Pandaemonium

THE MORAL DEMANDS OF FREE SPEECH

In Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews there is a discussion of a book by Abigail Levin on The Cost of Free Speech that takes a different view to hate speech than I do:

For the most part, liberals maintain that unless some speech is proven to cause demonstrable harm, the state must refrain from interfering in liberty of expression on pain of violating neutrality – that is, on pain of endorsing one set of views, values, or a conception of the good over others. This gives rise to an embarrassing tension for liberals who acknowledge that social inequalities like racism, sexism, and homophobia are in no small part due to the exercise of expressive liberties. For, how can a resolutely neutral state maintain a commitment to both equality and liberty? Levin’s primary thesis is that liberal egalitarians are mistaken to think that the state ought (and thus can) remain neutral with respect to certain kinds of speech. Indeed, she argues, the liberal egalitarian commitment to treating citizens with equal concern and respect entails that the state ought to use its power qua source of speech actively to combat hate speech and pornography.

For egalitarians, the question of free speech does indeed pose moral issues. It is not possible simply to argue for freedom of expression. As I suggested in my interview with Peter Molnar, those who campaign for free speech from a radical perspective impose upon themselves a moral obligation:

The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry.

Levin appears to take a different view of the moral demands of free speech, demands which for her are placed not so much upon free speech campaigners as upon the state.  Her vision of how ‘the state should use its power… actively to combat hate speech and pornography’ seems, on the face of it, to be contradictory:

Crucially, Levin does not think that the state’s intervention in speech should take the form of censorship. Rather, she holds that the state should engage in persuasive, non-coercive advocacy, publicly countering the anti-egalitarian attitudes and practices evident in and enacted by hate speech and pornography. This does not mean that Levin is opposed to laws regulating speech… Indeed, Levin contends that, to the extent that the liberal state does not deploy the law to articulate its alleged commitment to treating all its citizens with equal concern and respect, it is itself complicit in maintaining cultural oppression.

I am not opposed to the state taking a moral stance. I support, for instance, laws against discrimination in the public sphere, which can be thought of as legal expressions of a moral stance in favour of equality. What I oppose, however, are any constraints on the advocacy of discrimination or even of bigotry. An exchange from my interview with Peter Molnar:

Peter Molnar: Should it be only the imminent danger of violence that can justify restriction to speech, or does the imminent danger of discrimination suffice?

Kenan Malik: I support laws against discrimination in the public sphere. But I absolutely oppose laws against the advocacy of discrimination.  Equality is a political concept, and one to which I subscribe. But many people don’t. It is clearly a highly contested concept. Should there be continued Muslim immigration into Europe? Should indigenous workers get priority in social housing? Should gays be allowed to adopt? These are all questions being keenly debated at the moment. I have strong views on all these issues, based on my belief in equality. But it would be absurd to suggest that only people who hold my kind of views should be able to advocate them.  I find arguments against Muslim immigration, against equal access to housing, against gay adoptions unpalatable. But I accept that these are legitimate political arguments. A society that outlawed such arguments would, in my mind, be as reactionary as one that banned Muslim immigration or denied gays rights.

PM: But what about advocacy of discrimination that creates imminent danger of discrimination? For example, when members of a minority group would like to enter a restaurant or a bar and someone vehemently tells the security guard at the door that those people should not be allowed in.

KM: An individual who advocates such discrimination may be morally despicable but should not be held to have committed a legal offence. The security guard, however, and the establishment that so discriminates should be answerable to the law.

Whether Levin advocates regulation of advocacy of discrimination, I am not sure. But she seems to argue both that state intervention should take the form of ‘non-coercive advocacy’ and that there should be ‘laws regulating speech’. I am not sure how laws regulating speech could be construed as ‘non-coercive advocacy’. When a state takes a moral stance by regulating something by law, it is necessarily coercive. For the state to take a moral stand in law against discrimination in the public sphere it must impose sanctions upon those who so discriminate. Similarly, for the state to take a stand against ‘anti-egalitarian attitudes’  it must regulate such attitudes though coercive measures. That I would object to. But I have not yet read Levin’s book. I will do so and post again on this when I have.

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4 comments

  1. The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate.

    This case is depressing. At no point, as far as I’m aware, were his actual claims challenged.

  2. But there are, for instance, laws against slander, aren’t there? I can’t slander Mr John Doe saying false, vicious things about him. I can’t slander a society or an organization. It stands to reason, then, that I can’t slander an indeterminate number of people, catholics, gays, immigrants,whatever, saying false, infamous thing about them.
    QED.

    • There is considerable debate among free speech advocates about thequestion of slander (and libel), about where the line should be drawn and, indeed, if a line should be drawn at all. But whatever view one takes on this, it is nevertheless absurd to suggest that groups (or dead individuals) should have the right to sue for slander or libel. First, because it leads to absurd scenarios. If someone says that British men are bad in bed, should the courts decide? Or, indeed, if a newspaper thinks that Turkish migrants have not been good for German society. What happens then to political debate? Or indeed any kind of debate? And, second, because who should decide what is slanderous of a group and what isn’t? Many Muslims wanted to sue Salman Rushdie for slandering Islam in The Satanic Verses (others, of course, wanted to kill him for that crime). For other Muslims, Rushdie’s critique was vital and necessary. Some Sikhs thought that Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Bezhti slandered their faith and culture. Others thought that it painted a painfully accurate portrait. Some people thought that Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children slandered Israel. Others thought it made an important point. And so on. The idea of slander allows certain community representatives to define the truth about their group. In reality it is simply a means of shutting down debate and silencing dissenting opinion.

  3. Pingback: On the Censorship of Social Media | Robert Sharp

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