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The Use of Free Speech in Society By Asad Haider The debates that arise from discussions of “cancel culture” recall the classical arguments in political thought over freedom of expression, despite the fact that the substance of these arguments is almost never examined. We should look at them more closely, however, because they raise fundamental questions about how we should act politically and what constitutes a good society. "Within this framework we simply have an endless, relativist loop in which different sides make claims for the validity of their speech, and call, whether consciously or not, for some form of censorship of the type of speech that they claim is constraining theirs. We remain in this loop unless we come up with some criteria for what determines “good” speech — that is, starting from the good rather than starting from the “bad” speech which should be constrained — and then determine which social practices would best foster this “good” speech. Simply favoring more speech for speech’s sake is ultimately little more than an argument for Twitter, and thus the rampant proliferation of whatever kind of “bad” speech any side is complaining about." "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. This famous line, constantly invoked in defense of free speech, is commonly attributed to Voltaire. The attribution is apocryphal; yet the inclusion of Voltaire in the free speech canon points us to important lines of demarcation in the history of the Enlightenment. Voltaire, along with current liberal darling Alexander Hamilton, belongs to the legacy that the historian Jonathan Israel has characterized as the “Moderate Enlightenment,” which in contrast to the “Radical” Enlightenment of Spinoza tried to rein in the revolutionary scope of the new philosophy, reconciling it with the hierarchies and inequalities 'of the existing society. It is this moderate version which lives on in contemporary liberalism." "...as a result of Milton’s paradox. Each side can make claims about which practices of speech and association are consistent with a pluralistic society that fosters individual freedom, and which ones are not. Since this is not a question of laws, but of informal social processes, we are really always talking about a different kind of speech. “Cancel culture,” in the end, is also a kind of speech, which is either defended or opposed through misleading appeals to an abstract conception of freedom. Each side, whatever its claims to more consistently advocating for a general freedom, is in reality making a subjective claim that the other side is imposing constraints on its particular freedom." "...what it moves people to do — is just as meaningful as its content. Outside the legal sphere nobody actually has the power to stop speech they don’t like. It will continue, so the relevant question is whether the way you respond to this speech will actually foster good speech. There is little evidence the defense of free speech in principle will do that. In fact, in the case of the Letter, it has simply inflamed the discussion. One can be indignant about this, or claim that it has proven one right, but that does not change the fact that the stated aim was not achieved. It is possible, of course, that inflaming the discussion was the aim: to provoke behavior about which one enjoys being indignant. Such practices have little to recommend them."
The Use of Free Speech in Society By Asad Haider The debates that arise from discussions of “cancel culture” recall the classical arguments in political thought over freedom of expression, despite the fact that the substance of these arguments is almost never examined. We should look at them more closely, however, because they raise fundamental questions about how we should act politically and what constitutes a good society. "Within this framework we simply have an endless, relativist loop in which different sides make claims for the validity of their speech, and call, whether consciously or not, for some form of censorship of the type of speech that they claim is constraining theirs. We remain in this loop unless we come up with some criteria for what determines “good” speech — that is, starting from the good rather than starting from the “bad” speech which should be constrained — and then determine which social practices would best foster this “good” speech. Simply favoring more speech for speech’s sake is ultimately little more than an argument for Twitter, and thus the rampant proliferation of whatever kind of “bad” speech any side is complaining about." "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. This famous line, constantly invoked in defense of free speech, is commonly attributed to Voltaire. The attribution is apocryphal; yet the inclusion of Voltaire in the free speech canon points us to important lines of demarcation in the history of the Enlightenment. Voltaire, along with current liberal darling Alexander Hamilton, belongs to the legacy that the historian Jonathan Israel has characterized as the “Moderate Enlightenment,” which in contrast to the “Radical” Enlightenment of Spinoza tried to rein in the revolutionary scope of the new philosophy, reconciling it with the hierarchies and inequalities 'of the existing society. It is this moderate version which lives on in contemporary liberalism." "...as a result of Milton’s paradox. Each side can make claims about which practices of speech and association are consistent with a pluralistic society that fosters individual freedom, and which ones are not. Since this is not a question of laws, but of informal social processes, we are really always talking about a different kind of speech. “Cancel culture,” in the end, is also a kind of speech, which is either defended or opposed through misleading appeals to an abstract conception of freedom. Each side, whatever its claims to more consistently advocating for a general freedom, is in reality making a subjective claim that the other side is imposing constraints on its particular freedom." "...what it moves people to do — is just as meaningful as its content. Outside the legal sphere nobody actually has the power to stop speech they don’t like. It will continue, so the relevant question is whether the way you respond to this speech will actually foster good speech. There is little evidence the defense of free speech in principle will do that. In fact, in the case of the Letter, it has simply inflamed the discussion. One can be indignant about this, or claim that it has proven one right, but that does not change the fact that the stated aim was not achieved. It is possible, of course, that inflaming the discussion was the aim: to provoke behavior about which one enjoys being indignant. Such practices have little to recommend them."
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