Stifling discourse, on your Left

PSM_V03_D380_John_Stuart_Millby Massimo Pigliucci

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 [1]:

“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” [2], 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) [3].

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 [4] 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” [5]. 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 [6] and Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic [7] — 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 [8] — 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 [9], 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 [10] 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 [11]. 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).

[1] On Liberty, by J.S. Mill, 1869.

[2] 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.

[3] Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by E.S. Herman and N. Chomsky, 1988.

[4] A Role for Biology in Gender-Related Behavior, by S.A. Berenbaum, J.E. Owen Blakemore and A.M. Beltz, Sex Roles, 2011.

[5] Students at Four Colleges Have Shut Down Their Commencement Speakers. It’s a Victory for Free Speech, by Josh Joy Kamensky, Huffington Post, 2014.

[6] The Commencement Bigots, by Timothy Egan, The New York Times, 2014.

[7] Hey, Class of 2014: It’s OK to Shun Commencement Speakers, But Please Pick Better Targets, by Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, 2014.

[8] Singer talked about such episodes at the Rationally Speaking podcast, co-hosted by Julia Galef and yours truly.

[9] Trigger Warnings Are Flawed, by E. Freeman, B. Herrera, N. Hurley, H. King, D. Luciano, D. Seitler, and P. White, Inside Higher Education, 2014.

[10] The Muhammad cartoons controversy.

[11] It’s right there, in the First Amendment.


100 thoughts on “Stifling discourse, on your Left

  1. Honestly, I think that is what the post is about and many of the comments: trying to identify what might be extreme, destructive, and counterproductive and, of course why.

    I like the Tower of Babel analogy, but suspect you’ve got the sequence of events wrong. The dispersal into the many-tongues was a punishment as a result of the hubris in undertaking the construction of the Tower in the first place. I still get your point, though.


  2. Thomas,
    I was making a slightly sharper jab there than might have actually been warranted, but I think my point still stands. These issues manifest themselves in particular forms in politics and academia, but given the way the world seems to be circling the drain over international, inter-tribal and inter-religious manifestations of the same fundamental logical constructs, it would be interesting to peel away that surface and explore these issues in the abstract.
    As for the Tower of Babel analogy, while the traditional moral lesson was about such hubris, I think it presents a very interesting premise of what happens in many socially dynamic situations and even physical computational ones, that increasing complexity compounds the dimensionality and creates inherent conflicts and conflicting viewpoints.
    We still subconsciously operate under the assumption that there is a logically objective reality and if we just understand it in large enough scales, small enough detail, or abstract out some elemental frame, we will eventually arrive at that grand consensus. I am trying to make the point that just ain’t so. As I point out in religion debates, the absolute is basis, not apex, so a spiritual absolute would be the essence of consciousness from which we rise, not an ideal moral, intellectual, judgmental form from which we fell. Similarly, intellectually, the universal state would be utter, featureless neutrality. When you start dealing in form, it is inherently subjective.
    Yes, there are many features we can agree on and even more we can establish some form of compromise, but when conflict does arise, we really need to understand that bottom up reality and the result will be whatever emerges when the energy propelling these forces is spent, not some larger ideal to satisfy all parties.
    It’s a cycle of expansion and contraction. The tower being built is the expansion and when the momentum of the parties involved diverges, it falls apart. All entities exist for as long as the energy all goes in one direction and when it starts going in different directions, or conflicting, they come apart, be it families, or nations.


  3. Hi Massimo,

    In regard to trigger warnings, I find it interesting that so many critics of them don’t engage with or reference psychology at all.”Knowledge” can be a tricky term, yet philosophers have nevertheless come up with ways to discuss it, just as psychologists have found ways to have discuss “trauma” that are fruitful and useful. Why is it useful or appropriate to discuss a response to trauma without discussing the psychology of trauma at all? Why not see what professionals have to say instead or going with one’s seat of the pants observations?

    If a student has been raped, are they required to go student services, explain that to someone there, who then would have to go to all their instructors and ask about possible triggering material? This doesn’t seem to be either a sympathetic or empathetic response to trauma, and a requirement that may well itself be re-traumatizing. Again, it seems like engaging some relevant psychology here, whether one is for or against trigger warnings, would be useful (I haven’t done much web searching for some, but did discuss this with a counselor with a lot of experience helping people with trauma issues).

    I see trigger warnings as a useful way of avoiding such a potentially unpleasant scenario. If a student is taking a film class and had been raped, and found a warning on the syllabus that a required film (say, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange) had a violent rape in it, the student then is informed and has an ability to make a choice about what to do in that situation, without having to necessarily discuss their trauma with others.

    I don’t see how a voluntary policy encouraging warnings of this type is harmful to academic freedom. I also see it as a useful way for philosophers and psychologists to collaborate in an inter-disciplinary way to fashion such a policy that would improve student welfare. Who knows, they each might each learn some useful things about the others discipline.


  4. Hi Massimo,

    There are of course certain kinds of speech I imagine you would like to silence. Incitements to violence, hate speech, etc. On other matters I’m not so sure. Does the form of the speech matter, e.g. whether it’s in a debate or on a billboard?

    I seem to remember something about an anti-vaccination billboard you were against. Has your position changed on that? How would you characterise the kinds of speech you would seek to silence?


  5. I would suggest you stop calling yourself a progressive liberal (or whatever). Don’t become a libertarian. Just be. Accept any solution that advances human welfare on an ad hoc basis. Nurture NOT having some opinions on some things. Err on the side of humility.

    Ideologies exist, ultimately, to advance themselves. Ideologues become obsessed with ideological purity, and their aim becomes to Defend the Ideology at All Costs.

    Whatever their ideologies, ideologues almost always come to believe something along the lines of the following (borrowed from an observation of my brother’s):

    1. The correct position/point-of-view is obvious to any intelligent observer.
    2. The other side is populated by evil liars who know they are lying and have no morals.
    3. Rationality is on the side of the ideologue.
    4. The opposition has fomented a dark conspiracy of evil manipulation and disinformation.

    The left thinks this, the right thinks it. Libertarians do. Objectivists do. Anarcho-syndicalists do. Whatever your ideology, these are the glasses you eventually wear. And they are essentially blinders.


  6. I’m sorry, This is getting more and more about making excruciatingly refined pleas. Should Anthony Burgess have included a disclaimer in large print regarding the subject matter? Do we need a rating system like the RCC has (?) or used to have regarding the suitability of certain movies for children and adults Just where does individual responsibility fit into this? Or should everyone be issued free psychotropic drugs upon exiting adolescence? Should the students at Rutgers have been allowed to appoint a committee of their peers with editorial authority regarding the acceptability of a commencement speech?

    You need to at least try to understand the author’s point: he is defining and weighing two (at least) competing demands. He’s not trying to traumatize his students.


  7. Well, there is much I might agree with in your comments, except for one detail. You really don’t have editorial authority in this instance. So while I may agree with much of what you say, I doubt it can be adequately covered in 2000-3000 words.


  8. Tyler Sork wrote:

    “If a student has been raped, are they required to go student services, explain that to someone there, who then would have to go to all their instructors and ask about possible triggering material? This doesn’t seem to be either a sympathetic or empathetic response to trauma, and a requirement that may well itself be re-traumatizing.”


    How far are you willing to go with this? My syllabus is already so full of boilerplate, from the EO office, to Disability Services, to who knows what, that there’s barely any syllabus left.

    When did we come to expect that the world has no sharp edges? Or that everyone will always be able to avoid discomfort no matter what? Seems a bad message to send, especially for those who need to learn to live with difficulty and discomfort.


  9. I don’t think Burgess should have been required to include a disclaimer, but nor do I see a problem if he had chosen to do so. As to movies, not sure what rating system you’re referring to… While I think US MPAA ratings could be considerably improved, I see no reason to abolish them. Even though they’re flawed I still think they provide some useful guidance for moviegoers. A trigger warning (as I’ve described it), would allow a student to take responsibility and make their own choice once they know that certain course content might be triggering. I do understand the author’s point and the competing claims involved, I simply don’t agree with him about what academic freedom requires or about the psychology of trauma. I think instructors could do small things at little cost to them that would avoid at least some student trauma.


  10. As far as I indicated in my original post. A warning that Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange contained a scene of rather violent rape seems sufficient in that case. Can’t speak to what current syllabi look like. Was in university last a while back and in Canada, but what I’ve described doesn’t seem overly onerous to me. The world certainly has sharp edges and discomfort cannot be avoided, but psychological trauma is a different thing than either of those. It is qualitatively different and much worse. Failing to make that distinction is part of what I mean by not engaging the relevant psychology on trauma in discussing these issues. And it is also different to confront issues of trauma in a supportive environment with a therapist versus a classroom with no warning and no support.


  11. Thomas,
    No, I don’t have editorial authority, because its not my blog, yet you do see logic in it and that’s all I ask.
    To repeat Massimo’s quote of J.S. Mill;
    “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)
    Information has to be propagated, so if this argument were not to gain traction and enter the conversation, it would not be a factor, whether others would agree with it, or not.
    Meanwhile the politicians herd their people to war with fear of the other, in order to maintain control when hope of prosperity fades, while the academics churn out endless words, because that is their talent.


  12. Excellent article Massimo.

    Unfortunately you’re absolutely right about some on the left trying to destroy any semblance of balanced argumentation. I was seeing a girl for a time, and I mentioned my views, which she was opposed to. This was not because of religious beliefs at all, but because her brother would not have existed had her father not pleaded with the mother to have the baby, which he would take total care of without any assistance from her. I was immediately struck by this, and with the possibility of the father having some sort of say in things despite the obvious fact that the baby gestates in the woman’s body, which would plausibly lend much more weight to her decision on what was to be done. I remember getting into a discussion about abortion, and I tried to talk about the fathers rights in the situation because of that particular story (mind you I tend to lean pro-choice, with reservations however. And no, religion has absolutely zero to do with the reservations). Unfortunately, the girls who were involved were having none of it. This seemed strange that they didn’t even want to seriously examine all of the issues involved; the father’s say in the matter; the fact that this growing organism would eventually become a human; etc.

    I feel like this happens a bit too often on the left, despite the sins of the far right often being far more egregious. Its funny you brought up being a social democrat, which I consider myself to be. The funny thing is, people don’t even understand that the idea builds socialist principles around a capitalistic core. Why some on the left (and the vast majority on the right) find this idea absurd is beyond me, as it seems the most sensible.

    If we all just took some time to really examine each others views (and your example of reading more right leaning literature is exactly what I do as well, and it has indeed helped me soften some of my own views on certain things, within reason of course), it would make for much better decisions all around. Hopefully more of this will can happen in the future. We just have to keep on the grind.


  13. Hi Paul! Sorry, I just saw your comment now. I had given a more detailed answer below meanwhile…

    I am both ironic and dead serious. I read “1984” more than once, long ago.
    However, truth is sort of privatized right now: anybody can say anything, and present it as true, except when it’s explicitly against the (local) law. It does not really matter if it’s really true, or not.

    Libertarian will say: great, fine, whatever, truth will come out. Except countless holocausts in the past show that not all beliefs are created equal. Some are deadly… Especially to others.

    At the bottom of every single holocaust in history is a pack of lies. Lies are the fuel of the madness of crowds, and the privileged tool of plutocrats (who have the means to own all and any media).

    In Republican Rome, justice and certainly the police, were pretty much privatized: although magistrates were elected, they then used their servants, or private contractors, to enact their decisions.

    Meanwhile it was found judicious to professionalize justice and police (Philippe IV Le Bel circa 1300 CE).

    That’s all I suggest to do with Truth.

    Example: if the “Protocol of the Wise Men of Zion” had been officially demonstrated to be a forgery, Germans and Russians could not have goose-stepped behind lethal antisemites with as much enthusiasm as they did.


  14. Massimo, I am better with intellectual and cultural history than I am with philosophy. Because you grew up in a country with a substantial Marxist political and intellectual climate, can you see any continuities between that older and the current Left restrictions on free discourse?

    I was thinking:

    1) “The oppressed, because of their experience of exploitation, have the best view of the status quo — when they speak for their particular demands, they are pushing to overcome that status quo. Those who claim to be thinking in an unbiased way and not on behalf of the oppressed deserve to have their speech limited because they perpetuate injustice.”
    (the Georg Lukacs History and Class Consciousness thesis)
    2) “There is a movement in history. Some thinkers have proposed timeless antinomies such as body versus mind, good versus evil, ruler and ruled. But the dialectical movement of history shows that what one ruling class calls eternal principles is mere ideological cover for the interests of that class. Anyone seeking to argue from timeless and spaceless rational percepts is trying to block the forward flow of history. The should either speak to promote this forward movement or keep silent.”
    (the kind of brutalized Hegel found in mid-century Marxist culture)
    3) Ontologizing #2: “The very nature of Nature is dialectical. Those who claim to speak rationally on behalf of static truths or abstract principles are not just blocking the flow of history, they are opposed to the very nature of the universe, which is change, revolution and revision. Particpate in this movement, your disquisitions about truth and impartiality and fairness are getting in the way.”
    (Engels turned into dogma by Lenin and refracted through the discourse of the big Communist parties and in Mao)

    Stated in their naked, vulgarized form, these are all dead letters. And the prophets of Christianity and Communism agree: let the dead bury the dead. But I am wondering if you see shadows of these older justifications for opposing liberal concepts of free expression, and types of speech enunciated by certain persons. A group of activists at a local campus was asking people attending a weekend of organizing to state their allegiance to certain political positions before they were admitted. Any speech against or inquiry about the cause in question was ruled out in advance. And the organizers were not part of any Marxist groupescule and their cause was related to events overseas. But the paradigm of restraining speech in the name of justice was there. A kind of political zombie from the days of the Comintern and intellectuals sacrificing their intellects for the CP (or SWP or what have you).

    One of the preachings of postmodernism was “there is no big metanarrative in history.” It would follow that you couldn’t convict opponents of standing in the way of progress if there is no such thing as progress.


  15. Hi DM,

    There are of course certain kinds of speech I imagine you would like to silence. Incitements to violence, hate speech, etc.

    Incitements to violence, yes, but the concept of “hate speech” is problematic. Who gets to decide what is “hate” and what is the threshold? Do we guess at the motivations of the speaker, or do we allow the “victim” to censor anything they dislike by declaring it “hateful” to them?

    Are the Danish cartoon “hate speech” or fair satirical comment? Is a cartoon of Pope Ratzinger with a condom on his head instead of the cardinal’s hat “hate speech” or fair comment?

    In the UK we nearly (a while ago) had draconian hate-speech laws (we now have slightly less draconian hate-speech laws). In the debate about it, some maintained — entirely seriously — that any suggestion at all that any terrorist act was in any way linked to or motivated by any religion would be “hate speech” against that religion.

    Personally I would only silence the “incitements to violence” or other speech that directly puts people in actual danger, and would disallow the concept of “hate speech”.


  16. DM,

    “the question is whether a commencement speech is a ceremonial, formal occasion where the speaker is supposed to support and encourage the audience, or an opportunity for discussion and debate where the speaker is supposed to challenge the audience.”

    It’s both, really. Except for the “debate” part. A good commencement speech (and there aren’t many!) is both celebratory and somewhat challenging.

    “I would forgive universities because market forces are what they are”

    Sorry, I don’t. I’m with Michael Sandel on this: market forces have a proper place in society, that place doesn’t extend to certain things. Universities are non profit, educational organizations, and it goes contra their mission to spend lavish sums of money on a celebrity giving a 20-min speech.

    “Massimo suggests that a controversial commencement speaker be turned into an opportunity for discussion and debate, with counter-speeches and so on. It’s an interesting idea, and not one I am that opposed to, but the question remains whether a commencement is really the right kind of occasion for this.”

    No, it isn’t. But the time leading up to it certainly is.

    “There are of course certain kinds of speech I imagine you would like to silence. Incitements to violence, hate speech, etc. On other matters I’m not so sure. Does the form of the speech matter, e.g. whether it’s in a debate or on a billboard?”

    Direct incitement to violence is not acceptable, in any forum. But as Coel has pointed out, “hate speech” is far too pliable a concept. And yes, form matters, which is why I said it is inappropriate to shut down a speaker but it is a good thing to use that speech as a reason to organize educational fori.

    “I seem to remember something about an anti-vaccination billboard you were against. Has your position changed on that?”

    That’s a tricky one, since it is a case of someone publicizing demonstrably wrong medical information, with a message that actually harms public health. I think those cases should be treated in the same way in which federal authorities treat false or misleading claims by a number of industries (like the miraculous benefits of herbal remedies).


    “If we still had slavery, preaching from Aristotle would indeed be symptomatic, and quite dubious.”

    This is clearly a counterfactual that we are not in a position to discuss much further. My sense would be that Aristotle would be against slavery, if he were alive today.

    “Saying “non sequitur” doesn’t make it so.”

    True enough. Not saying it is doesn’t not make it so either…

    “If an instructor announces that anyone can walk out of class without explanation, that includes those who don’t want to listen to unpleasant truths about their ancestors or government. It just does not follow that this is left.”

    I don’t recall instances of that sort being part of the discussion. And, again, factually, it is the Left that has been (largely) calling for trigger warnings.


    “I believe his central interest is in provoking honest discussion. In this case, I view the central question as being “How does one determine when public dissent can be described as suppression or coercion.””



    “I would add that I think some of this is not so much dissent stifling as it is the rise of narcissism among many of the social justice warrior type who are of the Millennial birth cohort.”

    Well, the two are of course not mutually exclusive. I’d like to hear a social psychologist about the narcissism thing.


    “For a blog devoted to the intersection of science and philosophy, this particular topic seems mostly a parochial discussion of academic dos and don’ts.”

    Sorry you think so, that is very far from the intent of the piece.

    “Wouldn’t there be a much more interesting conversation underlaying this, as to the nature of information and its propagation, the relationship of liberalism and conservatism”

    You, or anyone else, are most welcome to submit such essay to SciSal.


    “I find it interesting that so many critics of them don’t engage with or reference psychology at all.”

    I certainly welcome input from other disciplines, especially empirically relevant observations. However, the data themselves aren’t, of course, free of assumptions (this is the old theory ladeness problem). Psychologists, and psychiatrists, have managed to diagnose more than half the US population with mental conditions that range from the questionable to the downright risible. Yes, trauma does have specific connotations in medical and psychological practice, but it seems to me simply a misuse of the term to argue that someone is going to be “traumatized” by the discovery that one of her ancestors had raped or owned slaves. If that’s trauma, it’s going to be good for her, educationally speaking.

    “If a student has been raped, are they required to go student services, explain that to someone there, who then would have to go to all their instructors and ask about possible triggering material?”

    It’s a tough case, as you say, it’s a question of empathy for the student vs concern for academic freedom and general education. However, she doesn’t have to explain much, in a manner similar to any other kind of disabled student, who has to go to student services — with proper medical documentation — and obtains a simple generic note to show the professor at the beginning of the semester. Also, are we assuming that someone who has suffered trauma X should therefore automatically be shielded from any talk of X, regardless of the context? That seems a bit too broad.

    “I don’t see how a voluntary policy encouraging warnings of this type is harmful to academic freedom”

    First, because a number of such policies aren’t voluntary. Second, because university administrations have a nasty tendency to make the voluntary eventually mandatory.


    “I would suggest you stop calling yourself a progressive liberal (or whatever). Don’t become a libertarian. Just be.”

    Thanks, but I like labels. Calling myself a progressive liberal is a simple heuristic to explain certain positions I hold, and also to claim a particular cultural-historical heritage. But when we get to the specifics, then I don’t feel obliged to follow any party line. My opinions are just mine.


    “Because you grew up in a country with a substantial Marxist political and intellectual climate, can you see any continuities between that older and the current Left restrictions on free discourse?”

    Yes, it is the same longing for ideological purity, and the same contempt for the idea that anyone with a different opinion must be stupid or evil. Attitudes that often I attribute to the Right, but…

    “I am wondering if you see shadows of these older justifications for opposing liberal concepts of free expression, and types of speech enunciated by certain persons.”

    Yes, and we have already discussed some examples. Additional ones aren’t difficult to find. And it is interesting that you bring up the idea that only an the point of view of an oppressed minority counts when it comes to certain issues. This is seems strange to me on a number of levels. Empirically, we have instances of oppressed minorities who seem to accept and even justify their oppression (a number of slaves in the US before the Civil War; a number of Muslim women in modern times). It also seems to imply that one cannot contribute to a reasoned discourse about X unless one has experienced X. Try to generalize that maxim and pretty soon we’d all have increasingly restricted dialogues only with people who share our very special experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Modern slavery is not a legal institution anywhere. The defense of slavery in Aristotle is not used today to justify the practice. (The assumption that I was referring to all of Aristotle was not a charitable reading.)

    Mill’s ideas are today a lively part of the apologetics for numerous assaults by powerful countries on weaker ones. “To suppose that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error, and one which no statesman can fall into, however it may be with those, who from a safe and unresponsable position, criticize statesmen.

    Among the many reasons why the same rules cannot be applicable to situations so different, the two following are among the most important. In the first place, the rules of ordinary international morality imply reciprocity. But barbarians will not reciprocate. They cannot be depended on for observing any rules. Their minds are not capable of so great an effort, nor their will sufficiently under the influence of distant motives. In the next place, nations which are still barbarous have not got beyond the period during which it is likely to be for their benefit that they should be conquered and held in subjection by foreigners. Independence and nationality, so essential to the due growth and development of a people further advanced in improvement, are generally impediments to theirs. The sacred duties which civilized nations owe to the independence and nationality of each other are not binding towards those to whom nationality and independence are either a certain evil, or, at best, a questionable good. The Romans were not the most clean-handed of conquerors; yet would it have been better for Gaul and Spain, Numidia and Dacia, never to have formed part of the Roman Empire?

    To characterize any conduct whatever towards a barbarous people as a violation of the law of nations, only shows that he who so speaks has never considered the subject. A violation of great principles of morality it may easily be, but barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one. The only moral laws for the relation between a civilized and a barbarous government are the universal rules of morality between man and man.

    (John Stuart Mill, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical (New York 1874) Vol. 3, pp. 252-253.)

    Due to the amazing ability of the Left to stifle discussion, of course disguising phrases like “rule of law” or “R2P” are used. When universities endorse latter day disciples of Mill by hiring them for commencement speeches, we are seeing the marketplace of ideas in action, where the successful people (the ones with the money) buy the ideas. And when we see Twitter making money by selling a venue for abuse, in tandem with private news media run for profit, we are again seeing the marketplace of ideas.


  18. “Can’t speak to what current syllabi look like. Was in university last a while back and in Canada, but what I’ve described doesn’t seem overly onerous to me”


    Good. Then you can put “trigger warnings” on your syllabus. To me, the following is quite onerous.

    1. University policy on plagiarism.
    2. University anti-discrimination policy, with contact numbers.
    3. University disability policy, with contact numbers.
    4. Boilerplate regarding “learning communities and the university community”
    5. University Grade-Appeal policy.

    There’s more. I won’t bore those who find such things onerous. At some point, somewhere in the document, you get to the actual course content.

    I teach a Philosophical Ideas in Literature course. Every book in it contains some pretty tough material.

    Nathanael West, Day of the Locust
    John Didion, Play it as it Lays
    Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
    Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero; Imperial Bedrooms

    If I was to put trigger warnings, to anticipate every possible source of offense, distress, etc., my syllabus would be 20 pages long.

    And I stand by my statement about learning to live with discomfort and even trauma. The minute they walk out of my university and into the world, no one is going to give a damn, and they’d better learn to live with it. My parents are Holocaust survivors. My mother spent a year in Bergen-Belsen. My father saw his father beaten up by SA in the streets of Mannheim. The world does not provide trigger warnings to guide them through their lives. And they have flourished nonetheless.

    We have not always been such fragile flowers, and no one is helped by everyone conspiring to convince us that we are.


  19. Great essay and alot of interesting comments and discussions.

    Thought back to last Christmas when I was staying at my brother’s and we took our kids to see Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. Later that night we tied on a couple of drinks and we found ourselves watching the History Channel, “The Men Who Built America”, the stories of Carnegie, JP Morgan, Rockefeller and Ford. Remarkable connection because Lincoln and the Civil War demarcated the end of colonial America, many of the founders who hailed from Virginia and the defeated South, crushed by the well financed and industrialized North. Slavery was actually an anachronism for the South because of the coming mechanized agriculture but the Southern states actually claimed the slave labor as having an economic worth of 5 trillion dollars in today’s economy. Ironically the industrialists of the late 19th century (a couple of decades after the Emanacipation Proclamation) had something better than slavery, an endless supply of low wage labor, employed under some deplorable conditions who were responsible for feeding and housing themselves. Lincoln was also the first Republican President and ironically conservatives hail Reagan as the last great President although he presided over an America that was dismantling its industrial base in the 1980’s which was also the decade that gave rise to the Gay Rights Movement, institution of affirmative action and a whole plethora of liberal movements. My point being is recent America is a nation of political schizophrenia, so little wonder about mental health problems, conflicting discourse and constant fodder for comedians.


  20. Massimo,

    ““For a blog devoted to the intersection of science and philosophy, this particular topic seems mostly a parochial discussion of academic dos and don’ts.”

    Sorry you think so, that is very far from the intent of the piece.”

    I did sense the piece was trying to deduce some deeper patterns, but the ensuing comments seemed to remain close to the surface, as in referencing the particulars of offense and defense, rather than why such information is going to be subjective, why extremes disrupt and are often designed to disrupt the balance, etc.

    ““Wouldn’t there be a much more interesting conversation underlaying this, as to the nature of information and its propagation, the relationship of liberalism and conservatism”

    You, or anyone else, are most welcome to submit such essay to SciSal.””

    I thank you for the offer and would certainly be willing to submit something, under whatever guidelines you wish to apply, but I did submit a comment further up this thread(July 28, 2014 • 12:31 pm), which didn’t draw any response. I don’t pretend to be anything more than a self-educated observer of nature and society. As such I learned long ago to edit my own observations as severely as possible, given those who don’t like the main premise but don’t have an effective rebuttal, will use whatever loose ends in the supporting commentary to construct strawmen, while those who do find the ideas interesting don’t need extensive commentary as proof, but connect it with their own observations. Which is a long winded way of asking what you thought of my argument, pros and cons? There is a lot I could add, but I like to get a good feel for the reception and how to best address it.
    John B. Merryman


  21. I think you might be interested to look at the actions of the oil-producing states of the Middle East – it would appear that slavery is alive, well, and perfectly legal.

    The biggest problem I see is recognizing the humanness will all share – for all the talk, keeping the ethic of reciprocity is foremost.


  22. Replying to myself is awkward and seems to carry the exchange further than Prof. Piglucci wants. Yet I have to say that Gopnik’s omission of the facts cited conclusively shows that Gopnik was much less in depth and insightful. (My quote came from the accompanying article which New Yorker added as a balance or corrective to Gopnik’s piece.) I don’t understand how any one can seriously think less detail and context is more in depth and insightful.

    Also, I forgot to mention that the French CP was not very left. Someone in the thread wanted to talk about some of the CP electorate turning to the National Front. Insofar as it’s true of survivors, it was acceptance of French imperialism and colonialism instead of commitment to Stalinist abstractions that played the larger role. If anything, rejection of Stalinist abstractions fostered any turn to the NF.

    We live in the Millian marketplace of ideas, which means there is a lot of confusion paid for. Some notions about politics are incoherent and false. Gopnik’s piece is a great (bad) example.


  23. Based on the reading list, the course sounds quite interesting. I don’t think that trigger warnings can or should be able to anticipate every possible source of offense or distress. It’s plainly not possible to do so. Again, the distinction needs to be made between offense/distress and trauma. It is a real and meaningful distinction. The voluntary policy I envision would involve a faculty or faculty/student committee, ideally composed of philosophers and psychologists, that could recommend best practices to instructors about what kinds of trauma related trigger warnings would be useful and what they would look like. I think it would be entirely possible to cover the most obvious triggering material in a few sentences for each book.

    I certainly applaud your parents for flourishing in spite of the horrors they went through and witnessed. I will say that not everyone manages to flourish in spite of trauma. Some need help, and some need more help than others. I see no reason to fail to provide help in appropriate ways where there is little cost in doing so.


  24. A couple of minor points, first: The trigger warning that allows students to walk out for any reason was quoted from a link in the article Prof. Pigluicci. So I think it has actually come up in discussion. And if this is the only specific evidence we’re working with here, regardless of whether the guy thinks he’s a leftist or not, he’s not stifling discussion right wing speech in favor of left wing speech. From the OP: “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.” Trigger warnings do not do this. They allow both left wing and right wing students to avoid discussion, which is not in my view the same thing at all.

    The larger point is what is deemed left wing. I think the historical record tends to show that punctilio about manners is about demarcating social status. And If I’ve understood discussions of ethnography correctly, brusqueness tends to be about asserting equality. The question is why we want to elevate such markers, important as they are individually, to the status of political questions? Politics is first of all about policy, things like war and peace, laws and administration. Trying to define some individual virtue as somehow political is arbitrary. Why would kindness to trauma victims be deemed left or neatness be deemed right? It is merely polarizing and disorienting to use such incoherent notions in political discourse. Of course, we do live in a Millean market place of ideas where such confusion and polarization is a valuable commodity, to be bought and sold to the profit of some.


  25. Massimo,

    “Yes, trauma does have specific connotations in medical and psychological practice, but it seems to me simply a misuse of the term to argue that someone is going to be “traumatized” by the discovery that one of her ancestors had raped or owned slaves. If that’s trauma, it’s going to be good for her, educationally speaking.”

    This strikes me as an excellent argument for engaging the specific connotations of trauma in medical of psychological practice. If it’s a misuse in that context, that strengthens your argument, if it isn’t then you’re likely to encounter reasoning about why that may constitute a trauma which you can then directly criticize..

    “However, she doesn’t have to explain much, in a manner similar to any other kind of disabled student, who has to go to student services — with proper medical documentation — and obtains a simple generic note to show the professor at the beginning of the semester.”

    This seems to equate psychological trauma with others forms of disability. I would argue that they are importantly different precisely because discussing trauma you’ve experienced can itself be traumatic. In the case I brought up of the student who had been raped, the note can’t be that generic, it would need to need to include enough info to make clear that the student had been through some sort of sexual assault.

    The requirement for medical documentation also seems to play into the concerns you express about the over diagnosis of mental conditions.

    “Also, are we assuming that someone who has suffered trauma X should therefore automatically be shielded from any talk of X, regardless of the context? That seems a bit too broad”

    Agreed that that would be too broad and I don’t in fact assume that (Hence my being careful and saying that discussing trauma can be traumatic, not that it has to be so).

    “First, because a number of such policies aren’t voluntary. Second, because university administrations have a nasty tendency to make the voluntary eventually mandatory.”

    The mere existence of mandatory schemes does not, in and of itself, seem relevant to the merits of a voluntary one. That said, combined with your second point it is relevant, but what’s the argument? Is it that a voluntary scheme is so dangerous to academic freedom and prone to misuse by admins that it shouldn’t be attempted by anyone, anywhere? If so, I would disagree as it seems a bit too broad.


  26. Hi Massimo, so I thought about it some more and I’m still not convinced about commencement speeches. I also realized I shouldn’t have been so glib, saying “leave their own party” because that called for the response you gave.

    First, let me be clear that I agree with you that there are other things students can do, which would arguably be more in line with libertarian free-speech concepts. These may be more intellectually fulfilling and useful than stopping a proposed speaker.

    That said…

    Censorship to me is shutting down (or greatly impeding) someone’s ability to communicate with others. It involves a third party coming between a speaker and an audience, functioning either as a filter or a muzzle on the speaker.

    As such, censorship is not someone selecting one speaker over another for their own entertainment/information. While such acts might be considered self-censorship, they are not intrinsically harmful to understanding or what I would take to be libertarian free speech.

    To be sure people can make poor censors for their own development. But poor self-censorship cuts both ways, some can be too selective and so restrict possible growth or some too open and so never develop any substantial body of knowledge on a specific subject.

    Life is finite, and censorship of some kind will happen or one’s entire life will be spent listening to everyone else, with no coherent structure. Indeed, just by choosing to read a book, over watching a movie, or listening to radio one has limited discourse in some way. And then one may select topics, or genres in order to focus and grow an area of knowledge. I would argue selection of some kind is necessary to gathering useful information into a body of knowledge.

    I guess the real question for me then is whether commencement speeches are about the students, the people who chose the speaker, or the speaker.

    If graduation ceremonies are about and for the students, then they have every right to decline one speaker in order to select from others. This can be for any reason, including the fact that they find the person irritating. It is their time, a very important moment for some, and I think they are not impeding anything by setting the tone for the memory they want to have of this specific event. Presumably someone will speak, and who is to say the next will not be just, or more, important?

    If graduation (and specifically the commencement speech) is about the faculty speaking to the students (as a farewell) or to the public (as an advertisement per the comic), well then I definitely agree with you that students would be acting as censors to reject any selected speakers. Of course as I said the faculty may have simply been mistaken in their choice (thinking the students would approve). I don’t see why students can’t express their preference and if faculty are more concerned with making them happy, rather than sending a specific message, it is still not censorship per se for them to change their mind. But yes, if this is something the faculty wants and students pressure them to change, that would be censorship and something students might want to reconsider.

    If graduation is about the speaker, then I would yet again agree that the students would be acting as censors to stop the speech. But I don’t see how graduations can ever be about the speaker. It is unlikely to be their only venue, with the cancellation of that speech shutting off their ability to communicate with the students or the world. It is one event. That is all.

    Personally, I believe that graduations are about the students, but maybe that is because up until now that is all I have been. According to that view, it is not censorship, other than the kind that people do for themselves naturally, and certainly understandable at important events they would like to enjoy (forming pleasant memories).

    I hope this makes sense.


  27. Interesting. So you are proposing some kind of body, with its infinitely wise members appointed on their merits, that could be appealed to, but from which there would be no further appeal, and whose decisions we would have to accept. A little bit like the Supreme Court, in fact.


  28. Massimo said, “A good commencement speech (and there aren’t many!) is both celebratory and somewhat challenging.”

    That just made me laugh out loud. I love you Massimo, but come on. Maybe in an ideal world, but celebratory and challenging are probably way down on the list of attributes that the commencement organizers are looking for. The commencement speakers are more about PR and fundraising coups than that. The last two I went to had Ed Catmull (president/co-founder of Pixar) in 2012 and Alex Smith (football quarterback) in 2014. Catmull was mildly interesting and Smith was coma-inducing. Neither had anything new to say, let alone challenging. They were selected because they would make alumni donors happy. I know that those two examples don’t represent the whole of commencement speakers but I suspect that Rice, Birgeneau et al were chosen for similar reasons. At least Catmull and Smith had the benefit of being beloved by the students as well.

    Regarding the discussion of being able to walk out of class. In my classes, students walk out all the time for a variety of reasons. In addition many students are engaged with anything but the class when they are sitting in the class–like looking at their phones. Students will avoid discussion at the drop of a hat. Discussion means that the class might go overtime. Or that the class might not cover enough material and the last few class sessions are spent as a lightning round trying to cram as much info in as possible before the final. Students have been very well trained to keep their mouths shut in class regardless of trigger warnings. On the page of “Trigger Warnings are Flawed” there is a link to a response: “Why I’ll Add a Trigger Warning” which I think is an entirely reasonable approach to trigger warnings that actually encourages discussion with the students.


  29. Hi Patrice,

    I am interested in your conception of an authority of truth and how it could be applied within United States government.

    For starters, I think Candy Crowley did an excellent job at refereeeing the 2012 Presidential Election Obama/Romney Debate (October 16, 2012, less than a month before election, correcting Romney on his Benghazi claims, something the GOP has not relented in spite of contrariwise evidence). In any case, I wouldn’t say the Republicans today resemble at all the Romans, but that if their Messiah in charge (usually an ideology rather than an actual real representative,like any myth) were ever to lose moral authority, Roman political authority would guide them just as well, i.e., they’re nototriously self contradictory.

    Not agreeing with the reductively minimalistic notion of “government” as smaller in overall size and function (basically incomensurate with the needs of the population being governed), I do think that government can be decentralized to ever greater smaller departments, so to speak, expanding rather than reducing overal government (and I think this is the general ambitious conception of the United States from its Founding).

    I’m a little disappointed to realize that liberalism is not built into the US Constitution as well (except for implications in the Bill of Rights, ten years younger than the Declaration of Independence that asserts rights as “god given” thus requiring its legitimatizing reiteration), I realize that interpretations will vary, individually, but not qite so much collectively. Consent and consensus are strong features of any democracy, no matter how disagreeable, too, unfortunately (or resentfully). Resentment is considered irrational, I think, as so the emotions are misconceived as antagonistic toward reasoning rather than a consequence of reasoning (or a consequence of reasoning poorly).

    This being said, do you think it possible to have an authority on truth in America, independent of electoral consensus or Judicial Supremacy? The Judicial Branch is actually the largest of the powers in their balance among their co-hosts, the executive and legislative (although the legislative would seem to hire more people and cost more, the judical branch is precisely the kind of expansion of rights and authority we should expect). I ask that because it would seem to consist of delegating an authority of truth, otherwise from that conceived by the US Constitution, to Universities (if there were any institutional alternative, aside from perhaps NASA or the EPA), but I don’t think that is a justifiable burden at all.

    There’s still something very mysterious about a higher education currciulum that requires American history for its Baccalaurettes (including algebra), but not American philosophy (nor logic, for that matter) which, I am uncertain, includes military academies. I say this because I consider algebra very boring, whereas logic is tremendously inspiring.


  30. me: “Surely, you must have heard of Oriana Fallaci”
    MP: Yes, and I have very mixed feelings about her writings, which were often manipulative and not necessarily truthful.

    me: “accepting that the wrong side is reasonably mistaken is stupid.”
    MP: I doubt I ever said that.

    < I mention Fallaci for her quite courageous stand against Islamic expansion, and not exclusively for feminist purposes (although that does justify warfare with rights violating nations), but for what she definitely regarded as meaningfully nationalist. In the US, we are often confused about individualism and nationalism, and that inevitable confusion I believe was anticipated by asserting the 1st Amendment freedom of speech to resolve in abeyance to any variety of other guiding principles and laws. Where Fallaci is concerned, absent individualism (perhaps there is a differently named ideology in Italy, I don’t know), but also absent racism (defending herself from such claims, which were asserted by Muslims, not ironically), while also inheriting a culture that freed itself of fascism (now, I wish I were Italian, although Berlusconi no great improvement), it just so strangely differs from the heroics and mistaken ideologies of my own country, the USA. I guess I don’t know how to handle my jealousy? I shave my mustache once a week, because I hate shaving every day, whereas I hear Italians don’t need to shave (and this makes me feel better, stronger, more handsome). Sorry, now I am indeed being humorous.

    I say the latter quote, ‘accepting that the wrong side is reasonably mistaken is stupid,’ because as liberals we are much too willing to accept adversarial error as either having been solved or that it will inevitably be solved (with great confidence in reasoning that seems the minority among competitors like myths and passions or cartoons), like blind optimism in human being and the struggle to survive. I think our appreciation for freedom of speech is mutual, too, but this topic interests me beyond just expression. What we are after, I think, as intellectuals, is comprehensive universal history (as so aspired by Kant, not only a classic philosopher but a classic Prussian, the partitions of which likely distracted him from ever leaving home).

    Liberalism differs greatly from libertarianism, and the seduction of the latter due to the neglect of the former I believe is due to cajoling adversaries for fear of their greater threats (e.g., libertarians shutting down government for fear of taxation, rather than accepting taxation as required of their growing industrial population). As a Liberal, seeing liberal mistakes (e.g., the WHO protests prior to 2000) just upsets me (although the OWS protest shared my participation).


  31. Well, it might be off the prime target of what Massimo’s post was about, but I don’t see Massimo censoring either one of us. So, I guess what you’re trying to say is, “We’ll agree to disagree.” Or, if not, simply, “We’ll disagree.”

    No problem.


  32. I sympathize with the general tenor of this post, but I take great exception to the inclusion of any defense of Condoleeza Rice. Technically, Rice is a war criminal; she has no greater right to speak than that allowed to Goering by the Nuremberg tribunal after WWII. She should be in jail; truthfully some of Bush II’s people should not even be walking the earth if they had been brought to court.
    The weakness of the American left revealed itself in its failure to demand public trials for the Bush regime. The Democrats could have been as radical as the Republicans after the Civil War. Instead they swept all sorts of criminality under the rug and -“hey, that’s in the past, so let’s forget and move on.” Business as usual – continuance of American exceptionalism and American power trumped the Constitution, let alone decency and common sense. This stain is corrupting our discourse, our politics, our ability to reason about foreign and domestic policy. If it feels (as it does to many of us) that our ‘representative democracy’ is somehow slipping away from us, it may be because we refused to confront – demand accountability, punish those involved, regret and repent by policy correction – the criminality of the Bush regime, the most corrupt and outright evil of all American presidential administrations.
    “But that’s all past! we can get on with the business of American business now!” Yeah, tell that to the 5k – 1mil Iraqis that Rice helped to kill.
    The blood of these dead (and those dying in Iraq as a I write) is on the hands, not only of the Bush regime and its apologists, but of all who would prefer to look the other way – perhaps on all of us.
    There have to be lines drawn. Murderers must not be allowed to speak just because – “hey! free speech!” No. Not for torturers. Not for murderers. Not for traitors. Not for criminals. Not for Condoleeza Rice.


  33. To say that: “Camus supported French colonialism” is not a correct abstract of that philosopher’s position. It’s even an horrendous statement. Most people living in Algeria did not support the FNL. How do I know this? Among other things, there was a vote!

    People who did not support the FNL did not, in general, support the French colons, who were a small, distinct class… And they did not support those colons for the same reasons that they did not support the FNL. By the way, the present president of Algeria is still an ex-general from the original FNL.

    Sartre, and many “intellectuals” support of the extremely cruel FNL was an offense against civilization (later pursued with his support of hard core “Maoism”). The FNL advocated publicly terror torture of toddlers. That some elements in the French army used torture on some terrorist suspects is a separate issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Paul: I did not mention “decisions”, “no further appeal”, “would have to accept”, “infinitely wise body”. That, indeed fits the descriptions of the existing Supreme Courts, in the USA, and other places (EU, France, Germany, UK, etc.). Been there, already done that.

    What I propose is completely different, a sort of official publicly debating society, with huge public input. Closer to Wikipedia than to the SCOTUS. It would be just an element of a general democratization of society.

    The aim would not be to establish all truths, in all matters, but officially help determine some official truths (something Congress, SCOTUS, the FDA, Homeland Security, the NSA, etc., already do for their own counsel… in amateurish, secret, or corrupt, fashion).


  35. I continue to see major problems. There are a number of useful fact checking organisations, and I believe the League of Women Voters exercises some of this function during American elections. Indeed, in a sense, all public debate is part of this fact checking exercise.

    But I don’t see how the top-down creation of some kind of truthfulness commission could avoid its being beholden to the very interests that it is there to criticise. Nor do I see how any body could be created that would appear credible to contending parties. What kind of truth commission would be acceptable both the National Academy of Sciences, and to the creationist churches? Or to the climatological community, and the well-organised body of professional climate change denialists?


  36. A belated admission. I was among those who wrote to Washington University asking them to withdraw their invitation to Phyllis Schlafly as Commencement speaker. I justified (justify) this decision on the grounds that her opposition to evolution displays a level of intellectual dishonesty, or, at best, incompetence, incompatible with the ideals of a University.

    I would not, however, have been justified in my action merely because her views are repulsive. It was a bizarre error of inattention on behalf of the Administration that allowed one faction on Faculty to get her invited, and the Administration should not have allowed itself to be so tricked. After all, freedom of speech does not imply a duty to give a platform to all and sundry, especially when, as at Commencement, there is no corresponding counter-platform. And I believe that the Administration has since tightened up its procedures, to make sure that there is broader scrutiny and opportunities for comment on such invitations. However, withdrawing the invitation once issued, on the grounds that the person invited would express repulsive views, or even on the grounds that the person had performed repulsive actions, would, as SciSal argues, have been an unacceptable positive limitation in discourse.


  37. Patrice,
    Keep in mind that authority is top down and truth is a judgement. What you describe is a dynamic process, but any conclusions become a consolidation and distillation of some aspect of that process and everyone would like to tilt it ever so slightly in one direction or another. I’ve been trying to argue it might be productive to examine how this process of distilling information and making judgements occurs in the abstract, but it doesn’t seem to get much traction.


  38. Peter:
    I may have given some clarifications in various comments I made here. I am suspicious of universities, because, as they are in the USA (and now increasingly overseas), they depend all too much upon money, and, or, power (even France is gained by that virus).

    For example, I don’t expect UC Berkeley, with its sweet accommodations with some fossil fuel companies, to dish out the truth in fossil fuel matters.

    Truth would be as the Senate was in the middle of the Roman Republic, purely giving “counsel” in matter of truth.

    The Roman Republic had multiplied the institutions checking and balancing each other, and often without real powers conferred to them… Except as indicators of where the truth may lay. That system worked well for nearly four centuries… precisely, I claim, because it was so good at finding the Truth.


  39. Presumably they do it because the speakers they want won’t speak unless they get a check for a hundred thou’ or two. The question is: why do these very prominent thinkers, many of whom are no doubt concerned by the rising cost of higher education, and most of whom are not anywhere close to wondering where their next meals are coming from, think they deserve to hold up colleges for those fees? Apparently they are just charging what the market will bear.


  40. Reblogged this on Liam Uber's Blog and commented:
    An interesting example of how reductionist thinking (there is a Left and a Right), a necessary device of communication, quickly leads down the path of illogic and self-contradiction. Excellent, though, as an insight into other minds, similar or dissimilar.


  41. Very late and hence brief comment. I am very glad youre poking around articles of those with whom you disagree. May I suggest Bleeding Heart Libertarian? (Good site run by professional philosophers, though occasionally -obedient to the laws of the internet-over zealous.) As some one who leans right (I think anyway) my main frustration with the left is they often dont discern between normative and positive claims. Its often assumed that if you favor a growth oriented policy (meaning lower taxes and less redistribution) you must not believe in a Rawlsian type of obligation to the poor. This is false and very frustrating.


  42. “a growth oriented policy (meaning lower taxes and less redistribution)” I find this positive claim strange (let alone its normative assumption that, in itself, growth is a good thing.) It may have some merit when the chief economic problem is inflation, but during a depression greater inequality, such as we have seen in recent decades in the West, increases the propensity to save, while reducing demand and hence the profit-making opportunities that drive the propensity to invest, thus exacerbating the problem. Krugman (Nobel Memorial Prize winning economist) is very good on this.


  43. Mr Braterman,
    “during a depression greater inequality, such as we have seen in recent decades in the West, increases the propensity to save, while reducing demand and hence the profit-making opportunities that drive the propensity to invest”
    This is starting from a LOT of neo-Keynesian assumptions of which I am highly skeptical. Krugman (Nobel Memorial Prize winning economist) is truly awful on this. I particularly loathe Krugman because he routinely presents an open debate in macro-economics (that between neo-Keynesian and monetarists/rational-expectationalists etc) as closed. Now this is an open question of economics and I cant say that neo-Keynesians won’t turn out to be right, but given what I know Im inclined to throw in with the other side. Yet this is exactly the kind of “stifled discourse” I am worried about. I find many of my educated friends read Krugman in the Times and little else and are just not really aware there is another view out there. (Let me just say again though, Krugman’s type of approach is received as extremely compelling in academia and I dont fault him for putting it out there for public consumption just his repeated attempts to portray his own perspective as the only serious one).

    Also insofar as I understand what it means to take “growth is a good thing” as a normative assumption I am fairly sure I do not.


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