine response, from one student, I heard: “what if these people that we’re trying to have a dialogue, just don’t listen to us or change their mind?” I would like to say that that’s okay; that it’s fine, but I think the best course we could take is act on reciprocity. If we want someone to listen to us and take our position on an issue seriously, they have to know that it will be reciprocated. We should take the time to listen and truly hear the other side of an argument. People like to have their opinions and thoughts validated; to feel important. But when we moralize one side of an issue, or take one argument as morally superior, even if we don’t intend it, then it comes off as demoralizing of the people spouting the ideas on the other side of the debate. This can lead to deep resentment, a powerful emotion. Resentment, I think, is one of the most influential phenomena that could account for many of the world’s revolutions and tyrannical uprisings. I won’t go as far as saying that Trump’s presidency is tyrannical, but his election certainly had to do with the resentment felt among his voters. This is why, when we don’t understand the power and force of speech, results that lead to consequences that are disliked, or even are disdained, inevitably feed back into themselves.
So then, let me speak to the specificity of free speech, what it is, and why it needs to remain free, despite its consequences. Speech is not just our words, our language, but an ability to comprehend abstract ideas; ideas that don’t necessarily portend to the physical world; and are often metaphysical in nature. The grasping of these ideas are older than language as we know it today. It began as ancient man put art to stone, and weaved a narrative of thought onto the physical world. Of course, it most likely began as a recounting of memory, but as soon as we realized the potential to say something about ourselves, it jump started a wave of creativity. When we captured the ability to communicate with each other in complexity, we could plan much more effectively, and allowed our ambitions to take hold. That ambition is what led to agriculture, domestication of plants and animals, architecture, art, religion, literature, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and physics. However, it also led to war, slavery, the hoarding of resources, religious dogma, genocide, and violent colonization. This is why I view speech as a force, both creative and destructive, and how it remains as the primacy of our will; both individual and collective. Because of the great consequences of speech, both good and bad, we should never restrict it. Out of all the good we find in the world, there will always be bad, and at some point, there is no way to restrict speech; at least in some deep and meaningful way. As a culture, we can have a consensus that some idea is bad, whether or not it be true, and yet there will be some among us who believe the opposite, and for potentially good reasons. Just because the herd all mouths the same utterances, does not mean they are justified in doing so, even if it vaguely guarantees its survival. But even still, when we demoralize someone's thoughts as wrong, or evil, it puts them in a challenging position: either join the herd, and repress those thoughts as wrong, or resent the herd, and potentially be pushed out to some extreme of no return. Censuring thought can be polarizing, just as middle America were called deplorable for supporting tradition over progress. In this case, the cost of speech need be free, simply because of the risk of saying something damning, so that we may grow and develop our ideas better. Recently, Jordan Peterson was a guest on the Theo Von Podcast, This Past Weekend, where the topic of free speech came up. Peterson said that “we have to stumble around, like morons, to stumble upon the truth. We are going to say stupid things; wrong things.” To which Von replies, “that’s why it isn’t called costly speech, we need it to be free, because we’re going to fuck it up so much.” They then both came to the sentiment that if there were a cost to speech, it would be too high.
This is an apt observation. Deep down, we are all in search of the truth, whether or not it fits in the cosmic sense of the word, truth is still important to all of us. Personal truth, or capital T, Truth, is very relevant to us all. It is why we ever wrote down the tools of logic, to help us organize our thought, and not contradict ourselves. The entire point of deduction, is to preserve the truth, and whether or not our conclusions are valid. Speech needs to remain free, in order to search for the truth.