Free Speech is Violence, and its Might Makes Right
I have long taken heart that John Rawls and Immanuel Kant are both held in such high regard. (Rawls is widely considered to be the most influential political philosopher of the post-war age, and Kant to be the greatest philosopher of modern times.) Not that I am particularly sympathetic to the ideas of either one, especially Rawls’s, but I appreciate that they both argued in good faith.
One of the most basic maxims of moral philosophy is that the best way to analyze an ideology is to consider the best possible version of it. It is not enough to comprehend the argument a philosopher makes to justify his philosophy, you must also attempt to think-up the best possible argument in favor of his philosophy. Only then can you truly judge its merits. Kant and Rawls both try to do this. And I like to think that the high status each enjoys today is to some degree a cosmic reward for good behavior, that in the end, honorable philosophizing wins out against straw-man-making sophistry.
So I like to think that whatever power and prestige they enjoy today, frauds like Mark Kingwell will lose in the end. For now though, Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto—probably the closest thing Canada has to a Harvard—and his intellectual mischief was published the other day in The Globe and Mail that country’s newspaper of record. Kingwell puts forward the now-familiar “Shut up, he explained” argument. He writes that “Nazis” like us are too irrational to understand, and the only thing left to do is shut us up. “Gateway drugs” like Fox News and Rebel Media should probably be silenced as well. The piece begins with this paragraph:
The recent deadly Nazi hate-fest in Charlottesville has, in addition to revealing the extreme moral vacuity of the current White House, prompted a call for more compassion and empathy when dealing with basic ideological differences.
In addition to the intellectual vacuity (white nationalists are “Nazis,” any gathering of them is a “hate-fest”—I know everyone is used to hearing terms like “hate group” and “hate speech,” but step back for a moment and think about how childish these epithets really are), he sets himself up to knock down the straw-man of supposed liberal good intentions. I assume there are a few liberals out there calling for “compassion and empathy” towards us, but that is hardly the dominant narrative. Most pundits insist that we are the scourge of the earth.
Most people can not be reasoned with, Kingwell writes, and immoral bigots like us are especially impervious to logic.
That’s why, much as it pains me to say, as someone theoretically committed to the rule of reason, that what we need in public debate is not more understanding.
Much as it pains me to say, as someone theoretically committed to understanding the best possible argument for any given ideology, I find it impossible to frame leftist morality as anything other than simplistic and nihilistic. The truth is that the facile formulations of Peter Singer (or of Rawls) is what the Left looks like when it is spelled-out in plain black and white logic. The only other place left to go is Communism—the Orwellian notion that the more we eliminate what distinguishes us as individuals, the freer we will be to achieve self-actualization. How on earth can these things be dressed-up as anything higher than the commonsense morality of a sentimental bleeding-heart, only made worse by being given some logical direction?
Perhaps this partly explains why leftist logic-choppers put so much effort into concocting ever more elaborate explanations for what is wrong with society, instead of polishing their abstract vision of what is the right way. Noam Chomsky, that favorite of pseudo-intellectual Leftists, puts forth very logical arguments explaining the many ways the powers-that-be fail to live up to the Noam Chomsky standard, but he rarely gets around to offering an argument for why we should care to live up to the Noam Chomsky standard in the first place. He assumes, I presume, that we already feel his morality in our bones, and so his primary purpose is to point out our missteps. Whatever. Post-modernist thought is a much uglier and stupider thing, but in so far as it prioritizes the diagnosis over the cure it is of a similar character, though it is also a fairly blatant power play. Speaking of power plays, back to Kingwell:
The utopia of a rational public sphere is an illusion, and efforts to unearth it – in the form of core American values, Canadian tolerance or some other political chimera – fool’s errands. What we need, instead, is what social scientists call scaffolding.
In simple forms, scaffolding means things such as air-traffic control, highway roundabouts, exit signage, and queuing conventions – small mechanisms that allow humans to co-ordinate action when their individual interests might otherwise generate chaos. In more subtle cases, we constrain our own desires in the form of, say, computer apps that time-out social-media access (the Enabler-in-Chief could use one of these). Or else we impose limits on freedom in those suffering harmful addictions. Addicts can always try therapy or self-control, but we know that denying access to the drug or even inflicting benign behavioural modification is far more effective.
Why don’t we acknowledge that political belief is also an aspect of human behaviour in need of external control? Let’s call it conviction addiction.
I remind the reader once again that this is not some Harry Potter-reading cat lady writing for slate.com. This is the considered opinion of a professor of philosophy (philosophy!) at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. This is the kind of half-clever adolescent reasoning that can be persuasive, as long as you never actually think about it. Why don’t we acknowledge that political belief requires external control, just like every other aspect of human behavior?
The answer is simple. We don’t do that, or at least we should not do that, because what external controls we put on all the other human behaviors are determined by our political beliefs. At some level, political belief is the font from which all other societal decisions flow. When political belief changes, how and what we do to control human behavior also changes.
Because it is so consequential, political belief is the kind of thing you want to get right. And yet it is something about which you can never be sure; there is no timeless or objective truth in ideology (political belief). We change our minds about morality not because we keep screwing up (although I think we do a lot of that too), but because morality is subjective.
Kingwell would have us silenced, I gather (he is not especially clear on this point), because our support for white nationalism is categorical. Therefore, we can not be “reasoned with.” In truth, categorical white nationalism is logically fool-proof. If the end of desire for a white ethnostate is simply to achieve a white ethnostate, there is no room for logical error. One could argue that we should want something else, but the fact that we do not is not illogical, and there is no way to demonstrate that our desire is objectively wrong.
Even if our ideology were totally irrational, someone else might be inspired by it to fashion it into something that is rational. Or the people may decide that they want an irrational ideology. Morality is subjective.
Kingwell takes the completely untenable position that some ideological questions are settled, when nothing is ever settled—especially ideological questions. All ideas of the Good are subjective and our knowledge is always incomplete. This is why freedom of speech, I think, is the one objective truth. And so while I generally agree with Rawls that we have a responsibility to try to uncover the best possible argument for the other side, with Kingwell, there is no best possible argument.
Ryan Andrews is the author of The Birth of Prudence, which was published by VDare.