On Free Speech: II. The Speech of Free Speakers – “A Delusion of Certitude”?

Featured Image by Lynn Melchiori from Pixabay

Click here to read Pt I. The Free Speakers of Speech – “Strands in the Web of Freedom”

II. The Speech of Free Speakers

“A Delusion of Certitude”?

“I think what we’re learning is that, particularly when they get a choice, a lot of people decide to believe what’s more comfortable for them, even if it’s not the truth.”

– Ellis Cose

Is any look at speech, free or otherwise, fairly completed before considering the listening and the thinking that the speech provokes?

From the context of his interview, Ellis Cose’s statement above seems less about how freely people do or don’t speak than about how the rest listen, and cope, and think. It’s about how readily people arrive at some assurance and, from that position, rest in acceptance of only certain other perspectives. As I mentioned in Part 1, his statement (for me) is about bias, as in what was learned from the speaker’s education that now prompts the message they speak aloud. And hey, from any given perspective, as we can never be two places at once, so we can only utter (or write) one thing at a time. “Perspective” has to mean something. So maybe what Cose calls “more comfortable” we might term less generously as “lazy” or “narrow-minded,” as in Hey, if you plan to see from any other perspective, you need to get up and move.

And I can imagine the anti-them us-approving fist-pumps spurred by the previous sentence. Is it some “immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment”? Rather than wholeheartedly agreeing, from your current perspective, that the prescription to get up and move is antidote for others, consider how well it applies to any perspective at all. Consider that it may well be directed at you as directed by you… which is not to challenge anyone’s morality so much as note that morality can be challenged. Surely, though, getting up and moving yourself is more humble and accommodating than expecting or demanding it of others – isn’t it? It’s the difference between being humble and being humbled, and I think we’d all prefer the former, if that choice were all we had.

I suppose what I’m advocating is a thorough investigation of alternatives, even ones we might have thought objectionable, before we opt for anything more drastic. And look, nobody needs to invite their opponents over for nachos and board games just yet. Even so, ask yourself, “What small space can I clear for people that, up til now, I just haven’t allowed?” Is such space even conceivable, at all?

On the other hand, if we’re flat-out convinced, and some other perspective feels equally immovably justified, and there’s no recourse but to fight it out, well… it has been known to happen.

Judgment [of free speech] is… solicited on a conflict of interests of the utmost concern to the wellbeing of the country. This conflict of interests cannot be resolved by a dogmatic preference for one or the other, nor by a sonorous formula which is, in fact, only a euphemistic disguise for an unresolved conflict. If adjudication is to be a rational process, we cannot escape a candid examination of the conflicting claims with full recognition that both are supported by weighty title-deeds.… Full responsibility for the choice [belongs] not to the courts [but] to Congress.

Dennis vs United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951)

For me, though, what Cose elucidates above all else is nuance. Its laced throughout his interview. He himself has an informed take on the history and the context of an issue that, on its face, we call “free speech.” It bears mentioning that “free” is not meant in the sense of getting a free burger at McDonald’s but, rather, getting a public opportunity to say or write what you believe, unhindered by government on the basis of content. What is prohibited is the act of government censorship, with some qualification reserved for government to negotiate with the speaker (via judicial systems) on such bases as common obscenity, so-called “fighting words” of hatred, malicious defamation of public officials, and more generally the balance in likelihood between the “gravity of the ‘evil’” and whatever “invasion of free speech” might be deemed necessary, say if someone were inciting others toward government overthrow.

Of course, neither government nor citizen has full and unbridled ability to act. The balance is contextual, and it’s usually lawyers who argue before judges and juries who decide. Here is a good discussion on that note.

And of course, in the Cose interview anyway, the entire topic is steeped in the conflated history of America’s socio-economic politics, including other Constitutional concerns such as citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law, which fall under the Fourteenth Amendment. As Cose explains, “free speech” today and historic First Amendment protected speech aren’t necessarily the same thing.

As for me, I’m no expert lawyer, I just watch them on television. So I fear my attempted definition here is hardly precise enough. But how else can we discuss such topics unless we try to be more than just forthcoming? We must also try to be more thorough. In fact, that’s one reason, maybe the main reason, why I started this blog. But my mono-blog is only one voice in our dialogue, so please offer to this discussion whatever informed-slash-substantive insight you have.

As every one has a right to be heard, let us hear from every one, that we might hear from everyone.

Click here to read Pt. III Craft Displacement

Author: Scott Robertson

Scott is a Canadian school teacher, a doctoral candidate in Education, an avid gardener, and a football (soccer) coach. He is also a dad. Scott worked in high school classrooms for 17 years, teaching mostly Secondary English. He describes learning as a continual renovation: intentional self-reflection aimed at personal growth, alongside people who share similar aims. At the core of his lessons is personal responsibility, an approach to living with integrity by adopting the habit of thinking. It's a blend of philosophy, literature, grammar, history, and science, all tied in a bundle by classical rhetoric. His students often described his approach to be unlike others they knew—mostly in a good way—which prepared them for post-secondary school and adulthood, citizenship, and whatever else. Outside the classroom, Scott has been coaching football (soccer) since 1990 and still enjoys playing, too, except when he’s too injured—then he tries to play golf instead.

3 thoughts on “On Free Speech: II. The Speech of Free Speakers – “A Delusion of Certitude”?”

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