Sunday, September 25, 2016

Platforms, Free Speech, and the Boundaries of the Pale: A Methodological Remark

Sometimes people say things in public, and other people think those are terrible things to say, and so they complain, or protest, or distance themselves, or decline to invite that speaker for something else, or apologize on their behalves. And then, as we all know, sometimes yet other people get real offended by those first other people for a perceived threat to the free expression of ideas.

This is a super common pattern. (A pretty substantial amount of public hand-wringing about Millenials falls into this category.) Philosophers will recognize a recent high-profile controversy of this form.

The argument against step two above—the argument that says you shouldn't protest or apologize or whatever—goes like this: free speech is important, even when (especially when!) it is uncomfortable and challenges your preconceptions. It would be both unjust and intellectually foolhardy to censor the expression of some ideas just because some people find them distasteful or threatening.

The argument on the other side goes like this: words matter, and the expression of some ideas is actively harmful; we shouldn't encourage or enable people to harm others, especially when those harmed are members of already-marginalized groups. No one is entitled to these particular platforms, and by the way protest speech is free speech too.

In most actual instances of the schema I come across, my sympathies are largely with the protesters. But there's something a bit funny about the level of generality at which the argument tends to take place. The details of the objectionable presented content make a pretty big difference.

For example, the principles often articulated against protesting, if taken literally, would generalize to defences of views that I think most of us would recognize as clearly beyond the pale. Like, if the keynote address at the American Society for Conservative Philosophers (a name I just made up but maybe it's real, it doesn't matter, it's a fictional case) were given by a white supremacist calling explicitly for, say, stripping the voting rights of Americans of colour, everybody would be making a tremendous fuss about it and they'd obviously be right. Maybe a few individuals would crawl out of the woodwork and say "we must be willing to encounter ideas that challenge our preconceptions" or "these ideas about racial purity have been around a long time don't you think there might be something to them?" or "are conservatives not allowed to talk about social and political questions about race?", but I think most of the people who say the parallel things about real-life cases wouldn't be much impressed. This example shows that the principles cited are not at all plausible in full generality.

I think something similar is also true of the other side. Suppose a local farmer is invited to give a commencement speech at a high school in their community, and students protest and demand that they be un-invited, on the grounds that such farming amounts to a morally indefensible program of animal suffering. I would have a certain amount of sympathy with these students. (I think most animal farming does amount to morally indefensible animal suffering.) But I think I'd ultimately be persuaded by the line that this isn't very good grounds for protesting the speech, even if the students make the case that the speech itself would cause harm.

One might try to locate the difference between these cases in the moral seriousness of the harm, or the amount of offence caused, but I'm inclined to look to more contingent social matters. Really blatant white supremacy is, in North American academic circles, rare enough and marginalized enough, not merely to offend, but to shock. It's not one of society's live options. It is beyond the pale. This isn't an intrinsic feature of the content of the view—it's a relational status to society more broadly. By contrast, the idea that it's fine to cause massive suffering in non-human animals for small human benefits is widely accepted. If one merely levelled the horrified stare (the moral cousin of the less incendiary incredulous stare) at everyone who thought it was OK to raise animals for food, one would only serve to alienate oneself from society at large. People who think farming is fine need to be convinced; people who think America is only for white people should be shunned.

The lines move over time, as some questions become settled. At the margins, there will be controversy, even among people who agree that a stance is morally objectionable, about whether it is beyond the pale. I think that many questions about the moral status of homosexuality are at present right around the margins. The idea that homosexuality constitutes a defect of some kind is rightly and rapidly becoming much more of a fringe position, but it is still widely enough held, by powerful enough people, such that many people will still be inclined to treat it as a view worthy of respectful disagreement, rather than the horrified stare.

The debates that ensue tend to frame the issue as one about free speech versus harmful attitudes towards marginalized groups. That's partly right, but I think that quite a lot of what's going on is best conceptualized as a fight about where to set the boundaries. It's a border skirmish in the culture war. If the progressives keep winning, this will all look very different in retrospect. Hopefully in twenty years we will look back with some shock at the idea that people were arguing in 2016 about whether it's OK to descibe homosexuality as a kind of disability. Maybe by 2036 the argument will be about whether we need to take seriously the idea that animal farming is morally permissible.