Some thoughts on free speech, the public sphere, inclusion and virtue

Often, when someone is ridiculed for publicly saying something that others deem offensive, the person who made the initial statement claims that they have freedom of speech and thus are being unduly criticized for their statements. The response to this is typically that while people have freedom of speech they are not free from criticism and ridicule for what they say. This final response reflects the libertarian conception of free speech in which each is free to speak freely, but must deal with the fact that others can criticize them for their speech.

The libertarian conception of free speech is very intuitive in that it suggests that each should have equal liberty to express themselves, while allowing a similar liberty for others.  But if we think about what a public sphere looks like that operates according to this libertarian conception we will see that the public sphere will never be a space where everyone will feel free to express all of their beliefs. If I hold beliefs that I know others find offensive I will not feel free to express these publicly in a public sphere operating according to the libertarian conception of free speech for fear of offending people and any further consequences that flow from that offense such as diminished career opportunities. This means that creating a public sphere that allows each to speak their mind freely will not necessarily create a public sphere in which each feels free to express their beliefs.

Now of course this does not mean that the libertarian conception of free speech is problematic; it just means that societal inclusion will not be completely fostered by adopting a libertarian conception of free speech as some will always fear condemnation from the majority, at least as long there is diversity of belief. The result of this is that it seems impossible to create a public sphere that is free in the sense that each can speak their mind without legal condemnation and one in which people feel free to speak their minds.  But there seems to be a yearning for a space in which we feel completely free to express ourselves. If the public sphere cannot provide this what space or spaces will?

My provisional answer is that the public sphere is not meant to be a space where we feel free to express our deepest convictions, but instead friendships, romantic relationships and other smaller communities, such as book clubs, sports teams and political associations, form these spaces. Having people who we can talk to about our deepest beliefs without fear of judgment is deeply important as it allows us to open up to others and have authentic, genuine conversations where we fully connect with another. But, the public sphere cannot provide this space to people as the diversity of opinion within the public sphere means that being fully open about one’s beliefs will always be a challenge for some.

However, while the public sphere cannot offer a space where all can feel free to express themselves, fear of the judgment and censure of others can negatively affect the public sphere, and the political community as a whole. if people are deeply afraid to express their beliefs,  because they fear they will be ostracized or isolated ,they will not feel included in the society, and will consequently be marginalized to some extent.  So we cannot just pretend that the idea that the private sphere offers the space in which we can feel free to express ourselves is completely adequate, as this would mean that we would be condoning marginalization and exclusion within the public sphere. To my mind the solution to this issue is not to try to limit speech as this would destroy the very core of freedom of speech. Instead, one strategy that allows us to limit the pernicious effects of fear of condemnation, isolation, and ostracism for the things that one says is the encouragement of particular virtues and the discouragement of particular vices in the citizenry as a whole.

The main virtues that need to be encouraged to deal with this issue are free spiritedness and courage. Free spiritedness allows us to see that our beliefs do not need the approval of others to be valid or valuable, and courage allows us to face our fears of condemnation. These two virtues thus allow us to more strongly speak up for what we believe in, rather than just trying to say what we know will please others, and a public sphere full of these kind of voices is better than one in which people avoid saying anything that may offend others.

Similarly, the vice that needs to be discouraged to deal with this issue of inclusion is fanaticism.  By fanaticism I mean the tendency to see your beliefs as the only reasonable set of beliefs that a person can hold, such that you wish to eliminate the influence and ostracize all of those who disagree with you. If this vice is avoided, or at the very least its influence is limited, this will allow people to feel more at ease expressing their deepest beliefs because while they know that others may deeply disagree with them, they do not have to fear being ostracized, or seen as someone whose influence is toxic to the public sphere. Even if fanaticism is discouraged and free spiritedness and courage are encouraged in this way this will not mean that people will feel entirely free to express their beliefs as some beliefs will undoubtedly offend many, but it should help to foster inclusion while still allowing all to freely express their opinions.

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The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.