Musings on PC tyranny, ruling classes, and empty formalisms
July 23, 2010 § 10 Comments
Our country does have a ruling class. All countries always have a ruling class. There isn’t anything outrageous or objectionable about this. There are doubtless objectionable things about the content of our ruling class: who they are and what they do. But there isn’t anything objectionable about having a ruling class. Every community of any significant size throughout all of history has had and will have a ruling class.
The big difference in America is that our country is founded on the idea that ruling classes are illegitimate: that just powers of government do not by nature inhere in a ruling class, but rather derive from the consent of the governed. This is demonstrably false. As a result, we Americans spend a tremendous amount of energy telling lies to ourselves and pretending that things are different than they are in reality.
We put great stock in ignoring substantive content and leaning on empty formalisms. So for example we invoke a formal “right of free speech” – independent of the substantive content of our speech – as the reason why we should be permitted to protest at abortion clinics; not realizing that by invoking this empty formalism we are making the same kind of error as those we protest against. The “pro-choice” advocate asserts a right to “free choice” divorced from evaluating the actual content of that choice, much as we insist on a right of “free speech” divorced from evaluating the actual content of that speech. We could defend our right to protest murder specifically because it is murder, acknowledging at the same time that not all speech is acceptable nor should all speech be legal in every context. “Pro-choice” speech is not morally acceptable, and arguably – as incitement to commit murder – ought to be illegal. But we don’t do that; so we end up undermining ourselves. Socially conservative protest in a modern polity, because of the particular forms it takes, does little more than reinforce the foundations of the very things protested.
Generalized, the principle behind content-agnostic “equal rights” seems to be the formalization of agreeing to disagree. Agreeing to disagree is something civilized people often do: indeed agreeing to disagree is a basic feature of the civilized as contrasted to the barbaric. The problem with making “agree to disagree” the foundation of politics though is that it mostly works for things which aren’t politically important: the more crucial the exercise of political power is to a particular subject of dispute, the less “agree to disagree” works. After all, pro-choicers simply want pro-lifers to agree to disagree that abortion is murder.
As a result of all this a mature liberal society like ours is founded on PC tyranny: at one and the same time we have to pretend to support free speech and – because the content of speech actually does matter, despite the lies we tell ourselves – ruthlessly punish un-PC speech. PC tyranny isn’t an unnatural abberation. It is the natural, adult stage of a polity founded on empty Enlightenment formalisms. And the only way to fight it is to reject its foundations.
We'd be a lot better off, though, if pro-choice actions–i.e., actual abortions–were banned and pro-choice speech–i.e., arguments that abortion should be legal–were not. Speaking for myself, I'm not sure it's all that important to me that pro-choice speech be banned. In fact, if it were banned, it would probably just make it look exciting. (Look at the way that banning Holocaust denial in Europe has worked. I think the Holocaust deniers have gotten a boost from that ban, in a sense.) I'd be happy to live in a world in which abortions were banned, pro-choice speech (print, articles, etc.) were legally permitted (though any publisher could refuse to publish them if he wanted, any vendor could refuse to sell them, etc.), but everyone but the authors laughed at them.
I agree that prohibiting actual murder takes precedence over prohibiting public advocacy of murder, FWIW, and in any case “illegal” covers a pretty broad range. Driving faster than the speed limit is illegal, and seems to me to be less harmful and offensive than public advocacy of murder.
I suppose I would even agree that ideally the social consequences of public advocacy of murder would be so great that legal prohibition would be imprudent or unnecessary.
There are all kinds of other interesting practical questions, though. For example, I'd have a lot more sympathy with a European law according to which you couldn't form an official political party based on advocating Holocaust denial (say, with the policy goal of getting it taught in school textbooks) than with the law that faces you with jail time for Holocaust denial.
Similarly, I was shaken up a little in my free-speech-ism when there was a Dutch party formed with one of its policy planks being trying to get pedophilia legalized. (Of course, it was more a publicity thing than anything else. I believe in the end the “party” had only two registered members or something like that. So I guess social ostracism was working.)
But I do think it makes more sense to ban political parties that made legalizing murder a party plank than banning advocacy of murder generally.
In the same way, I don't think we should fine people for teaching that Mohammed is the prophet of God, but I can perfectly well see banning Muslims from being prison and even armed forces chaplains. In fact, I think that's only sensible. Modern society is sufficiently complicated that there are all sorts of ways in which government can disfavor a point of view without actually making its advocacy a punishable offense.
Seems to me a case could be made for this: while there is no such thing as an absolute political or human right to free speech, since error has no rights, there is a relative right to free speech, both granted by and limited by the common good. Generally, most of the time, it is not going to improve the common good to have the state be the watchdog of truth in public speech: the drawbacks are common and serious. Therefore, generally, it is going to be a bad idea to set up laws and mechanisms to have the state exercise judgment about the truth-value of public speech.
There are, however, certain matters that are so important to the common good that error about these will tend to undermine the common good more than having the state step in and judge the issue will tend to damage the common good. Such as, just for example, the truth that the state exists for the sake of a common good with respect to man's temporal order, and which is by nature subservient to man's eternal good. And the truth that there is such a thing as human nature, fixed and determined by our Creator. Public speech which forms error about such matters could so gravely upset the common good that it would justify suppressing that kind of speech by the state, if no other agency were found able to do the job.
But man does not come to truth alone in the inner workings of his mind – he does it in community. Doing this, he cannot succeed in finding the fullness of truth without looking seriously at many possible expressions, some of which will eventually be found to be false in part or in whole. Therefore, the state in being committed to the common good of truth cannot but be willing to see its citizens discuss and sort through many things that will end up being found false, in time. This process cannot take place if the citizen is treated as having no right to express the partial truth that he does have, even if that partial truth contains an admixture of error. He cannot be brought to embrace the fuller truth without being shown how his faulty apprehension is to be corrected, and this implies his having the right first to set out his grasp of matters.
Therefore, short of errors of that degree of importance that they could directly undermine the common good in its more foundational respects, the state has an obligation to permit speech, both true speech and error, broadly, but not absolutely.
Bravo to Lydia's and Tommy's comments.
I would only add that it is necessary, in my view, to make very explicit this sane and prudent rejection of pure formalism – this embrace of the fact that substantive content matters, is authoritative, and cannot be made to not matter; that authoritative discrimination based on the substantive content of speech and action is always necessary, even when the conclusion is that (say) the harm involved in permitting particular erroneous speech is less than the harm involved in attempting to restrict it.
I have to be very honest: I'm the person who gets the heebie-jeebies when people start dissing the open society. I have enormous concerns about outright legal banning of discussion of ideas even if they are very pernicious. One can call this a prudential matter, but if so, I would call it a prudential matter of such grave and serious weight that I have trouble thinking of any exceptions. My own inclination would be, when it comes to actually fining or jailing people for what they say, to draw a fairly bright line between advocacy in some general sense and incitement. The difference being between, “Abortion should be legal” and “Hey, if you need to get an abortion and are having trouble, because it's illegal in our country/state, get in touch with me; I can help.” Naturally, there are going to be places where it is difficult to draw that bright line, and I'm not under an illusion about that.
It seems to me that one of the worst problems we have is with a kind of overgrowth of this notion of free speech or contentless formalism into areas where it has no place–for example, when it comes to deciding what courses a university should teach or what arrangements it should make. It's ludicrous to imply or believe that a university should be neutral in its choice of content to teach to its students! And of course, no one _really_ believes this, but sometimes people talk as if they do. I just had a debate with a liberal at W4 who was trying to make some sort of parallel between an actual situation where a university allowed a Catholic center to _nominate_ people (who could be rejected anyway) to teach Catholic thought and a hypothetical situation in which a university allowed some organization like CAIR to nominate people to teach about Islam. I can't count the number of times when I said that my problem with Islam is Islam. My problem with Islam is not that it is a _religion_. Therefore my problem with the latter arrangement would be the _actual content_ likely to be taught in such courses and the probable lack of academic value to that content, not the formal, contentless fact that it was an arrangement between a religious organization and a university! But he couldn't see it. He probably thinks to this hour that I'm guilty of some kind of inconsistency.
FWIW, I think it is perfectly consistent to see a large difference between “I think prostitution should be legal” stated in a blog post and “Hey Honey, looking for a good time” said into a car window; and to treat the prudential hurdle for restricting the former as very high compared to the latter.
I don't know if we would agree in every case. (What are the odds?) For example, given our particular history and present state I cannot see a future state – within say ten generations – where a public advocate of the “pro choice” position on abortion should be permitted to teach children or hold public office. A “possible worlds” case maybe, but not in this world.
But I don't disagree that in general there is a hierarchy of kinds of cases, and that different prudential hurdles apply to different kinds of cases. Indeed that describes the abstract relation between truth and law in general: while error has no rights, a tolerable human existence requires that persons do have the freedom to make many errors without legal consequence, some with minor legal consequence, some with major legal consequence, etc. all depending on the particulars.
Let me play devil's advocate, re the banning of certain speech, e.g. pro-choice advocacy. When we claim that the advocacy of a moral depravity, as opposed to the depravity itself, ought to be left alone, we elevate the content of the debate to a position it ought never to occupy, while at the same time imagining that should the depravity itself ever become legal, the process of debate should not be blamed for the result. When Tom Snyder invited members of NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) on to his talk show (as would Ted Koppel later on Nightline), an automatic respectability was conferred upon the guests' argument that it could not have otherwise acquired, no matter how often Snyder squirmed in discomfort or barked his outrage. (NAMBLA believed that boys could give consent to sex with adult men.) While sex with boys is still illegal, the debate is evolving, and I'm not sanguine about the prospects.
Likewise, advocacy of abortion used to be only a matter of respectable debate, until one day our laws gave abortion itself legal respectability. Sex with boys is bad, but how is it more bad than murder, such that agitating for the former is hardly heard of, but for the latter a daily occurrence? If a man set his soapbox on a street corner to advocate the government's rounding up all Jews for the concentration camp and subsequent extermination – even though he had no power himself to effect it – my reaction would not be one of squeamishness if we had a law to punish him for it. I don't see much difference between what he's doing and what Planned Parenthood does; in fact, the latter is far more malign, protected as it is by an institutional respectability of long-standing, a respectability enhanced when the occasional presidential candidate appears before them to make heartfelt promises. I'm trying to imagine the situation in which advocacy of murder of any kind need never fear the retribution of law, but I can't.
To me, the big problem starts there with Tom Snyder inviting such people. (Wonder if he'd do the same for Holocaust deniers. Bet not.)
Plus, of course, they should be investigated with sting operations and stuff, because let's face it: They're likely doing a heck of a lot more than just “advocating” in their daily lives, and their speech gives us perfectly good grounds for going undercover and catching them at it and then executing them or whatever our laws permit us to do to such people.
Suppose that if you stood up on a soapbox and advocated abortion, people were allowed not to sell you food? And _of course_ nobody invited you onto their TV show to advocate that.
See, it seems to me that a lot would be helped if we could really free the forces of social ostracism and reintroduce the notion of real ostracism as respectable and permitted.
Non-discrimination laws and the notion of a right to “public accommodations” have had enormous unintended consequences. One of those unintended consequences is that we can no longer punish moral turpitude in ideas by refusing a person a place to lay his head–using, for that purpose, our rights as owners of private property and private businesses. We literally can't, because those rights have been so restricted.
Interesting discussion. I think the principles of this discussion can be applied as well to topics like religious liberty and the separation of Church and State. I agree that true political authority comes from God and truth as it is applied to civil society can be found via reason and the natural law. Thus I conclude that true authority and law cannot have as its basis the will of the governed, but only that law which mirrors the eternal law. This is one reason I've thought that a monarchy united with the Church, albeit with each in their proper spheres, will produce a more just and harmonious society internally than a democracy will tend to.
As an aside, I have to admit I wanted to stand up and cheer when Germany, albeit temporarily, forbad Tom Cruise to film Valkyrie in their country because they consider Scientology to be a cult. To me that was an example of a country making a decision based on content and truly looking to protect the vulnerable in their society from what is actually a dangerous cult.
Getting back to my topic I could quote all of Libertas at this point but I'll restrict myself to this:
“18. There are others, somewhat more moderate though not more consistent, who affirm that the morality of individuals is to be guided by the divine law, but not the morality of the State, for that in public affairs the commands of God may be passed over, and may be entirely disregarded in the framing of laws. Hence follows the fatal theory of the need of separation between Church and State. But the absurdity of such a position is manifest. Nature herself proclaims the necessity of the State providing means and opportunities whereby the community may be enabled to live properly, that is to say, according to the laws of God. For, since God is the source of all goodness and justice, it is absolutely ridiculous that the State should pay no attention to these laws or render them abortive by contrary enact menu. Besides, those who are in authority owe it to the commonwealth not only to provide for its external well-being and the conveniences of life, but still more to consult the welfare of men's souls in the wisdom of their legislation. But, for the increase of such benefits, nothing more suitable can be conceived than the laws which have God for their author; and, therefore, they who in their government of the State take no account of these laws abuse political power by causing it to deviate from its proper end and from what nature itself prescribes. And, what is still more important, and what We have more than once pointed out, although the civil authority has not the same proximate end as the spiritual, nor proceeds on the same lines, nevertheless in the exercise of their separate powers they must occasionally meet.”
Paragraph 23 in Libertas deals specifically with free speech.