Tag Archives: clarification

Clarification To “Sacred Principles As Exhaustible Resources”

Since about half the commenters in yesterday’s post seem to have misunderstood me as saying something I don’t believe, I guess I had better explain.

(serves me right for writing a mere 1000 word post – how could I fit all the necessary caveats and clarifications?)

First, I am not saying that Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray are bad people who don’t deserve the protection of free speech. I don’t know much about Peterson, and my impression of Murray is positive (he’s the only public figure I know who shares my view that genetic meritocracy is really scary insofar as it means that many people are poor through no fault of their except but bad genes, and who agrees with me that the most ethical response would be a universal basic income). I think both of these people deserve the protection of free speech, and I tried to make that clear throughout the essay.

My qualm wasn’t with the Harvard students’ choice of Murray and Peterson, it was with the process they used to select those choices: invite the most controversial person they can think of. Now for all I know maybe that wasn’t quite their strategy: they did mention rejecting Milo because of his heckling, so there seems to have been some screen for palatability. But insofar as it was even sort of their process, I think the process is wrong no matter what names it spits out. If for some reason they spit out Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi, I would still think it was a dumb process. This wouldn’t mean I think Lincoln and Gandhi are bad people who don’t deserve free speech, it means I think you shouldn’t be trying to maximize controversy and offense, no matter how decent the names you eventually come up with.

One hopes Charles Murray pursues what he thinks is true, and any offense caused is unintentional. But somebody “looking for the most controversial speakers” is pursuing what they think is offensive, and any truth caused is unintentional. Even if they end up with Charles Murray as their speaker, and even if Charles Murray is an okay person on the object-level, they are making a serious meta-level mistake.

[EDIT: I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SAY THIS ANY MORE CLEARLY, SO I WILL JUST SAY IT IN ALL CAPS AND HOPE THAT HELPS. I AM NOT AGAINST DEFENDING CHARLES MURRAY AND I DON’T THINK THAT PEOPLE SHOULD AVOID INVITING HIM TO CAMPUS IF THEY’RE INTERESTED IN HIS IDEAS. I TOTALLY SUPPORT MIDDLEBURY INVITING CHARLES MURRAY AND I AM AS UPSET ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED THERE AS YOU ARE. I AM SAYING THAT IF YOU INVITE CHARLES MURRAY TO CAMPUS, IT SHOULD BE BECAUSE YOU ARE INTERESTED IN HIS IDEAS, AND NOT BECAUSE YOU WANT TO INVITE A GENERIC OFFENSIVE PERSON AND HE FITS THE BILL.]

Second, I wasn’t saying we should avoid using free speech to defend people beyond a certain level of badness. Everybody deserves the protections of free speech no matter how bad their opinions. I was saying that we should avoid deliberately seeking out the worst people we can find and turning them into highly public test cases. Publicizing a good case improves public support for free speech; publicizing bad cases drains it.

The NAACP decided to support Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus because they thought she was photogenic and likeable. They’d stayed out of previous similar cases because the people involved didn’t seem likeable enough. Another black lady named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat, and the NAACP decided not to make a big deal of it because she was a teenager pregnant with a married man’s baby and “looked lower-class”. They thought that people would be more sympathetic to a clean-living middle-class defendant as a test case, so they waited until they found Parks – who was perfect.

And you can say what you want about that – maybe they were a bit Machiavellian, maybe this is to their discredit. But it worked. Thanks to Rosa Parks, everybody – pretty or ugly, rich or poor – has the right to sit where they want on a bus. I feel like the free speech movement is trying the opposite tactic: looking for the most hideous, deformed, universally loathed axe murderer to sit on that bus and become their test case. Not only does that make them more likely to lose their test cases, it makes things harder for everyone else. I understand the temptation, because free speech as a principle is about protecting the unpopular. But this doesn’t mean that the political process of defending free speech needs to be.

I am not saying that free speech is only for attractive popular people. I’m saying that if you are looking for a test case specifically to promote the value of free speech, and you do it by deliberately searching for the ugliest and most hate-able person you can find, you’re doing it wrong.

If your pitch to potential supporters is “our science club was trying to learn about science, and we invited a well-known scientist, and now oh no we’re embroiled in a controversy, please help”, that’s a good test case. If your pitch is “our controversy club was trying to cause controversy, and we invited a well-known controversial person, and now oh no we’re embroiled in a controversy, please help”, that’s a bad test case. Even if you invited the same person both times.

Attempts to “promote free speech” and “raise awareness of free speech” are basically about test cases – done to promote the principle, rather than to use the principle. And if you’re going to do that, you had better do it well.