Fighting words and their consequences

Somebody is in the news recently for allegedly getting assaulted after uttering fighting words. It turns out fighting words are commonly excepted from protected free speech. Contrary to the elementary folklore, free speech appears not to be universal, but is thought to be based on the libertarian principles argued by Mill, that speech which does not do harm to others should not be proscribed. All right, so far this is all common knowledge. But is that all? Is free speech (harm or not) a flawed idea to begin with? There is an old and generally discursive article by Kendall called The “Open Society” and Its Fallacies, which challenges the tenets of Mill’s libertarian stance on speech at its core.

First Kendall points out that Mill is fundamentally arguing for speech not as a “right” but as a “utility”, in that speech has a functional centrality to a society in the process of obtaining truth and making decisions — i.e. truth through open debate with no suppression of any idea. It is a sound approach, since calling free speech a “natural right” or some such is religion, even if such a religion sounds appealing. In any case, even religion develops abstractly from some notion of utility (good for a society), so utility is closer to first principles. But if speech is a utility, then it must be evaluated on whether it is foremost among other utilities which may be in conflict with it. Mill says it is. Kendall is not so sure, with the consequence that any number of conditions other than harm to others may be allowed to proscribe speech.

Kendall goes on to question the utility of free speech as understood by Mill and lists a number of arguments based on practicality and human nature against the idea of an “open society” actually working as Mill intended, all of which are probably valid but ultimately unsatisfying. However, one extended philosophical point stood out:

Third, Mill denies the existence … not only of a public truth [my note: for the purpose of lubricating free debate], but of any truth whatever… whenever and wherever men disagree about a teaching, a doctrine, an opinion, an idea, we have no way of knowing which party is correct; the man (or group) who moves to silence a teaching on the ground that it is incorrect attributes to himself a kind of knowledge (Mill says an “infallibility”) that no one is ever entitled to claim short of (if then) the very case where the question is sure not to arise — that is, where there is unanimity, and so no temptation to silence to begin with.”


The proposition that all opinions are equally — and hence infinitely — valuable, said to be the unavoidable inference from the proposition that all opinions are equal, is only one — and perhaps the less likely — of two possible inferences, the other being: all opinions are equally — and hence infinitely — without value, so what difference does it make if one, particularly one not our own, gets suppressed? This we may fairly call the central paradox of the theory of freedom of speech. In order to practice tolerance on behalf of the pursuit of truth, you have first to value and believe in not merely the pursuit of truth but Truth itself, with all its accumulated riches to date. The all-questions-are-open-questions society cannot do that; it cannot, therefore, practice tolerance towards those who disagree with it. It must persecute — and so, on its very own showing, arrest the pursuit of truth.

There is something interesting here, although first the wrong parts must be excised. For one, I don’t like the infinitely valuable or infinitely without value sentence. That’s stupid. The only conclusion is obviously just what the original says, that all opinions are equally valuable, so as long as the value is positive, then at least some argument can be made to not suppress them. As a side note, I’m not even sure that Mill says all opinions are equal or whether just all opinions have positive (but possibly unequal) value. Kendall’s scaling relationship between the value of an opinion and how much it should not be suppressed may not be Mill’s idea at all. Either way, we can treat the phrase equality of opinions as either what it says or as positive valuation of opinions, and read it as equal treatment of opinions.

Now then the good part. The meta-tolerance paradox itself is a bit contrived (even if it does come up almost daily) since once the “no truth” hammer is found, it can hit pretty much anything. But, it caused me to think of a related and much more relevant paradox. It isn’t about believing in the Truth a priori. It is about believing that there is some truth to be found — that the pursuit has an end, that there is a purpose to the debate. Otherwise free speech for that purpose would have no point, either. Now, if the purpose is to seek convergence from open debate, then there is certainly nothing to guarantee that the process of debate will ever converge (setting aside what it converges to) — not because there is not a truth. But even worse is if every opinion is to be equally valuable for all time, for it prohibits convergence! For convergence to happen, by definition, some opinions will need to be reduced and others bolstered, perhaps on account of reason. The only way out of this is to say opinions are equal only initially. Unfortunately, society has no time origin. Even if it did, we are way past time 0 and hence must be in a state biased toward certain possibilities of truth and therefore inequality of various opinions. Therefore, it is the inequality of opinions on the way to convergence to truth — the ostensible goal of free speech — that strikes down the non-suppression of some speech on the grounds that all opinions are equal. This is the central paradox of Mill’s thesis that I see.

I guess the point is that non-suppression must be based on something less absolute than what Mill says, as it is in practice.

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