A great book on freedom of speech

January 25, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I’ve just finished a book that I recommend very highly to anybody interested in freedom of speech and expression. In fact, of all the books I’ve read in the last few years on this topic, this is up there at the top with Mill’s On Liberty.  The more recent book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, first appeared in 1993, and that’s the edition I read. I see, however, that Amazon is selling a 2013 “expanded edition” with a foreword by George Will (click on screenshot below), and I haven’t yet seen that one. (It’s only $14.07 in paperback, and is published by The University of Chicago Press.) The Amazon sample shows that Wills’s foreword is short, but that Rauch has also inserted an afterword.

Nevertheless, the earlier edition is still highly relevant. In fact, although it’s 27 years old, you wouldn’t know that from its contents, as it’s completely relevant to today’s Zeitgeist. The author, Jonathan Rauch, is an author currently working at the Brookings Institution and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He’s also openly gay, which he mentions several times at appropriate places in the book.

I should add that the book is remarkably well written for a semi-academic tome, and is a pleasure to read.

Rauch’s thesis is pretty much a defense of untrammeled free speech as limned by America’s First Amendment to the Constitution, and a defense of extending of that Amendment into venues that don’t necessarily have to adhere to it, like private schools and colleges. It’s also an admission that yes, free speech can be offensive and even harmful (to feelings only!), but that that’s okay, for the benefits of free speech palpably outweighs emotional damage. (Needless to say, Rauch doesn’t consider speech to be “violence”, a topic already bandied about in 1993).

A very brief summary. At the beginning, Rauch lays out four principles about who should decide what speech is permissible. I quote his alternatives (p. 6):

  • The Fundamentalist Principle.  Those who know the truth should decide who is right. [JAC: Plato’s position.]
  • The Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect.
  • The Radical Egalitarian Principle: Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.
  • The Humanitarian Principle. Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no harm.
  • The Liberal Principle. Checking of each [person’s claims] by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who’s right.

Many seem to feel that the proper policy is a combination of principles 2 through 4, but Rauch’s position is the “liberal principle,” which he spends the rest of the book justifying and defending.  That principle, which he also calls “liberal science” because it involves debate and cross-checking of claims, is summarized by two tenets (p 46; the explanation is mine:

A.) No one gets the final say. All truth claims are tentative, skepticism is prized (this is like science), and you can never reach a point where all further criticism is useless or prohibited. There can be no end of discussion, though some claims, like the chemical formula of liquid water, are as close to absolute truth as one can come. But for debates about things like affirmative action, abortion, and so on, one can never say that the discussion is settled, and, indeed, for claims like these, there are no absolute truths, only prescriptions that can be more or less useful to society. But those prescriptions can not only be discussed with reason, but informed by science itself.

B.) No one has personal authority. That is, there can be no arbiter of truth or of what speech can be tolerated. That is a form of censorship and authoritarian Diktat that is incompatible with societal progress.

As you can see, Rauch believes that completely free discussion—and that includes much of what is considered “hate speech”—is the best possible way to advance society, and to arrive at what truths can be grasped. This is pretty much Mill’s position, but Rauch’s book is a useful (but not complete) substitute.

As for “hurt” and “offense”, which are used to weaponize speech and gain power over others, as we saw in the previous post—Rauch simply dismisses them as valid complaints. Here’s a passage on that issue (p 19):

Somehow the idea has grown up that “liberal” means “nice,” that the liberal intellectual system fosters sensitivity, toleration, self-esteem, the rejection of prejudice and bias. That impression is misguided. The truth is that liberal science demands discipline as well as license, and to those who reject or flout its rules, it can be cruel. It excludes and restricts as well as tolerates. It thrives on prejudice no less than on cool detachment. It does not give a damn about your feelings and happily tramples them in the name of finding truth. It allows and-here we should be honest-sometimes encourages offense. Self-esteem, sensitivity, respect for others’ beliefs, renunciation of prejudice are all good as far as they go. But as primary social goals they are incompatible with the peaceful and productive advancement of human knowledge. To advance knowledge, we must all sometimes suffer. Worse than that, we must inflict suffering on others.

The suffering, of course, is mental, not physical, but Rauch’s response to people like those who accused the American Mathematical Society of “harm” and “offense” would be: “Suck it up; you’ll live.”

This sentiment has been echoed in more recent years by Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens, and Salman Rushdie.

Here’s Hitchens:

“If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.’

In this country, I’ve been told, ‘That’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument or a comment. Not to me they don’t.

And I’m not running for anything, so I don’t have to pretend to like people when I don’t.”

Stephen Fry:

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more. . . than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

Well, it does have a purpose: to gain power over other people as well as attention.

Salman Rushdie:

“Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn’t exist in any declaration I have ever read.

If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people.

I can walk into a bookshop and point out a number of books that I find very unattractive in what they say. But it doesn’t occur to me to burn the bookshop down. If you don’t like a book, read another book. If you start reading a book and you decide you don’t like it, nobody is telling you to finish it.

To read a 600-page novel and then say that it has deeply offended you: well, you have done a lot of work to be offended.”

All of us should have some version of these sentiments at hand! At any rate, I importune you to read Rauch’s book.

32 thoughts on “A great book on freedom of speech

  1. I agree with you 100%. In fact, I was just in a debate about this very thing and forwarded your blog post to her. Hopefully she will understand it a little better in your eloquent way of putting it. Thank you.

  2. Another, related, more in-depth Hitchens quote, from his 1989 essay ‘Siding With Rusdhie’:

    ‘What thoughtful person has not felt the hurt expressed by the Jews over some performances of The Merchant of Venice? A whole anthology of black writing exists in the United States, protesting with quite unfeigned horror about the teaching of Huckleberry Finn in the schools, for the good and sufficient reason that the book employs the word ‘nigger’ as natural. A mature and sensitive response to such tenderness of feeling and consciousness of historic wrong would run much like this, and could be uttered by a person of any race or religion … We know why you feel as you do, but – too bad. Your thinness of skin, however intelligible, will not be healed by the amputation of the literary and theatrical and musical canon. You just have to live with Shakespeare and Dickens and Twain and Wagner, mainly because they are artistically integral but also, as it happens, because they represent certain truths about human nature. Think for a second. Would prejudice diminish with the banning of Shylock? Concern for the emotions of others cannot license a category mistake on this scale, let alone an auto da fe. It was autos da fe, if you recall, that were the problem in the first place.’

    Full essay here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v11/n20/christopher-hitchens/siding-with-rushdie

  3. Suck it up; you’ll live.”

    The notion of hurtful speech has use; verbal abuse, verbal harassment, etc. are all things that it’s legitimate to complain about, and often even stop or punish. And going beyond the mere question of legality, avoiding unnecessary emotionally impacting speech typically helps people have more objective, academic, substantive discussions because it reduces the distractions. So it’s often good practice, even if not legally required.

    The problem is not the basic concept of ‘hurtful speech.’ The problem is when someone attempts to expand the concept as a means of censoring a substantive subject of discussion or denying a substantive argument about it.

    So for example, take the statement “You puisillanimous pod, your wretched stench fills me with disgust. Your mother was a flea-bitten whore, freedom of the press is an important right, and your inbred children are an affront to society.” If someone I was arguing with about freedom of the press were to complain about my comment, would I be right to reply “suck it up, you’ll live?” I would hope not entirely! It would actually be perfectly reasonable for my conversation partner to tell me to modify my speech, to stop with the offensive language…for most of it. It’s when someone applies the “look eric, your speech is offensive, please stop” criteria to my claim about freedom of the press that things start going haywire. The rest of it? They’re perfectly right to complain. Not only might my other speech be harassing, but even if it isn’t, it’s not speech intended to move the substantive discussion forward or make a cogent point – it’s just emotion-inducing distraction.

    1. If I understand the point you are making, it would certainly be appropriate for your conversation partner to say they found your speech offensive but it would not be ‘perfectly reasonable’ for them to tell you to modify your speech. They could ask you to modify your speech, they could point out some other reason to modify your speech, or they could walk away.

      But if you give others authority over what you may say, or the way in which you say it, your speech is constrained and no longer free.

      1. Certainly a partner in a conversation can’t order you to tone it down (except for the implied “…if you want to keep talking to me…). But I have no problem with website owners etc doing so. If internet places are like salons or restaurants, then I view such things as dress codes. You’ve got your dive bars (any apparel/speech allowed) all the way up to suit and tie (only politeness allowed). I see such “censorship” as manner restrictions, not content restrictions.

        At least most of the time – obviously, some conversation about the free speech value of profanity and insult might obviously include profanity and insult as content rather than manner. But other than exceptions like that, I think speech intended to insult or provoke an emotional reaction generally reduces our ability to hold meaningful conversations on topics, rather than helping them. In that respect, a more academic or staid politeness, even if some folks object to it on free speech grounds, helps meaningful speech, it doesn’t hurt it.

      2. “But if you give others authority over what you may say, or the way in which you say it, your speech is constrained and no longer free.”

        Do you hold that our host’s “Da Roolz” are reasonable and appropriate?

    2. “The notion of hurtful speech has use; verbal abuse, verbal harassment, etc.” I would add the brainwashing of children aged six with religious nonsense as happens in religious schools the world over.

      1. I would as well! Purposefully lying to children especially about the existence of a character named Santa Claus or a rabbit that lays eggs? Or a being that steals children’s no longer needed teeth who’s the sick person that came up with that one?

        1. No. About “if you don’t go to Sunday mass, a capital sin, and you don’t confess, and you happen to die, you will burn in hell forever.” And then this gory and obscene story about the crucifixion. At age nine I understood that this was all just absolute nonsense, I was open about my atheism, and at the end of high-school the black-robed perverts tried to flunk me and bar me from university. (I had mentioned that I had read Diderot’s “La Religieuse” a book on the Vatican’s Index). Fortunately we had state exams that overrode this nonsense. This was in the sixties, now Belgium is largely atheistic.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll pick it up. Also, thanks for the quotes, I need to memorize a couple of those.

  5. If I’ve measured the principles correctly, it is #4, the Liberal Principle, which has now led us into turbulent waters. By letting public criticism be the arbiter and means for reaching consensus, we also are allowing the loudest voices to be heard above all others. And those voices are now including more of the control left and alt right.

  6. Thanks. I might pick that one up. People who think speech is “violence” (seems like a recent invention but you say it started back then though I don’t remember it) haven’t experienced actual violence. From the right also: like the MAGAs screeching for civil war and violence here, in the Capitol, from their keyboards, etc. They see the movies and think its cool maybe?

  7. You know sometimes I agree with what you have to say. You have many interesting and wise things to say. Your advocacy of a generally absolutist view of freedom of speech is very agreeable to my views. However such views conflict with many of your political allegiances. It must be difficult to reconcile such views whilst those allegiances deconstruct the absolutist views of freedom of speech.

    1. Sorry, but I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. In fact, someone of almost any political stripe can be in favor of nearly absolutist free speech, including George Will, the conservative who wrote the introduction to this book. And liberals such as Ira Glasser, subject of the movie “The Mighty Ira.” I’m not sure what “political allegiances” you think conflict with my views on freedom of speech, but it’s telling that you don’t specify them.

      1. Freedom of speech as per the US First Amendment is categorical in nature. Its approach to justification legally is relatively inflexible. This is countered, in other jurisdictions such as Australia and other Western European countries where there are imposed limits on rights provided the limits are reasonable, legal and legitimate in a free and democratic society.
        People like Nozick and Locke suggest the right of speech is natural. Mill, the realist he was, suggested society tendency to tyranny of the majority meant that individuals had no natural or absolute right. Mill argued freedom of speech rarely causes harm, but of course this is contested. So, we arrive at the primacy of the public good, in which case the meaning of freedom of speech is deconstructed such that it is not absolute except in the eye of the beholder or that particular majority, the consequentialist view – Rauch looks like he addresses such issues based on your summary.

        Despite your relief that Orange man is gone, your post on Bari Weiss (and Andrew Sullivan), concerns and yours on the incoming Biden administration, Bidenesque Wokeism the wokeness on the left, its authoritarianism and that “the power of the Woke rests in their ability to demonize…”. What about CRT and more censorship… All these inclinations of the Biden administration are a challenge to the nature of the freedom of speech – which was never and argument when it was absolute. The democrats are a large mish mash pool of allegiances, you have some allies but many who you sense are a threat to your worldly view. I think it will get ugly for the democrats WRT themselves.

        1. You still haven’t show why it’s hard for me to reconcile my belief in free speech with my political allegiances. You are wrong. I can call out people I support, like Biden, when they infringe on free speech. That is not a difficult reconciliation.

          I don’t want to argue this further, so you needn’t respond.

  8. …”free speech can be offensive and even harmful (to feelings only!),”…
    I’m not so sure about that. Thinking of Nazi propaganda or “Radio Mille Collines” it appears difficult to maintain that speech can only be harmful to feelings.
    I know you agree that direct incitement or calls for imminent violence should be prohibited, but how direct and how imminent should that be? I think there is a large grey area there. I would e.g. go after those wielding placards with “Death to those who mock Islam” and the like.
    I’m definitely planning to read Rauch’s book.
    Great quotes by the Hitch, Stephen Fry and Salman Rushdie.

  9. I bought the old version (used) after you mentioned it previously. I am about 1/2 way though so am skipping much of others reviews. Curious now as to what the new version will add.

  10. But how can we have freedom of speech if we have no freedom at all? Is not all speech determined? Of course, that includes the responses to speech, such as censorship, canceling, oppression, violence, etc. If it is all determined, then we can have to freedom of speech, or action. What am I missing here?

    1. A lot. Assuming that your questions are serious, you are basically confusing different meanings of the word free. The land of the free, for example, does not mean that one doesn’t have to pay for anything taken from a shop.

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