April 16, 2004
The Free Speech we like
Posted by Jon Henke
In the name of tolerance, Brian Leiter writes a defense of intolerance.....
This (error-ridden) recent item from the right-wing U.S. News & World Report criticizes the latest defeat for human liberty to befall the poor Canadians: namely, the loss of their right to freely express hatred for homosexuals, even (get ready for this!) when they have religious grounds for their hatred and bigotry. How will Canada survive if it doesn't follow the U.S. lead and acknowledge a blanket license for religiously-inspired hatred? Already, from the increasingly ridiculous right-wing corners of the U.S. blogosphere, we hear the mocking clucking of the libertarian pundits, "Pity poor Canada, they have no free speech."Ok. Hyperbole. But give Leiter a break....he's just mad that the US government hasn't stepped in to suppress free speech. That's ok, though, because it's speech he doesn't like. (for that matter, it's speech I don't like, but then...I'm not telling people they can't engage in it)
Leiter - a philosophy professor, so he should really know better - proceeds into logical fallacy wonderland by loading and framing the questions to (surprise!) his benefit...
It is true that if you despise homosexuality, and if you want to freely express that view, especially on religious grounds, you're better off in the U.S. It's also true that if you're skeptical about U.S. motives in Iraq (and elsewhere) and think the invasion was on a par, morally, with the Soviet invasion of Aghanistan; if you believe nationalized health care is preferable to a system which caters to the needs of the insurance industry; if you think redistributive taxation is a requirement of justice; if, in short, you dissent from the neoliberal paradigm and chauvinist nationalism that dominate the public sphere in the United States, you will have far more freedom of speech in Canada: for example, your views might be expressible outside your living room, perhaps, say, in major newspapers, or even on television.Ok, aside from the logical fallacy in which he engages here, let's just point and laugh at that last little bit. Yeah.....it's hard to find an antiwar columnist, or an advocate of the liberal agenda in the US media.
It's a good thing he wrote that down, because there's no way he could say it with a straight face.
Surprisingly, though, Leiter turns right around and begins arguing with himself....
Now don't misunderstand me. Canada is a civilized country, and so the fact that Canada takes seriously the post-WWII European consensus--namely, that naked bigotry, religiously motivated or otherwise, is a danger to humanity--makes perfect sense. But the U.S. is different. In the U.S. I much prefer our more-or-less "libertarian" regime governing speech, and for reasons Fred Schauer pegged two decades ago in his book on the subject: not because the "marketplace" of ideas, such as it is, will yield the truth, or because speech doesn't "harm" people (it does, all the time), but rather because there is no reason to have confidence that the agents of the state in America will exercise their regulatory powers in the service of human well-being and enlightenment.So, Leiter's argument is not that speech should be free because freedom, in itself, it good....but because it helps us find "well-being and truth". It's this sort of logic-twisting that allows Leiter - or his ideological compatriot Noam Chomsky - to excuse any amount of totalitarian atrocity.....because, hey, "it's all for Human Well-Being and Enlightenment", don't you know.
But, having conceded the slipper-slope danger of restrictions on free speech, Leiter goes on to praise it. Yes, the slippery slope argument is, apparently, outdated.
So I admire Canada, not so much for their approach to free speech, per se, but rather for having achieved a level of civilization that permits them to regulate expression without sacrificing the central values of the post-Enlightenment world. Nothing of human value is lost--let's repeat that, just to be clear, "nothing"--when the right to express contempt (whether dressed up in the language of morality and religion, or not) for Jews or Gays or Blacks is sanctioned. The marketplace of ideas, the search for truth, is unhindered.Let me make this clear: I have no interest in, nor do I condone, hate speech against Gays, Jews, or Blacks. But again, I'm not the one advocating the suppression of that speech. Leiter, however, makes the classic mistake with respect to free speech. He assumes that the point of free speech is the search for "greater truth", or "progress".
That's simply not true, and for a very simple reason: in matters of personal values, there is no "greater truth". There is only subjective valuation.
"Free speech", freedom itself, whatever Leiter may think, is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. If you think differently, ask yourself this: is there a difference between a slave being forced to cultivate a farm, and a farmer? Both, after all, perform the same function.
Of course, there is a difference, and it is fundamental. Freedom.
Leiter wraps up with a Ralph Nader-esque bit about our "corporate masters", misunderstanding the difference between persuasion and coercion. Whatever...I'm not interested in that rabbit hole.
What I am interested in is this idea of Leiter's that we should not restrict free speech...except when we can restrict the speech of which Leiter does not approve. And he has the gall to use the word "free".
NOTE: Noticed this via Matthew Yglesias, who disagrees with Leiter for somewhat different reasons.