On June 17, the political commentator Ann Coulter, appearing as a guest on Fox News, asserted that crying migrant children separated from their parents are “child actors.” Does this groundless claim deserve as much airtime as, for example, a historically informed argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates that structural racism makes the American dream possible?
Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has complained that men can’t “control crazy women” because men “have absolutely no respect” for someone they cannot physically fight. Does this adolescent opinion deserve as much of an audience as the nuanced thoughts of Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, about the role of “himpathy” in supporting misogyny?
We may feel certain that Coulter and Peterson are wrong, but some people feel the same way about Coates and Manne. And everyone once felt certain that the Earth was the center of the solar system. Even if Coulter and Peterson are wrong, won’t we have a deeper understanding of why racism and sexism are mistaken if we have to think for ourselves about their claims? And “who’s to say” that there isn’t some small fragment of truth in what they say?
If this specious line of thought seems at all plausible to you, it is because of the influence of “On Liberty,” published in 1859 by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill’s argument for near-absolute freedom of speech is seductively simple. Any given opinion that someone expresses is either wholly true, partly true or false.
To claim that an unpopular or offensive opinion cannot be true “is to assume our own infallibility.” And if an offensive opinion is true, to limit its expression is clearly bad for society. If an opinion is partly true, we should listen to it, because “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” And even if an opinion is false, society will benefit by examining the reasons it is false. Unless a true view is challenged, we will hold it merely “in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”
The problem with Mill’s argument is that he takes for granted a naïve conception of rationality that he inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes. For such philosophers, there is one ahistorical rational method for discovering truth, and humans (properly educated) are approximately equal in their capacity for appreciating these truths. We know that “of all things, good sense is the most fairly distributed,” Descartes assures us, because “even those who are the hardest to satisfy in every other respect never desire more of it than they already have.”
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Of course, Mill and Descartes disagreed fundamentally about what the one ahistorical rational method is — which is one of the reasons for doubting the Enlightenment dogma that there is such a method.
If you do have faith in a universal method of reasoning that everyone accepts, then the Millian defense of absolute free speech is sound. What harm is there in people hearing obvious falsehoods and specious argumentation if any sane and minimally educated person can see through them? The problem, though, is that humans are not rational in the way Mill assumes. I wish it were self-evident to everyone that we should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, but the current vice president of the United States does not agree. I wish everyone knew that it is irrational to deny the evidence that there was a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, but a syndicated radio talk show host can make a career out of arguing for the contrary.
Historically, Millian arguments have had some good practical effects. Mill followed Alexis de Tocqueville in identifying “the tyranny of the majority” as an ever-present danger in democracies. As an advocate of women’s rights and an opponent of slavery, Mill knew that many people then regarded even the discussion of these issues as offensive. He hoped that by making freedom of speech a near absolute right he could guarantee a hearing for opinions that were true but unpopular among most of his contemporaries.
However, our situation is very different from that of Mill. We are seeing the worsening of a trend that the 20th century German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse warned of back in 1965: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.” This form of “free speech,” ironically, supports the tyranny of the majority.
The media are motivated primarily by getting the largest audience possible. This leads to a skewed conception about which controversial perspectives deserve airtime, and what “both sides” of an issue are. How often do you see controversial but well-informed intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Martha Nussbaum on television? Meanwhile, the former child-star Kirk Cameron appears on television to explain that we should not believe in evolutionary theory unless biologists can produce a “crocoduck” as evidence. No wonder we are experiencing what Marcuse described as “the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda.”
Marcuse was insightful in diagnosing the problems, but part of the solution he advocated was suppressing right-wing perspectives. I believe that this is immoral (in part because it would be impossible to do without the exercise of terror) and impractical (given that the internet was actually invented to provide an unblockable information network). Instead, I suggest that we could take a big step forward by distinguishing free speech from just access. Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole.
There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. When Nathaniel Abraham was fired in 2004 from his position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute because he admitted to his employer that he did not believe in evolution, it was not a case of censorship of an unpopular opinion. Abraham thinks that he knows better than other scientists (and better than other Christians, like Pope Francis, who reminded the faithful that God is not “a magician, with a magic wand”). Abraham has every right to express his ignorant opinion to any audience that is credulous enough to listen. However, Abraham does not have a right to a share of the intellectual capital that comes from being associated with a prestigious scientific institution like Woods Hole.
Similarly, the top colleges and universities that invite Charles Murray to share his junk science defenses of innate racial differences in intelligence (including Columbia and New York University) are not promoting fair and balanced discourse. For these prestigious institutions to deny Murray an audience would be for them to exercise their fiduciary responsibility as the gatekeepers of rational discourse. We have actually seen a good illustration of what I mean by “just access” in ABC’s courageous decision to cancel “Roseanne,” its highest-rated show. Starring on a television show is a privilege, not a right. Roseanne compared a black person to an ape. Allowing a show named after her to remain on the air would not be impartiality; it would be tacitly endorsing the racist fantasy that her views are part of reasonable mainstream debate.
Donald Trump, first as candidate and now as president, is such a significant news story that responsible journalists must report on him. But this does not mean that he should be allowed to set the terms of the debate. Research shows that repeatedly hearing assertions increases the likelihood of belief — even when the assertions are explicitly identified as false. Consequently, when journalists repeat Trump’s repeated lies, they are actually increasing the probability that people will believe them.
Even when journalistic responsibility requires reporting Trump’s views, this does not entail giving all of his spokespeople an audience. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” set a good precedent for just access by banning from the show Kellyanne Conway for casually spouting “alternative facts.”
Marcuse also suggested, ominously, that we should not “renounce a priori violence against violence.” Like most Americans, I spontaneously cheered when I saw the white nationalist Richard Spencer punched in the face during an interview. However, as I have noted elsewhere, Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. showed us that nonviolent protest is not only a moral demand (although it is that too); it is the highest strategic cunning. Violence plays into the hands of our opponents, who relish the opportunity to play at being martyrs. Consequently, while it was wrong for Middlebury College to invite Murray to speak, it was even more wrong for students to assault Murray and a professor escorting him across campus. (Ironically, the professor who was injured in this incident is a critic of Murray who gave a Millian defense of allowing him to speak on campus.)
What just access means in terms of positive policy is that institutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers. To award space in a campus lecture hall to someone like Peterson who says that feminists “have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” or to give time on a television news show to someone like Coulter who asserts that in an ideal world all Americans would convert to Christianity, or to interview a D-list actor like Jenny McCarthy about her view that actual scientists are wrong about the public health benefits of vaccines is not to display admirable intellectual open-mindedness. It is to take a positive stand that these views are within the realm of defensible rational discourse, and that these people are worth taking seriously as thinkers.
Neither is true: These views are specious, and those who espouse them are, at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists. The invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience.