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The Argument Against Campus Censorship

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What we can learn from John Stuart Mill and Andrew Altman about the inevitable problems with attempting to regulate hate speech.

Photo by: Nanette Asimov, SF Chronicle

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Hate speech is a difficult topic to discuss. It is a unique category of speech, with the power to conjure up truly terrifying thoughts of oppression, torture, and genocide in the minds of those at whom it is directed.

It is a subject inherently averse to the cold, logical perspective with which we must approach it if we are to avoid falling into a dangerous trap.

For recipients of hate speech, it can be a traumatic experience. In light of the dehumanizing nature of such speech it is understandable that in the spirit of empathy for their fellow man, many have called for bans on hate speech — particularly on college campuses, our privileged institutions of higher learning.

Andrew Altman, professor at Georgia State University and Ph.D in Philosophy, has done a good job of examining different types of hate-speech regulations and the various ways in which they conflict with the liberal principle of viewpoint neutrality.

Though he makes a convincing argument, his case for limited censorship still misses the larger points inherent in 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill’s argument for a more free and open marketplace of ideas.

I argue that if our most fundamental, inalienable right, our freedom over our own thoughts, is not to be infringed upon then no reasonable regulation can ever be placed upon campus hate speech, no matter how vulgar or unpleasant.

To understand the value inherent in universally protected free speech, we must begin not with the most egregious examples of its abuse but rather with its philosophical underpinnings as an inalienable human right.

In his work, On Liberty, Mill argues that speech is an essential liberty, even going so far in defending the right to say that “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” (Mill 30)

He fundamentally believes in a completely open marketplace of ideas, where nobody however right they may perceive themselves to be can place any legitimate restriction on speech.

In defending the hypothetical one man whose ideas oppose those of all mankind, Mill allows for the fallibility of humanity — a theme also present in the philosophical underpinning of the concept of viewpoint neutrality.

This defense tacitly acknowledges the reality that, throughout much of human history the broad aggregate of, if not the entirety of our population has held beliefs to be absolute truth which are now verifiably false.

Had the first men who spoke of the notions that the Earth is round or that we came about as a result of evolution been unable to express these ideas without gaining sufficient traction, the whole of humanity would have never progressed in ways we now take for granted.

To Mill, the need to silence an idea might almost seem to represent a weakness in the beliefs of the silencer themselves. After all, if an idea is so fundamentally wrong then those who believe it to be so should have no problem easily proving themselves right — why would any reasonable person balk at an opportunity to strengthen and reiterate their own beliefs?

In this way the marketplace of ideas is mutually beneficial, not just for those wishing to express their deviant, subversive, hateful, or other minority opinions without being silenced but also for those in the majority wishing to strengthen and advance their own ideas, always striving towards some inherently unattainable greater truth.

At another point in his work, Mills writes that “The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it.” (Mill 22)

This assertion throws a serious wrench in attempts by Altman or others to regulate speech on any basis, as Mill argues that our freedom of speech is, in and of itself practically inseparable from our freedom of thought.

This is a valuable insight from Mill, considering that speech is an inherent facet of the symbolic world through which we experience life. We grow up and are taught at least one spoken language, through which we learn to assign meaning to our surroundings and thus develop a cognitive understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Speech is inherently inseparable from thought. Considering that our thoughts invariably take the shape of words, it is impossible to ever think anything that cannot be spoken, and similarly we cannot say that which we cannot think — there is a sort of chicken and egg problem raised.

Extrapolating off the idea of this “chicken and egg” analogy, as it were, between speech and thought, one is left with the conclusion that an attempt to restrict one is invariably an attempt to restrict the other.

To kill the chicken is to guarantee that no future egg shall be laid, and to crack the fertilized egg is to ensure no chick will hatch — the perpetuation of the life cycle being synonymous with the health of Mill’s marketplace of ideas.

The relationship between speech and thought does differ in that thoughts are not tangible, physical commodities which anyone could make a reasonable attempt to police. Therefore, any attempt to regulate thought would clearly be an impossible and foolishly unenforceable endeavor.

However, the nature of the relationship holds up in that if an attempt to regulate speech in any form is made — a proposition clearly on the table for Altman — it would consequentially represent an equal attempt to regulate the thoughts of those whose speech would be silenced. This attempt to regulate thought will, inadvertent as it may be, inevitably remain just as ill-fated and untenable as any other.

Once considered through the paradigm of regulating thought, the notion of regulating hate speech becomes problematic for a host of new reasons.

For example — while you and I might disagree on the value of regulating speech within a campus, we can likely still agree on the hypothetical scenario that if strict rules were implemented and enforced campus-wide, one could reasonably expect to observe some resulting decrease in the type of speech now being prohibited.

Thus on the surface the ban on hate speech would seem to be working, as long as the prohibited speech is no longer heard on campus.

Looking deeper and considering the inextricable relationship between speech and thought, however, it should become clear that even if a ban on hate speech appears to be working on the surface, the passions fueling that speech still burn just as brightly in the minds of those who believe it.

It then wouldn’t be unreasonable to speculate that they might even feel further inspired in their hatred as a result of a perception of being persecuted. In a nutshell, even the best intentioned regulations on hate speech fail to get at the root of the problem they are actually seeking to solve — the hateful ideology behind the speech.

In Liberalism and Campus Hate Speech: A Philosophical Examination, Andrew Altman makes the case for a narrow yet still ultimately problematic form of regulation on campus hate speech.

He begins his argument by running through previously proposed broader forms of regulation on hate speech, a device which serves the dual purpose of priming the reader on the background of the issue as well as framing his own restrictions as the narrowest and most thoroughly thought-through amid several other more irresponsible ones.

Altman then attempts to impose some confines within which he proposes campuses ought to regulate hate-speech while still paradoxically remaining true to liberal beliefs, “Ideally, a liberal argument for the regulation of hate speech would show that regulations can be developed that accommodate these deeper concerns and that simultaneously serve important liberal values.”

“I believe that there is such a liberal argument. In order to show this, however, it is necessary to examine a kind of wrong committed by hate speakers that is quite different from the harmful psychological effects of their speech.” (Altman 260)

The distinction he makes is between the harmful psychological effects of hate speech on which others have based their arguments, and what he asserts is a different, deeper sort of “wrong” committed by hate speech.

Essentially, Altman is willing to draw at least one line in the sand by acknowledging that to restrict speech on the premise that it will provoke some sort of emotional response in another would not be wise.

He does not advocate for hate speech restrictions based on harm in the same way others have, deciding instead to make a case for something called a “speech-act wrong”, in other words any speech which serves essentially to dehumanize another person.

Altman argues that by doing this, he can target the very act of dehumanization itself while simultaneously separating it from the hateful ideology causing the human vessel to commit the act.

To put it bluntly, this is an impossible proposal — a reality Altman almost seems to hint at himself by recognizing that his argument must contain an asterisk in the form of a refutation on why it doesn’t violate viewpoint neutrality.

He does an excellent job of articulating the same principle which also happens to represent the hamartia in his valiant case for censorship, “The liberal principle of viewpoint-neutrality holds that those in authority should not be permitted to limit speech on the ground that it expresses a viewpoint that is wrong, evil, or otherwise deficient.” (Altman 258)

Even within Altman’s own argument, the reason that he’d propose to censor hate speech is only separated arbitrarily from the reasons he lists here as illegitimate — he believes in the censorship of any ideology which leads us to view a group of our fellow humans as subhuman, regardless of the lines amongst which we’ve been divided (I believe he rationalizes his departure from viewpoint neutrality by making this distinction — not caring about how the particulars of hateful ideologies divide us up).

He believes this exactly because of the reasons he lists above, that any such ideology is deeply wrong, evil, and somehow otherwise deficient. That’s a belief I share as well.

The only problem is that as much as I, Altman, and the rest of liberal academia might believe them to be fundamentally flawed and therefore worthy of censorship, these ideologies are ideologies nonetheless.

Some number of living, breathing, human beings on planet Earth believe them to be true and there’s not a thing we can do about it. That’s a tough concept to confront, one which leaves us staring back at the cold, hard reality of Mill’s marketplace of ideas.

The fundamental liberal philosophical underpinning of viewpoint neutrality which Altman failed to observe in dismantling it was that of the infallibility of humanity. By attempting to pick up the impossibly heavy reins of absolute truth and label some ideas hateful and therefore worthy of censorship, he unwittingly departs from the recognition of his own infallibility.

The salient point here is that, even if he happens to be right — even if those ideologies are all fundamentally flawed and terrible — he was still wrong in trying to censor them. He was wrong in thinking that he could draw boundaries around the marketplace of ideas.

The marketplace only works because there are no boundaries, and any outlier will inevitably be brought back towards the mean in the aggregate. To censor the speech of those with hateful ideologies might be a tangible proposal, but to censor their thoughts is fundamentally impossible.

For that reason, to censor them only serves to kick them out of the marketplace altogether, and the marketplace’s integrity is dependent upon universal participation.

If those who hate are forced out of the common market and relegated to some other space, eventually they will find their own markets in which they will fester and reproduce, spawning new and evolved forms of hatred possible only as the result of an artificial incubation.

In the meantime, the original marketplace will have become philosophically hollowed out as a result of not having had to refute aberrant hateful ideologies and therefore hone its own best understanding of truth in a never-ending pluralistic exchange of information.

Eventually those incubated, hateful ideologies will inevitably clash with the dead dogma and corrupted remains of the original marketplace, resulting in their inevitable reconciliation, however ugly the clash might be. That is the true danger, ignored by the well-intentioned, self-righteous academics who fail to see just how self-defeating such censorship can be in the long term.

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