"Liberty, Revisited"; or "The Sentimental Style in American Politics"
The defense of free discussion that I’m working on is not your typical “free speech” book. It may seem constricting that in many ways a response to and elaboration on Mill’s “On Liberty” (“Liberty, Revisited” is a possible title). But like Mill, I focus not on government censorship but social coercion—an enormously complicated and rich subject that is really the core of the issue and implicates the work of many other thinkers and writers. Here’s a list (in no particular order) of some of the topics I’ll be covering:
We need bad and immoral opinions. How bad ideas and opinions are not simply things a society must tolerate for the sake of a fundamental right to free speech, despite their damage, but are actually essential to healthy discourse. The discursive process cannot work properly without them.
My focus right now—>What is a conspiracy theory? The conspiracy theorist is not under-scientific (or a “science denier”), but over-scientific, and rebels against the fact that most of our knowledge is second-hand (rather than first-hand and empirical), and against the fact that most of what we think we know involves a kind of trust in the discursive process. This is not because participants in discourse are particularly rational or trustworthy, but because we have good tools for making a priori evaluations of second hand claims, including a) our understanding of human motivation and psychology—which we think we understand best because we seem to have direct access in it to ourselves; and b) our ability to reason. The deficits of the conspiracy theorist are not a disrespect for empirical data, facts, and experts, but involve a paranoid inability to put psycho-social skills and reasoning together in ways that would allow them to rely on others put some faith in second-hand claims.
Why strict fallibilism ought to be defended, even for the most obviously crackpot and false (and paranoid and conspiratorial) ideas. There is a sliding scale of skepticism here that depends on moral urgency. But in some contexts methodological skepticism must be given more weight. Mill’s concept of partial truth is applicable in all cases, and the question of truth and falsity is much more complex than the truth values of particular assertions taken literally. Even assertions that seem obviously true are always flawed in practice, by virtue of the vagueness of the concepts involved, their poor and misleading position in a system of interrelated concepts, and the fact that they connote non-literal significations as well—and this includes emotive significance that is often inappropriate (and a corresponding false sense of moral urgency that is meant to foreclose discourse).
Why it is that our tolerance levels for speech are much different from our tolerance levels for action. If we are willing to act despite fallibility and imperfect knowledge—and this includes making laws that restrict freedoms—why not do the same for speech? The counterargument—and here I build on Mill—involves the central place of discourse in the deliberative processes that lead to action (and allow us to make important adjustments to actions based on their results).
The sentimental style in American politics (and politics more generally). A discussion of why it is that most people—as Mill observed—find rationality, in its coldness and distance from affect, to be entirely antithetical to morality, and so deftly avoid it in discussions of political and moral discussions (even when they pay lip service to it otherwise).
A further discussion of the role of rationality, especially when participants in discourse tend to be so irrational. Mill (and the philosophical tradition rooted in the enlightenment) is often accused of not taking human irrationality seriously. I show that the case is precisely the opposite—it is Mill who takes this problem seriously, and the opponents of rationality who in fact covertly arrogate crypto-rational authority for themselves in a bastardized form (in the form of a priori sentiments of offense that are supposed to constitute the good and be prior to the true—an idea that often constitutes an abuse within contemporary “critical theory”). It turns out that the unity of rationality is not any one (or some) authoritative individual or class of individuals or experts, but the discursive process itself, upon which rationality it is emergent.
A discussion of media literacy, “post-truth,” “fake news,” “misinformation,” “false equivalence” (and so on) as authoritarian ideals. We do not want straight reporting in our news organizations to focus on giving us “facts.” We want their fallible reports—as in, their subjective first-hand experiences of events, or their recounting of experiences had by others. We want a kind of data; but the most valuable data here is not a reporter’s theory of what such reports add up to—this in fact tends to distort the report itself (columns and analyses have different standards, of course). And for a healthy public discourse, it is not helpful for participants to think of themselves as passive recipients of proclamations from authoritative sources. They must be the ones who construct theories to satisfy the data, and the ones who are capable of their own evaluation of reports. There are lots of interesting ways—rational and psychological—that media consumers can make such evaluations, despite the fact that reports are second hand. Misinformation vigilantes in fact have a lot in common with conspiracy theorists.
The counter-productiveness (and self-undermine quality) of discursive taboos, de-platforming, and a failure to engage opponents.
The nature and sources of errors in thinking and opining, especially moral and political thinking. I take a much different approach (grounded in psychoanalytic theory) than those who focus on cognitive biases.
I focus on the concept of social coercion (and “cancel culture”) rather than the question of government censorship (I agree with Mill here that this is really not the most important danger to freedom of discussion, and not the core issue). Yet social coercion is ubiquitous, normal, and in some cases very useful. It may even comprise a grounds for the possibility of freedom of discussion—social coercion, after all, is accomplished by discourse. When we condemn cancel culture, we are sometimes condemning a certain kind of discourse.
Questions of “free speech” are often not about content at all, but about discursive contexts (theoretical contexts vs. everyday social contexts, for instance), interpretation (including our understanding of speech acts), and linguistic pragmatics (the ways in which my interpretation of assertions goes will beyond its literal content, and requires an understanding of context, intention, and other factors). This fact goes a long way toward helping us understand the proper role of social coercion.
Questions of “free speech” also involve questions of education. Paradoxically, education is in its early stages—with young children—not a form of free discussion but a form of indoctrination. Getting human beings to value freedom of discussion and rationality over tribal loyalties is in fact a kind of indoctrination, one designed to establish a different sort of loyalty, despite the fact that the ultimate result is meant to be a position within discourse that involves more than mere indoctrination, influence, and manipulation, but one that is in some sense is truly free (and involves the capacity to think for oneself). This position provides new rationales for freedom of discussion, but it is only available in a deep way to participants who have experienced it. We must love rationality and discussion for irrational reasons, before we love it for rational reasons.
Is gender a social construct? What is a social construct? The concept—which in a way is the foundation of current practice in the humanities and social sciences—itself turns out to be largely incoherent (something I think will be a surprise to many readers). Theories of social construction (and more generally, ideology and power relations) suggest that discussion can never be free, and that discourse itself is inherently coercive. It is supposed to be not just a form of social and cultural influence that we might rationally attenuate, but constructs us from the ground up. This position is vastly overstated (and self-refuting).
The concept of speech as harm.
What all of this has to do with Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism,” “1984,” and identity politics more generally. Important here is the role—for individuals and groups—of status, recognition, and power; and their typical conflation with the good.
The relation between freedom of discussion as ethics; what it means to treat individuals as forms of discussion rather than mere products of discourse. This will include a discussion of Spinoza.
How all of this is related to Hegelian dialectic and determinate negation!
What this all has to do with aesthetics and Keats’ “negative capability.”