I’m reading another article about debates over free speech on campus, this time at Williams College, an elite school in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts. A faculty petition asks to formalize and tighten the college’s policy on free speech by adopting the Chicago Principles, which state that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.” Over three hundred students, however, have signed a counterpetition arguing that speech which harms minorities should not be allowed. These disputes are interesting to me, partly because my own school, Evergreen State College, went through a conflict along these lines.
Consider for a moment the idea that speech activities can be evaluated by the emotional effects they engender. One person’s speech makes me feel good: fine. Another’s makes me feel terrible and should be disallowed. What this amounts to is assessing political acts according to the utility or disutility experienced by those affected by them. The “do no harm” criterion is a bit problematic, however, since people can also be subjected to disutility by restrictions on their speech as well as by hearing the speech of others. If one person feels unsafe because of being silenced, but if they talk, another will feel unsafe because of the speech content, a purely rights-based framework becomes inconsistent.
I can see two ways out. One is to put forward a hierarchy of rights-bearing, a ranking that resolves rights disputes between any two such individuals. This seems to be implicit in the way disputes like this actually play out, but if you subscribe to the principle of intersectionality (or more subversively, the principle that individuals are not reducible to their “identities”) the ranking is indeterminate.
The other would be to allow for bargaining and side payments. Yes, your speech makes me feel unsafe, but I will consent to it if you simultaneously agree to adopt a program I favor, give me additional personal guarantees or something else I value. Then we are in MarketWorld, where different parties buy and sell pieces of their political agency.
You can probably sense where I’m going. The neoliberal worldview holds that as many actions in as many spheres as possible should be evaluated according to the effect they have on individual preferences, as revealed by market choices. Take the example of restoring salmon habitat by taking down a dam. This is an action with economic consequences, but it is also a matter of social values—how much a community values having an environment in which wild fish, among others, can prosper. The neoliberal approach is to interpret that value as a consumption good: what affect does salmon restoration have on your sense of preference satisfaction, on your utility or disutility? There are various techniques that can be used to estimate this, such as a contingent valuation survey. Instead of having to deliberate politically on the values which we want our community to uphold, giving reasons for them to try to persuade one another, we should take our preferences as given and simply record the overall effect of a proposed choice on well-being.
My reading is that the core psychological principle of neoliberalism, that life is an accumulation of moments of utility and disutility, is alive and well within certain sectors of the “left”. A speech (or email or comment at a meeting) should be evaluated by how it makes us feel, and no one should have the right to make us feel bad.
I realize I will be accused of trivializing, that I’m not appreciating how bad speech can make some of us feel. And I agree that the degree of disutility in relation to the political context matters. Some speech has as its primary purpose making others suffer, through insult or instigating fear, and has little or no persuasive intent. That’s hate speech, and I don’t see a problem with curtailing it. Arguably, much of the “provocative” right-wing babble, whose goal is to demean and threaten rather than change minds, falls under this stipulation. But what distinguishes hate speech is not simply the degree of anguish it evokes but also its lack of any other motive. Giving an antiwar speech may well cause similar anguish among family members who have lost loved ones in battle, but if the purpose is political, to persuade and enlist, it should be evaluated on political grounds, not its impact on utility.
It’s the greatest power of an ideology that it can seep into the worldview of those who claim to oppose it.
it could be that i am too naive to appreciate that the “way people feel” can be a legitimate concern of government. i can certainly see why germany would outlaw holocaust denial or anything that sounds too nazi: not so much because it hurts the feelings of jews, but because the germans have learned from experience that the way people feel can be manipulated and lead to horrific consequences.
but in general i am not too sympathetic to those who want to deny free speech to American racists. it seems to me that there is no real danger of those racists creating a serious danger to the republic. there is more danger that suppressing them will lead to their own feelings of self-pity that lead them to commit horrific acts against individuals.
i think here it would be smarter if the people offended by racist speech learned to ignore it or laugh at it or make anti-racist speeches.
i defijnitely do not agree with you that salmon dams is an issue that ought to be seen as “how does it make me feel?” the fact is that destruction of the ecosystem is likely to kill us all in the end. and even short of that, destruction of habitat is definitely destruction of what some people value, which is somewhat more serious than “how does it make me feel.” someone keys your car it’s more than a matter of how it made you feel.
that said, i am not much of an intellectual and i am not happy with intellectualization of “issues.” but i do think your last sentence… that ideologies can seep into the world view of those who think they oppose it… is definitely worth thinking about.
Some extremes, how did or do (in case you are a youngun) you feel about:
– The October 1969 Days of Rage protest?
– The 1968 Riots in Chicago after MLK’s murder?
– The Blood and Soil marches in and around Charlotte?
Just to make it clear, this post was not a comprehensive attempt to resolve all issues around speech rights, hate speech, etc. It has a much more concrete genesis: I kept hearing people asserting that others should not express themselves because the effect of hearing it was unpleasant. If you grant that public questions like the rules for a speech community should be adjudicated by private feelings of pleasure or pain, there’s no reply. It’s not like I can say, “Actually, you don’t feel the way you say you do.” So I’ve taken to thinking about the hedonic argument against unpleasant speech from various angles, one of which is its kinship with neoliberal framings of other public questions. It is clearly a subtle kinship, but I think it’s there. The timing is also interesting: the it-makes-me-feel-bad argument is, if I’m right, rather recent and doesn’t appear in the classic controversies over free speech vs public order, etc. That was another clue to its potential connection to the shift in the public-private boundary we associate with neoliberalism.
Honestly, I’m not sure about this, and one reason for writing the blog post is to get feedback. But most people (especially over at Naked Capitalism) are using the occasion to broadcast their own take on speech issues.
if you blog on speech issues i don’t see how you can avoid other people broadcasting their own take on speech issues.
maybe tell them it makes you feel bad?
i don’t like the idea that any of us, much less the government, should be adjudicating someone else’s speech.
you get things like the Supreme Court deciding that you can’t shout FIRE! in a crowded theater, and then using that “argument” to decide you can’t advocate resisting the draft. meanwhile of course we all know that lap dancing is protected as free speech (i think it ought to be protected as “nobody’s business” but no one asks me.
people whose feelings are hurt by hate speech need to get over it. “sticks and stones” you know. and they sure as hell don’t need to be tearing down someone else’s cultural monuments claiming they hurt their feelings.
i don’t know how much common sense it takes to tell the difference between your hate speech and my hate speech, or even… slippery slope here… hate speech and dangerous hate speech.
but i don’t think any speech, hate or antiwar… is so dangerous as government controlled speech… unless it’s us milking our hurt feelings to work up a political faction, or just self pity ourselves into a kind of insanity.
on the other hand, i think a blog could have shut up a krasting or sammy without violating their civil rights or taking steps toward a police state.
there are other forms of speech i hate. but if i told you you would hate me.
oh, well: the lying bastards who come on our high end newssources and tell sophisticated designed to lead people into great harm.
(which is not what i had in mind above, but which is much more important and still not possible to get rid of without creating government control of speech which is even more dangerous.)
I was in high school at the early part of Vietnam War. One of our social studies teachers had a poster, he was allowed I suppose. It said:
“I do not agree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it:”
I have always remembered that phrase.
Later in life I found a part of eastern philosophy suggests practicing non judgement. Similar to a Gospel which say “judge not lest Ye stand the judgement”.
That said do I need to sympathize with the point of view that judges the motives of another human’s communication?
Judging it seems is a generator of utility or disutility…….
Why should I care for another person’s utility or lack thereof unless I get utility?
Some areas of neoliberalism are bleak, impoverished and should be denied.
Specificly there is a severe lack of public utility in individual “judgement” of another’s motive!
The consumer risk of judgement is rather high,
Not sure about this “utility/disutility” dichotomy (probably you mean market fundamentalism — belief that market ( and market mechanisms) is a self regulating, supernaturally predictive force that will guide human beings to the neoliberal Heavens), but, yes, neoliberalism infected the “left” and, especially, Democratic Party which was converted by Clinton into greedy and corrupt “DemoRats’ subservient to Wall Street and antagonistic to the trade unions. And to the second War Party, which in certain areas is even more jingoistic and aggressive then Republicans (Obama color revolution in Ukraine is one example; Hillary Libya destruction is another; both were instrumental in unleashing the civil war on Syria and importing Muslim fundamentalists to fight it).
It might make sense to view neoliberalism as a new secular religion which displaced Marxism on the world arena (and collapse of the USSR was in part the result of the collapse of Marxism as an ideology under onslaught of neoliberalism; although bribes of USSR functionaries and mismanagement of the economy due to over centralization — country as a single gigantic corporation — also greatly help) .
Neoliberalism demonstrates the same level of intolerance (and actually series of wars somewhat similar to Crusades) as any monotheistic religion in early stages of its development.
Because at this stage any adept knows the truth and to believe in this truth is to be saved; everything else is eternal damnation (aka living under “authoritarian regime”) .
And so far there is nothing that will force the neoliberal/neocon Torquemadas to abandon their loaded with bombs jets as the tool of enlightenment of pagan states 😉
Simplifying, neoliberalism can be viewed an a masterfully crafted, internally consistent amalgam of myths and pseudo theories (partially borrowed from Trotskyism) that justifies the rule of financial oligarchy and high level inequality in the society (redistribution of the wealth up). Kind of Trotskyism for the rich with the same idea of Permanent Revolution until global victory of neoliberalism.
That’s why neoliberals charlatans like Hayek and Friedman were dusted off, given Nobel Prices and promoted to the top in economics: they were very helpful and pretty skillful in forging neoliberal myths. Especially Hayek. A second rate economist who proved to be first class theologian .
Promoting “neoliberal salvation” was critical for the achieving the political victory of neoliberalism in late 1979th and discrediting and destroying the remnants of the New Deal capitalism (already undermined at this time by the oil crisis)
Neoliberalism has led to the rise of corporate (especially financial oligarchy) power and an open war on labor. New Deal policies aimed at full employment and job security have been replaced with ones that aim at flexibility in the form of unstable employment, job loss and rising inequality.
This hypotheses helps to explain why neoliberalism as a social system survived after its ideology collapsed in 2008 — it just entered zombie stage like Bolshevism after WWII when it became clear that it can’t achieve higher standard of living for the population then capitalism.
Latest mutation of classic neoliberalism into “national neoliberalism” under Trump shows that it has great ability to adapt to the changing conditions. And neoliberalism survived in Russia under Putin and Medvedev as well, despite economic rape that Western neoliberals performed on Russia under Yeltsin with the help of Harvard mafia.
That’s why despite widespread criticism, neoliberalism remains the dominant politico-economic theory amongst policy-makers both in the USA and internationally. All key global neoliberal global institutions, such as the G20, European Union, IMF, World bank, and WTO still survived intact and subscribe to neoliberalism. .
thank you. you give me hope. which is to say you see some things the way i do… as far as i can tell. most of the time i feel alone.
I am not consistent in my views, but I realize they are my own.
One thing I am consistent in is questioning the recurrent derangement syndromes. I am no more for Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) than for the WBush, Obama etc. forms.
Had Clinton won I am sure I would be skeptical of Hillary Derangement Syndrome.
sounds wise to me. i have to be careful of coberly derangement syndrome.