I may be in danger of becoming a libertarian. No, not the Rand Paul or even Pen Jillette type (or, worse, a Randian objectivist!). I’m talking of a version of libertarianism closer to the one famously espoused by John Stuart Mill. Mill put forth the idea that there should be little or no restriction on public discourse, on the grounds that bad notions will eventually wither away, defeated in the open marketplace of ideas.
Here is how he puts it in On Liberty :
“There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” (II, 6)
“Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand.” (II, 7)
With all due respect to Mill, however, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of his take on this, on the grounds that I think it belies a (charmingly) naive optimism about public discourse. True, Mill wrote before the invention of modern mass media, before the perfection of the Nazi (or Soviet, or American) propaganda machines, and before what British documentarian Alan Curtis called “the century of the self” , characterized by the omnipresence of advertising-based manipulation of the masses. He also didn’t get to see the rise of Fox News (lucky him!), and didn’t get to read Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (unfortunately) .
Now, my Facebook profile says that religiously I am a a-unicornist (I don’t believe in unicorns — or Gods — because there isn’t any reason to) and politically positioned slightly to the Left of Jon Stewart, i.e. I am a (very) progressive liberal, or, as they call them in Europe, a social democrat (which is not the same thing as a socialist, and even less a communist, regardless of widespread confusion about those terms among the American public). As such, I have always opposed what I see as ideological bigotry from the Right, particularly any attempt to silence or intimidate others with whose ideas one disagrees and even finds despicable. I abhor censorship, be it of a political or religious nature, and I am very sympathetic to the efforts of people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden (without making them into cult heroes, given their obvious personality flaws).
But I have been increasingly bothered by what may be a resurgence of intransigence on the Left, which historically has showed periodic (as opposed to chronic, as from the Right) bouts of ideological purity and consequent witch hunting. For instance, in certain quarters it is taken for granted that gender (as distinct, of course, from both sex and sexual orientation) is entirely socially constructed. In the same quarters, it has become unacceptable to even suggest a role of biology in shaping gender, lest one be accused of “biologizing” things, so much so that Sheri A. Berenbaum and two colleagues had to write a paper in the journal Sex Roles  in which they “discuss the limited coverage of biological perspectives in the pages of the journal and likely reasons for it in light of historical perspectives on the role of biology in gendered psychological processes and behaviors … [and] advocate for greater attention to biological perspectives.” Now, I don’t know to what extent genes vs environments (and, of course, the all-important and pervasive gene-environment interactions, to which which I devoted a quarter century of study) shape gender in humans. Nobody knows, because it’s a though nut to crack. But we are not even allowed to entertain the possibility, in the spirit of Mill’s effort to separate wrong from right opinions through inquiry and discussion?
Another example is this year’s shutting down of four commencement speakers at different colleges, because of students’ protests. They were Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers, Robert Birgeneau at Haverford College, Christine Lagarde at Smith College, and Mike Johnston at Harvard. Josh Kamensky even wrote an article in defense of the shutdowns, entirely un-ironically entitled “Students at Four Colleges Have Shut Down Their Commencement Speakers. It’s a Victory for Free Speech” . Now, I am not a fan of Rice and her role in the Bush-II administration, nor of many policies of the International Monetary Fund directed by Lagarde. And I despise Birgeneau’s approach as Chancellor of UC-Berkeley, which included the endorsement of the use of batons on campus protestors; as for Johnston, he is famous for advocating the much dreaded “test-driven” education reform, which I also think is a politically motivated blunder. Oh, and yes, I do find Rice’s turning down of a speaker’s fee of merely $35,000 downright outrageous. But I don’t think pressuring speakers and universities to cancel the events in question was the right way to go about it. (And I’m not the only one: see, for instance, Timothy Egan in The New York Times  and Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic  — not exactly Fox News-type outlets.)
Now, of course when one of our own gets shut down from a public event — let’s say controversial ethicist Peter Singer  — then we all yell out accusations of bigotry and narrow-mindedness. And rightly so. But Mill’s filter for bad ideas doesn’t work a priori, only after open debate.
And then there is the issue of triggering. That’s an increasingly invoked practice on campuses whereby faculty are supposed to include “trigger warnings” in their syllabi, to alert students that they may be talking about something that, for one reason or another, the students may find disturbing. Now, there are some legitimate concerns in specific cases. If a student has being seriously traumatized — say in case of rape, or shell shock from having been in a war situation — then it is possible that talk or exposure to visual material concerning similar circumstances may generate an emotionally charged reaction. But that seems to me to be on par with students who have any other type of medical or psychological condition and require special attention. Universities already have procedures in place for such cases, whereby the student contacts the appropriate service office on campus, who then alerts the faculty to the problem and suggests ways to handle it.
Lest you think my position is narrow minded and conservative on this, a number of humanities faculty from “gender/sexuality studies, critical race studies, film and visual studies, literary studies, and cognate fields” (they had to state their liberal credentials upfront, or else) co-signed a poignant letter on why Trigger Warnings Are Flawed, published in Inside Higher Education , where they wrote: “We are currently watching our colleagues receive phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings. We feel that this movement is already having a chilling effect on our teaching and pedagogy.” They go on listing ten problems with trigger warnings, as well as a number of reasonable alternatives to deal with the issue.
The problem is that to call for a blanket warning affecting all students is a dangerous matter, and likely to seriously interfere with academic freedom, not to mention with the duty of teachers to get students out of their comfort zone (it’s called education). Indeed, the debate reminds me of a comment I once read from a politician in Kentucky (I was living in Tennessee at the time), to the effect that children (he was talking high school) need to be protected from uncomfortable notions in the classroom. To which, of course, my liberal friends and myself immediately responded that a teacher isn’t doing her job well if she doesn’t make students uncomfortable, preferably at the least once a week. Which is true even more in college. But you know, that response was aimed at the other side of the politics spectrum, notoriously populated by prudish country bumpkins. If it’s our side it’s a whole different story…
Another vivid memory that comes to mind in this respect concerns my high school years in Rome, Italy. I went to a very leftist school, where the facade still bore the scars of bullets fired a couple of years before by the police against student demonstrators. Most of my friends were Left to extreme Left in terms of their ideas, and regularly engaged in protest marches (usually against this or that evil thing done by imperialist USA) and occasional sit-ins. Even though my political opinions were in fact not very dissimilar from theirs (though I was among the most moderate, within that particular environment) I often felt distinctly uncomfortable at the plainly obvious degree of ideological intolerance that had taken root in those young (and well intentioned, to be sure) minds. If you didn’t follow the official line pretty precisely you were ostracized as a Christian Democrat (then the majority party in Italy), regardless of whether you actually did belong to that party or not. And god forbid you should voice opinions closer to the Right end of the spectrum, because in that case there was a good chance you would be physically, not just verbally, assaulted. So much for liberal progressive tolerance.
One of the current worrying trends on the Left is the continuous, obsessive almost, invocation of the concept of “offense” to curtail debate or shut off an opponent. A number of politicians, commentators, and even comedians (whose very job description has always included the ability to offend others) have been under attack recently. (And no, I will not provide specific examples because I know that otherwise the discussion is likely to be derailed by the details rather than focus on the broad topic. Do a Google search, you’ll find aplenty.)
Now, I understand very well the difference between “punching up” and “punching down.” An intelligent comedian or humorist focuses his wit on the powerful and dominant, not on the weak and repressed. Which is why jokes about politicians are always acceptable, while making fun of minorities (ethnic, gender types, religious, etc.) is not so cool. But people do have a right to be uncool, if they wish, and there are far bigger problems in the world (I’m looking at you, Israel-Palestine) than pile never ending vitriol on a politically incorrect columnist or comedian. Besides, some of my friends on the Left were far more critical of the authors of the famous Danish cartoons making fun of the prophet Muhammad  than of the people throughout the world who killed and maimed “in protest” against those cartoons. Mill would have known better.
“Offense” is just far too pliable a word, and can easily be abused. When I was in Tennessee (yes, that was a, ahem, formative period of my life) more than once I was told by fundamentalist Christians that they had a constitutional right not to be offended (by my lectures and writings about evolution and religion, or by the local student theater showing of The Vagina Monologues). I chuckled and pointed out that, on the contrary, the US Constitution protects my right to offend at will, regardless of whether it’s the polite, or even constructive thing to do . Now, I like to think of myself as a reasonable and usually thoughtful person, so I try not to offend for the sake of it, but only if I judge that I am making a worthwhile point or another. Still, if something I say or write offends you, the Millean response is to write or say something in return, to engage me in open debate (directly or indirectly), most certainly not to organize Twitter or Facebook campaigns to get me fired from my job or to shut down my web site. That, my friends, is called bullying, and it’s not cool at all.
Many of my Leftist friends don’t seem particularly bothered when people from the Right get offended. We all watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with relish, and our cars sport bumper stickers that loudly proclaim “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.” As it should be. But the other side also has a right to feel under attack and respond in kind, regardless of whether we think their feelings are justified or not. Yes, it is certainly ludicrous for Christians in the US to consider themselves under assault in the same sense in which other religious or ethnic minorities are. But it is certainly the case that the world has become increasingly uncomfortable for your typical southern white male fundamentalist (fortunately, I will add), which explains the vehemence of some of the reactions coming from those quarters. Again, the proper liberal progressive response to such reactions is targeted humor and continued rational engagement, not an embracing of the same culture of taking offense and attempting to silence one’s opponents for which we justly criticize the Right.
All of the above, of course, needs to be put in the broader context of the many varieties of censorship, some of which are much more dangerous than others. While I do consider a Twitter campaign to shut down a personal web site or blog an instance of bullying, and therefore contrary to Mill’s ideal of open discourse, it is not even close to the much more dreadful situation in which a government passes laws restrictive of free speech. And instances of the latter aren’t limited to the Middle East or North Korea (though they are spectacularly egregious in those parts of the world). Many European countries, for example, have laws on the books that make it illegal to deny the reality of the Holocaust, an attitude which I find extremely problematic (and no, I’m most certainly not a Holocaust denier!). And here in the US it seems that almost every day sees less power of speech and action granted to The People and more to that bizarre new type of “person” on the block, The Corporation.
The discussion is made even more delicate by the fact that certain boycotts are, of course, legitimate actions of protest, not attempts to silence a politically incorrect opponent. But perhaps here we should use the same “punching up / punching down” distinction that works for comedians: by all means, organize a boycott of a government or of a powerful corporation if they are doing what you think is the wrong thing; but aiming that sort of rhetorical firepower at specific individuals, such as bloggers, comes closer and closer to punching down rather than up. In the latter case, public criticism based on stated reasons and facts, rather than emotional calls to ostracism, is the way to go.
In the end, I don’t think there is a real danger of me becoming a libertarian, and the fact that I have taken to more than occasionally reading articles from libertarian (e.g., Reason magazine) or even conservative (The Weekly Standard) sources is actually a good thing. It makes me better appreciate points of view with which I generally disagree, and occasionally even temper my very disagreement. Lately, however, it has also made me appreciate the danger of an ideological Left that becomes just as intransigent, just as absolutely sure of being right, as the other side. At that point, societal discourse degenerates into a shouting match, and everyone loses, especially the truth.
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 On Liberty, by J.S. Mill, 1869.
 The Century of the Self, by Adam Curtis: Part 1, Happiness Machines; Part 2, The Engineering of Consent; Part 3, There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads. He Must Be Destroyed; Part 4, Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering.
 Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by E.S. Herman and N. Chomsky, 1988.
 A Role for Biology in Gender-Related Behavior, by S.A. Berenbaum, J.E. Owen Blakemore and A.M. Beltz, Sex Roles, 2011.
 Students at Four Colleges Have Shut Down Their Commencement Speakers. It’s a Victory for Free Speech, by Josh Joy Kamensky, Huffington Post, 2014.
 The Commencement Bigots, by Timothy Egan, The New York Times, 2014.
 Hey, Class of 2014: It’s OK to Shun Commencement Speakers, But Please Pick Better Targets, by Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, 2014.
 Singer talked about such episodes at the Rationally Speaking podcast, co-hosted by Julia Galef and yours truly.
 Trigger Warnings Are Flawed, by E. Freeman, B. Herrera, N. Hurley, H. King, D. Luciano, D. Seitler, and P. White, Inside Higher Education, 2014.
 It’s right there, in the First Amendment.