Archive for category Res Publica
What is the difference between an opinion and a belief? Let us say that a belief is an opinion with reasons. One of the objectives of public debate in a democracy should be to promote opinion into belief. We must demand reasons. But many Americans are not comfortable with this demand. “It’s just my opinion”: this bizarre American locution, which is supposed to provide an avenue of escape in a disputation, suggests that there is something illegitimate, even disrespectful, about insisting upon the defense of a proposition. Yet the respect we owe persons we do not owe their opinions. Political respect is axiomatic, but intellectual respect must be earned.
This is another snippet from the very quotable defense of reason by Leon Wieseltier I linked to earlier. The last point here is key: We could agree with Kant that we are obligated to respect persons for their inherent dignity and worth as persons. But no idea has inherent dignity or worth. Even though our identities are in large measure constituted by our ideas — our hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations, in short, our beliefs and opinions — we are not only our beliefs and opinions. To the extent we remember this, we are less likely to claim to be offended when we are simply disagreed with. Offense leads to fights; disagreement furthers both our arguments and may lead us both on to a clearer picture of the truth.
There are people who prefer ardent thought to clear thought, and loyal thought to strict thought. There are people who mistrust thought altogether and prefer the unarguable authenticities of the heart—the individual heart and the collective heart. There are people who regard thought […] as an activity of an elite…. Yet the ideal of ‘clear and intelligent thought,’ stripped of its condescension and its indifference to the non-rational dimensions of human life, deserves to be defended. We need not be a nation of intellectuals, but we must not be a nation of idiots.
Read the rest of Leon Wieseltier’s reflections: Reason and the Republic of Opinion.
Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in a multifaith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it.
That’s from a well-argued an essay in the Wall Street Journal by John O’Sullivan. The essayist is a conservative (associated with the National Review), but his reasoning calls to mind the more classically liberal John Stuart Mill.
Mill-ian Reasons for Free Speech
In Mill’s essay On Liberty, he argues passionately and persuasively for an absolute prohibition of restrictions upon freedom of speech and conscience. Mill gives four basic reasons for his position:
- The view that is being silenced might be true, so to silence it implies our own infallibility. But we must admit that we are not infallible, and so we ought not to silence the offending view. If we were to silence it, we might be unjust not only to the persons holding the offending view but even to ourselves and to posterity. We might, in silencing that view, be cheating ourselves and generations to come of the opportunity to exchange error for truth.
The offending view will likely contain at least a kernel of truth. As philosopher Ken Wilber put it, “No one is smart enough to be wrong all the time.” [^1] the prevailing view is unlikely to be the whole truth. By preventing a clash between the offending view and the prevailing view we are denying ourselves the opportunity to come to a more complete truth.
If we don’t allow the prevailing view to be regularly and vigorously contested by exposure to contradictory opinions, that prevailing view will come to be held in the manner of a prejudice. In fact, as Mill puts it, it will become just one more superstition.
Views held in this latter manner become weakened and their meaning gets lost. People no longer really hold the view based on conviction and experience, but as a mere empty formula. We end up not even knowing what we believe or why we believe it. These prejudices stifle our opportunity to come to genuine convictions. In short, our chances to become authentic, free persons are at risk.
For all these reasons, all views ought to be open to being contested. In fact, says Mill, if we were ever to get to a point of full unanimity on a particular view (never fear!), we should consider appointing something like a “Devil’ Advocate” to serve as an official opponent of the unanimously held view just so people would know not only what they believe but why.
Now, as Mill would be first to admit, this argument itself is arguable, and today it has an increasing number of opponents. O’Sullivan’s piece offers a list of efforts to curb freedom of speech from all sides of the political spectrum, including initiatives on the part of his own conservative camp. Nat Hentoff wrote a book entitled, Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee (1992). It’s subtitle is: “How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other,” and that could also serve as a summary of O’Sullivan’s essay.
Sticks and Stones and Words
My mom used to tell me that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” On the other hand, the opponents of free speech tell us that “words hurt” and argue that hurtful uses of words ought to be prohibited. Who’s right? I think in fact that words can hurt very much. For instances, the messages that kids receive from parents, teachers, and clergy can stick with them through life, and many of those messages can be quite damaging. Bullies can be mean not only with their fists but with their tongues. Racist views, ethnic prejudices, and gender stereotypes congeal into unjust practices.
If words are the cause of these evils, should they not be prohibited?
Perhaps we should listen to the sage advice of Thomas Aquinas:
[H]uman law cannot punish or forbid all evil deeds: since while aiming at doing away with all evils, it would do away with many good things, and would hinder the advance of the common good, which is necessary for human intercourse. (Summa Theologiae I.II.91.4)
In other words, we have to weigh the cost and benefits of prohibiting speech with the aim eliminating certain evils, and the conclusion of that analysis shows that it is (almost?) always more beneficial to protect the freedom of speech at the risk of having someone suffer hurtful words. Free discourse and the right to disagree are conducive, on the whole, to the common good and are certainly necessary for the preservation and advancement of culture.
Indeed, we could apply the Pauline principle (Romans 3:8) that we ought never to do evil that good may result from it. Freedom of speech is a good, the suppression of it an evil.
Thus I say: Offend me! I take very seriously my right to be offended. So go ahead: take issue with my religious, philosophical, political, and aesthetic views. Show me the error of my ways! I am not going to complain you are “forcing your morality on me” (unless of course you try to get your view enacted into a law such that it may never be questioned again). What I hope you will do is argue with me, if in fact we disagree, and not just hurl epithets. We do not have to be mean spirited to have a spirited debate. But if you’re simply going to call me names, go ahead. One of us will end up looking more stupid and vulgar than the other (spoiler alert: it will be you).
And while we’re arguing about freedom of speech, we can argue about the hard cases. We can argue about whether only human persons have this right to free speech or whether fake, militarily defended corporate “persons” have this right, too. We can argue whether freedom of speech means we have to accept the money influence on elections. We can argue whether non-speech expressions of ideas are also protected (burning books and flags, for instance). There is a lot to argue about. I will assume that neither of us wants to be wrong. If so, then resist will all your might the temptation to silence your opponents.
Free speech for me AND for thee!!
So here is an idea for voting reform. What do you think? [Hat tip to my student Scott K. for making me aware of CGP Grey‘s thought-provoking videos.]
I read that thing on not voting.
What did you think?
It raised issues for you?
Yes. For instance, what about the senate race in Virginia? It was won by about 17,000 votes. That’s not a lot of votes.
Sounds like a lot of votes.
Well, it’s not in a state the size of Virginia. And what about the Maryland gubernatorial race? In the weeks leading up to the election the eventual loser was leading in all the polls, in some by double digits. So maybe what happened is that people who supported the leader in the polls took that advice in the article…
It was not meant as “advice.”
…took that advice to stay home, thereby allowing the other candidate to win. Isn’t that a great argument in favor of voting? Every vote really does count?
The article did not argue that one should never vote. If there is a close race with candidates with clearly different views on issues that matter.…
Yeah, but the article implied that if a race looked already sewn up that voting doesn’t matter. Well this race looked decided according to the polls, but, as they say, there is only one poll that matters. And the result was very different when the votes were counted.
You cannot say with any kind of certainty that the reason the loser lost (after being ahead in the polls) is that only those people who supported the eventual loser decided to stay home because of their candidate’s lead in the polls. It is entirely possible that the eventual winner (despite being behind in the polls in the run-up to the election) made a big advertisement push, or that the polls seemed to concern those people who supported the eventual winner and so motivated them to make sure they voted. There could be a number of reasons for the outcome.
Okay, what if the race would have been won by exactly one vote?
Then if I voted for the person down by one, there’d have to be a run-off (after what I’m sure would be very, very expensive additional vote counting, law suits, etc.). If, on the other hand, I had voted for the person up by one, that person would’ve won by two.
So there’s just no reason to vote?
I did not and have not said that. I am just trying to get us to look at what is going on with voting in all its complexity. So, for instance, I am also asking whether in the Maryland or the Virginia race or any other, whether there is a real difference between the candidates. If, to give another example, you voted for Obama because you didn’t like Bush’s war mongering, you had to be sorely disappointed. There turned out not to have been a dime’s bit of difference between them in the real world.
You’re making me not want to vote.
Well, that’s not my intention. I hope what I’m making you do is to think a lot more about voting than you probably do. You might still vote (even if I don’t). And in the future I might vote in some election in which you don’t. What I’m opposed to is mindlessness in voting (and non-voting, for that matter).
I just heard a guy on the radio say that in his “political manifesto,” he’d make it mandatory that people vote.
Okay, the argument that it be mandatory to vote (but not, evidently, mandatory that the voter be educated, that the candidates be clear on their positions, that the dissemination of views not be skewed by money, and so on), is that if everybody participated we might have a different looking country. The guy implies that he thinks it is solely a moral failing on the part of non-voters (the lazy bastards!). But is that accurate? Is there a real, legitimate, justifiable reason that people have for not voting? I think there is. I think a large part of the electorate has those reasons. I do not think it is the case that those who vote are more informed and more civic minded than those who don’t. The non-voters’ engagement with their communities might take a much different and, in the current conditions, much more effective form.
I heard that two-thirds of the electorate did not vote on Tuesday.
Yes. And my point is that that must be concerning to all of us, but we ought not to jump to the conclusion that non-voters are just lazy, that voters are more informed than non-voters, that voting must be made mandatory, etc. It is a sign of disease among the citizenry, but the patriotic scolds have almost certainly misdiagnosed it.
So, to everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.
— President Obama, press conference, November 5, 2014.
Thank you, Mr. President. I wanted to be heard.
I did not vote on Tuesday. I willfully did not vote. I specifically, purposefully, intentionally did not vote. I want to explain, but what follows should not be taken to be an argument against voting per se nor is it meant to be a criticism of your decision to vote (if in fact you did vote).
First things first, however. I have no intentions of being moved by those patriotic scolds out there who are about to chastise my not voting, nor will I accept their proposed punishment that I keep silent, that I have no right to complain about the government. That is blatant nonsense. I was endowed by my Creator with a right to express my views, an inalienable right, an irrevocable, unconditional right, accorded me by the very fact that I’m a human being. To quote the philosopher M.C. Hammer: “U can’t touch this!” I’ll not be silent (and neither should you be).
I have asserted elsewhere that my not voting does not nullify my right to vote. A right to vote is not an obligation to vote. My right to vote is not contingent upon my actually voting. It is not “use it or lose it.”
We know that some people had to fight very hard for the right to vote — women, for instance, and people of color even today in the face of the sham voter id. rules. It was a great and noble fight, to be sure. But consider that the right had to be fought for. What does that mean? It means that there was some person or persons who had the power to deny that right to the disenfranchised. But what does that tell us? That the “right” to vote is really — in actuality, not in theory — viewed as a privilege. People worry, then, that their privilege could be taken away. That is part of the reason so many people get evangelical about voting: they consider it a “use it or lose it” privilege.
But it is not and ought not to be viewed as a privilege granted by somebody to others. It should be considered a simple offshoot of the right to freedom of speech. Voters and non-voters alike have, in my view, an inalienable right to have a say in the governance of their lives, and no one has the right to view voting as a privilege that could possibly be revoked.
I admit to anarchist tendencies, and anarchists tend to be critical of voting. But one can be a principled anarchist (and that is not an oxymoron) and still vote — in certain circumstances. While the midterm elections were going on, my neighbors were out campaigning. Not for a gubernatorial candidate but rather for their positions on two referendum questions pertaining to our neighborhood alone: whether we should allow ourselves to have motorcycles and whether we should allow ourselves to install invisible fences for our dogs. My neighbors have been going door-to-door, circulating arguments, and so on. Residents are taking two weeks to hold the vote (ballots being accepted at any time during that period). I am certainly going to vote on these two issues. Notice that I said this issues concern our “allowing ourselves.” We are not supplicants to somebody else in those matters. We deliberatively and collectively are determining for ourselves how it is best for us to be. Of course, not everyone will be pleased with the outcome, but given that reasonable people can disagree, this kind of deliberative democracy, though imperfect, is about the best we can do. I’m all for it. It is not that anarchists must be opposed to order or organization; rather, the argument is about the forms of that organization.
The voting that was going on down the street at the polling place is much different. I have no fear of contradiction when I assert that most of the voters had no idea of the actual policy positions of the candidates (and that’s not entirely the fault of the voters, by the way). Even the candidates for local office are simply names on yard signs to most voters. People, I’m sure, tended to vote their party affiliation without any real understanding of what it means to be “Democrat” or “Republican” at the local level, and I expect they don’t have a very clear idea of the actual (and not simply the rhetorical) difference between the parties at the national level.
In addition, I am confident that most of the voters exhausted the entirety of their civic engagement in those few moments in the voting booth. They equate democracy with voting. They equate voting with being a patriot. They equate voting with civic responsibility. And when they’ve pulled the lever, they are done with all that.
Now these are the scolds who are very quick to criticize anyone who chooses not to vote in a particular election. I’ve spent more time on just this present set of reflections (one of many) than most people did “performing their civic duty” on election day. And it is a fair question whether this humble essay will have more or less (positive) effect on the world than one voter’s vote. For instance, the incumbent governor of Pennsylvania effectively lost his chance at reelection two years ago. The result was a foregone conclusion, a done deal. The governor-elect barely had to break a sweat. He even declined to dole out the customary “street money” ($340,000 in this case) for greasing the wheels on election day. Why? He claimed noble reasons (“I don’t want to pay people to vote for me”), but in reality he simply did not need to spend the money. We all knew he won before the polls even opened.
You might say that if everyone had my attitude, the outcome might have been different. But not everyone has my attitude, do they? Not everyone is particularly interested in participatory democracy. They’re interested in voting. So long as they are, the outcomes in races like the one in Pennsylvania are eminently predictable.
I am for the most part unimpressed by the “lesser of two evils” argument for voting…and especially for voting for one of the candidates from the Big Two parties. “Don’t you see, if you don’t vote (or if you vote for a third-party candidate), you’ll be helping Evil Candidate X win the election. Therefore you must vote for Slightly-Less-Evil Candidate Y who represents the Slightly-Less-Evil Other of the Big Two Parties. It is the lesser of two evils.” But why do evil at all? Why not work, even if it is your own humble little way (kind of like your vote), to promote an alternative to the evils of the two party system?
Now I don’t want to be partisan in this post, but have you seen some of the people you voters have elected? I for one am not going to be lectured to about political wisdom by people who voted for…no…I will just have to resist naming the stupid and/or corrupt people you voters put in office. You know full well — don’t you? — who they are. And if you do, shame on you for electing them. And if you don’t, well, you’ve got nothing to say to me. I mean, one state returned to office a person whose entire platform is dedicated to being completely obstructionist. In other words, this person’s mission is to not to govern at all — not in the “that government governs best which governs least” sense, but in the sense that this person will work hard simply to thwart whatever the other side would like to do…even if it really were to contribute to the common good. Should I be complicit with that?
Nationwide, $4 billion was spent on this election. Four billion dollars! Our public schools are run down, our infrastructure is crumbling, our natural world is being devastated, and you voters — yes! you must take responsibility — wasted $4 billion on these elections. Money well-spent, would you say?
I am a registered independent voter. I am not permitted to vote in primary elections because I do not belong to a political party. In many districts, office holders are selected in the primaries — the disparity in party affiliation making the general election moot. In fact, I think I ought not to be allowed to vote in a primary election. Granted that we’re going to continue to have these kinds of elections, I think the parties themselves should select their candidates. However, I do not think I ought to have to pay for these elections. Let the parties fund their own selection process for their candidates. Why should I have to pay for the workings of a party with which I have little common interest?
Or here is an alternative: Public financing alone for this step in the process. All parties and their potential candidates for the general election, not just the Big Two, have equal access to the polls and to a reasonable array of public media in order to present their respective cases. You could do all this for a lot less than $4B. Worried that this would stop all the tv commercials and robo-calls to your house (hahahaha…of course aren’t…it’d be a blessing!) and that this would be an infringement of freedom of speech? Don’t worry. You’ll get over it. The public media will give you plenty of opportunity to hear all sides on all issues — in fact, you’ll have way more information than you get with all the attack ads you have to endure now.
There are lots of other election reforms that we could discuss, all of which would serve to strengthen democracy (i.e., that would start do do away with this fake democracy the patriotic scolds perpetually mistake for the real thing with a kind of religious fervor). But let’s leave that for another day.
Let me reiterate: I am not arguing against all voting. I am not saying I will never vote, no matter what. I am not telling you that you should not vote. I am simply pointing out that not voting is not the moral failure that some of you voters claim it is. Unlike you, I am not a Manichean about politics. I don’t think there is One Party of Light and One Party of Darkness. I think — only because it is true — that there are lots of political parties, but that we don’t get to hear much about them because of all you Manicheans. I am reminding you that voting is not all there is to democracy, and it is perfectly possible (I know, because it happens to be actual) that you can hold elections and still not have a genuine democracy. I recognize that there are non-voters who don’t vote out of apathy (but is the apathy entirely their fault?) or from laziness. But there is also a certain laziness in perhaps the majority of voters, who, thoroughly uninformed, sheepishly head to the polls yammering in their Manichean way about how the sky will fall if Evil Party/Candidate X wins the race. Some even declare, in that event, that they’ll leave for Canada. But, alas, they never do.
Truthfully, I don’t want them to. What I want is an increase in democratic participation. As things stand, I don’t think that is accurately measured by voter turnout.