SethBlogs is suspicious of any ideology that attempts to erase criticism and counterargument.
FREE SPEECH FROM FEMINISM SERIES:
III: FREE SPEECH vs. FREE SPEECH (you are here)
In my recent FREE SPEECH FROM FEMINISM posts, I describe what I believe have been disruptions to free expression in the last few years by so-called feminists on Canadian universities who not only protested, but also attempted to bar men’s and equal rights groups from presenting speakers who possessed counter-narratives to academic feminism. I referenced a debate on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, with English professor and feminist skeptic, Dr. Janice Fiamengo, and free speech advocate, Justin Trottier (National Policy Director at the Centre for Inquiry), arguing on the one side that the above-described campus feminists were indeed exhibiting actions that infringed on free thought, while their opponents in the discussion, feminist and philosophy professor Dr. Alice MacLachlan, along with feminist, writer, and activist Rachel Décoste, countered that the protests were beautiful examples of the sort of free expression that fuel free thought.
In this spin-off post, I’d like to examine a pair of contentions made by the MacLachlan-Décoste team, which I found to be logically objectionable.
(1) The “You benefitted from it” argument:
In trying to prove that the suppressing treatment that Fiamengo received on university campuses was, in fact, an example of free speech, MacLachlan points out that Fiamengo’s ideas may have received greater exposure as a result.
“I was only recently made familiar with Janice’s [Fiamengo’s] experiences,” MacLachlan said. “I had the chance to watch them on youtube. And what I saw warmed me. I saw people who cared very much about gender issues, some identifying as feminists, some identifying as men’s rights activists, vigorously, wholeheartedly, and determinedly engaging with each other. Yelling, not always being polite. And as a result, I know that Janice’s work has received a much wider audience, including a platform on this show. I think this is the very opposite of silencing and it’s how a society of free speech works.”
Later, Fiamengo asked MacLachlan “how [she] would feel if [she] were giving a talk and [she was] shut down by a group of protesters? Would [she] say, ‘This was a wonderful example of freedom of speech,’ if [she] never got to say [her] first sentence?”
This provoked MacLachlan to reiterate her argument that the protests had ultimately served Fiamengo well.
“I would certainly not frame it in terms of freedom of speech,” she said. “How I would feel is I would feel shocked. If that led to a much wider platform for my views, including an entire episode of The Agenda being dedicated to them, I’d probably be pretty pleased about the whole thing, and I suspect that’s the case for [Fiamengo] as well.”
This is a dangerous game of unintended consequences justifying troubling means. It may be the case that Fiamengo’s career has, in the long run, been enhanced by the discussion provoked by the troubling actions of these protestors; it’s also possible that Fiamengo’s reputation has been injured by the shameful and baseless accusations that she is a misogynist and a rape apologist. I have no idea whether, on the balance, Fiamengo has benefitted or not from these protests, but for the purpose of this discussion, I will stipulate that she has done well by them. However, such a result does not retroactively justify crimes and attempts to censor Fiamengo and other speakers.
The question in this debate is whether particular actions of the protestors were legitimate or not. The notion that some of their alleged victims inadvertently benefitted from their alleged crimes should have no weight whatsoever upon our assessment. Similarly, someone who is the victim of an assault may consequently receive positive public attention that offers them career opportunities that they might not have otherwise had. However, I hope that we all agree that such unintended proceeds do not justify the assault. I see no difference here.
(2) The “You started it” argument:
This one requires some context. In her defense of the notion of quelling Fiamengo’s public presence in universities, Décoste argued that Canadian civil rights do not promise her a platform.
“The charter of rights and freedoms guarantees freedom of expression,” she explained. “It doesn’t guarantee you the right to dispel your drivel, really just untruths, to impressionable minds with a mic, and amplifier, and an audience of impressionable students.”
Thus, she concluded that, while she technically disagreed with pulling fire alarms, it was not appropriate for Dr. Fiamengo to spread her counter-to-feminist-gospel ideas at a university of all places.
“I don’t agree with the fire alarms pulled,” she said, “but when somebody says that the statistics that we’ve been based on forever are wrong, and therefore rape is not as much of an issue as it should be, I think that draws laughter, if not crying, because it’s just so preposterous. So, if she wants to speak, that’s fine, but she doesn’t get to have the forum of our publicly funded universities, paid for by my and your taxes, to disseminate that information that’s just not right.”
Apparently, while Décoste may not agree with something as dangerous as fire alarm pulling, she does ask the state to pull a metaphorical alarm before such a scandalous talk.
Décoste’s philosophical opponent, Trottier, argued in reply that drivel-banning would be a tricky, because, strangely, not everyone would have the same definition of unworthy speech.
“These are public universities,” he said. “We all pay through tuition subsidies, that kind of thing, from the government. Many of us are students at these universities, and have differences of opinion. We all pay tuition to attend them. The thing, though, is if we can pull back for a second, free speech starts from the very simple premise. I may be wrong. I am fallible in my opinion. You were just referring to what happened, and what Janice was saying as ‘drivel.’ I don’t think that I’m in a position or I can decide for everyone’s sake what’s drivel and what’s to be heard. And, when we have opponents who set themselves up as arbiters who block the doors so that other students can’t judge for themselves what’s drivel, and what’s maybe a gem of wisdom, I think there’s a problem there.”
This provoked both Décoste and her compatriot MacLachlan to claim that Fiamengo had put herself in that very role of speech-arbiter when she criticized feminism:
“Janice [Fiamengo],” Décoste said, “first talked about how it was ‘radicals’ who were against her. So she’s characterized people who were against her as radicals when they’re just citizens with opinions that are offended by what she’s saying, and the characterization of radicals is already starting in that direction that she started, actually.”
“I might add,” MacLachlan echoed, “that many of Professor Fiamengo’s talks start by her characterizing a whole swath of her colleagues as ‘intellectually empty, incoherent, and dishonest.’ This is exactly the sort of conversation move that’s designed to provoke a fierce, angry, or laughing response.”
A major problem with this “She started it” defense is that it’s a false parallel. Fiamengo did not load her criticism with the additional weight of telling those with whom she disagreed that they had no right to speak. Unlike Décoste, she did not tell her opposing “citizens” that they should not be allowed an audience.
“My challenge to you all tonight,” Fiamengo said, at the conclusion of her talk at the University of Toronto, “is to be true scholars, real thinkers, genuine intellectuals. For those of you who are doing feminist work, let it be genuine feminist work. Be open to evidence that might take you in surprising directions. Research your subject fully. Do not mistake self-righteousness for scholarly passion. It’s an intoxicating emotion, but it is ultimately hollow and unreliable. And avoid the temptation of blaming the usual suspects. For those men and women of good will here tonight who are uneasy with things you hear in university classrooms, educate yourselves so that you can challenge the myths of academic feminism. And do it with style, not with nastiness, not with slander, not with personal attacks, especially not with hatred.”
While Fiamengo does express the view that modern academic feminists have lacked scholarship in their work, she does not argue that they should be silenced; instead she suggests that both wings of the discussion feed their arguments with facts, and engage in respectful debate. In no way does she live down to Décoste and MacLachlan’s accusation of hypocrisy: she does not, that is, advocate reaching for the nearest fire alarm when one is bothered by feminist arguments. Nor does she suggest that her harsh diagnosis is justification for universities to cancel feminist presentations on campus.
Nevertheless, MacLachlan expanded upon the “you started it” defense by arguing that being yelled at by protestors was a natural consequence of insulting them in the first place.
“If you set out to say things designed to offend and harm people,” she explained, “you can’t complain that your free speech is being violated when people respond with offense, anger, and protest… [free speech] doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a platform to speak.”
Once again, this is a mischaracterization of Fiamengo’s argument: she is not saying that protestors don’t have the right to argue or protest (although I suspect she would criticize some of their methods as anti-intellectual); the only behaviours that she refers to as infringements of free speech are those that physically bar others from being heard. It is only that kind of physically imposed dogma that she and Trottier argue crosses a crucial protective line that a free society must have.
MacLachlan, though, is not dissuaded by this distinction; instead, she delicately transitions from the (probably true) premise that Fiamengo offended some students, to subtly advocate for university censorship.
“[Free speech] doesn’t mean you get to speak all the time,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that public universities necessarily have to make a place for you or that, if students at those universities want to protest you being given a platform to expound ideas they find harmful, offensive, insulting to their experiences, that they don’t have the right to object to that, by whatever means they have.”
It is only MacLachlan and Décoste who actually suggest or imply in this debate that university censorship may have a legitimate place in such disputes. Never does Fiamengo or Trottier argue for censoring dissent.
“I would certainly never complain,” Fiamengo said (in response to MacLachlan’s argument above), “that my free speech was violated because people responded with anger or laughter. My point about the Queen’s speech [where students called out and sarcastically laughed during the presentation, but no fire alarms were pulled] was that that was an ideal example of freedom of expression and of lively debate… [But] To say that objection and absolutely shutting someone down who has been invited by a university group, who has rented the space that that university group’s dues go to pay for, and has been invited to speak to a group of students, some of whom want to hear what the speaker has to say, to say that it’s okay to shut that down, that that doesn’t somehow count as a suppression of free speech, seems to me absolutely non-sensical.”
Nevertheless, MacLachlan’s strange reversal—of claiming for one’s own side the injury of censorship when one is criticized for having advocated censorship—is an interesting phenomenon (which is not localized to this debate: see the Intelligence Squared debate regarding whether “Free speech must include the license to offend”).
Whether it is sincere or not, the “You censor me when you criticize me” defense demonstrates that even the censorship-apologists (to borrow from a vicious phrase) want to protect some controversial speech. This overlap between both sides ought to have brought us back to Trottier’s vital question: when censorship is contemplated, who, indeed, should be the deciders as to which controversial presentations are unfit for public contemplation?
“Who is going to decide?… Who will you appoint? Who will be the one who says, ‘I know exactly where the limit [on free speech] should be. I know how far you can go. And I know when you’ve gone too far. And I’ll decide that’? Who do you think, who do you know, who have you heard of, who have you read about in history who you would give that job?”
It may be the most challenging question that the true believer in the limiting of free expression must contemplate. Even righteous free speech will sometimes offend, so what moral framework can be utilized to make a distinction between what is offensive and worthy of consideration, and what is offensive and unworthy?
Unfortunately, due to the red-herring claim that the protestors were being censored, too, MacLachlan and Décoste were spared taking on this daunting question.
If you would like to examine my examination of this debate for fairness of quoting, I have included a transcript of their conversation as the first comment on this post.
FREE SPEECH FROM FEMINISM SERIES:
III: FREE SPEECH vs. FREE SPEECH (you were just here)