Defending Free Speech Against Postmodernism

Daniel Dennett, the great American rationalist: “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.” (Source: The Guardian)

Excerpt from Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition), by Stephen Hicks (Ockham’s Razor, 2013). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Part I: Postmodernism’s Threats to Free Speech
Part II: Postmodernism Is Nonsensical Anti-Free Speech

From Additional Essay: Free Speech & Postmodernism

The Justification of Freedom of Speech

In light of the foregoing, what liberals of the contemporary generation must advocate are objectivity in epistemology, volition in human nature, and egoism in ethics. We are not going to solve all of those problems in this essay. My purpose here is to point out that those are the issues and to indicate how I think that our defense of free speech should proceed. Three broad points must be made.

The first is an ethical point: individual autonomy. We live in reality, and it is absolutely important to our survival that we come to understand that reality. But coming to know how the world works and acting on the basis of that knowledge is an individual responsibility. Exercising that responsibility requires social freedoms, and one of the social freedoms that we need is speech. We have the capacity to think or not. But that capacity can be hampered severely by a social atmosphere of fear. That is an indispensable part of the liberal argument. Censorship is a tool of government: the government has the power of force to achieve its end, and depending on how that force is used it can generate an atmosphere of fear that interferes with an individual’s ability to perform the basic cognitive functions he needs to act responsibly in the world.

Second is a social point: We get all sorts of values from each other. I will use David Kelley’s social-value categorization scheme here[14]: in social relationships we exchange knowledge values, friendship and love values, and economic trade values. Often, the pursuit of knowledge values is conducted in specialized institutions, and within those institutions the discovery of truth requires certain protections. If we are going to learn from each other and if we are going to be able to teach others, then we need to be able to engage in certain kinds of social processes: debate, criticism, lecturing, asking stupid questions, and so on. All of that presupposes a key social principle: that we will tolerate those things in our social interactions. Part of the price that we will pay is that our opinions and our feelings will be bruised on a regular basis, but—live with it.

Finally, there is a series of political points. As we saw above, beliefs and thoughts are each individual’s responsibility, just as making a living and putting together a happy life are each individual’s responsibility. The purpose of government is to protect individuals’ rights to pursue these activities. The point for free speech is this: Thoughts and speech do not, no matter how false and offensive they are, violate anyone’s rights. Therefore, there is no basis for government intervention.

There is also a point to be made about democracy, which is a part of our social system. Democracy means decentralizing decision-making about who is going to wield political power for the next period of time. In order to make that decision, we expect voters to make an informed choice, and the only way that they can make an informed choice is if there is much discussion and much vigorous debate. So, free speech is an essential part of maintaining democracy.

Finally, free speech is a check on the abuses of government power. History teaches us to worry about the abuse of government power, and one indispensable way of checking such abuse is to allow people to criticize the government and to prohibit the government from preventing such criticism.

Three Special Cases

I want next to address two challenges that the postmodern Left is likely to make to my arguments, and then return specifically to the special case of the university.

Consider first a free-speech point dear to liberal hearts: that there is a distinction between speech and action. I can say something that will harm your feelings. That I am free to do. But if I harm your body—say I hit you with a stick—that I am not free to do. The government can come after me in the latter case but not in the former.

Postmodernists try to break down the distinction between speech and action as follows. Speech, after all, propagates through the air, physically, and then impinges upon the person’s ear, which is a physical organ. So there is no metaphysical basis for making a distinction between an action and speech; speech is an action. The only relevant distinction, therefore, is between actions that harm another person and actions that do not harm another. If one wants to say, as liberals do want to say, that harming the other person by shooting a bullet into him is bad, then it is only a difference of degree between that and harming the person by bad speech. It is not only sticks and stones that can break our bones.

Against that I argue as follows. The first point is true—speech is physical. But there is a significant qualitative difference that we must insist upon. There is a big difference between the breaking of sound waves across your body and the breaking of a baseball bat across your body. Both are physical, but the results of breaking the baseball bat involve consequences over which you have no control. The pain is not a matter of your volition. By contrast, in the case of the sound waves washing over your body, how you interpret those and evaluate them is entirely under your control. Whether you let them hurt your feelings depends on how you evaluate the intellectual content of that physical event.

Racial and Sexual Hate Speech

This ties into a second point. The postmodernist will say, “Anyone who thinks honestly about the history of racism and sexism knows that many words are designed to wound. And if you are not a member of a minority group, you cannot imagine the suffering that the mere use of those words inflicts on people. In short, hate speech victimizes people and so we should have special protections against hateful forms of speech—not all speech; only hate speech.”

Against that I would say, first, that we have a right to hate people. It is a free country—and some people are in fact deserving of hate. Hatred is a perfectly rational and just response to extreme assaults on one’s core values. The premise that we should never hate other individuals is wrong: Judgment is called for, and hateful expressions are appropriate in some cases.

But more directly to the point of the argument here, I argue that racist hate speech does not victimize. It hurts only if one accepts the terms of the speech, and acceptance of those terms is not what we should be teaching. We should not be teaching our students the following lesson: “He called you a racist name. That victimizes you.” That lesson says, first, that you should judge your skin color to be significant to your identity, and, second, that other people’s opinions about your skin color should be significant to you. Only if you accept both of those premises will you feel victimized by someone’s saying something about your skin color.

What we should be teaching instead is that skin color is not significant to one’s core identity, and that other people’s stupid opinions about the significance of skin color is a reflection of their stupidity, not a reflection on you. If someone calls me a goddamned whitey, my reaction should be that the person who says that is an idiot for thinking that my whiteness has anything to do with whether I am goddamned or not. So, I think that the arguments for hate speech, as an exception to free speech, are simply wrong.

The University as a Special Case

Now let me return to the special case of the university. In many ways, the postmodern arguments are tailored to the university, given the priority of our educational goals there and what education presupposes. For it is true that education cannot occur unless minimal rules of civility are observed in the classroom. But let me make a couple of distinctions before I raise the issue of civility.

I hold with what I said earlier: I agree with the distinction between private colleges and public universities. I think that private colleges should be free to institute whatever kinds of codes they wish. As for the public university, while I agree wholeheartedly with the First Amendment, I think it means universities as a whole should not be allowed to institute speech codes. That means that in the tension between the First Amendment and academic freedom, I come down on the side of the academic freedom. If individual professors wish to institute speech codes in their classes, they should be allowed to do so. I think that they would be wrong to do so, for two reasons, but they should have the right to do so.

Why do I think they would be wrong? Because they would be doing themselves a disservice. Many students would vote with their feet and drop the class and spread the word about the professor’s dictatorialism. No self-respecting student will stay in a class where he is going to be browbeaten into a Party line. So I think that there would be a built-in market punishment for a bad classroom policy.

Beyond that, any sort of speech code undermines the process of education. Civility is important, but civility should be something the professor teaches. He should show his students how to deal with controversial issues, setting the example himself. He should go through the ground rules, making it clear that while the class is dealing with sensitive subjects the class as a whole will make progress on them only if its members do not resort to ad hominem, insults, threats, and so forth. If a professor happens to have an individual trouble-maker in the class—and the kinds of racism and sexism that people worry about are mostly matters of isolated individuals—then as a professor he has the option of dropping that student from his course—on the grounds of interference with the process of education, not as a matter of ideological Party line.

That point about the requirements of true education has been demonstrated time and time again. There are the famous cases historically. What happened in Athens after the execution of Socrates, what happened to Renaissance Italy after the silencing of Galileo, and hundreds of other cases. The pursuit of knowledge requires free speech. On that point, I agree with C. Vann Woodward:

[T]he purpose of the university is not to make its members feel secure, content, or good about themselves, but to provide a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, the unorthodox, even the shocking—all of which can be profoundly offensive to many, inside as well as outside its walls… . I do not think the university is or should attempt to be a political or a philanthropic, or a paternalistic or a therapeutic institution. It is not a club or a fellowship to promote harmony and civility, important as those values are. It is a place where the unthinkable can be thought, the unmentionable can be discussed, and the unchallengeable can be challenged. That means, in the words of Justice Holmes, ‘not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.’[15]

That sets the university’s priority of values exactly right. And, to generalize that to the objectivist point about the functioning of reason, Thomas Jefferson also got it exactly right upon the founding of the University of Virginia: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here, we are not afraid to follow truth where it may lead, nor to tolerate error so long as reason is free to combat it.”

Excerpted from Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks. Copyright © Stephen Hicks, 2004, 2011, 2014. All rights reserved.


[14] Kelley, David. 2003. Unrugged Individualism, Second Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: The Atlas Society.

[15] Woodward, C. Vann. 1991. In The New York Review of Books 38:15, September 26. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=3161.

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at StephenHicks.org, and on Twitter.

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