Critical Thinking as Productive Questions 

Suppose this protester has millions of well-financed supporters.  Now what do you think?

Suppose this protester has millions of well-financed supporters.  Now what do you think?

1. Is there not something frightening about extremism of any kind?

2. Does not the purpose of free speech impose a limit on the extent of your support for unfettered speech?

3. What assumptions do we make about the consumers of speech when we support almost any and all speech?

Many ordinarily moderate people, aware of the wisdom of measured devotion and detestation compelled by differences in context, throw caution to the wind when they voice full-throated support for almost any and all speech. Oh, they quickly provide a few caveats about the impropriety of yelling incendiary threats in a crowded space and some category of "hateful speech" that always seems more clearly defined in their mind than mine. But for almost all situations at almost all times, they want speech to flow.

I have trouble understanding their rationale for an almost absolutist position with respect to speech. There is a solid basis for the Greek passion for the value of moderation as a general rule. As the heat of my fervor for something becomes intense, warning signals blast out. My reasoning contains an echo of the French Enlightenment with its repugnance for wars and flimsy belief fueled by little more than unconstrained emotivism. I recall so vividly how my Constitutional Law professor would speak in glowing terms of Justice Hugo Black's vigorous defense of the First Amendment "There shall be no law abridging the freedom of speech." All I could think about at the time was how vapid such universal support for anything sounded. 

So what would more circumspect thought with respect to free speech sound like? Would careful reflection not start with analysis of why we want to be able as a community to hear speech in many forms? Is not this desire based on a solid foundation, viz., humility and openness?  We realize that our understanding is always partial. Hence, we need to hear contrary perspectives. Civic health requires encouragement of speech that has the capacity to make us aware of that which we need to know so that we can fashion improved lives and public welfare.We have complex decisions to make; we need to hear from those who offer a useful perspective.

I can just imagine certain relativists reading that last paragraph and challenging me with their favorite mantra, "who's to say?"  Good question.  But nihilism in the face of tough choices gets us where? All organized societies must trust some group to answer that question. The people in whatever form they may voice their opinion, a benign autocrat, a collaboration among legitimate interest groups, or some respected body must decide what behavior benefits the polity. We would hope they would err on the side of flourishing pluralism when they answer, but answer they must.

Consider the options.  Would we really want to live in a world where "who's to say?" was a respected response to:

  1. How many stop signs should be placed in our neighborhood?
  2. Should the U.S. threaten military action against Russia if they persist in violating Norway's territorial boundaries?
  3. When should a divorce be granted in our society?

My point is that every organized society must make choices about what speech acts have a reasonable basis for advancing human flourishing and which do not. Glance at the cartoon at the top of this post. Consider the purpose we have for encouraging diverse speech. His sign in and of itself does not tell us much. Perhaps he is making a public statement in accord with what I am saying in this post. But perhaps he is a voice on behalf of a well-financed group of fascists. Then I would not permit his speech.  

Would you?  Do you wish to destroy the community for which you are championing free speech? Perhaps you respond to my query with "we have to trust the people to resist the message this person is sending." Hmm.  Now, I think, we are getting to the nub of the issue of how extensively we should champion any and all speech acts. Why do you not make the same point in opposition to the legal restriction against hollering "FIRE" in a crowded theater? Why do you not trust this inchoate crowd to calmly gather evidence before deciding whether to laugh or run upon hearing the cry of "fire"?   Is not the answer that you recognize that group decision-making rarely avoids the cognitive frailties of our minds? Are you not just a little nervous about the capabilities of jurors to make nuanced decisions about the speech acts they hear in court? Are you surprised to learn that the reasons my college students often give for supporting a candidate are consistent with voting for the opponent of the person for whom they voted?   In other words, do you trust your neighbors to be able to process data and reasons of all kinds in all situations such that we can rest assured that they can parse the nuances of arguments in pursuit of a more enlightened community?  

1. Is there some attribute of speech that makes it always desirable, even though we would support limits to almost any other act?

2. Are we not more aware of the societal dangers of speech than we often admit? If not, what are the "free speech areas" on many college campuses? A special area for something we wholeheartedly support?

3. Must we trust the skills of our neighbors to engage in Kahneman's "slow thinking" when it comes to their processing speech?

AuthorM Neil Browne