On Free Speech: IV. Grounding Movement Control

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On Free Speech: IV. Grounding Movement Control

“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

We’ve always lived with both truth and lies. Concern today, arising directly from how ubiquitous they are, truth and lies, is how competitive they are. And how rapidly they spread.

I’ve sometimes thought “social media” should be renamed social immediatesocial’s a bit generous, I think, altruistic, but of course it’s media and immediate, sharing common etymology, that are more than just clever word-play. On-line life began like any new relationship… a little mysterious, a little enchanted. Since those early days, we live so much of our lives on screens… how are we coping with the reach and pace of this on-line world, its arbitrary spread of content that people decide to believe, that “gives the illusion of consensual validation”? How are we affording ourselves “sufficient time to avert the evil consequences of noxious doctrine by argument and education”? How are we reckoning with the access and clout marshalled to special advantage by a privileged few? By how, I mean intentionally how?

These are hardly questions to be glossed over, especially when we use the very same lightspeed reach and pace for argument and education. We seem to be building the plane while learning to be the pilot while also issuing boarding passes and studying for our tower badge while flying. On top of all this, what the tower calls a landing strip some pilots believe is a mirage, if not flat-out deception.

It’s very difficult to say on what grounds something is hate speech and who should make that decision because some people find Zionism hate speech. Some people find Black Lives Matter hate speech. It’s easy to use the phrase ‘hate speech,’ but it means different things to different people, even people who think they know what it is when they see it.

Ellis Cose

By the way, if you’re thinking just now, “Yes, it’s awful how quickly lies spread,” well, it’s possible the liars are thinking the same thing. Maybe you’re now spotting the same problem as me… two wrongs don’t make a right, and yes, it’s a different way to think of the two wrongs, owned one each per ‘side’ – just to clarify, this would be both sets of ‘liars’ sharing responsibility to connect, or else clash. So yes, it’s a bit different, and it’s definitely no cause for censorious scorn or sanctimonious virtue-signalling – I mean, unless everyone wants the fighting to continue. And if that redoubles your indignation, well, very likely it’s doubled theirs, too, and here we all are, equal by at least one measure.

We all lay claim to weighty title-deeds; but as any physicist will tell you, weight is commonly misapprehended, and the question, really, is over whose voices bear sufficient persuasive mass to tamp the rest of us down within their gravity well, and whose would have us believe we’re defying gravity.

And here is the heart of Cose’s counsel: truth is not driving out lies.

“Pass me that screwdriver, will ya… huh? Alright, how about a hammer?”

As I say, it’s competing with them. Cose takes himself to be justified on the ‘side’ of truth – fair enough, we all have our convictions; for the record, I agree with him. In this post, however, I’m trying more clinically just to observe the conflict, which seems as protracted for a liar as for anyone since driving out lies with truth precludes no truth that any ‘side’ might wield. If that’s not a debate toward persuasion, it can still be a battle to the death.

Yes, “speech may be fought with speech,” but how effective is it when people’s beliefs on the same planet have become separate world ideologies? And when government, for the public, has no claim to control what somebody, in private, decides they want silenced, just who gets to say who gets to say? From having earlier considered the speaker, and the speech they profess, we’re now unquestionably trolling the realm of the audience.

And that audience has a setting, whether a venue or some medium, which itself is part of a larger culture, etc etc, blah blah blah… and if appreciating all this ‘in context’ seems obvious, then ask yourself why we still dispute free speech? To borrow an earlier phrase, it’s hard to blame the craft when it’s the artisan.

Free speech per se is a concept, and it’s one thing to aspire to values. But it’s quite another to assume them, and we don’t live in a Land of Should, where the statues talk and live among us, and concepts send us greeting cards embossed with dogma. As we’re now considering audience, we’re no longer considering only the person who speaks, or only their speech, or only the venue in which they speak. We’re also beyond one audience’s concerns, or one cultural setting, or even cultures colliding: free speech enacted is all of the above. Like loose strands in a weave, pulling one means the rest come with it. To do it any justice obliges us to consider free speech not in the immediacy of one person’s freedom but as an ongoing social gathering, or convergence. Free speech per se is one thing; free speech enacted is quite another.

Spot the regulatory influence: as we fly by Instrument Flight Rules or Visual Flight Rules, so we speak in the public sphere and the private sphere.

At issue is not free speech per se but our e-tech immediacy, so vastly more efficient than ever before, with a widespread audience to match.

At issue are the people in that audience, and their coping strategies: discernment, tolerance, critical thinking, an ability to hold in mind two contradictory ideas, or at least more than one comfortable idea.

At issue are ideology and the “immediate interests [that] exercise a kind of hydraulic pressure which makes what previously was clear seem doubtful”… all the ‘should’ that wants to last and grow and protect and endure by carving a comfortable niche.

At issue is our patience, and our willingness to distinguish nuance, and our susceptibility to emotion, as part or separate from reason – that’s on you and me both, and sorry for getting in your face about it, but while we’re on you, what exactly do you make of the speaker’s character? Because that’s no longer just you; that’s both you and the speaker. Cyclical, mutual, together. This is a joint effort.

I consider the nuances of free speech with the three rhetorical appeals and wonder at some error in the sonorous formula by which one appeal, like one person, is raised to matter above all else. In the so-called digital age, what lies between the echo chambers is less a public forum than the contested battleground of a fight that is less about some freely spoken topic than who shall freely speak. When I hear people invoke “free speech” as targeting anticipated outcomes or effects of speech rather than addressing the catalyst or cause of speech, I wonder if their judgment has already been passed. I wonder if the speaker’s credibility is simply ad hominem in waiting – it’s not always so, but I wonder at the possibility, at the sure traction we seek on the slippery slopes we grade.

I wonder if an entire audience has had its capacity assumed, in lieu of their involvement, by a few of its more vigilant assertive presumptive strident zealous clamorous… – by ideologues… – by a few of its members. In fairness, what one may call advocacy another might call oppression; just as what one may call disinterest, another might call complicity; or as differently educated, ignorant or uninformed. Yet no impasse need be permanent unless we’re willing – is it obstinacy that makes you so parochial, or integrity? When is refusal a sign of conviction, and when is it just being lazy?

We possess no freedom – neither active freedom to nor passive freedom from – that is not without corresponding cost; we live alongside others whose freedoms, like our own, ought not to be denied.

And we bear no right that does not oblige concomitant responsibility to others; apart from others, what stipulation of freedoms or rights is even necessary?

All well and good, but when are principled statements ever more than mere words? And if you say, “Rule of law…” I’ll reply, “… yes, and lawbreakers.” High statements about rights and freedoms are symbolic, nothing more. Respect for the rule of law is realised behaviour, enacted decisions, and real consequences; words, like statues and sculptures, only depict and describe. True, there’s yet to say “self-discipline,” “community,” and “education,” or how about “enforcement,” but free speech per se remains a concept, nothing more.

Free speech enacted is more complex. It’s not about the one who’s angered and vocal, it’s not about the one who’s squeamish and militant, it’s not about any one at all whom we might try to describe as a speaker or a listener – free speech is not about any one, but always at least two, and far more likely even more. Free speech, like every freedom and right we boast, demands as much give as take. If that balance is contextual, it’s also never only one person toeing its edge.

At last we’ve landed in a place to offer the trite-and-true “words matter”: indeed, words do matter, in a demonstrable, consequential, fundamental way. They matter, just like the people who use them – or rather because it is people who use them.

Grounded, or just playing it safe? Anyway, when the sky’s the limit, you know your limits.

Words matter because people matter, yet we protect and prize our free speech distinctly inside the public sphere versus outside. Prohibiting government from restricting our free speech, based on its content, is its own defining characteristic: it is based on past experience and, you might say, ought to speak for itself. In other words, protecting our speech, with some granted qualifications, from government interference was an intentional decision.

Curious that we might find similar…? intent in the private sphere, except here the intent seems…? to restrict free speech, and it arises among people who evidently privilege themselves…? as a kind of alternative government without prohibition. Quite apart from choosing to not listen to free speakers, such people proclaim a mandate on behalf of the rest of us to silence them. Who among us may justifiably enact this distinction? Whomever already does.

Check back soon for the final post of this series on free speech: Part V. Bending Two Extremes

We Make Claims

“We make claims,” I used to tell students writing essays, “because somehow something prompts us.” In the spirit of the best constructivists, I encouraged my students to build and rebuild not just what they knew, but how and why they knew it.

A common pitfall in essay writing is that claims without evidence just mean you spin and spin. “So,” I suggested to students (… paraphrasing here), “cite the evidence that prompted the claim, then write an explanation. There’s your essay.”

Sample: “I think ‘X’, and it was ‘Y’ that made me think so. Explain, explain, explain.”

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Some years later, and my return to the land of academia… I’m facing the exact opposite prescription: all knowledge is provisional. Lay claim at your peril. Abandon all certainty, ye who enter here. Just deserts! my students might say… well, I have been feeling their pain, if not their well-wishes.

Generally, people won’t doubt themselves without good reason, or else they will as long as they have a lot of faith in the person asking. Yet if (… that’s “if”) we can only note what matters to us from a reference point, then we also bring to bear only what we decide is most relevant to the moment. And since (… that’s “since”) nothing occurs in a vacuum, any detail might be informative. So let’s not ask, “In what ways do I already know what I’m looking at?” That kind of certainty yields self-fulfilling prophecy. Academically, I get the admonishment of certainty.

By definition, “evidence” is only useful because it’s meaningful; something is chosen to be evidence for a reason: we’ll know it when we see it. In other words, we can make shit up. So, to be more responsible, let’s ask, “In what ways do I not know what I am looking at?” Asking this, I feel I’m more academically willing to abandon “certainty” because I can fill the vacuum with a different kind of certainty, what I’ve called a kind of faith.

I don’t define what I’m looking at, yet I also don’t abandon myself – it’s more like I study the overlap between the two. Where do I end, and this other thing begin? Somewhere in between is a claim waiting to be made.

If certainty makes evidence possible in support of a claim – which is induction – then faith makes claims possible that require supporting evidence – which is deduction. In either case, however, I suppose you can see what you wish to see.

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Where it comes to knowledge, we all land somewhere: we all believe something, no matter what the most die-hard postmodernist might *ahem* claim. In fact, our claims to know [something particular] are rampant. And I suppose that’s the problem (… if all this is a problem). It seems to me there’s no learning without prior certainty, some departure point, “Here’s what I know,” even if that simply means, “I’m certain I don’t know.” That said, it’s the rare Socrates in this day and age, even on campus – some might say especially on campus.

To start with certainty is induction, and starting this way is the pitfall of induction because, unless claims come first, i.e. deduction, any evidence might seem self-serving. To lay claims first instead, then support them with evidence, i.e. to deduce, is helpful if only because, then, we have a measure for where to go next. But, as I caution above, there is a chicken-egg conundrum to all this.

I’m pretty– well, er, certain that there’s no problematizing without prior learning, by which I mean certainty. We all land somewhere. (As I gather, problematizing is identifying and questioning these taken-for-granted landed assumptions, a step toward assessing whether we ought to renovate what we know, i.e. whether we ought to learn.) As I say, I think I get why the academic embrace of uncertainty is worthwhile. By all means, let the academy embrace uncertainty: societal dynamics are varied and vast, as complementary and collaborative as confrontational and competitive. In fact, if it weren’t for the intervention of others, we’d be forever fated to know just one sole perspective, and it’s the very, very few – not the many – whose lives are that alone. You can ask Alcibiades: Socrates was no strict loner.

Let me be as Hegelian as I can, and it isn’t much. I believe our world is holistic, by which I mean all the pushing and pulling from its cultural edges, all the polarisation and extremism… as I see it, what all this outer pressure does is help everyone to steer a steadier moderate middle course. To think we don’t need these outer fringes, to wish them begone, it may be more accurate to say we simply don’t want them: how many dwell in The Land of Should, where the way things are is certain in deed. How many, indeed, if not every single one of us?

For my part, I wonder, albeit somewhat perversely, whether we do need those outer pressures because they help to impel us someplace, by showing us where to avoid – that is, as long as they’re not popular so much as just noisy. One squeaky wheel, annoying yet tolerable; all four wheels is a call for repair. Luckily, a car only has four wheels although, not so luckily, two each are found on only one side. Luckily, there’s a steering column.

Of course, our world has more than two sides, and the more crowded it gets on the outer edges, well… at least may our course corrections steer us with most predictable stability rather than surprise. As such, again in the best spirit of Socratic humility, let the academy or anyone else ponder to their heart’s content, as uncertain as they want to be, just as more certain folks shall also cast due influence – it takes all kinds, as the saying goes, although even in those Student Driver cars, really only one person at a time can be the driver. So let’s beware any (… that’s “any”) dominance, if we claim to be making room for all, because something else available to all is hypocrisy. And yes, the whole car-thing has kind of broken down here, hasn’t it?

I’m unable to say just now who’s less likely to heed this post: those who are certain they know and will tell you why they’re right, or those who are certain they don’t know and will tell you why you’re wrong. And if that’s not perverse or hypocritical, let’s still say it’s ironic, and a little comical.

Just as likely, I’ll luck out as no one at all will care. Or it could be some will care just enough to send this viral: be it an essay, a blog post or, God help us, a Tweet, some claims we stake pay off beyond all expectation while some go unpardonably bust – and believe me, for all I’ve laboured to get this post written just-so, I’m still unsatisfied. So why even publish it? Why claim anything at all, including uncertainty?

For complementarity, for a certain worldview, for those loudest who know best… I wonder whether the one who makes the claim is nearly so key as the one for whom the claim is made – which leaves out to whom, but that’s fine. And I wonder how insidiously our ends and our means grow conflated and confused.

Featured Image in the public domain

The Bridge to Hell…

Peter Benson’s article, “Francis Fukuyama and the Perils of Identity,” in Philosophy Now (Issue 136), got me thinking again about multiculturalism. I’ve had plenty to say about multiculturalism – seldom positive – although none of it here on The Rhetorical WHY.

If you haven’t yet leaped to conclusions about me, I’ll point out that the full title of this post is “The Bridge to Hell is Paved with Problematic Intention.” It’s meant to be a little satirical, a little disparaging. It’s a wordy mash-up of axioms, cultural and academic. I’m okay with wordy this time.

I’m also conscious of the juxtaposition of my crude title and the wisdom of Dr. King. I’m less okay with this but felt the contrast worth any shock, ambiguity, or misapprehension.

Read on, and take issue as you must or as you will.


The Bridge to Hell is Paved with Problematic Intention

Has the trumpeting of multiculturalism taken itself so literally that even individualism (… multipersonism?) is insufficient?

Taking itself, as I say, more literally, multiculturalism sets one culture at equal stature with the rest – seems fair enough – apparently, a shift in meaning from diversity to inclusion, which implies that diversity wasn’t working on account of exclusion.

So, within Culture X or Culture Y, as we might imagine an individual being equal alongside other members, we can imagine across the two cultures potential impasse: “… unresolvable conflicts between mutually exclusive viewpoints [that] dominate the political landscape” (Benson, 2020). I still grant here individual differences, but I have in mind some divide between distinct communities of individuals, i.e. a divide between cultures.

In relation to Culture Y, for example, Culture X might deem its equality mere lip-service and feel de facto unequal: “How are we in Culture X obliged to consider those in Culture Y as ‘equal’ if our culture is not equal to theirs?

Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay
Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay

“How can we treat them as equals, much less be treated as equals, if our larger culture is not equal – that is, if Culture Y does not accept us on equal terms?” Culture Y might declare all individuals equal to begin with and counter that Culture X only perceives inequality. Yet this simply compounds the same injustice for Culture X, who will hardly waive their due consideration.

In any case, equality of cultures seems not the same thing and unable to play out to the same effect as equality of individuals – even more so since an individual who identifies with more than one culture might feel strewn across their own intersections. (Curiously, this assumes one’s identity to be chosen as much as bestowed, which echoes individualism as much as collectivism.) In fact, if equating cultures equates individuals, then equality rests further upon equity, a mantle of justice issuing from a superior authority.

Perhaps Culture Y lives by some unproblematic axiom, such as ‘might makes right’, ‘stay the course’, or even just ‘common sense’ while Culture X lives by ‘power to the people’, ‘diversity is strength’, or ‘revolution is no dinner party’. Can they bridge their divide? Is one culture responsible to reach across, as it were, halfway? We might define an obligation to come any distance according to power of authority. To be sure, imbalanced authority does seem a constant throughout history; for exactly this reason, though, would we expect the side with authority to yield?

I turn to Dr. King. In his time, a generation or two before mine, Dr. King sought and fought for equality and “the cause of peace and brotherhood,” there surely being little more equal than “a single garment of destiny” (King, 1963). As we are all, he claimed, paradoxically yet beautifully this makes us one. Standing upon the authority of centuries, of historical proclamation and practice, and there resting in long studied philosophy and lived experiences of spiritual belief, Dr. King challenged his brothers to bear witness upon themselves. Such authority remains as stable for those to come as for those preceding – that is, unless or until those to come decide to rest authority someplace else.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

In our time, justice supersedes civility, and restitution tinges redress. The zeitgeist these days is emotional, distinctly angry. Individuals possess rights, and cultures bear responsibilities. “The politics of identity,” Benson says, “multiply conflicts and divisions.” As we ostensibly advocate for the equality of all individuals, identity politics fights a culture war, a battle for equity across cultures-of-particular-individuals, which actually precludes a wider equity. Cultural equality has supplanted individual equality because, where there is axiomatic ‘strength in numbers’, multiculturalism can only ever be ‘us vs them’. If so, is it still defensible? Is multiculturalism a way to ensure that our outcomes match our aims? Or are the aims of those with authority forever destined to pre-empt the aims of those without it? Indeed, what is the way to ensure that no one of all will ever be marginalised?

For one final point I turn to Benson (2020), not in comparison to Dr. King but out of respect for all being one: “Only when we stop having identities in the group-defined sense can we return to being individuals” (original emphasis). We may discover too late the folly of burning a bridge-too-far while crossing it.

Washington, DC (March 2014) - Day 4 - 101