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Exceptionalism series, part II.

Part II of my Exceptionalism series is up at The New Ledger. This one is unabashedly a polemic, or at least the sketch of one. Regular readers here will no doubt be less startled by it than new readers; but in my experience the startle response — intellectually reflexive and predicable— is not an uncommon reaction to what I argue therein.

But I find that the fact of the matter is that, when push comes to shove, most people really are not inclined to tolerate free speech for what the hate and fear; and, some things being hateful and potent enough to be feared, this inclination is not always and everywhere wrong.

Proscription, in a word, is present in virtually all societies: subtle ones will produce great structures of sophistry to justify the sort of proscriptive action the unsubtle will undertake crudely. Madison’s scorn for “parchment barriers” against the will of the sovereign is amply justified by history (though it undoubtedly strikes the open society liberal as somewhat odd that the author of the Bill of Rights would say such a thing.)

Comments (11)

A symptom of the crisis is the identification of the term “orthodoxy” with “ideology”-- the implication being that there is no such thing as true orthodoxy, or “good teaching,” only so-called orthodoxy. Thus, “orthodoxy” is generally used in an ironic sense with a highly negative connotation -- and mainly by conservatives. But if that which the conservatives wish to conserve cannot be signified by a proper and un-ironic use of the term “orthodoxy,” then what, pray tell, is it that they wish to conserve? And furthermore, what good is it?

Paul, I'm not at all ready to refer to all open society talk as "nonsense." It's true that I'm not a free speech absolutist. I believe in laws--much more sweeping than those presently allowed by SCOTUS--against pornography. I think the notion that nude dancing is "speech" is ludicrous. And I'm up for jihad sedition laws.

But I also think that a very broad freedom of debate and freedom to express _false_ ideas is important. I'm not on-board with the "error has no rights" crowd, and I'm uneasy with any implication or apparent implication that the only difference between good, traditional conservatives and communist totalitarians is that the conservatives are right! One of the reasons our American society is worth preserving is because we have a lot more freedom than other societies. And yes, I really do mean freedom. I mean freedom to go to weird churches that teach false things. I mean freedom to be vegans. I mean freedom to be Catholics or Protestants or Buddhists. That's got its own importance. It's not _merely_ important insofar as those espousing the _right_ views have freedom inter alia.

J.S. Mill was a jackass and wrong about so many things, so it's unfortunate (in a manner of speaking) that he said one right thing when he said that truth is often best displayed in contrast with and open debate with error, which contrast and debate cannot take place if error is simply suppressed top-down.

So count me as a _moderate_ "open society nonsense" advocate.

Prudentially, I'm generally inclined to give wide rein to dissent, even vigorous and strident dissent; but this does not mean I am prepared to grant some right of the doctrinaire dissenter to have free recourse to the public square. Nor (what may be more important) do I have any confidence that the Left will give any quarter on these matters when and where it gains power. There are few free speech defenders so committed to their principle as to pay a price for it. Almost every imaginable faction around today has principles to which it would readily sacrifice free speech when the chips are down.

Nor (what may be more important) do I have any confidence that the Left will give any quarter on these matters when and where it gains power.

On that, we are completely in agreement. Only the naive or the willfully blind think otherwise.

Would you say that men have the right to lie?

Sometimes I think it would be useful if we had some categories in addition to the following:

1) The ability to do X is a right

2) It is a prudential decision by the government whether or not to allow people to do X, and it would be imprudent for the government not to allow people to do X.

The former sounds (in many cases) too strong and also gets us into questions of what we mean by rights talk. Some people would say we should _never_ use rights talk. The latter sounds much too weak.

Let's put this in controversial terms: You and I, Paul, are Protestants. Several of our highly respected co-contributors are Catholics. I don't want to say that it is _merely_ a prudential matter that majority-Catholic countries should permit Protestant worship nor that majority-Protestant countries should permit Catholic worship. On the other hand, if one eschews all rights talk, one will not say that Protestants and Catholics each have a right to engage in worship distinctive of their form of Christianity.

So what does one say? I would say, at a minimum, that it would be wrong and tyrannical for majority-Protestant countries to forbid the saying of Mass and for majority-Catholic countries to forbid Protestant church meetings. Does this _amount to_ rights talk?

And notice that, since the beliefs of Catholics and Protestants are at certain points incompatible and therefore both cannot be right, this must mean (if I am right) that it would be wrong and tyrannical for governments to forbid the teaching of error in these areas, even if the government officials actually know that it is error.

While I do not claim to have a formula that cranks out decisions on what banning of dissent is wrong and tyrannical and what isn't, I also think it is far too weak a commitment to the right kind of "open society" to speak of all such decisions as being merely matters of prudence, unless one has a category of "prudence" that can allow one to make a judgment of tyranny against governments in that area.

Bill Vallicella's (aka the Maverick Philosopher) take on toleration's place in Society.

On Toleration: With a Little Help from Kolakowski

1. Toleration is the touchstone of classical liberalism, and there is no denying its value. Our doxastic predicament requires it of us. We have beliefs galore but precious little knowledge, especially as regards the large and enduring questions. Lacking knowledge, we must inquire. For that we need freedom of inquiry, and a social and political environment in which inquiry is, if not encouraged, at least allowed. But people who are convinced that they have the truth would stop us. "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." (Human All-Too-Human #483) This is typical Nietzschean exaggeration, but there is a sound point at its core: People who are convinced that they have the truth will not inquire whether it really is the truth. Worse, they will tend to impose their 'truth' on us and prevent our inquiry into truth. Many of them will not hesitate to suppress and murder their opponents.

My first point, then, is that toleration is a good because truth is a good. We must tolerate a diversity of views, and the people who maintain them, because we lack the truth and must find it, and to do so we must search. But we cannot search if we are under threat from fanatics and the intolerant. Freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are important because truth is important.

This implies that we must tolerate many views and actions and people who are deeply offensive to us. The 'artist' Serrano of "Piss-Christ" notoriety is a good example. He has a right to express himself as he does, just as we have a right to protest against him. He has no right to taxpayer money, however, and any liberal who thinks that a refusal of government sponsorship amounts to censorship is an idiot pure and simple.

2. But how far does toleration extend? Ought one tolerate those who do not respect the principle of toleration? To me it is self-evident that one ought not. If toleration is truly a value, then one ought to demand it not only of oneself but of others. My toleration meets its limit in your intolerance. I cannot tolerate your intolerance, for if I do, I jeopardize the very principle of toleration, and with it the search for truth.

Radical Islam, in its fanaticism and murderous intolerance, has no claim on the West's tolerance. It is no breach of tolerance on our part to demand that they behave themselves. We must also demand of them that if they want to be tolerated, they must tolerate others, Jews for example. They must not be allowed to benefit from the West's tolerance in order to preach intolerance and hate. Just as they have right to their beliefs, we have a right to ours, and a right to enforce our beliefs about toleration on them if they would live in our midst.

3. Toleration is a value because truth is a value. A toleration worth wanting and having is therefore not to be confused with indifference towards truth, or relativism about truth. Leszek Kolakowski makes this point very well:

It is important to notice, however, that when tolerance is enjoined upon us nowadays, it is often in the sense of indifference: we are asked, in effect, to refrain from expressing -- or indeed holding -- any opinion, and sometimes even to condone every conceivable type of behaviour or opinion in others. This kind of tolerance is something entirely different, and demanding it is part of our hedonistic culture, in which nothing really matters to us; it is a philosophy of life without responsibility and without beliefs. It is encouraged by a variety of philosophies in fashion today, which teach us there is no such thing as truth in the traditional sense, and therefore that when we persist in our beliefs, even if we do so without aggression, we are ipso facto sinning against tolerance.

This is nonsense, and harmful nonsense. Contempt for truth harms our civilization no less than fanatical insistence on [what one takes to be] the truth. In addition, an indifferent majority clears the way for fanatics, of whom there will always be plenty around. Our civilization encourages the belief that everything should be just fun and games -- as indeed it is in the infantile philosophies of the so-called 'New Age.' Their content is impossible to describe, for they mean anything one wants them to; that is what they are for. ("On Toleration" in Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal, Penguin 1999, pp. 36-37.)

4. To sum up. A toleration worth wanting and having is valuable because truth is valuable. It is threatened in two ways. It is threatened both by those who think that have the truth when they don't and those who are indifferent to truth. What is interesting is that the postmodernist nincompoops who deny truth in the name of toleration are powerless to oppose the fanatics who will impose their 'truth' by force. If all is relative, then the fanatics have all the justification they need to impose their 'truth' on us: it is true for them that they possess the absolute 'truth.'

I agree with him in most of what he says, but his analysis comes across as slightly to liberal for me. I think we need to properly balance freedom with conservatism, and make sure that one does not override the other.

Under his view, we can't or shouldn't legislate against opinions or views we regard as offensive or unacceptable, and I think he is correct with this, it would supply to much power to the government. But in a conservative society we would create general standards of whats right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, that would be enforced by the general public without the need for government, through moral consensus, and a combination of stigma and shaming. Things like "Piss-Christ" wouldn't of happened in a more traditional society like that of the 40's and 50's, even though people technically had the freedom to do it.

A piece by Lawrence Auster, that took place in a conversation about breasts implants, in which he gave a good analysis of how a traditional society would think and what it would consist of:

But the culture can't be reduced to the free personal choices of lots of individuals. Those personal choices are being made in a culture which legitimizes and encourages those choices.

Quoting another comment:

"Since women have the right to this choice, don't others have the right to be critical of that choice, be it on an individual or societal level?"

If by "right" you mean the bare legal right to do it, then yes, people would have the right to criticize that choice. But today, "the right to do something" translates into the moral right to do something, and according to that understanding, people do NOT have the right to criticize a decision by an individual that the individual had a right to make. As proof, consider what would happen in any mainstream website if someone tried to make the sorts of criticisms of breast implants that have been made here. He would be told to shut up, because people have the right to make the choices they want to make, and other people do not have the right to judge them for it. If liberal society has a core belief as to what is right, that is it.

The only way out of this confusion, which makes it impossible for people to criticize and judge each other's behavior, is to return to the older understanding that we only have a right to do what is right. We do not have a right to do what is wrong. Yes, we do have the negative right to be left alone from society's interference; and some of the choices we make in that state of being left alone may be wrong choices. But to say that we have a positive right to do something that is wrong is to destroy the meaning of words. For example, society leaves us alone and gives us the freedom to cultivate all kinds of bad habits. We have the right (the negative right) to be left alone. We do not have the right (the positive right) to cultivate bad habits. So when we say that women have the right to have breast implants for vanity purposes, I don't think that's correct. Rather, in our present society, women and men have the right to be left alone.

What I've just laid out would be a more rational approach to our present, liberal society. But would an organic, traditional society be like us and extend the area of negative rights to breast implants for vanity purposes, leaving women and doctors completely free to do it if the woman wants to? I don't think so. At the least, custom and society's moral consensus would strongly discourage it. It might be treated the way divorce was treated in America up to the early to mid 20th century: divorce was legally possible, but was so frowned on by society that it rarely happened.

All this is theoretical. If there were a traditional society, the demand for vanity breast implants wouldn't exist. The idea wouldn't occur to people. The idea only occurs in a society in which individuals have already been cut radically free from any natural or traditional sense of life.

The reason that Liberals have such a problem with the Free Speech of conservatives, is because they feel that the views of conservatives contradict there system of morality, that consists of little more than the idea that we should be tolerant of everything but intolerance and should be against all forms of discrimination.

To restore a Traditional society would especially be hard considering how far things have deteriorated in the past 50 years

Sorry, there was a problem with the quoting box.

One major problem with contemporary society is that those who sell to the public are required to sell to everyone. The idea that a businessman could refuse to sell food to Serrano as a form of shaming and shunning, for example, would seem bizarre to most people but isn't bizarre to me. If we returned to a more libertarian notion of the freedom of a businessman to choose with whom he does business, we could have much more robust but still private and not directly coercive forms of societal disapproval.

My impression is that J.S. Mill would also not like it if businessmen were permitted not to sell food to Serrano, by the way. I hope I made it clear that I hold no brief for JSM.

I want to add that I do believe that our wide latitude for freedom of dissent, especially open dissent from government policies, has indeed been a hallmark of American exceptionalism for a very long time--one could argue, from the country's inception, but certainly for the last hundred years.

So whether one does or doesn't want to talk of this in terms of "rights," our freedom to argue and debate and to criticize the government is something we should not lightly dismiss or give up. It is, indeed, part of who we are as a country, part of what makes us special, part of what makes us the light of the free world, and we should applaud it and be proud of it.

Willmore Kendall once said that whereas you have the right to say anything you wish, we have the right to tar and feather you and run you out of town. Political philosophy at it's pinnacle.
The astute Mr Kendall ought to be allowed some hyperbole, and would he only be among us now.
The borders of free speech were not to be found in statute, therefore not in courts of law, though adjudication was integral in attempts to do so. As with all efforts to create and encompass the good state, the unwritten but shared assumptions, the good will, the at times vague, but nonetheless real moral strictures are what rule.
Montesquieu says that mores precede law, they also supersede it. Aristotle fusses not over a dreamy Republic ruled by our betters. They understand that law can be a porous defender of the good, or a promulgator of evil.

In a nutshell, what has changed is the ethos of a nation, affecting those venues of implicit cooperation and understanding, private and public. The beliefs and attitudes that guided us have weakened. The voices that count, or count for more, are the voices of an aggressive Ego, unhindered by anything outside itself, and craving, at the least, a vicarious power as well as a dissolution of old ways.
This is where "anything goes" takes us.

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