Sacred Truths

Some people believe their “truths’ because they have faith in them. Others rely on hunches. Some rely on the authority of parents, teachers, or experts. None of these according to John Stuart Mill are solid grounds for action. This is what Mill says:

“There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting  and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for the purpose of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

It is for that reason that we don’t believe Putin is right when he says he was justified in invading Ukraine. Or we don’t believe the Ayatollah that Salman Rushdie should be killed? Or that gays are bound for hell because the Bible or the local preacher the says so.

Mill makes it clear that no opinions should be exempt from this process. He points out that there are some who urge that some principles are so certain that we should not be permitted to question them. But Mill disagrees. All opinions and all principles, even fundamental principles should be subject to challenge in this way. Only then can we really be certain. Or at least as close to certain as we can get. This is the result of living in an age that Mill says some call “destitute of faith, but terrified of scepticism in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society.” Of course, as Mill points out, this just shifts the problem, for it is just as important to have an infallible judge to determine which opinions are noxious or useful as to determine those that are true or false. In either case, the opinion must be allowed to be free to defend itself.

The real problem, Mill says, is not feeling sure of a doctrine, which he calls the assumption of infallibility, but rather the undertaking to decide this question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. This must be denounced no less when it is done to “protect” solemn convictions. All opinions must be free to defend themselves, even the sacred ones that are most important to us.

All truths should be subject to debate and argument. None are exempt. Not even sacred ones. That is what free speech means. All “truths” can be freely challenged.

Provisional Truth; Absolute Truth

We always pursue absolute truth, but we never achieve it.  A wise man once said, follow the man who seeks the truth; flee the man that finds it. People who claim to have the truth are dangerous.

That is why, John Stuart Mill argues we must always ensure that our opinions are never absolute. Opinions must always be provisional. They must always be open for genuine debate, because we might be wrong. We do this for ourselves as well as for others. We do that so that we can have the greatest possible confidence in our opinions. If we don’t keep our “truths” provisional, we have a greater chance of being wrong. And that is a chance we are never justified in taking. Once we close our mind to debate we close it to possible correction by the truth.

How would you like to cross a bridge that had been designed by an architect or engineer whose mind was closed to the possibility that he might be wrong and therefore was never willing to listen to any possible counter argument? As Mill said,

The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so?  Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject , is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner

The wisest men or women are always open to correction. Everyone makes mistakes so everyone must be open to stand corrected.  If you know someone who is not open to correction you would be wise to steer clear of believing that person.

This of course is the attitude of what we expect of the ideal judicial mind. This is like the ideal observer of moral theory, and is just as important. We expect it to be open at all times to the encroachment of truth, no matter how inimical, no matter how unlikely, no matter how surprising. Judges must keep an open mind. Judges must never prejudge. Judges must be persuaded by evidence, rational argument, and reasoning. Each of us must at all times seek to attain this judicial temperament when we make decisions. Of course, if our decisions affect only our selves, we can be as cavalier as we want. When our decisions affect others, we must be more disciplined.

That is also why judges should always listen to both sides of a dispute and consider all arguments. A Good advocate is a judge’s best friend. Good judges know that good advocates must be encouraged and must be allowed to do all they need to do to prepare their case in the most effective manner possible. Good judges will always allow that.

Sadly, of course, not all flesh and blood judges meet these high standards. We see that every day. Only our spouses achieve absolute truth. Judges like the rest of us make mistakes. But we must always try to do the best we can. Therefore, presumptions must be kept to an absolute minimum. We must not prejudge. When we have no choice but to make a presumption, we must always be on alert to reject it as soon as contrary evidence or argument is presented. To add to the sadness, judges are expected to maintain an open mind, yet the common law imposes on them a rule of stare decisus. That is the rule that judges must follow the precedent decisions of higher courts. That is intolerable for us. We must not follow anything except our reasoning and the evidence. This rule has no place in our decision-making, though, the ideal judicial temperament has a place of honour.

As a result of this method, that I am calling the judicial method, has the best chance to leading to truth. As Mill said, “The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it.” If this method is not scrupulously followed the decision maker has the strongest chance of making a mistake. As Mill said, “knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.” When such a judicial approach is applied to a search for truth, the decision maker is entitled to have a restful sleep about the decision he or she must make.

Mill pointed out that even the Roman Catholic Church, “the most intolerant of churches” employs a devil’s advocate when it wants to obtain certainty in order to canonize someone. So does the judicial system which is essentially adversarial—someone speaks as advocate for all sides. The better those advocates, the more likely the judge will make the right decision. It pays to listen to all sides. Here is Mill’s conclusion, “The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.”

That’s why free speech is so important. We should be able to listen to all opinions.

The Ideal Pursuer of Truth

 

John Stuart Mill argues against the entirely sceptical attitude which says people or governments are not justified in doing anything because they might be wrong. Mill is not a sceptic in this sense. That does not mean that when we act we are assuming that we are infallible. We are just doing what we must do, for it is always impossible to do nothing. If we took such an approach Mills says,

“we should leave all of our interests uncared for, and all our duties unperformed. An objection which applies to all conduct can be no valid objection to any conduct in particular. It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right. But when they are sure (such reasoners may say), it is not conscientiousness but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions, and allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind, either in this life or in another, to be scattered abroad without restraint, because other people, in less enlightened time, have persecuted opinions now believed to be true. Let us take care, it may be said, not to make the same mistake: but governments and nations have made mistakes in other things, which are not denied to be fit subjects for the exercise of authority: they have laid on bad taxes, made unjust wars. Ought we therefore to lay on no taxes, and under whatever provocation, make no wars? Men and governments must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. ”

 

This is really an argument against paralysis. Some have argued that the true sceptic must do nothing. Mill respectfully disagrees. I side with Mill. We have a duty to seek the truth. We have no duty to find it or claim we have found it.

As a result we are justified in acting if we have done the best we can to make sure our actions are justified in the circumstances. First, we must do our best to come to the right conclusions. In seeking truth we must aim to be ideal observers and thinkers, diligent and free from bias. That is not easy to do. We must of course, always be open after that to the possibility that is always there, that we are wrong. We must be prepared to change when new evidence or new valid arguments showed that we made a mistake. We must not be too timid. That is just as bad as acting rashly and can cause just as much harm. Of course this exactly why we must permit the most vigorous debate about all our ideas and must permit all free discussion of ideas no matter how repugnant—because we might be wrong. We know we are not infallible. We should never assume the mantle of infallibility.

As Mill says,

“There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

 

We need to leave all question open for debate in order to be confident that our decisions are right ones. That gives us no guarantee that we are right, but it gives us a guarantee that we have done the best we can possibly do. If we have stifled no debate and encouraged all possible dissenting views we can have the greatest possible confidence that what we think or do is right. That is why free discussion is so important. It gives us the confidence that we are probably right, until better evidence or better reasoning shows us the error of our ways.

 

Is there such a thing as Free Speech in Schools?

 

Many schools are currently under attack by conservative parents for what is being taught in schools. Next month they might be under attack by left-wing parents. Is there such a thing as free speech in schools? If not should there be free speech in schools?

 

Recently a School board in Tennessee banned from its school district a Pulitzer prize-winning book called Maus in which Jews were mice and Nazis were cats. One of the reasons for the ban was that it was pornographic because it showed a graphic of a naked mouse with a breast showing. Can that be pornographic? The idea was that the mouse represented Jews and a cat that looked vicious represented Nazis. It was the author’s way of making the notion of the holocaust graphic. The parents also felt that the book made their children uncomfortable. Should a book about the Holocaust not make people uncomfortable? I would be more tempted to ban a book about the Holocaust that made young students comfortable.

 

All of this reminds me a bit about the recent film Don’t Look Up where scientists were going on a television talk show to warn the world about the impending disastrous collision of a comet with earth that would lead to the destruction of all or most life on earth. The talk show hosts explained to the scientists that in the brief time they had to explain the phenomenon they should “keep it light and fun.” Is that what we want? Can we make racism light and fun? How about climate change?

In Florida, a committee advanced a bill that would restrict discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools because such bans are popular in conservative circles. The bill bans discussing these issues in primary schools but also restricts how these things can be discussed in other grades too if they are deemed “not age-inappropriate.” Any parent will be able to sue the school for compensation if they are harmed if they believe such discussions took place. No doubt such legislation will make teachers reluctant to discuss such issues in school. Is that a good thing? Should parents not have a say about what is taught in their schools? Or do students have rights to learn? Interesting questions.

Many American schools are banning discussions about critical race theory by which they mean any discussions that might tend to make their children think less of Americans and their treatment of racial minorities. Should such discussions not be welcomed rather than banned? Are such discussions too uncomfortable for adults or even children? Don’t we want our children to learn such things?

Yet if parents are entitled to know what is being taught to their children in schools and object to things they don’t like, teachers lose to that extent their free speech. But only in schools. They can say what they want out of school. Is it that simple? Is there anything wrong with that?

 

In the US many of the attacks on free speech are found in schools. Since January of 2020 Republican lawmakers in 41 states (if I counted correctly) have introduced 156 laws that limit how teachers can speak to their students about race, sexual orientation and gender in schools. As Jennifer Given who teaches history in New Hampshire, one of those 41 or so states, says these are scary times to be a teacher. She might be sued for what she says in class. Why do so many people no longer trust their teachers? As a result of these restrictions Given said “many teachers are self-censoring” and avoiding speaking about certain sensitive subjects. Don’t we want our students to learn about sensitive subjects? Even if the teacher’s views vary from our own? Don’t we want our students to learn difficult subjects. Don’t we want them to be exposed to other ideas? After all they might then be able to teach us a thing or two?

In the Hanover School Division in Steinbach they attempted to stop teachers in some cases from talking about “sensitive subjects” such as LGBTQ topics. Is that acceptable? What if discussions are merely excluded from early years in school?

In New Hampshire, a conservative group is offering a $500 bounty to anyone who turns in a teacher who violates their new law that limits what teachers can say about racism and sexism! As Given said, “The ghost of Senator McCarthy is alive and well in some of our statehouse hallways.” She might actually lose her license to teach, rendering her unemployable perhaps in any jurisdiction not only her own. As the CBS who hosted this discussion pointed out, “But this is New Hampshire the land of ‘live free or die.’” These are tricky free speech issues because teachers have to some extent always been restricted in what they could talk about in schools. For example school boards decide when sex education is taught (or not). Employers too can limit what their employees say in their workplace. Does that violate free speech?

There are many questions worth pursuing here. I look forward to trying to tackle them. I would like to hear your views too.

Uncertainty leads to freedom

 

Unfortunately, one can never be certain one has latched on to the truth.  Despite what all the radical leftists and radical right-wingers say, there is always doubt. (Though even if there was no doubt, remember as John Stuart Mill said, even the left or right extremists who are convinced they have found the absolute truth, would benefit from vigorous challenge so that the truth can be seen in “a livelier and clearer manner”!)

To begin with, Mill asserted a fundamental principle of empiricism from which liberalism is derived: “We can never be sure the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

These are 2 of the most powerful statements in favour of freedom of speech in the western canon.

Mill considers suppression of opinion in the light of 3 possibilities:

  1. The opinion might be true.
  2. The opinion is true
  3. The opinion is partly true and partly false.

I will begin with the first.

#1. The Opinion might be True

Of course, if the opinion is false, which can never be known absolutely either, there is no problem about free speech, because, of course, we should be able to freely challenge the falsehood.

But Mill goes on.  First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. If people refuse to hear an opinion because they are certain it is wrong they assume that their certainty is absolute certainty. And the two are never the same. As Mill said, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” None of us are entitled to assume that we are infallible.

It does not matter either that the majority agrees with us. The majority are no more infallible than we are. Mill points out while all of us admit that we are fallible, few of us take precautions against our own fallibility. We also seldom admit that our opinion of which we feel certain could be one of the examples of errors of which we acknowledge we could make.

Some people are accustomed to deference.  Doctors, lawyers, accountants, businessmen, clergy and political leaders are just of few of the people this in this regrettable camp. Deference is a dangerous thing. Deference leads to the erroneous assumption that the deference is not only justified, it should be absolutely given. As Mill said,

“Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to being set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer; for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust on the infallibility of ‘the world’ in general.  And the world, to each individual means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society; the man may, be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes and parties have though, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient world of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age have held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it as certain that many opinions now  general will be rejected by future ages, as it is  that many, once general, are rejected by the present.”

 

That is why the person who is the object of “unlimited deference” is unfortunate. We gain nothing from deference. We gain everything from dissent. We are blessed if our views are challenged. We gain from the challenge. Challenges make us stronger and smarter. We benefit from challenges, as does of course society. Blessed are the rebels for they make us better, even when they are wrong!

 

I think that is the nub of Mill’s argument. Dissent from our views is of benefit to society and to us.  The principle of utility requires that we protect it and give it free reign. That is why we have to allow jerks to speak their mind. That does not mean we have to allow them to do whatever they want. There are limits, but they deserve the right to think and discuss.

It is noteworthy Mill titled his famous second chapter of his book On Liberty, “Of thought and discussion.”  That is what he argued should be free. For example, he did not argue that people should be allowed to enter a funeral of a gay soldier and hold up signs mocking him and disturbing his family and friends as some fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. have done We have the right to freely think and discuss. We have no right to disrupt meetings or gatherings and impose our will on them. They are free to say, ‘Go away.’ Mill did not really argue in favour of the proposition that one has the right to be a jerk. That was not his goal.

Mill concluded, “If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” Even Satanists have the right to speak.  Conservatives must allow liberals to speak. Liberals must give the conservatives an equal chance to speak.

 

John Stuart Mill: One rebel against the world

 

The case for free speech is often based on something like a natural right. We all have a natural right to speak freely, goes the argument. That basically was the argument given by one of the two liberal giants of philosophy—John Locke.  John Stuart Mill took a different approach. He justified freedom of speech on the principle of utility alone. In other words, people should have free speech because that will permit the greatest happiness to be established for the greatest number of people. Simple. But how could one argue that?

 

John Stuart Mill wrote his classic defence of freedom, and in particular “liberty of thought and discussion” as he called it, in 1859. His arguments can be very useful in deciding whether or not racists, male chauvinists, people who are ageists, Satanists, vaccine deniers, inciters of riots, fascists, and demagogues among others,  should be allowed to speak. It all depends on whether or not allowing them to speak ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number. I want to explore that idea.

John Stuart Mill starts off early in his book to declare that his sole guiding light will be the principle of utility. This is how he explains his philosophy that has come to be called Utilitarianism: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain, by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” Of course, by “pleasure” Mill did not endorse any crude definition of pleasure. Pleasure for example, includes all the “higher pleasures.” I also include the cruder pleasures or happiness but not only those. Quality of pleasures is important to Mill.

A couple of years ago I re-read Mill’s famous book, On Liberty, that was written in 1859 after I heard an inspiring talk by Robert George and Cornel West at Arizona State university. One was a conservative and the other a left wing radical but both  strongly recommended this book. I figured it was time to re-read that book.

In that classic book Mill defended freedom of “thought and discussion.”  Mill set himself an astonishing difficult task. Here is how he spelled out the problem:

“Let us suppose therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, nor more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind 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. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted on a few persons or many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as a great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

 

That is an incredibly powerful statement of the right to hear all opinions, even false ones! We have the right to hear even those opinions with which we strongly disagree. We benefit from that clash of opinions.  The greatest happiness is produced by that openness to ideas. Note as well that he points out those who disagree with an opinion lose even more than those who agree with it! I find this an amazingly profound argument. Even if the entire world is arrayed against one solitary opinion we should be able to hear it and not quell it. Even then we would not be justified in silencing that one opinion!

 

In other words, even a true opinion benefits from being challenged because that challenge lends it “a livelier and clearer expression of the truth.” If you love truth, you must love freedom of expression.

 

 

Freedom to Read

 

The freedom to read is so vitally important because it is so necessary to help us find the truth. It is needed to seek the truth.

University of California at Berkley professor John Powell is an expert on civil liberties and democracies. He is particularly concerned about at the record number of books that are being banned in schools around the United States (the land of the free!). I am also concerned. They are banning some of my favourite books such as Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye or Beloved (both of which I have blogged about) and one I want to blog about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a true classic of American literature. I am appalled at the thought that American students in some places won’t be allowed to read these books.

Remember books are being attacked from the left and the right. Conservatives are hung up about sex, gender issues, and racism. Liberals get tout of joint over outdated racial depictions.

Powell commented on the issue of banning Maus, the book about the Holocaust. He made a very good point” “You can’t make the Holocaust a nice thing! Slavery wasn’t a nice thing. That makes people uncomfortable.” Yes that is why it is a good book! As he added, “the goal of education is not to make people comfortable.” If people think the school is not teaching their children the truth they should challenge it. Explain to your children why the school is wrong. We all know they are often wrong! Look at us; we survived that. One of my teachers taught us that when you went to a Chinese restaurant before dining you would be wise to go to the kitchen to make sure there were no cat skins on the coat racks . That same teacher taught me that no religion other than Christianity was worth seriously considering. He didn’t do a very good job.  I survived these intellectual onslaughts.  As Powell said, “If someone really wants to challenge the Holocaust” let him challenge, but don’t ban discussion of it.”

I should mention that Canada’s view of this issue is a more complicated than that,  as demonstrated in the case of R. Keegstra, which I will talk about later.  That gets to the issue of hate speech which I find extremely interesting. Should there be limits on the freedom to make hate speech? If so what are those limitations? And what are the limitations on those limitations? Here Canada and the US have diverged significantly. More on this later.

 

Canada recognizes other limitations on free speech such as the laws of defamation and slander, and the law limiting the freedom to express sexually explicit words or images. Canada also have real controls on election spending, which at one was also limited in the US until the infamous Citizens United case. We have some fascinating Canadian cases on these topics as well. There is a lot of material through which one can meander and I intend to do exactly that.

 

The most important figure on the issue of free speech was English philosopher John Stuart Mill who wrote about it in the mid-18th century. He basically proposed that government should only be able to limit free speech when the speech would cause harm to others. I will dig into Mill as well. He was a brilliant philosopher, but have we learned somethings since the 18th century? One would think so.

 

American laws as well as Canadian laws have generally followed Mill’s guidelines.  As a result even in the US there are permitted limits on the freedom of public expression that include obscenity, defamation, death threats, incitement to violence—harms in other words. Yet those limitations are also limited.

 

However, as Powell indicated, the recent restrictions being imposed in the US have much more to do with culture wars than with preventing harm, though the conservatives and liberals who are leading the charge might well argue that they are just trying to prevent harms. We’ll see. It is certainly wrong to say some speech should be regulated because I don’t like it. Or I am because I am offended by it. As Powell said, “discomfort is not the same as an injury.” Or to put it another way, offense or discomfort are not sufficient harms to justify banning the expression that elicits offense or discomfort.

That of course leads to the next question: How harmful does speech have to be to justify banning it? I think that is the crucial question.

Is there such a thing as Free Speech in Schools?

 

Many schools are currently under attack by conservative parents for what is being taught in schools. Next month they might be under attack by left-wing parents. Is there such a thing as free speech in schools?

 

Recently a School board in Tennessee banned from its school district a Pulitzer prize-winning book called Maus in which Jews were mice and Nazis were cats. One of the reasons for the ban was that it was  seen to be pornographic because it showed a graphic of a naked mouse with a breast showing. Can that be pornographic? The idea was that the mouse represented Jews and a cat that looked vicious represented Nazis. It was the author’s way of making the notion of the holocaust graphic. The parents also felt that the book made their children uncomfortable. Should a book about the Holocaust not make people uncomfortable? I would be more tempted to ban a book about the Holocaust that made young students comfortable.

All of this reminds me a bit about the recent film Don’t Look Up where scientists were going on television talk show to warn the world about the impending disastrous collision of a comet with earth that would lead to the destruction of all or most life on earth. The talk show hosts explained to the scientists that in the brief time they had to explain the phenomenon they should “keep it light and fun.” Is that what we want?

In Florida, a committee advanced a bill that would restrict discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools because that is popular in conservative circles. The bill bans discussing these issues in primary schools but also restricts how these things can be discussed in other grades too if they are deemed “not age-inappropriate.” Any parent will be able to sue the school for compensation if they are harmed if they believe such discussions took place. No doubt such legislation will make teachers reluctant to discuss such issues in school. Is that a good thing? Should parents not have a say about what is taught in their schools? Or do students have rights to learn? Interesting questions.

 

Many American schools are banning discussions about critical race theory by which they mean any discussions that might tend to make their children think less of Americans and their treatment of racial minorities. Should such discussions not be welcomed rather than banned? Are such discussions too uncomfortable for adults or even children? Don’t we want our children to learn such things?

In the US many of the attacks on free speech are found in schools. Since January of 2020 Republican lawmakers in 41 states (if I counted correctly) have introduced 156 laws that limit how teachers can speak to their students about race, sexual orientation and gender in schools. As Jennifer Given who teaches history in New Hampshire, one of those 41 or so states, says these are scary times to be a teacher. She might be sued for what she says in class. Why do so many people no longer trust their teachers? As a result of these restrictions Given said “many teachers are self-censoring” and avoiding speaking about certain sensitive subjects. Don’t we want our students to learn about sensitive subjects? Even if the teacher’s views vary from our own? Don’t we want our students exposed to other ideas? After all they might then be able to teach us a thing or two? In the Hanover School Division in Steinbach they attempted to stop teachers in some cases from talking about “sensitive subjects” such as LGBTQ topics. Is that acceptable? What if discussions are merely excluded from early years in school?

Yet if parents are entitled to know what is being taught to their children in schools and object to things they  don’t want the teachers to teach to their children, they have that right and  to that extent their free speech is lost. But only in schools. They can say what they want out of school. Is it that simple?

Students of course have no right to free speech. Or at least we didn’t when I went to school.

In New Hampshire, a conservative group is offering a $500 bounty to anyone who turns in a teacher who violates their new law that limits what teachers can say about racism and sexism! As Given said, “The ghost of Senator McCarthy is alive and well in some of our statehouse hallways.” She might actually lose her license to teach, rendering her unemployable perhaps in any jurisdiction not only her own. As the CBS host pointed out, “But this is New Hampshire the land of ‘live free or die.’” Now these are tricky free speech issues because teachers have to some extent always been restricted in what they could talk about in schools. For example school boards decide when sex education is taught (or not). Employers too can limit what their employees say in their workplace. Does that violate free speech?

There are many questions worth pursuing here. I look forward to trying to tackle them. I would like to hear your views too.

 

 

Questions about the Meaning of Free Speech

 

The subject of free speech seems simple. It is not. I am in favour of free speech. Of course I am. Lots of people have had a lot to say about. Even I. But what actually does that mean?

I want to look more closely at this question to figure out what I mean by the statement which I have often made that I believe in free speech. What do I mean by it and what not? What do others mean by it?

I know there are aspects of free speech that I admit are a bit tricky.

I was inspired to consider this issue by considering the words of the author Evelyn Beatrice Hall who said this: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That is a pretty bold claim. Does anyone actually mean that? Voltaire was one of my favourite philosophers and many think he said that. He said many interesting things but not that.

Sometimes, rarely perhaps, lawyers and judges can impart some wisdom to such ideas. The courts have often considered this issue particularly our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it relates to freedom of expression and conscience. I want to look at what the Charter has to say. One of those judges who has opined on free speech, the American Supreme Court Judge, Louis Brandeis, said when asked if we should try to shut up speech we don’t like: “The remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Yet, how true is that statement?

We live in the age of the. Internet. In fact, we live in the wild west of the internet which abounds with free speech and much of it is abysmally ignorant, but incredibly dangerous, as we have realized in the Age of Covid, if we did not realize it earlier.

Recently, there have been serious efforts in the United States (the land of the free no less) and, of course, many other places, to limit free speech. Here are a few examples: Twitter banned President Trump permanently (supposedly) from Twitter. Was that right? A lot of Trump’s speech was hateful. Much of it consisted of lies. And much of it encouraged dangerous, reckless, and hateful behavior. Yet he is a controversial political figure revered by millions of Americans. Should we not be able to listen to him? Should such speech be limited? Does it matter that Twitter is a corporation beyond democratic control? Should Jack Dorsey and his partners who own it be able to shut down the president of the United States from their platform? How about Greenpeace? Or the Church of God Restoration? Or your local Satanists?  Should they be shut down? As a corporation owned privately or publicly traded should it be able to do that? How about Mark Zuckerberg should he have such power. His Meta (Facebook) empire already brags about the number of people it ejects from its platforms every day. Are we comfortable with that?

Remember I just ask questions. I never give answers (I wish that were actually true.) As Voltaire said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

There are lots of questions worth pursuing here.

 

Protecting Speech that you Hate

 

There is one thing a lot of people seem to forget about free speech. Those of us who actually believe in free speech are those who work to protect the speech we hate. It is not about protecting the speech of those with whom we agree. It is not about protecting the speech of our friends. It is about protecting speech  we despise .  Fro example, if you are a Christian you should fight to protect the speech of Satanists. That is what we must work to defend. If we are not able to do that we don’t really believe in free speech at all.

 

It reminds me of what I learned from watching minor hockey. Frankly, I was disgusted by my fellow parents when I watched my young sons play minor hockey. With hair trigger tempers, many of these parents turned viciously on young referees who were often only a couple of years older than our children. The parents saw every perceived mistake as an assault on their perfect children and complained vociferously about each call while ignoring the mistake of their own children. I never saw them complaining about mistaken calls in our own favor, only those against us. As a result I lost all respect for their claims that the young referees were making unpardonable mistakes. Had the parent complained equally about all mistaken calls I might have taken them seriously. It is the same with free speech. Defend all speech or admit you don’t really favour free speech at all.

 

Although I don’t know much about the attack on Salman Rushdie by a man wielding a knife perhaps because he is despised by much of the Muslim world because they don’t like what he said about their religious leader, Rushdie said this about on the topic: “The defense of free speech begins at the point where they say something you can’t stand. You often have to defend people you find outrageous, unpleasant and disgusting.”

 

It is not important to fight for people to have the freedom to say things you like. You have to have the capacity to listen to people whose opinions you strongly disagree with. Even if you hate their opinions or even hate them. As Piers Morgan, of Piers Morgan Uncensored said the day Rushdie was attacked, “you should be able to tolerate their right to have a different opinion.”

In most Muslim countries this is not on the table. They don’t want that. They resist the right of someone like Rushdie to express his views. More and more in the United States and Canada this point of view is gaining strength. That is why, it seems to me, free speech is on the decline.

According to a recent study in the UK. 86% of students want a trigger warning before they hear something offensive. This even includes classics of English literature like Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare. 36% want academics fired if they say something hurtful or offensive. If speech is not even free in Universities where is it free?

Rikki Schlott a columnist with New York Post mentioned how New York University issues student cards on which it placed a bias hotline for you to phone if you are offended by something you hear.

Many liberals now claim words are violence. If that is true, as Schlott said, then you must fight words with violence because that is how you fight violence with violence. Does that not follow?

Why are young people in particular so anxious? They fear words. They want trigger warnings. Is it because they have been coddled all their lives? I think this is part of the problem

According, to Piers Morgan there is “a celebration of victimhood in society.”  There is prestige in being a victim. People want to be victims because it gives them special status. He of course blames “the woke brigade.” I don’t doubt that extreme liberals are often at fault, but so are extreme conservatives. Are they all woke? Who is left to defend free speech?