About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Michael Huemer on the costs of suppressing speech

The American philosopher Michael Huemer writes on why it's a bad idea to try suppressing speech that we disagree with. Early in this piece, Huemer makes the following insightful comments; I think this is, with one caveat, spot on:

[T]oday we’re seeing an unusual kind of speech suppression. Traditionally, you get suppression of ideas when there is a single dominant ideological faction in society. Some faction defined by controversial philosophical, religious, or political views manages to take control of society, and then they use the power of the state to suppress challenges to their ideas.

But what we have today is a situation where there remain competing factions with comparable levels of power in our society – neither the left nor the right has gained overall control of the society – and yet one faction is still trying to suppress dissent from their main ideas. Normally, this doesn’t happen because you simply don’t have the power to suppress dissent unless you have a very dominant position in society. And since you know this, normally, you don’t even attempt it.

But people are doing it today because our society has become highly ideologically segregated. There are particular institutions or segments of society that are extremely dominated by a particular ideological faction (the woke/SJW left), even though that faction is a minority in the larger society. So this faction tries to suppress dissent using the institutions that they control. They also use the much greater emotional commitment and activist tendencies of their faction’s members to persecute the other side, e.g., starting petitions, email campaigns, etc., to try to cause personal harm to blasphemers. (It’s hard to organize an activist campaign among conservatives, and even harder among moderates.)

Exactly so - with that one caveat. The conservative faction does seem to be getting better at organizing similar campaigns, as with the recent campaign against the movie Cuties and everyone associated with it.

In any event, this means that your speech might be suppressed within your own world, where you hang out mainly with people from your own faction. Within that world, you'd be prudent not to express dissent from what the people around you are saying and seem to be thinking. The "other side" might want to hear these dissenting views, but probably for its own propaganda purposes rather than because it will take your overall worldview or value system seriously. The effect is that nuanced, complex, "hybrid" views - views that don't fit with whatever packages are currently endorsed by one or other of the main competing factions - tend to be squeezed out of public, and even private, discussion.

That is intellectually disastrous. It is worth noting that the packages on offer from the existing factions are not the natural result of which ideas are most coherent with each other (even if there's some element of that), but mainly the result of historical processes of alliance-forming, of the ideas of certain charismatic individuals being taken up by their disciples, etc. People who adopt one or other off-the-shelf package of ideas do so for largely non-rational, non-principled reasons, such as wanting to share the commitments of people whom they admire, or simply of their peer group.

Thus, we end up with factions who adhere to radically opposed packages of ideas, and who talk past each other while suppressing internal dissent. There is little room for people who are more principled and consistent in their reasoning to develop intellectually attractive alternatives to the off-the-shelf ideologies. Indeed, such people might be silenced, at least in respect of any dissenting thoughts, because it is not worth their while to stick their heads above the parapet in public discussion. They might even bite their tongues much of the time in private discussion with all except their very closest and most trusted friends.

Huemer makes points that are broadly consistent with this, but worth consulting in their own right, as his emphasis is slightly different from mine; it is not inconsistent with mine, as far as I can see, but he has his own set of priorities. He concludes with thoughtful comments about what happens if a generally left-leaning Western academia (together with left-leaning journalists and broadcasters, and others with large platforms) makes assiduous efforts to suppress the ideas of the "other side", i.e. ideas that tend to be held by political conservatives. In a polarized environment, the suppression might be locally successful, but it will not be successful within the broader society. Instead, a very large proportion of the society - maybe about half - will come to see left-leaning Western academia as not only wrong but actually evil, given its apparent wish to suppress opposing views. As a result, Huemer says, a very large proportion of society will reject out of hand whatever comes out of academia. That is also disastrous:

[T]hey draw the conclusion that one can’t trust anything coming from [what they see as] the libtard academic and media elites.

This creates obvious problems. What if the academics find some important information that people really need to know? They try to tell the public, but half the public assumes that it’s just part of some partisan agenda. The mainstream media reports on it, but again, half the public distrusts anything they say (that isn’t confirmed by their preferred sources).

The academic and media solution: Keep repeating “People should listen to us, and if you don’t, you’re being stupid and partisan.” How well do you suppose that works? Right, it just backfires and pushes people further into their bubbles. There’s nothing for the academics and mainstream reporters to say, because the well has already been poisoned – anything those sources say is just going to be interpreted as more partisan manipulation.

While I'm most worried about suppression of worthwhile, but unfashionable, ideas within the broadly-defined academic and cultural Left, Huemer is describing a somewhat different, yet readily recognizable, phenomenon.

For both reasons, efforts to suppress ideas, carried out within the academic and cultural Left - or on its home turf, such as on university campuses, at literary festivals, and in left-leaning media outlets - end up being unhealthy. They hinder intellectual progress and prevent a valuable intellectual ferment within the Left, causing potentially worthwhile contributors to feel silenced and alienated. (I can report that there is plenty of this around, because some people know my concerns about all this, and that gives them the confidence to confide in me.) At the same time, it makes the dreaded "other side" think we're simply evil, not just misguided or sincerely wrong, all adding further to the polarization and dumbing down of society.

No comments: