Postmodernism Is Nonsensical Anti-Free Speech

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) (Credit: Shutterstock)

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

From Additional Essay: Free Speech & Postmodernism


I sometimes have a fantasy that I will play one-on-one basketball with Michael Jordan. He comes by when I am shooting some hoops and I challenge him to a game. He accepts, and we get into the game. We even have a referee to make sure that there is no undue fouling and so forth.

But then an element of realism enters my fantasy. How would this game actually turn out? Well, we play according to the rules of basketball and Michael wins 100 to 3—one time before he got too close to me, I got a shot off and it happened to go in.

Now let’s ask an ethics question: Would that be a fair game? There are two completely different answers one could give, the leftist and egalitarian answer—versus the answer that you are probably thinking of. The first answer says that the game would be completely unfair because Stephen Hicks has no chance at all of winning against Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan is the best basketball player in the universe, and I am an occasional weekend player with an eight-inch vertical clearance when I jump. To make the game “fair,” this answer says, we would need to equalize the radical difference in abilities that are entering into competition here. That is the egalitarian answer to the question.

The other answer says it would be a perfectly fair game. Both Michael and I chose to play. When I challenged him, I knew who he is. Michael has worked hard to develop the skills that he has acquired. By contrast, I have worked less hard to acquire the lesser number of skills that I have. Also, we both know the rules of the game, and there is a referee who is impartially enforcing those rules. When the game was played, Michael shot the ball into the basket the number of times needed to earn his 100 points. He deserves the points. And I deserve my three points as well. So, Michael won the game fair and square—and if my goal is to win at basketball then I should seek out other people to play with. That is the liberal individualist answer to the question.

But if we are committed to the egalitarian notion of “fair,” then we are led to the notion that in any competition we must equalize all of the participants so that they have at least a chance of success. This is where the principle of altruism comes in. Altruism says that in order to equalize opportunities we must take from the strong and give to the weak; that is, we must engage in redistribution. What we can do, in the basketball case, is equalize by, say, not allowing Michael Jordan to use his right hand; or if it is a matter of jumping, by making him wear weights on his ankles so that his jumping and my jumping are equalized. That is the principle of sports handicapping, which is widely used, and it entails not letting someone employ an asset so that the little guy has a chance. The other possible strategy is to give me a 90-point head start. That is, we would not take anything away from Michael that he has earned, but rather it would give me something that I have not earned. Or of course we could employ both remedies simultaneously. So, there are three approaches. (1) We can try to equalize by preventing the stronger from using an asset or a skill that he has. (2) We can give the weaker an advantage that he has not earned. Or (3) we can do both.

There is a general pattern here. The egalitarian starts with the premise that it is not fair unless the parties who are competing are equal. Then, the egalitarian points out that some parties are stronger in some respect than others. Finally, the egalitarian seeks to redistribute in some way in order to make the parties equal or it seeks to prevent the stronger from using their greater assets.

Postmodern leftists apply all of this to speech and say something like the following: “Fair” means that all voices are heard equally. But some people have more speech than others, and some have more effective speech than others. So what we need to do, in order to equalize speech, is to limit the speech of the stronger parties in order to equalize or give more speech opportunities to the weaker parties. Or we need to do both. The parallel with affirmative action is clear.

Inequalities along Racial and Sexual Lines

The next question is: Who are the stronger and the weaker parties that we are talking about? Well, not surprisingly, the Left again emphasizes racial and sexual classes as the groups in need of help. The Left spends much time focusing on data regarding statistical disparities across racial/sexual lines. What is the racial and sexual composition of various professions? various prestigious colleges? various prestigious programs? Then they will argue that racism and sexism are the causes of those disparities and that we need to attack those disparities by redistribution.

How do individualists and liberals respond to the postmodern-Leftist-egalitarian arguments? In some cases, the disparities that leftists find are genuine and racism and sexism do factor into those disparities. But instead of engaging in redistribution, individualists argue, we should solve those problems by teaching individuals to be rational, in two ways. First, we should teach them to develop their skills and talents and be ambitious, so they can make their own way in the world. Second, we should teach them the obvious point that racism and sexism are stupid; that in judging oneself and others it is character, intelligence, personality, and abilities that matter; and that the color of one’s skin is almost always insignificant.

To this, the postmodernists respond that the advice is pointless in the real world. And here is where the postmodernist arguments, though they have been used in the case of affirmative action, are new with respect to speech. What they do is introduce a new epistemology—a social constructionist epistemology—into the censorship debates.

The Social Construction of Minds

Traditionally, speech has been seen as an individual cognitive act. The postmodern view, by contrast, is that speech is formed socially in the individual. And since what we think is a function of what we learn linguistically, our thinking processes are constructed socially, depending on the linguistic habits of the groups we belong to. From this epistemological perspective, the notion that individuals can teach themselves or go their own way is a myth. Also, the notion that we can take someone who has been constructed as a racist and simply teach him to unlearn his bad habits, or teach a whole group to unlearn its bad habits, by appealing to their reason—that also is a myth.

Take Stanley Fish’s argument, from his book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech—and it’s a good thing too. The point here is not primarily political but epistemological.

Freedom of speech is a conceptual impossibility because the condition of speech’s being free in the first place is unrealizable. That condition corresponds to the hope, represented by the often-invoked ‘marketplace of ideas,’ that we can fashion a forum in which ideas can be considered independently of political and ideological constraint. My point, not engaged by the letters, is that constraint of an ideological kind is generative of speech and that therefore the very intelligibility of speech (as assertion rather than noise) is radically dependent on what free-speech ideologues would push away. Absent some already-in-place and (for the time being) unquestioned ideological vision, the act of speaking would make no sense, because it would not be resonating against any background understanding of the possible courses of physical or verbal actions and their possible consequences. Nor is that background accessible to the speaker it constrains; it is not an object of his or her critical self-consciousness; rather, it constituted the field in which consciousness occurs, and therefore the productions of consciousness, and specifically speech, will always be political (that is, angled) in ways the speaker cannot know.[9]

We are constructed socially, the postmoderns argue, and we are, even as adults, not aware of the social construction that underlies the speech we are engaging in. We might feel as though we are speaking freely and making our own choices, but the unseen hand of social construction is making us what we are. What you think and what you do and even how you think are governed by your background beliefs.

Fish states the point abstractly. Catharine MacKinnon applies this point to the special case of women and men, in making her case for censoring pornography. Her argument is not the standard, conservative argument that pornography desensitizes men and gets them riled up to the point where they go out and do brutal things to women. MacKinnon believes that pornography does that, but her argument is deeper. She argues that pornography is a major part of the social discourse that is constructing all of us. It makes men what they are in the first place and it makes women what they are in the first place. So we are culturally constructed by porn as a form of language to adopt certain sex roles and so forth.[10]

As a result of this, the postmoderns infer there is no distinction between speech and action, a distinction that liberals have traditionally prized. According to postmodernists, speech is itself something that is powerful because it constructs who we are and underlies all of the actions that we engage in. And as a form of action, it can and does cause harm to other people. Liberals, say postmodernists, should accept that any form of harmful action must be constrained. Therefore, they must accept censorship.

Another consequence of this view is that group conflict is inevitable, for different groups are constructed differently according to their different linguistic and social backgrounds. Blacks and whites, men and women, are constructed differently and those different linguistic-social-ideological universes will clash with each other. Thus, the speech of the members of each group is seen as a vehicle through which the groups’ competing interests clash. And there will be no way of resolving the clash, because from this perspective you cannot say, “Let’s settle this reasonably.” What reason is, is itself constructed by the prior conditions that made you what you are. What seems reasonable to you is not going to be what is reasonable to the other group. Consequently, the whole discussion is necessarily going to descend into a shouting match.

Speakers and Censors

Let’s summarize this argument and put all of its elements together.

  • Speech is a form of social power. [Social Constructivism]
  • Fairness means an equal ability to speak. [Egalitarianism]
  • The ability to speak is unequal across racial and sexual groups. [Collectivism]
  • The races and sexes are in conflict with each other. [Racism and Sexism]
  • The stronger racial and sexual groups, that is, whites and males, will use speech-power to their advantage, at the expense of other races and women. [Zero-Sum Conflict]

What we have then are two positions about the nature of speech. The postmodernists say: Speech is a weapon in the conflict between groups that are unequal. And that is diametrically opposed to the liberal view of speech, which says: Speech is a tool of cognition and communication for individuals who are free.

If we adopt the first statement, then the solution is going to be some form of enforced altruism, under which we redistribute speech in order to protect the harmed, weaker groups. If the stronger white males have speech tools they can use to the detriment of the other groups, then do not let them use those speech tools. Generate a list of denigrating words that harm members of the other groups and prohibit members of the powerful groups from using them. Do not let them use the words that reinforce their own racism and sexism, and don’t let them use words that make members of other groups feel threatened. Eliminating those speech advantages will reconstruct our social reality—which is the same goal as affirmative action.

A striking consequence of this analysis is that the toleration of “anything goes” in speech becomes censorship. The postmodern argument implies that if anything goes, then that gives permission to the dominant groups to keep on saying the things that keep the subordinate groups in their place. Liberalism thus means helping the silencing of the subordinate groups and letting only the dominant groups have effective speech. Postmodern speech codes, therefore, are not censorship but a form of liberation—they liberate the subordinated groups from the punishing and silencing effects of the powerful groups’ speech, and they provide an atmosphere in which the previously subordinated groups can express themselves. Speech codes equalize the playing field.

As Stanley Fish says:

Individualism, fairness, merit—these three words are continually in the mouths of our up-to-date, newly respectable bigots who have learned that they need not put on a white hood or bar access to the ballot box in order to secure their ends.”[11]

In other words, free speech is what the Ku Klux Klan favors.

The liberal notions of leaving individuals free and telling them that we are going to treat them according to the same rules and judge them on their merit—that only means reinforcing the status quo, which means keeping the whites and males on top and the rest below. So in order to equalize the power imbalance, explicit and forthright double-standards are absolutely and unapologetically called for by the postmodern Left.

This point is not new to this generation of postmodernists. Herbert Marcuse first articulated it in a broader form when he said: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.”[12]

The Heart of the Debate

We have seen, then, what philosopher Ayn Rand often insisted upon—that politics is not a primary.[13] The debates over free speech and censorship are a political battle, but one cannot over-emphasize the importance in those debates of fundamental philosophical issues in epistemology, human nature, and values.

Three issues are the core of the contemporary debates over free speech and censorship, and they are traditional philosophical problems.

First, there is an epistemological issue: Is reason cognitive? Skeptics who deny the cognitive efficacy of reason open the door to various forms of skepticism and subjectivism and now, in the contemporary generation, to social subjectivism. If reason is socially constructed, then it is not a tool of knowing reality. To defend free speech, that postmodern epistemological claim must be challenged and refuted.

Second is a core issue in human nature. Do we have volition or are we products of our social environments? Is speech something we can generate freely, or is it a form of social conditioning that makes us who we are?

And third is an issue from ethics: Do we bring to our analysis of speech a commitment to individualism and self-responsibility? Or do we come into this particular debate committed to egalitarianism and altruism?

Postmodernism, as a fairly consistent philosophical outlook, presupposes a social subjectivist epistemology, a social-determinist view of human nature, and an altruistic, egalitarian ethic. Speech codes are a logical application of those beliefs.

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

Part III: Defending Free Speech Against Postmodernism

[9] Fish 1994, 114-115.

[10] MacKinnon 1993, 16.

[11] Fish 1994, 68. See also MacKinnon 1993, 10.

[12] Marcuse, Herbert. 1965. “Repressive Tolerance.” In Robert Paul Wolff, editor, 1969, A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Beacon Press, 109.

[13] Rand, Ayn. 1982. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York.

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, and on Twitter.

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