Decisions, Decisions

Featured Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Where margins are thought of as something like the political left or right, I wonder whether Aristotle would have us default to a more centred position. I can hear him now… the centre as a virtuous place to dwell, and then the margins, which gradually tend to widen toward greater vice, be it a deficiency of too little or an excess of too much.

In fairness, I suspect he’d also grant that pushing and pulling from the margins is what steers the middle course, as in the margins are essential – albeit within the strictures of “a certain principled inflexibility” by which a centred majority maintains its stability. As such, any move from the centre would seem to oblige careful consideration of multiple perspectives and possible outcomes on behalf of everybody by which, really, I mean everybody.

But, as more people come to critique the milquetoast middle – do-nothings whose tolerance is negligence by omission – more people tend to vacate the central fringe. The margins populate and steer more massive moves – more volatile moves – in what must come to resemble the anomie of culture war.

At this point, I am assuming readers cast the stage with a host of their favourite players… and yes, well, need I say more.

From the centre, Aristotle would suggest, what can help a decision to vacate the middle for a margin is phronesis, our practical wisdom, which resides within us as a simultaneous dynamic: an acuity of discernment and a benevolence in the weighing of options, exercised in a process he called praxis, a committed act of doing informed by reflective thinking. In an instance of vacating the centre, practical wisdom – yours, mine, anybody’s – could help determine at the given moment which margin to favour for a particular reason.

And, as I said, if we’re right to inform any such decision by accounting for more than one perspective, then our so-called ‘best’ decisions would seem to be our most informed decisions, irrespective of an eventual outcome… albeit with a certain flexibility of principle to be weighed by pragmatics – ‘practical’ wisdom, remember? We’re not wisdom machines.

You wouldn’t believe how many spheres on Google seem to be there thanks to math.

So here let’s grant margins beyond the fatuous dichotomy of political left and right. In fact, let’s think of anyone’s centred position as open in every direction to a sphere of infinite margins, where any one direction is uniquely no other, no matter how near or distant another margin may be: for some, this is nuance; for others, pedantic babbling and, for those, I have but two words: perspicacious circumspection. Ah-ha yes, well… for someone located in the centre, listening seems virtuous, too.

All this is not a matter of act but a matter of character. Practical wisdom informing decisions is a nuanced thing: why to act, why under the present circumstances to choose ‘this’ margin and not ‘that’ one. This kind of nuance we often call ‘the why’, and it’s distinctly different from some marginal course change that evacuates the centre – the latter strictly an outcome, the former a reasoned weighing of possible outcomes. In so many words: when a chosen course is an outcome of practical wisdom, it’s not the other way-round. But nuance is anathema to ideology whereas stupid is as stupid does.

When logic rests upon a false ‘either/or’ dilemma, act supersedes wisdom, and criticism can only be aimed at outcome because decision – while not entirely removed from our responsibility – is severely curtailed: your false dilemma is my ultimatum.

Character suffers at the hands of dogma, and if he were around today, I can only speculate that Aristotle would feel a little hard done by for being so alone. It’s never easy being the silent minority, not when your silence is really just a drowned out appeal that goes unheard.

From The Financial Times – “Education demands free speech plus inclusion, Chicago university chief says”

I noted with interest this item from Financial Times Associate Editor Brooke Masters that features University of Chicago President, Robert Zimmer, specifically his adamant stance for university as a preserve of independent thought and inquiry.

Zimmer’s “warning,” to quote Brooke Masters, accompanies an announcement for committed undergrad funding, a pairing that may or may not suggest political scrim, depending on who thinks $200 million is a lot of money.

Full disclosure: I’ve always really admired The University of Chicago from afar for its eclecticism and quirky sense of self, like The Onion of the post-secondary realm but with degree-granting superpowers.

Disclosures continued, I also received recognition from the University of Chicago after being nominated for the Outstanding Educator Award by a student I taught who attended in 2010. The letter I received was not quirky so much as plain and congratulatory, but they did invite me for lunch sometime. Someday, Chicago, like maybe when my own doctoral epic is finally and fully told. Someday.

So very rarely am I into self-promotion, but all this seemed like a particular confluence and, anyway, who ever scrolls that far down on LinkedIn?

Of course, my immediate interest in the FT story is its connection to my own series on free speech from earlier this year – and, yes, more shameless vanity – but it felt reaffirming to see such noteworthy agreement from the likes of UChicago including, evidently, President Zimmer. I’ve never met Robert Zimmer, but if he’s ever here in town, sincerely, he’s absolutely more than welcome to join me for lunch.

On Free Speech: V. Bending Two Extremes

About the Featured Image: Between the two figures is a tablet representing the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution, all shielded under the wings of Freedom, the Eagle.

Click here to read On Free Speech: IV. Grounding Movement Control

On Free Speech V. Bending Two Extremes

“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

First of all… throughout this series, I’ve left aside rioters, brutality, and wicked prejudice – these are implicated, and consequential, and obviously current – but they’re also particularly for another discussion. The corollary of free speech is what might be prohibited. In this context, 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. By definition, free speech is the opposite of sedition. Here I discuss free speech.

In more recent times, when I’ve noted people invoking “free speech,” what I’ve tended to notice more plainly is their apparent desire for the power to control: in a battle draped by free speech, at stake seems not so much free speech per se as who gets to define illegal speech – illegal being relative to what the one ‘side’ believes ought to be legal – as though somebody’s right to speak is tangential to somebody else’s impetuosity to judge.

[NB: throughout, what I’ve been calling a ‘side’ can be populous or solitary. I’ve been presenting ‘side’ in single quotations because it’s also a word loaded with partisan and polar connotations, none of which I mean to suggest – not overtly, at least – besides which, I haven’t really decided on a more suitable word.]

This statue represents the Authority of Law, sculpted by James Earle Fraser at the request of Cass Gilbert.

The First Amendment prohibits government (including funded entities, such as public universities) from prohibiting speech on the basis of content. But as First Amendment rulings have contextually narrower scope, is it any wonder that this battle I describe might enjoin its participants? In the battle I describe, for gaining the control to define illegal speech, the fight is for the power to adjust the balance of favour toward what the one ‘side’ deems morally right and away from what another ‘side’ has said or might say that is morally wrong, none of which is quite free speech per se but more about a power of control. This is specifically why I consider the speaker in Part I and why it’s taken three posts further to reach this one.

The battle I detect seems unbecoming of the Supreme Court’s standard by which the principled right to speak ought to supersede the imposition of censorship. The Court favouring an individual’s right over a censor’s power is something akin to the glass half-full, or as Cose puts it of Justice Brandeis’s widely held presumption, “incredibly naïve.” Alternatively, the battle I detect ignores the glass completely – full or empty notwithstanding, weigh those rights and impositions any way you like. The battle I detect prizes something else entirely: predominance, as if the whole notion of freedoms or rights were contingent upon some grander notion that is earned before ever being learned, by which I mean might makes right. For a fact, I know this phrase makes some people squeamish, I gather in the name of all that is civilized – is it all the more surprising that any might see it lived out, seemingly in spite of themselves? As for me, I distinguish subtly but significantly between aspiration and sentimentality, between the world we try to create and the world we would prefer to see. The Land of Should is ideological, a fantasyland. Should we so choose, the only reality it will ever serve up is to host our last battlefield.

In the battle I detect, all of the above is the context in which free speech is brought to market. I don’t know about you, but to me, it’s as though all ‘sides’ have lost sight of what made them sides in the first place, or maybe just no one has ever understood. Are we obliged to lean one direction: to the individual, or to the censor? Does the citizen really leave off somewhere beyond where government begins, or are thems fighting words? The courts may offer “careful weighing of conflicting interests,” but nature eschews a vacuum – and lo & behold, there we are, doing our part, playing our role: just as government of, for, and by the people has no “right to control the moral content of a person’s thoughts,” even so We the People are there, on the streets, to battle it out. Democracy in action… QED?

As I said earlier, it’s been known to happen. I also said earlier, all this can be said of any given ‘side’ – yet, then again, can it? Surely “all this being said” includes me, here and now, writing this blog post… QED? Is there a context in which some ‘side’ might justifiably be censored, and silenced? I mean a context somewhere in between, say, protest and sedition, demonstration and insurrection, somewhere in between conscientious objectors and ignorant rioters, in between sincere agency and prevaricating lickspittle… if we can so definitively know who’s who in the extremes I’ve just listed, and I’ll bet you have your favourites, then surely there’s a line censors may rightly or even righteously draw.

Of course, it depends on whom you ask, which is not irony but debate, which is not battle – if they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word. As for me, since you’ve read this far, I think we gather best as a collective group of individuals when we are a collective group of individuals – and if that seems obvious, still, we continue to battle as well as debate. And where we may debate over free speech, more precisely, it seems to me, we battle for free speech. We battle for control and make free speech the slogan. We uphold free speech as a virtue, yet it’s a child in a divorce, to whom the parents owe not just their primary respect and concern but their efforts and their behaviour and their decisions and real consequences. Not their irreconcilable differences.

Looking into the Court Chamber: visitor photography is prohibited once inside.

I suppose, if we are to battle (vs debate), we’d be wise to distinguish with the sharpest clarity a ‘combatant’ (from a ‘disputant’): after all, words matter.

Free speech is subject to prohibition of those abuses of expression which a civilized society may forbid. As in the case of every other provision of the Constitution that is not crystallized by the nature of its technical concepts, the fact that the First Amendment is not self-defining and self-enforcing neither impairs its usefulness nor compels its paralysis as a living instrument.

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

Or have I just seen too much within this of myself? Have I left off well past the point where others begin? Do I impose or intrude? Unlike me, Cose describes not specifically a battle but tension: “… we’ve always had this tension between the right to absolute speech and the right to speech that somebody or other considers dangerous or harmful.” Even so, I detect in his words what I’ve just distinguished, i.e. absolute combatants versus searching disputants. The Supreme Court, unlike Cose or me, discusses free speech more respectfully still, as neither battle nor tension, in a ruling that I think, to be fair, is more instructive than incredibly naïve:

“For social development of trial and error, the fullest possible opportunity for the free play of the human mind is an indispensable prerequisite. The history of civilization is in considerable measure the displacement of error which once held sway as official truth by beliefs which in turn have yielded to other truths. Therefore, the liberty of man to search for truth ought not to be fettered, no matter what orthodoxies he may challenge. Liberty of thought soon shrivels without freedom of expression. Nor can truth be pursued in an atmosphere hostile to the endeavor or under dangers which are hazarded only by heroes.”

All that stone can get pretty slippery… better proceed with caution. And hey, remember, these guys only work within their reach. The supreme court in private life is nowhere near as costly: all those devices… rare earths, I guess? but saves a bundle on marble.

For my part, I’m no hero although – as with anyone who says this – context may decide otherwise. How about, I don’t want to be a hero. Whatever… if we live in a world where these words of Justice Frankfurter remain only words, what hero could save us anyway? Words matter. They’re as symbolic as every statue and every sculpture in which we’ve imbued our values and our histories, and history. You’ll note this is an observation about statues and sculptures, not a judgment about this statue or that sculpture. The reason I make this distinct is not to poke or agitate but, rather, to set up the following: a statue, a sculpture, a court ruling – any symbol – can manifest beyond elevated words. They can disseminate and dilute their way into biased hearts and minds if-and-when two things happen: the speaker of those words understands who’s listening, and the audience of hearts-and-minds knows how to incorporate them. At that point, we may actually see them become lived-out realities, and now we might argue that the symbol matters. Even so, I will argue that the speakers and the listeners, the thinkers and the doers, matter even more.

Ideologies are the assumptive roots of our division, and what’s to stop any one from gaining acceptance besides the overwhelming weight of conformity – the rule of law comes to mind, if might making right is not your thing. Symbols that represent values – yours, mine, anybody’s – may need explanatory context since they’ve arisen out of specific histories, but as censorship is an absolute, that sure rules out the audience. Does that make censorship destined only for battle, or can the outcomes of censorship be reached some other way? When disputants do become combatants, how is it determined that any were justified, not just petulant? Who even gets to say? Come now, don’t be naïve… as in any battle, to the winner go the spoils. Is that not frequently the motive to fight, or not always?

As for me, where I presently enjoy some measure of free speech, I seek no control over others, which maybe means I take no side in the battle… can that be possible? If yes, is it also palatable? I’m almost certain some will feel such a stance shirks responsibility. Could I be almost certain unless I felt a tad guilty about it, myself? So am I this mere spectator? I claim to be no hero; I’m also no soldier, so… a diplomat? I’m trying not to be a recluse, so I’ve just laid out an argument of disinterest as amounting to uninterest?

I’ve been trying to comprehend and advocate for free speech insofar as its permissibility respects an audience to listen and think and decide on their own. In light of what I’ve been considering about speaker and audience, I’m almost prompted to recalling E. B. Hall’s overused summary of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (What Hall meant has been the subject of discussion, but the gist isn’t lost in translation.)

As the ABA sees it, “… confused origins aside, this poetic pledge provides no guidance about how to defend what some would call the indefensible.” Debate “no guidance” as you will, but note, in critiquing Hall, they also qualify what “some” would call the indefensible; okay, indefensible to some, and how about to anyone else… see you on the battlefield, then? With due respect to Hall and Voltaire: I think no one needs to die. As for the ABA, they further suggest, “in a system in which debate on public issues is supposed to be uninhibited, robust, and wide open, there must be protection for the freedom to offend.” Bring it on then. Battle royale, although I’m pretty sure no one ever accused the ABA of defending extremism – that seems the lot of the ACLU.

Where ‘extreme’ might describe some sole belief, yet a remark about ‘extremist-them’ can only arise from a smidgen of self-awareness, so of its usage we may ask: is it diagnostic or defensive, analytic or strategic, cognizant or subconscious? Not so much why say or why call someone “extreme” but, rather, by what measure? How distantly do they pick up from where it is you left off? Meanwhile, ‘polarised’ must only mean more than one belief. Regardless, either ‘extreme’ or ‘polarised’, we are left recently with zero doubt as to the hazards wrought by both.

Moreover, accurate or not, calling a belief “extreme” leaves open the caller as being perceived to be the ‘other’ side of polarisation, if only in the eyes of the called. How distantly do they plot you, by their reckoning, as picking up from where they left off? As I put it in Part II: what might be the “immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment” of some other person’s perspective – furthermore, I now add, by whose judgment is “distortion” even understood? Who gets to say? Rather than wholeheartedly agreeing, from your current perspective, that the prescription to get up and move is great antidote for others, consider that it may just as well be directed at you as directed by you. Rightly or wrongly directed won’t even matter: there’s battle there to be engaged and, if chosen – by either side or both – then best categorically and decisively won.

Unless… we can still choose civility: added patience to listen, greater tolerance to withstand, plainer wisdom to reflect – reflect upon others, yes, but reflect upon ourselves: reflect upon where we’ve left off, yet maybe, more importantly, upon where we might pick back up? That’s again back to Part II… getting up and moving, yourself; being humble, not humbled.

Humility, self-awareness, tolerance, respect – how about courage, and integrity, and doing what we say: concepts are words, and words must be lived if they’re to have meaning. A denotation is found in the dictionary, but connotation lives. Concepts must be lived, or how else do we disentangle all the strands in the web of freedom? Even more fundamentally: who is “we”? If I brought some nachos, could you bring some board games?

Free speech has to do with nuance and discernment, with speaker, and speech, and audience. Listeners as well as speakers must clear some space for each other, even when they disagree – in fact, probably then most of all. That’s my advice and my aspiration, and this blog and its posts their symbol, a call to action even as they’re part of my act.

I opened this short series on free speech by considering bias – not good, not bad, just something we have. And though I’ve undoubtedly left some tell-tale clues, if anyone reading these posts still can’t quite weigh my politics or decide which ‘side’ I fall… I’ve tried to write down the middle and not for an audience who pumps a fist in agreement, or in rage. I’ve sought to perplex and bemuse and disturb the shit, for all. In fluctuating ratio I’ve tried to summon and stir all three appeals, toward some desired effect: I’ve tried to write for an audience who will read and wonder, and reflect, and want to chat some more – nothing else seemed right than to leave some space for you.

I daresay this series on free speech has likely provoked some out there to characterise me. And thus, as writers are commonly taught, I come full circle to the comfort I find in the statement I featured by Ellis Cose.

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