Free Speech as Disarmament

Free Speech as Disarmament

Other people are wrong. A lot.

Other people have crazy and dangerous ideas. They express horrid and immoral beliefs. They argue for destructive policies, and sometimes sway people into adopting them. We cite scientific evidence; they cite debunked pseudoscience. We express insightful criticism and give powerful arguments; they engage in malicious attacks and put up smokescreens of obfuscation.

Why should we let other people speak, even when their ideas are wrong, loathsome, and hurtful?

The question presupposes our ability to control whether they speak or not. That is, it assumes the power to police speech and silence speech we do not like. Doing that effectively requires certain social arrangements. It requires legal institutions constructed and charged with regulating speech, procedures for reporting or discovering offenses, methods for punishing and silencing offenders. If there are existing rules – such as constitutional protections for free speech – they must be dismantled or bypassed. And of course all this social machinery requires people empowered to do the myriad tasks necessary to keep the system working.

If one wants to make war, one needs to construct weapons, and this is equally so for the battle against bad ideas and hateful speech.

Someone committed to battling destructive speech might well urge for the creation of these institutional weapons. Once we have them, they think, we can finally achieve victory. Sure, we will allow reasonable debate – we’re just banishing the unreasonable ideas of the zealots and bigots. Our rational, moral, humane ideas will have the floor.

Few people are very good at thinking two or three moves ahead on the chessboard. So many of those who enthusiastically call for the creation and proliferation of anti-speech weaponry have not given much thought to what will happen if their enemies gain control over it. What if we aren’t the ones who get to decide what is reasonable debate, and what is unreasonable science denial? What if it is the people who disagree with us who get to make the distinction between an acceptable criticism and unacceptable hate speech?

Consider a recent case from Spain:

A Catalan high school teacher, Manel Riu, appeared in court on Thursday accused of hate speech for his tweets and Facebook posts criticizing Spain, government members and the Guardia Civil police. Over a hundred people escorted him to court in Tremp, west of Catalonia, where he denied any wrongdoing and asked for the case’s dismissal.
The case against Riu includes 119 tweets gathered by the Guardia Civil. Most of them can still be found online in his account (@Mireiagalindo). On November 9, he tweeted: “I don’t believe in God, or in the soul, or eternal life, or heaven, or hell… Actually, I do believe in hell: hell is Spain.”

The article gives us no idea if Sr. Riu has ever taken a position on free speech or on hate speech laws. But one could easily imagine someone in his position having vocally supported punishments for hate speech on the assumption that they would mostly be employed against people who said hurtful things about, say, Muslims or Jews. How shocked would such a person be to find such social weaponry turned against themselves?

Similarly, in a recent interview between psychologist Jordan B. Peterson and British television reporter Cathy Newman, Newman challenged Peterson to explain why his freedom of speech should trump transgender people’s right not to be offended. His response was to point out that her interview had been uncomfortable for him – was she not risking offense with her speech? Newman seemed genuinely taken aback, as if she had not considered that a rule against giving offense could ever constrain her speech as well.

Perhaps many of those who urge for stronger weapons against speech cannot imagine that they, or people who agree with them on every matter of importance, will not be the ones in charge of them. Perhaps they cannot imagine the day will come when their own beliefs are the ones deemed controversial and offensive, or false and heretical. Perhaps they believe it a law of history that only good, intelligent people like themselves get to control the institutional machinery of society. Perhaps they are not that familiar with history at all.

For others, the possibility that anti-speech weaponry might be used against them in the future is enough to convince them that it should not be created in the first place. Despite the strong temptation to use force to silence those people for once and for all, they think along the lines of Sir Thomas Moore in A Man for All Seasons: If you tear down free speech protections in your pursuit of the devil, what do you do when he turns ’round on you? They might conclude that the game of eradicating intolerable speech is like tic-tac-toe or thermonuclear warfare: The only winning move is not to play.

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Victimhood Hoaxes and the Culture of Credulity

Victimhood Hoaxes and the Culture of Credulity

Recently it became international news that an 11-year old Muslim girl in Toronto was the victim of a hate crime. She was on her way to school, we all learned, when a man attacked her and used scissors to cut her hijab. After initially running away when she screamed, the man even returned to attack her again.

Now Toronto police say the incident never happened. Yet the story was accepted as fact. News reports even named the apparent victim, as did the Canadian Prime Minister of Justin Trudeau, who tweeted out his sympathy.

Why was everyone so credulous? It’s not exactly esoteric knowledge that people sometimes make up stories. It’s not even the first time someone has made up a story about an attack involving a hijab. Just in 2016 a woman falsely claimed three men attacked her on the New York subway and tried to remove her hijab. At the University of Michigan a woman falsely claimed that a man threatened to set her on fire if she didn’t remove her hijab. And at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette a woman falsely claimed two men robbed her and stole her hijab.

One might expect skepticism upon hearing a similar story, or at least a hesitancy to weigh in quickly and emphatically. But as Jason Manning and I talk about in our new book, the emerging culture of victimhood leads to credulity about certain kinds of claims. Skepticism about such claims of victimhood can get one branded an oppressor, while credulity is seen as virtuous. There is no penalty for being wrong over and over again, but there may be a penalty for any reaction that can be said to further victimize a victim. Thus will the Justin Trudeaus of the world keep believing and publicizing such claims, no matter the harm it does to the apparent victims or to the broader culture.

(Image: Pinocchio, by Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910) -, Public Domain,
Victimhood Culture and Higher Education BS

Victimhood Culture and Higher Education BS

Higher education is drowning in BS, according to Christian Smith at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Note that many of the problems come from the rising culture of victimhood that Jason Manning and I discuss in our new book. Here’s Smith:

BS is the ascendant “culture of offense” that shuts down the open exchange of ideas and mutual accountability to reason and argument. It is university leaders’ confused and fearful capitulation to that secular neo-fundamentalist speech-policing.

BS is the invisible self-censorship that results among some students and faculty, and the subtle corrective training aimed at those who occasionally do not self-censor.

BS is the only semi-intelligible outbursts of antagonism from enraged outsiders incited by academe’s suppressions of open argument, which primarily work to validate and reinforce the self-assured superiority of the suppressors, and sometimes to silence other legitimate voices.

What Smith calls the “culture of offense” is of course better known as “victimhood culture.” One idea that has come out of this culture that is especially threatening to universities is the idea that speech campus activists find offensive is violence — not even that it is akin to violence, but that it actually is violence. And people have to refrain from violence, be protected against it, and punished for it. The things Smith talks about — speech policing, self-censorship, etc. — naturally follow. And as he point out, the reaction from outsiders it is often semi-intelligible and unprincipled, sometimes even just as threatening to free speech and academic freedom.

The future looks bleak at the moment, and these aren’t even the only problems. Smith’s list of BS is much longer, and that he is able to go on for so long — mostly convincingly — is perhaps the main problem, since the goals of the academy have been undermined in so many ways and from so many sources that saving higher education at this point might be impossible.

(Photo by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada (Tibet-5874 – Something smells here!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)