Category Archives: Free Speech

Interpretive Charity and Heated Debate

I wanted to add to the discussion my co-bloggers have started on discourse norms.

Consider the following sample dialogues

1)
A: “I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B: “I think you’re mistaken about that.  Just as criminal background checks make good sense, so would some sort of red-flag or mental health history screening.  Indeed, since we already use criminal background checks, we could easily combine the two, plus it would help if there weren’t easy ways to circumvent the background checks.”

2)
A: “ I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B*: “That’s outrageous.  You think guns are more important than kids’ lives?”

3)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B: “I disagree.  I am not depending on any particular religious doctrine when I claim that human life begins at conception. It’s a developmental spectrum, there are no sharp dividing lines, so if we don’t respect the new life that the pregnancy represents as early as possible, it’s a slippery slope.  As to the reasons why women might want to terminate, sure, if there’s a legitimate medical rationale that the mother’s life is in jeopardy, I can see that, but I think a lot of what you’re calling psychological reasons could be addressed through counseling, spiritual or secular.”

4)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B*: “That’s outrageous. You think it’s ok to murder babies to preserve some illusion of women’s autonomy?”

————————

You may have noticed that dialogues (1) and (3) read very differently than (2) and (4).   That’s because in (1) and (3), the B character is responding to the A character’s arguments with different arguments.   In (2) and (4), the B* character does not actually engage with A’s arguments at all, but goes right for “baby-killer.”   Regardless of your view on either abortion or gun control, you should be able to see that in (2) and (4), B* is not arguing in a rational way, whereas B is arguing rationally in (1) and (3).   Does A actually hold the position that B* alleges?  Almost certainly not.  This is commonly known as the “straw man” fallacy; in this case augmented by an emotional appeal.  We know this because in the other pair of dialogues, B is offering actual counter-arguments. 

Why does this matter?   Because when people argue about these things, they have two sorts of objectives.  One is changing the mind of the other person, or perhaps onlookers.  The other is changing public policy.   But neither of these goals will be served with arguments that do not engage their opponents.  It’s totally implausible that A will respond to B* with “oh goodness, I didn’t realize I was advocating baby-killing, I hereby change my position.”  What happens instead is the discussion goes nowhere.

Sometimes we just get angry at people who disagree with us, and we are bewildered that others don’t see things our way.  But we should resist the temptation to straw-man.  If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to argue with people, you’re certainly not required to do so.  But if you do think it’s worth arguing about, then your objectives will be better served with interpretive charity.  What actually is the other person’s position, and why?  Why do they think your position is wrong?  Is there something that might be common ground?  Are you talking past each other?  Are you sure that your position is informed by facts and logic?  Do you have any talking points that might be misinformed?

Sometimes we never resolve disagreements on highly controversial issues.  But if you hope to get anywhere, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Georgetown University Does Not Have a Speech and Expression Policy

The following is a guest post by John Hasnas. Dr. Hasnas is a Professor of Ethics at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Professor of Law (by courtesy) at Georgetown Law Center.

In 2017, to great fanfare, Georgetown University adopted a speech and expression policy that states,

It is Georgetown University’s policy to provide all members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. . . . It is not the proper role of a university to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Deliberation or debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived.

On January 26, 2021, the incoming Executive Director of Georgetown law’s Center for the Constitution, Ilya Shapiro, expressed his disapproval of President Biden’s decision to consider only African-American women for appointment to the Supreme Court by tweeting: “Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identity politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman.”

On January 27, the dean of Georgetown Law published a campus-wide e-mail in which he called the tweet “appalling” and “at odds with everything we stand for at Georgetown Law.” On January 31, the dean placed the director on “administrative leave, pending an investigation into whether he violated our policies and expectations on professional conduct, non-discrimination, and anti-harassment.” 

On June 2, the dean published a campus wide e-mail in which he stated that Mr. Shapiro’s “tweets could be reasonably understood, and were in fact understood by many, to disparage any Black woman the President might nominate.” He went on to explain that 

In considering how to address the impact of Mr. Shapiro’s tweets, I was guided by two overarching principles. The first is the Law Center’s dedication to speech and expression. Georgetown University’s Speech and Expression Policy provides that the “University is committed to free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate in all matters, and the untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas.” The second and equally important principle was our dedication to building a culture of equity and inclusion (emphasis added).

He then pointed out that the speech and expression policy states that “[t]he freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.” He further noted that speech that violates the University’s Policy Statement on Harassment is prohibited and that the Speech and Expression Policy does not supersede professional conduct policies or HR policies. He omitted the next sentence that states, “But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions not be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a free and open discussion of ideas.”

The dean concluded his e-mail by stating,

Georgetown Law is committed to preserving and protecting the right of free and open inquiry, deliberation, and debate. We have an equally compelling obligation to foster a campus community that is free from bias, and in which every member is treated with respect and courtesy. I am committed to continuing to strive toward both of these indispensable goals (emphasis added).

Apparently, Georgetown has equally compelling commitments to “free and open inquiry, deliberation, and debate” and “to foster a campus community that is free from bias, and in which every member is treated with respect and courtesy.” 

Combining these two commitments means that Georgetown’s policy is to provide all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn unless some members of the Georgetown community could reasonably understand what is being expressed as disparaging them or the administration finds the comments at odds with what Georgetown stands for. It means that Georgetown believes that it is not the proper role of a university to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive unless they offend some members of the Georgetown community. It means that members of the Georgetown community are free to express ideas that others find to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived unless students or administrators deem them too offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived to be permitted.

It means that Georgetown University does not have a speech and expression policy.

Editors note: Yesterday, Ilya Shapiro resigned his position at Georgetown, claiming it would be a hostile work environment wherein he was set up to fail.

Congressional SnowFlakes

I wasn’t going to write anything about this as it seemed too obvious to comment on, but I haven’t seen others do so—and it is worth noticing.

There has been, and continues to be, talk about college students and people on the left as “snow flakes” and weak/soft/thin-skinned, too easily hurt by speakers on campus. The extent to which college students take offense at comments may (or not) be greater than it was in the past. Last week, though, we saw Republican Congresspeople doing the same thing. See this.

Liz Cheney has been telling the truth about the 2020 election and (some of) the lies coming from Donald Trump and his sycophants. She has not, so far as I have seen, been particularly rude about it. She has simply pointed out that some people seem intent on enabling and spreading Trump’s lies. The response includes claims of being offended and “hurt.” (TN Rep. Chuck Fleishmann: “It hurt me very much.” A lobbyist: “what she’s said was offensive to me, and many others.”)

It is not unusual on college campuses to hear claims that speech can harm so badly that we should not only be concerned, but also set policies to prevent such. Speech codes were/are meant to prevent harm. This is the sort of concept creep—where we talk of things previously thought non-harmful as harmful—that I worried about in my Toleration and Freedom from Harm and that Frank Furedi worried about in his On Tolerance.

Furedi’s concern was with acceptance of a “transformation of distress into a condition of emotional injury” (106) that would be used to justify interference meant to silence discussions that might somehow endanger those offended (or those they pretend to protect). A standard response is that such people are too weak to hear (or have others hear) anything that might offend them, cause them to doubt themselves, or that simply might not put them in the best light. Cheney is clearly not putting most of those in her party in the best light and offending some to the point of “hurt.” One wonders if her detractors will try to pass some sort of congressional speech code.