Civility and free speech

There’s much discussion in the blogosphere at the moment about the merits of requiring charity and civility on comment threads. For example, Jerry Coyne has a post about his rules over here, while Daniel Fincke writes about his rules here. Before I go on, I’m not necessarily endorsing everything in either post – though I think both are on the right track. Fincke makes some eccentric points, but they are marginal to this discussion. Suffice to say that both are mainly asking for charity (interpret what your interlocutors are saying in a way that takes their position at its strongest, rather than attributing to them a weak or extreme or untenable position) and civility (address interlocutors in reasonably non-hostile way, and concentrate more on disagreements with their ideas than on trying to make them feel hurt or angry … and thus withdraw or respond with rage).

[Edit: And I now see a similar comment policy announcement by Kylie Sturgess, though again I don’t necessarily endorse everything in it.]

Should we adopt an approach of asking commenters to be charitable and civil to each other? For myself, the answer is strongly Yes. That’s always been my general approach on my own blog, and one thing that makes me comfortable posting here at Talking Philosophy is that it’s the approach we take across the site.

An obvious objection is that this is somehow contrary to freedom of speech. Generally, I don’t think that’s so. I am about to draw heavily on my discussion of freedom of speech in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, so go there for more (and to make me and my publisher happy if you actually buy a copy!).

Bear in mind that multiple justifications have been given for freedom of speech. On Liberty, Mill’s classic defense of political freedoms in general, is based essentially on self-actualisation arguments, but the bulk of its second chapter, entitled “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” is devoted to a rather different justification of free speech that goes beyond freedom of expression as self-actualisation. If you refer to the chapter, you’ll see that Mill favors the freedom to develop and discuss ideas in the search for truth or understanding. This is very powerful as far as it goes, but inevitably it’s somewhat elitist (not always a bad thing!), for relatively little speech and expression in real-world societies appeals primarily to the intellect.

Still, the rationalist justification (as I call it in my various writings on the issue, including in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State) can be extended beyond the speech of academics, scientists and other intellectuals. To some extent, it merges with the self-actualization justification, insofar as it involves our individual need to pursue truth and understanding in our own ways, necessarily reliant on resources available through language. It also encourages us to protect serious literature and art, especially narrative forms such as prose fiction, theatre, and cinema, one function of which is to open minds by appeals to the imagination. The rationalist justification also merges with the democratic justification, insofar as debate about political ideas — with attempts to find the best kinds of political structures, principles, and policies — forms a large component of the general pursuit of truth in modern societies.

Fine so far – there are various synergies between the popular justifications of free speech (and perhaps no one justification covers all the speech that we’d want to defend). In arguing against unrestricted free speech, Alan Haworth suggests that Mill pictured society not as a marketplace of ideas, but as something like a large-scale academic seminar.

A seminar, of course, is an effective forum for refining and testing ideas only because its participants can rely upon tacit standards of conduct and interaction, including some degree of mutual respect. In past writings, however, I’ve emphasised that no entire society can operate like a seminar. If too much weight is given to Haworth’s point, free speech will be a far more narrow thing than is usually understood by the concept. It normally includes freedom for robust, sometimes even offensive, kinds of interaction that would be strongly inhibited, if not actually forbidden, in the confined/refined space of an academic seminar. It is usually accepted in liberal societies that there is a public interest in permitting debate that is not so restrictive of the parties involved. This allows them to express themselves passionately, emotively, and loyally on subjects that arouse passion, emotions, and competing loyalties — all without fear of retaliation by state agencies, or of narrow constraints being imposed to preserve decorum. Further, it allows the participation of individuals, perhaps the majority, who may not have been socialized or trained to express themselves with the detachment and urbanity that might be expected in a seminar for, say, middle-aged philosophy professors. If freedom of speech is confined too closely to decorous speech, this is likely to disadvantage young people, working class people, and many other groups.

Fine, you say, so isn’t it contrary to freedom of speech if we insist at Talking Philosophy on commenters showing charity and civility to each other? No. Just because the larger society cannot, and should not, act like an academic seminar does not entail that an academic seminar should not act like an academic seminar! There are good reasons for academic seminars to act like academic seminars – it is just that we don’t want their standards to be applied by force across the entire society by means of the coercive power of the state.

This blog, Talking Philosophy, is not a seminar, but something of the same values apply. We are here to make some intellectual progress, and exactly the same justication that Mill relies on to argue for freedom of speech will apply to justify a local requirement that the speech concerned be charitable and civil – though pretty much fearless as to the substantive views put forward. And if you want to express yourself by insulting, misrepresenting, and strawmanning others, there are other places you can do it. The state generally allows you to do this, as I believe it should.

Of course, if you do go around insulting, misrepresenting, and strawmanning, adverse moral judgments might be made about you, but you won’t (and shouldn’t) be prevented from doing so by means of the coercive power of the state.

As a matter of fact, there is much to object to about insulting, misrepresenting, strawmanning, piling on, expressing rage, and so on. These tactics can be used, especially by people with large audiences, to bully ideas off the table. People can be intimidated into shutting up. Possibilities for mutual understanding and intellectual progress can be lost. A blog that encourages these behaviours – or where even the poster/blog owner engages in them – is open to criticism for damaging the general quality of discussion in our society. But that doesn’t mean I want heavy-handed laws to stop it from doing so. Criticising behaviour is not the same as calling for it to be banned.

[Pssst, my Amazon page]

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