204. Free speech revisited
Recently I discussed free speech (in item 198 of this blog), but I want to come back to it, in response to a recent debate on the issue between four philosophers on Dutch TV (on 22nd June 2015). They were practically unanimous on the following, standard liberal view:
There is ‘liberal emptiness’: in liberal democracies the state does not, or should not, provide a view of the good life. It should not offer a ‘leading culture’. It is up to citizens to choose and discuss such views. The crux of democracy is dialogue and debate among citizens, and that requires free speech. Clearly, there are restrictions, in the institutionalization of ‘public space’, for example against incitement to violence. But whether or not free speech yields psychological or spiritual damage is irrelevant. People should be able to bear it.
I agree with some of this, but I also have objections. I think we need more practical wisdom.
In item 198 I argued that ‘speech acts’ can also be a form of violence. But there is more.
First, liberal emptiness is an illusion. A society, and groups within society, harbour a-priori views and values that are tacit and taken for granted. They are assimilated in growing up, education, training, professional practice, and functioning more generally as a member of society. They constitute a ‘paradigm’ that forms the basis for unaware, tacit ideologies. While liberal government may not intend to proscribe a leading culture, in fact it does.
Liberalism is based on the doctrine of the autonomous individual, able to make rational choice. On that cultural substrate the tacit ideology has increasingly become that of ‘the market’.
Here I recall Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘language games’ and Foucault’s idea that institutionalized views and values constitute power structures that enable society but are also suppressive, in part. Even the victims have internalized the taken-for-granted underlying values and views.
As I argued elsewhere (in item 180), market ideology is not value-free, as economists claim, but rests on a utilitarian ethic that should in my view be replaced with a virtue ethic. That would include virtues such as moderation, tolerance, empathy, openness and moral courage.[i]
Second, the liberal view is highly idealized and unrealistic. The idea behind free speech is that unjustified ravings will be revealed and discredited in public debate. That grossly overestimates the rationality of public discourse, which is upheaval and noise rather than debate, driven by emotions more than arguments. Negation of the holocaust is greeted with assent in sections of society, in disregard of facts.
Third, while I agree that as much freedom of expression as possible should be allowed, that is only half he story. While demeaning, insulting, hateful speech may be allowed, that does not mean it is good. Next to laws and regulations there is culture and civilization, with ethics and morality.
The declared aim of free speech is to give room to dialogue and debate. But dialogue requires not only room for debate but also capabilities for it. That includes robustness to criticism and invective. It is too facile to take that for granted. It also includes empathy: the ability to understand people who think and see differently, and openness to see the possible limitation and prejudice of one’s own view. That requires a sense of history and of cultural differences. If the aim is dialogue, it does not help to attack and insult people in their most fundamental beliefs and assumptions that form the marrow of their cultural bones, constitute their identity. That will block rather than trigger dialogue.
In sum, while government should not consciously prescribe some ethic, it should be aware that in fact it does, implicitly. The choice of ethics and values should indeed de left up to citizens, to the utmost, but ethical debate can be stimulated and enabled. In educational policy government can stimulate ethical awareness, knowledge, competence, empathy and openness, as democratic virtues.