Free Speech: What It Is and Why It Matters


Aleksey Bashtavenko

Academic Composition

“However unwilling a person who has a strong opinion may be to admit that his opinion might be false, he ought to be moved by this thought: however true it may be, if it isn’t fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma rather than as a living truth. ”

John Stuart Mill

The First Amendment guarantees that the “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of people peaceably to assemble”. This provision clarifies the point that the government cannot pass a law criminalizing the act of free expression. However, certain spoken statements could constitute an act of violence, provided they can be regarded as a root cause of violence against others.

“An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard” (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty).

In his famous statement, John Stuart Mill noted that such acts of violence in speech occur when the speaker clearly encourages others to take violent action against others. Nonetheless, individuals who are often silenced and censored seldom directly promote such behavior. At the very least, before the act of censoring takes place, the accusers must show that the allegedly inappropriate commentary directly causes harm to others that goes beyond the initial emotional reaction to the statement in question. The burden of proof should always be on the accuser, not on the accused.

Following in the footsteps of Herbert Marcuse, the left has embraced the doctrine of Repressive Tolerance. In line with this thesis, the left maintains that everyone has the right to be free from fear and misery. Consequently, they hold that the government is responsible for the individual’s personal well-being. If the government fails to achieve this, they believe that the citizens should take matters into their own hands. In other words, the hooligans must antagonize anyone who stands in the way of progress. In other words, the implication of Repressive Tolerance holds that a mere instance of “emotional harm” is as violent as a physical assault. Consistently with Marcuse’s thesis that everyone is entitled to freedom from misery, the PC left aspires to relieve the individual of their personal responsibility to be happy and obligates the state to care for their emotional well-being. In this sense, the environment of safe-spaces where micro-aggressions are policed is a microcosm of the ideal society the hard left intends to impose upon society.

Their position leaves a number of obvious questions that they seldom manage to answer convincingly. (1)  Why should the individual’s personal well-being be the responsibility of the state rather than their own? After all, it is the responsibility of clinical psychologists to help their clients develop healthier emotional dispositions with the purpose of empowering them to solve their own problems. This implies that it is entirely possible for people to overcome micro-aggressions and other personal slights simply by achieving a higher level of mental health. (2) How can the proponents of Repressive Tolerance usurp the First Amendment and grant themselves the power to silence individuals who agitate their mentally unstable peers? (3) How can the doctrine of Repressive Tolerance avoid falling down the slippery slope of totalitarianism? In other words, what stops the enforces of political correctness from abusing their power? (4) Who gets to decide what is truly offensive and where can the lines be drawn on what types of utterances can be banished? Most definitions of micro-aggressions do not require a reasonable person to regard the utterance in question as offensive. Instead, all that needs to be shown is that someone has simply taken umbrage to the aforementioned claim. (5) How can the proponents of Repressive Tolerance solve what Friedrich Hayek referred to as the “Knowledge Problem“? Although Hayek developed his argument within the context of economics, it is applicable to a broad range of social problems. In order to solve any complex problem, one needs access to a great deal of information by engaging in a vigorous exchange of ideas, often at the risk of committing the so-called micro-aggressions. For example, in order for the “scholars” of Women’s Studies to properly understand the relations between genders, they must consider the findings of biologists on this matter.

Marcuse and his followers never answered these questions and instead stigmatized their opponents as “crypto-fascists”. However, it is possible to provide a seemingly plausible defense of their views by regarding them as a reflection of Plato’s Philosopher King thesis. In the Republic, Plato proposed a theory of knowledge to suggest that one may cultivate an understanding of politics similarly to how one may do so with respect to mathematics. In other words, if one is sufficiently intelligent and dedicated, they may solve any political problem, just as they would be able to do so for a mathematical proof. While it is questionable that even the most intelligent cohort of political thinkers could develop a comprehensive solution to all political problems, it is far from clear that they will have the will-power to do what is right.

To address this problem, Plato developed the tripartite conception of the soul. As Plato had it, the soul consisted of three elements: the logical, spirited and the appetitive. The latter two corresponded to the passionate and the instinctive parts of the human psyche, while the former represented the intellectual capabilities. Plato maintained that the Philosopher King should be able to subjugate his egoistic instincts to his rational judgment. In other words, the Philosopher King knows what is best for the public and has the moral fortitude to do so, irrespective of whether they welcome the change.

In the opening volume of “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, Karl Popper identified Plato’s Philosopher King thesis as the basis of a totalitarian ideology.  Popper’s analysis shows that if it is possible and desirable for the most capable of politicians to govern, there is no reason for leaders to tolerate dissent. Plato elaborated upon this point by drawing an analogy between statecraft and the endeavor of piloting a ship. For good reasons, the most capable of seafarers have the privilege of captaincy and in many cases, they have no reason to take orders from their less knowledgeable colleagues. If politics is a craft in the same sense that sea-faring is, there is no reason for the Philosopher King to consider any objections he may face from his constituents.

Popper traced the development of the Philosopher King doctrine to the philosophy of Hegel, who argued that the Prussian state had the authority to determine the nature of public morality. In stark contrast to the legal positivists who insisted on a distinction between law and morality, Hegel maintained that only the legislators could know the nature of morality and they have codified their insights into law. Building on this premise, Hegel developed the philosophy of “dialectical idealism” which provided a comprehensive account of historical progress. Hegel’s contention was that ideas shaped social reform and such developments frequently occurred within the Prussian State. In other words, the Prussian State embodied the Platonic Idea of the “perfect state” and therefore, all dissent should be suppressed.

Walking in Hegel’s footsteps, Marx famously asserted that he stood Hegel on his head and to this day, Marxism the blueprint for the prototypical totalitarian state. In the “Open Society and Its Enemies”, Popper traced the origins of totalitarian ideology to Plato, Hegel and Marx. The common ground between the three thinkers is apparent: their political philosophers are rooted in the Philosopher King thesis. Similarly, Marcuse’s doctrine of repressive tolerance empowers the intellectual elite to determine who the truly intolerant people are and when they should be censored.

The intellectual successors of Marcuse and Marx have gone on to develop a various schools of thought under the banner of post-modern relativism, which held that objectivity was a fiction and that all claims to a knowledge of truth are merely expressions of prejudice. While the post-modernists have observed that the dominant groups of society will assert their interests, they neglect to apply this criticism to the academic leaders who represent their interests. In most departments of the humanities, registered Democrats outnumber their Republican counterparts by a wide margin. Predictably, the professoriate continues to assert their group interests at the expense of their peers who are a minority in the collegiate milieu. Examples, where right-leaning professors have been subjected to hostile treatment, are numerous and continue to proliferate.

When confronted about their intolerance, academics tend to cavalierly dismiss all of such allegations, insisting that “truth has a left-wing bent”. In other words, they tacitly invoke the Philosopher King thesis, implying that the views of the intellectual elite are beyond scrutiny. Yet, evidence suggests that human knowledge is context-specific and scholars who are highly proficient in their field seldom have the ability to apply it to a broad range of other endeavors. For example, as Daniel Kahneman has shown, even the distinguished scholars of statistics are not good “intuitive statisticians”, as they often commit elementary errors when forced to solve statistical problems in a real-world context. Despite the enormous frustration progressive professors express at the leaders of the Democratic Party who reject their erudite advice, it is quite likely that the guidance of academics could be misleading in as many ways as it is helpful.

The ethos of totalitarianism is ingrained in the collective worldview of the academic left. It is also worth noting that the ideological descendants of Marcuse and Marx tend to be densely concentrated in the humanities and fields where findings are subjected to rather lenient standards of empirical evidence. Hence, the far-left activists are far more common in departments of Gender and Queer studies than in Economics. This is a clear reflection of the underlying philosophical tendencies of leftist activists who oppose free-speech. They are wedded to the Philosopher King thesis which leads them to believe that it is acceptable to silence those who question their apparent wisdom.

In stark contrast to Plato, Aristotle regarded politics as an empirical craft that one learns through trial and error. Building on his distinction between episteme and techne, he argued that no level of intellectual ability allows one to grasp the art of statecraft in an a priori fashion. By contrast, he likened political skill to tangible crafts rather than the purely intellectual undertakings. Consistently with this rejection of the Philosopher King thesis, Aristotle maintained that the rulers inevitably display self-serving bias. Furthermore, in order to solve that problem, it is necessary to create a system where the power-holders have minimal incentives to oppress other groups of people.

Aristotle correctly observed that oligarchy allows the rich to pilfer public resources and depredate the wealth of the polis. Conversely,  if the poor are to have their way, they will oppress the rich. On the other hand, if the middle class were to seize power, they would have no reason to oppress either class. While the members of the middle-class are not any less self-interested than the poor or the rich, they can act as the buffer between the competing class interests. In the interest of creating political stability, it is always desirable to expand the middle class and this should be the key objective of any economic or political agenda.

John Stuart Mill developed the distinction between offense and harm, maintaining that the state should intervene only if one individual directly harms another. However, a mere offense is not a legitimate cause for such an intervention. Consequently, the left’s arguments that their opponents threaten the marginalized groups’ right to exist should be regarded as complaints about offensive speech, rather than as harmful action. Yet, because these instances do not involve a direct call to violence and cannot be regarded as a cause of hate crime, there is no reason for the offensive communicators to be censored. Accordingly, all statements that do not directly harm others are to be protected under the clause of free speech and should be tolerated under all circumstances.

Although the principle of freedom of expression may have intrinsic value, its practical benefits cannot be overstated. In the absence of vigorous public debate, the Philosopher King thesis will remain entrenched in the nation’s collective consciousness. It is imperative that authority figures are subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Otherwise; the political decision-makers will likely become corrupt, mismanage public resources and adhere to misguided political doctrines. As a result, the public’s trust in institutions will decline, as the official state ideology will be treated as a “dead dogma” rather than as a living truth. That is precisely what happened in various Marxist-Leninists states of Eastern Europe and Latin America where the economy collapsed, the public lost respect for the rule of law and the Communist Party executives could only rely on brute power to enforce their unearned authority.

Above all, politics should be treated as a practical craft where knowledge is gained in an a posteriori fashion. Consequently, the study of politics should bear a closer semblance to the scientific method than to the one that is employed in the ideologically motivated departments of academia. When freedom of expression becomes a universal value in all spheres of public life, it will become possible to challenge political power and ensure that policy-makers consider a variety of facts and viewpoints in their decision-making process. Although it is seldom possible to keep political power in check and to ensure that politicians keep an open mind to all relevant information, the value of free speech promotes the achievement of these goals.

It is not a coincidence that the most vehement opponents of free speech seldom reside in the departments of the natural sciences or that of rigorous humanities, as serious scholars tend to recognize the importance of free inquiry and academic freedom. Conversely, the worldview of the PC ideologues would collapse if tolerance for the diverging viewpoint was to become part of the culture of their community.

University campuses are the bastions of anti-free speech activism and several steps can be taken to redress this problem.

  1. Defund the ideologically motivated departments: Much of the curriculum in courses on Women’s Studies, Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Transgender studies are predicated on a denial of scientific facts about biological gender and genetics. In most cases, these courses do little to help students think critically or to learn the basic facts of reality. In most cases, they are scholarly fronts for left-wing activism that teach students to jump to conclusions, offer emotional responses to complex issues and to vilify their opponents. For these reasons, such courses invariably debauch their minds and contribute to the precipitous decline of the intellectual caliber of the student body.
  2. Support various initiatives that promote viewpoint diversity on college campuses, Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy is the case in point.
  3. Collaborate with individuals who intend to expose professors who abuse their authority to push a political agenda in class. Of course, it will be next to impossible to track all purveyors of such demagoguery, but the most egregious of perpetrators can be identified and exposed.
  4. Defund non-profits that are known for their opposition to freedom of expression. Additionally, organizations that tend to make a promiscuous use of derogatory epithets such as “racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe, white nationalist” and so on, should be kept under closer supervision. For example, the SPLC labeled Charles Murray as a white nationalist because his findings on IQ suggested that European-Americans tend to outperform African-Americans. Murray’s contention was supported by a wealth of data and nearly all psychometrists acknowledge the existence of the racial gap with regard to the IQ test-scores. That is a well-documented fact, although most psychometrists maintain that 40 to 80% of one’s IQ is a result of genetic factors .  It is necessary to question the culture and moral authority of organizations that are more concerned with promoting a political agenda than with educating the public.
  5. Discourage others from majoring in ideologically motivated fields and persuade new college students to enroll in universities that are known for their viewpoint diversity. Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy will prove to be an invaluable resource in this respect.
  6. Oppose all political proposals to increase funding for universities or expand the availability of federally funded student loans. Once college students begin paying tuition on their own endeavor, universities will be forced to become more sensitive to the financial needs of the students. As a result, the tuition rates will drop and less funding will be available to the Politically Correct departments. Consequently, the universities will need to focus on the truly essential courses that appear to impart practical skills onto the learners.
  7. Oppose grade inflation. Various prestigious four-year universities admit more than half of their undergraduate applicants. For example, George Mason University boasts a 69% admission rate and 84% of applicants who wish to enroll at Marymount University are admitted. Likewise, Michigan State University accepts nearly two-thirds of applicants, as their admission rate is 65.7%. An abundance of underqualified students creates enormous pressure for administrators and instructors to lower their standards. As a result, these circumstances create the preconditions for the emergence of entire academic departments where students can pass with flying colors merely by toeing the party line.
  8. Support professors who call for funding for rigorous departments. Commonly, such departments are in the STEM fields or the traditional humanities, such as Economics, Philosophy, History and Political Science. With additional funding for rigorous academic disciplines, it is likely that the university culture will become more tolerant and open to the value of free speech.
  9. Support university administrators who insist on requiring students to take challenging classes. These developments should create a “crowding out” effect, which will push the politically motivated courses to the fringes of academia, where they belong.
  10. Promote alternatives to formal university education. Various organizations now provide “boot-camp” training to individuals who wish to learn computer programming, web development, and other technical skills. Evidence suggests that boot-camp graduates perform at a level that is comparable to that of their peers with formal university degrees. In a similar vein, the Trump administration encouraged employers to provide apprenticeships and various other forms of on the job training to their new hires. Programs of this nature need to be supported, as when a larger portion of the population begins seeing them as a viable alternative to a formal education, the opponents of free speech will see their political influence dwindling.

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