Problems with the Third tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].
(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].
(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].
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In the last two posts I showed that there are serious tensions between (1) and (2), and (2) and (3). In this post, I explain how there are problems between (1) and (3), because there are cases in which our emotive responses are considered adequate grounds to limiting what what we should say. These emotive responses can generate moral reasons and behaviour requirements we sometimes describe as ‘etiquette’.

One problem with (1) is that ethics can restrict what we can say. A problem with (2) is that sometimes our feelings dictate whether a particular claim about a situation involving ethics, can depend upon our feelings. In light of this, we can see that, for any claim involving feelings as the basis of whether some claim is true or false, then those emotions, by proxy, legitimately limit what we can say.

It is generally taken that hurting another’s feelings, all other things being equal, is something you should not do. For example, you should not say to someone that you think they are ugly or stupid. And you should not do so precisely because being told those things can cause a great deal of pain within the person. The fact that such words can cause such anguish seems to generate a moral commitment then to not say such things.

Our language and moral concepts show how sensitive we are to this. If someone says such harsh words (e.g., you are incredibly fat, fatso), we label such a person ‘rude’, ‘cruel’, ‘mean’, etc. to indicate a character flaw of the person. And if someone does it enough, and is unapologetic about it, we often disassociate from the person or otherwise remove them from discourse, sometimes based solely upon these grounds. We might even go so far as to say they lack basic human empathy.

These observations about common courtesy and our reactions to violations of it, indicate that we believe basic manners hold moral ground. If so, then our feelings in such cases should be taken as serious grounds for limiting speech acts.

Now while this may be true all other things being equal, it seems obvious that there appear to be cases in which truth can overrule such feelings. For example, telling someone they did a poor job fixing your kitchen sink might cause them anguish, but intuitively the truth in such a case trumps their feelings. But note that all this objection does is highlight that the truth sometimes is adequate grounds for hurting someones feelings. It might be the case that ‘sometimes’ is most of the time, or barely any of it, but truth does not give us, in virtue of simply being true, grounds for saying it.

To that end, there are clearly cases in which feelings trump truth. We judge a parent who  tells their child they are bad or inadequate at some task harshly, even if what they say is true. And we consider it morally reprehensible because in such cases the feelings of the individual trump the facts of the matter. Even in cases where the parent must break ‘harsh truths’ on their child, it is not done for truths sake, but rather, to help the child in the long run. Note here that it isn’t even truth, but moral reasons that permit truth to be spoken.

But emotive responses and feelings do not just give adequate grounds for limiting what one can say – they can also legitimately compel speech acts.

The domain of etiquette appears to be another place in which emotive responses can dictate what we should and should not say. Manners such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, calling someone by their title (‘Doctor’, ‘Professor’, ‘Senator’, ‘Your Honour’, etc.). Particular types of words common within a linguistic community (workplace, golf club, nursing home, etc.) to indicate inclusion and respect can be compelled. Not keeping to the language of a linguistic community often indicates a lack of respect, rudeness, or arrogance, and persons and groups will ostracise a violator of the etiquette. Etiquette also limits what we say. Expletives, expressing disinterest, openly questioning or criticising another, or otherwise can have disastrous effects for the violator of etiquette.

And how are manners and etiquette generated? An obvious answer lies in emotions and feelings: people feel very deserving of being respected, and not doing so will trigger a serious emotional reaction if they aren’t. So, it seems etiquette rules are generated precisely around things people feel so sensitively about. And since we take rules of etiquette, manners, and basic common courtesy, as things that limit or compel speech acts, it appears again that emotions can legitimately limit what we should, or should not, say.

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Problems with The second tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].

(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].

In the last post I showed that (1) is not true, since morality and truth appear to be things that legitimately restrict what we can say. And while truth and ethics might limit our speech we do not, intuitively, take these restrictions as violating free speech.

In this post, I’ll explain how there is serious tension between (2) and (3), since there are some propositions which has their truth value turn upon how we feel. Such propositions are those that relate directly to our feelings while others are moral claims that primarily involve ‘harm’ (as understood in both consequentialist and deontological thought).

To begin, let us consider propositions involving feelings or emotions. Consider the following. Suppose two teams, Red and Blue, are playing a game of football (soccer). The final score is 5 – 0, in the red’s favour. Suppose we make the following claims: 

1. Blue lost to Red.

2. All the players on Blue are happy they lost.

3. All the players on Red are happy they won.

4. Most of the players on Blue are angry because they think Red cheated to win.

The above propositions have truth values; the claims are either true or false (or perhaps both or neither). Claim 1. and 2. are false, while Claim 3. and 4. are true. What makes the respective claims true or false? The claims seem to depend on facts of the matter, but some of these facts are not independent of feelings. The truth values of claims 2, 3, and 4, are somewhat predicated upon the feelings of the players of those teams. Since this is the case, it means that (3) is false, because some claims do require us to consider a persons (or group of persons) emotions or feelings, then for such claims our reasoning on them requires taking into consider the feeling of others.

Now, we might want to say that (2) still holds, because even if the truth of some proposition hinges upon feelings that does not mean we take consideration of feelings as an extra condition. For feelings would only matter in virtue of them grounding a truth claim – but the thing that makes them worth noting is that they are true and not that they are feelings. Perhaps an argument can be made here, but the point remains that truth and feelings are still not as inseparable as FSCs think they are.

Another problem about the dichotomy placed between (2) and (3) involves ethics and morality. It appears that certain types of claims about morality and ethics, especially surrounding under what conditions a person is wronged, are problematic.

If we adopt a theory of ethics similar to consequentialism or hedonism, the wrongness or an action depends upon the harm it produces. And considering the most intuitive way of understanding harm along consequentialist lines involves a persons emotive response, then it appears again that the conflict between (2) and (3) arises. Worse still, in cases such as these the truth of whether an action is wrong or not depends entirely upon that feeling. 

The same problem still seems to exist in deontological ethics with regards to consent. Consider two different cases. In case one, Andy hits Byron square in the jaw during a robbery, knocking him out. In case two, Casey hits Dany square in the jaw during a boxing match, knocking her out. Who was harmed, Byron or Dany? In terms of violation of consent, Byron has been harmed whereas Dany has not. Reason being that as part of a boxing match, Dany has waved her right to not be physically assaulted (i.e., consented), whereas Byron has been physically assaulted on the street and did not give consent for such behaviour to be done to him. 

Note, however, that the fact of whether Byron or Dany were harmed in such cases depends upon the subjective opinion of the person who was hit. Whether such waving of consent can be counted as a feeling or emotion seems doubtful to me, but the hard line that so many FSCs draw between facts and a persons subjective experience seems problematic at best, especially when we consider ethical truths or propositions.  

So it seems that (2) is too strict a claim and is not sensitive to the fact that some truth claims can be dependent upon our feelings or emotions. Considering (3) states that such feelings should never be inputs into our reasoning for (2), then it’s not entirely clear at all how we could ever evaluate claims dependent upon feelings or emotions. 

Problems with the First Tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].

(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].

In that previous post I outlined why such beliefs might be attractive. In this entry I will consider the following problem for FSCs: there is a tension between (1) and (2) because, intuitively, truth is a condition that does, and should, limit what one can say, and therefore limits our speech acts. I consider what other conditions might legitimately curtail speech acts. Finally, I offer a reply to the common objection that any limitation – even a legitimate one – can, or will, lead down a slippery slope. This slop, it is commonly asserted will result in government censorship, the end of Individual Freedom and rise of Authoritarian Left-Wing Fascism (such sentiments can be found in one of Marcus “Count Dankula” Meechan’s popular video, “The Platform Monopoly“).

Let’s begin with the first tension: truth is, intuitively, a condition that does, and should, limit what one can say, and therefore restricts speech.

It seems to be a widespread intuition that telling the truth is the default thing to do unless we are given a good reason to do otherwise. That is, telling the truth is what you must do (all other things equal) precisely because it is the truth. The tension between FSC tenets (1) and (2) becomes obvious: if telling the truth is what we must do because truth it is a fundamental value, then there is (at least) one condition that justifiably causes us to censor, limit and curtail our speech acts.

One would hope that even the staunchest of FSCs would be sensitive to this, agreeing that lies and falsehoods should be banned (although they probably wouldn’t use the word ‘ban’ because of connotations to censorship). They might say then, that truth is the only condition that should limit what one can say. Yet truth does not seem to be the the only condition; morality and ethics seem to legitimately limit speech acts.

I take it that, if one believes free speech is a fundamental human right, then it is not the only right we have. If that is the case, then there will be circumstances in which those other rights will conflict with our right to say whatever we want.  One obvious right is the right to not be harmed. Admittedly, what constitutes a harm is vague and ill defined. Regardless, I think it is intuitive enough to say that if a speech act causes harm to another then that speech act should be forbidden. At the very least, it seems correct that certain types of harm should limit what one can say (as famously put forward and defended by John Stewart Mill). And if we cash out free speech as having some sort of function or purpose in a society, then any speech act that threatens to undermine that purpose should not be protected. For example, one might advocate for free speech because it is an expression of our autonomy (such defences are explored by Brison). If so, then any speech act that undermines a person’s autonomy should not be protected (for doing otherwise would be to devalue and comprise the very thing speech was meant to honour).

What we might summarize the points as follows. Free speech is but one of many values we hold. Given the obvious fact that in some circumstances values can clash, it is highly likely that free speech will be, and should be, trumped by one of these other values in certain circumstances. If FSCs take this seriously then it is clear they have a large oversight within their core tenets that must be either resolved or revised.

One common objection made by FSCs is appealing to a slippery slope. While never explicitly stating it in any formal way, we can roughly summarize the concern they raise as follows. A particular change, or limit, to speech (even if acceptable) will lead (perhaps inevitably) to some intolerable limits to speech or other disastrous results (such as censorship, and/or Fascism). While there might be some historical precedent for such a claim, FSCs often treat the slippery slope as something that we will get on if we limit speech in the currently considered way (such as hate speech).

What FSCs fail to realize, it seems, is that we are already on that slope. Whether we have slid too far one direction or another is what the debate should be about, rather than couching this objection as claiming that adding new items to the list of things we shouldn’t say is somehow the action of getting on the slope. And the fact we are on the slope, and whether we could slip further down it, tells us nothing about whether we actually will slip down, or if it is unjustified or wrong to do so.

Of course, it is possible for some limits to speech might lead to further restrictions, but the again they might not. Yet even if limitations in the immediate case do lead to further restrictions later on, those other limitations might also be justified because of the truth and moral/ethical conditions I outlined above.

What I have said thus far is that the naive free speech tenet and the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet are at odds, and that there seems to be other conditions, like moral or ethical reasons, for limiting what one can or can’t say. The reason seems to be that the value of free speech can in some cases be in direct competition with our other values. And in such cases those other values can, and sometimes must, limit our speech.

What I have not said is whether the government or state can enforce these standards. There seem to be some cases which it is intuitively acceptable for a state to intervene and punish, and other times not. And other times it is intuitively acceptable for a community to intervene and punish, and other times not. It is a difficult problem which I have not thought about enough, nor is it a problem within the scope of this essay.

But whatever the case, FSCs need to accept that free speech does not mean unrestricted, and that legitimate restrictions do not diminish our freedoms. Once they truly accept this and begin engaging with why precisely, certain immediate cases like ‘hate speech’ need a legitimate argument against them (besides saying ‘hate speech’ doesn’t exist) if they are to make any traction.

 

Core tenets of the Free Speech Warriors

There are a number of beliefs held by figureheads of the Free-Speech Warrior (FSW) movement that appear to be widely held throughout their community. In this entry I wish to examine three. They can be summarised as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed.

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief.

(3) Emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2).

These three beliefs are so intuitively obvious and fundamental to the FSW movement, that they almost provide no serious argument for them. For that reason, I think we can refer to these 3 beliefs as core tenets of the SFW movement.

But I don’t think they are as obvious as SFWs take them to be, nor do I think they are wholly compatible tenets in their most naive forms. So in the next series of entries, I want to consider what those tensions are, how they cause problems, and how an SFW might attempt to resolve them. But for this entry, I just want to consider what it is that makes these core tenets so attractive.

Now, (1) appears to be a product of our time, (2) looks to be common sense, and (3) appears to be a natural consequent of (1) and (2). After all, (1) allows for no conditions at all to intervene while (2) only allows for one – truth. And while (3) appears to fall out of (1) and (2), FSWs feel a strong inclination to explicitly state it, for they reason that their ideological opponents – the “regressive left” – predominately use their feelings as a way of manipulating an audience, as opposed to appealing to the “light of Reason”. 

First, freedom of expression, as part of the political-philosophy experiment known as the “American Project”, has proven to be effective in improving our moral progress. Freedom of expression has given marginalised groups protection from the state to dissent and question society, the status-quo, and even the state itself. Such questioning and criticism has allowed for more peaceful (though clearly not fully peaceful) reformation of law and social ethics. So effective has the free speech idea been, that even people of other nations have latched onto it, even when it is not given or protected by their own states.

But more intuitive is (2), which I think is widely held amongst humans, regardless of culture, gender, etc. So intuitive, in fact, that asking for a normative argument for why truth should be the only justifier for a belief strikes most as absurd. Not only that, but it seems psychologically impossible to continue holding a belief once we know it to be false. Note I am not saying that when someone is shown evidence for why a belief is false they will either immediately, or eventually, drop that belief. What I am saying here is that when a person truly realises a belief is false, they can no longer hold onto it, no matter how hard they try.

As for (3) – that feelings should never be an input into our reasoning – it seems to be more a reaction (whether warranted or not) to the left and social justice warriors (SJWs), who, it is asserted by the reactionaries, use emotions and feelings to bully and impose their views upon others. Many FSWs and ‘skeptics’ seem to think that (3) is either a recent notion, or is at least recent in the history of ideas, pointing to the Enlightenment as having discovered and developed the idea. But, of course, the idea that Reason should trump all emotive appeals has a much longer history than that, as even pre-socratics argued, or already employed, such a belief.  

But how compatible are these beliefs? In the next few entries I will argue the following.

First, there is tension between (1) and (2) because truth is intuitively a condition that does, and perhaps should, limit what one can say, and therefore restricts speech. Second, a false dilemma is set up between (2) and (3), as the truth of some proposition is only predicated by our feelings. Third, there is tension between (1) and (3), because there are cases in which our emotive responses are considered adequate grounds to limiting what others should say. And, finally, there is a tension between (1), (2) and (3), because the belief in (1) and (2) are often based upon axiomatic intuitions, and thus can be interpreted as a type of feeling, thus both (1) and (2) are self defeating. 

Rhetoric: fire-with-fire

Broadly, a rhetorical device is a type of tactic used by a communicator to persuade an audience into believing a view. Under this construal, even an argument that follows sound principles of logic is a type of rhetorical device. I want to put that technicality aside and go with our intuitive understanding of rhetoric. That intuitive understanding of rhetoric would be something like this: rhetoric, contra logical reasoning, uses irrational or non-rational methods to persuade an audience. The reason rhetoric often sits opposite logical reasoning is that rhetorical devices, when taken by themselves, baulk in light of philosophical reasoning. For example, appealing to an anecdote is often compelling at persuading a person to a view, but a single anecdote does not tell us anything about all other similar events. 

Regardless of how irrational a rhetorical device might be, they are still compelling. After all, if they weren’t, then they would have fallen out of fashion many years (or generations) ago. Pointing out a rhetorical device as being a rhetorical device, or  even explaining why they do not hold up to philosophical scrutiny, does not seem to persuade many away from a claim being expressed via rhetoric. So if pointing out a rhetorical device for what it is or explain why they are logically flawed fails to convince people, what else can we do to repel them? 

An effective countermeasure I have deployed is to simply use the exact same rhetorical device, word for word, back at the person who initially employed it. So, if one were to appeal to a slippery slope fallacy I would employ the same fallacy to argue for the exact opposite of my interlocutor. If one were to appeal to ridicule to criticise a premise or conclusion, simply use the same appeal to ridicule back at them. If someone uses a hedging term (e.g., ‘it’s just X), I might say, “exactly, it’s just X, so if it is just X, then what is the problem?”.

This fighting ‘fire-with-fire’ might appear problematic for several reasons. First, it is itself a kind of rhetorical device, and for that reason might viewed as irrational. Second, such a blunt approach to dismissing an opponents argument (even if it were correct to do so), might appear to lack philosophical rigour. And finally, repeating almost verbatim what someone else says in response to them might appear childish. I want to address these points in turn.

First, under the broad construal of rhetorical device, this fire-with-fire approach definitely falls into this category. After all, it is being employed precisely because it is being used to persuade an audience. Under our more limited and intuitive notion of rhetoric, the fire-with-fire method is indeed irrational on the surface level, but if we look underneath the hood of why it is being employed in the first place, we will see that it is in fact actively demonstrating how fallacious such rhetorical devices are, precisely because they do not hold up under philosophical scrutiny. So, although explicitly the fire-with-fire method is rhetorical, the actual point is implicit, by drawing out two robust intuitions we have about reasoning and fairness.

What do I mean by this? The first intuition is about reasoning and evidence. The fire-with-fire method draws out a very robust intuition that could be summarised as follows. Evidence or argument can only support the Truth and nothing else. So if the same piece of evidence or argument can be used to support any competing and incompatible claims, then that piece of evidence or argument is useless and cannot be relied upon.

This intuition about evidence and the relationship it has truth and justification is robust for both laypersons and academics. After all, many types of evidence are ruled out as legitimate precisely because that type of evidence can be used to support or discredit a claim either way. 

The second intuition is more simple to understand. It is an intuition we have about fairness: we recognise that a piece of evidence is unacceptable for an interlocutor to use, then it is not fair if we were to use the exact same evidence ourselves. This intuition is so widespread that violating it even has a name: special pleading. I don’t think much further explanation of this intuition is required.

The fire-with-fire method makes both intuitions salient and instantly generates the belief that, if this rhetorical device is itself the evidence for a claim, but that same device can be used to support a competing claim, then not only is it a useless piece of evidence, but that if I were to cling to it I would not be being fair. What makes this fire-with-fire method so beautiful is how effective it is. And considering that both intuition about evidence and reason are also highly implemented in academic studies across a breathe of fields, it seems that, philosophically, to be quite robust. 

But is repeating something verbatim to prove a point childish? I suppose in one sense it is, but this might be another reason for why it is so persuasive too. The fact that it appears childish, and yet is so robust, gives us the impression that the implicit argument of doing so is so obvious that even a child could spot it.

Minding your Manners

One of the more common criticisms levelled at “leftists”, or social justice warriors (SJWs), is that they lack respect and common courtesy during discussions, debates, or critiques of opposing views or ideologies. More concisely put: the left lack manners.[1]

Broadly, criticism of the left via manners takes several paths, to which I name only a few. First, manners are used to invoke how leftists or SJWs are attempting to violate or censor the speech of their opponents. For example, allowing another to speak is thought to be a part of social etiquette. When an interlocutor shouts down an opponent, or cuts them off to challenge a fact or opinion, this is viewed as a kind of censorship and thus ‘showing no manners’. Second, manners are invoked to dismiss even engaging with interlocutors. When someone is rude towards us, by becoming aggressive or calling us names in the heat of argument, some might invoke manners as away of ostracising that person until they are willing to be ‘civil’ and ‘play nice’ (i.e., until that person shows us respect we shouldn’t hear what they have to say).  And third, appealing to manners is meant to show the validity of ones own ideas while discrediting ones opponent. For example, the fact that my views perhaps allow for manners or even require them means that my view just is the right one, and that any contra view is ipso facto wrong. 

But what are manners, and what are their purpose? Intuitively, what manners are can be defined as a set of rules about how ought to conduct oneself in social settings. With regards to discussion and debate, those rules of conduct dictate how we speak to one another, in terms of tone (e.g., calm), language (e.g., ‘sir’), and behaviour (e.g., allowing the other to speak).

And it seems manners serve are two purposes. First, manners demonstrate respect towards an interlocutor, as manners are thought to show that the speaker recognises the person as a person and therefore a bearer of moral value or worth. This particularly Kantian intuition (recognising a person as a person) is meant to show that, even when you disagree vehemently with someone, that the disagreement does not demonise or dehumanise the other, for even if they hold the different or mistaken views, they still have intrinsic moral worth. Secondly, displaying manners is supposed to tell us something about the character of the person who displays them. Intuitively, I think advocates of these rules think that displaying manners shows a person has humility in the face of authority, but also and humility in recognising the other as a person, whom they have equal moral worth, and thus are no better (or worse) than.

If this is what manners are and the purpose to which they serve, I think most people would find them acceptable. They intuitively fit with many of our moral concepts and intuitions. When people use manners towards us it is especially appealing because it reminds us of our moral worth. This sounds good in principle, but how are manners used in reality?

While it is true that manners are used for the above purposes I have described, they can also be used as rhetorical devices and manipulative tools, some of which are contradictory or problematic with some views held by the Free-Speech warriors (FSWs).

How are manners used as rhetorical devices? I have already outlined several ways in which manners are deployed to dissuade people from siding with leftists and SJWs, namely, that if they lack manners they should not be listened to, or are simply wrong. Using manners as a rhetorical device fails to provide any actual argument against whatever a leftist of SJW has to say. The reason is obvious: pointing to a lack of manners as signifying the falsity of a claim is a straight up genetic fallacy. For where an idea comes from, or how an idea is communicated, has no bearing upon the truth value of that idea. If I were to aggressively scream at you that “the sky is blue”, the aggression in which I say it does not unmake the colour of the sky. And if an incredibly rude or blunt person (i.e., me) were to inform you that “the sky is blue”, the fact you would have learnt the colour of the sky from me would not render the proposition false.  

But I don’t think manners are used primarily in this way. Perhaps more troubling is how manners are used as a manipulative tool to compel particular kinds of speech acts or behaviour from people. It is troubling because if you are demanding that a person speak to you in a particular way (and punishing them by either de-platforming or ostracising them) then you are in some sense, forcing them to communicate and speak in a way that you deem fit. Considering the majority of FSWs stand by ones right to say something, even if they disagree with it, attempting to control another persons language by way of manners seems to be, at surface, hypocritical or contradictory to their most fundamental ethos.

[1] Whether it is actually case the left lack manners does not impede the claims I make in this entry.

 

 

The Alt-Right Marketing Machine

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, one anon member of 4chan remarked that “we actually elected a meme as president.” That is not so far from the truth. Trump – and the politically aligned who rallied under his banner- became the face of a modernisation of authoritarianism and populism. Such a movement was dubbed the alt-right. Those who reject that label, yet still swim close to alt-right waters, sometimes describe themselves as “classical liberals”, “centrists”, or “skeptics”. But those are just attempts at rebranding themselves, as those who self-describe themselves as these often still hold closer to alt-right values and positions rather than what has been historically or academically understood as what liberalism, centrism, or skepticism actually are.

But how has the alt-right and authoritarian populism become so huge? What happened in our political climate that caused this sweeping reactionary culture? Answering that would require more expertise than I have to offer, so in this entry I want to posit one hypothesis about how the alt-right movement became, at least, so big. It strikes me that the alt-right simply has a better marketing campaign or propaganda machine than the left (or even standard conservatism).

What tools does the alt-right marketing machine have? Well, their online presence in the main social platforms such as Youtube and Twitter is considerable. And the personalities of their figure heads are large and charismatic. The alt-rights spokespersons (e.g., Carl Benjamin, Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopoulos,  Paul Joseph Watson, Alex Jones, Lauren Southern) are constantly producing content, have strong onscreen presence. Perhaps most overlooked, is that these individuals have voices that are, for one reason or another, appealing to the ear (much like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens were back during the heights of the Theism vs Atheism debates).

But is simply having a nice voice (or at least, a captivating voice) all that is needed to be persuasive? Whether they realise it or not, these alt-right spokespersons have a firm command of rhetorical devices; verbal or physical cues that elicit desired responses in their audience. When Youtube was dominated by Atheist-focused commentators (Amon Ra, Thunderf00t, Cult of Dusty, Non-stamp collector), we saw the same kind of tactics at work (and still are when some of them moved on to attack feminism). 

These rhetorical devices have proven highly effective. If the election of Trump was not enough evidence, the results of the Brexit vote I hope add more validity to my claim. Yet, rhetorical devices seem to be something that the left and traditional conservatives have either forgotten about or vastly underestimated. What are these rhetorical devices? Besides a slew of logical fallacies (slippery slope, correlation proves causation, Gish-Galloping, to quoque, etc.,) alt-right commentators seem to have a strong sensitivity to the value of their viewers, and using subtle language cues to elicit intuitions that can be generated by appealing to those said values. 

For example, it is a widespread intuition that ‘truth’ (whatever that is) is a fundamental value. That is, knowing the truth, and forming views and beliefs around it, are an absolute requirement for being a rational being. A ‘fact’ is a type of a truth – a fact is how things are, independent of how a person feels or thinks, and thus a fact cannot be ignored and must be accepted. 

Alt-righter commentators have been very adept at stating some proposition about the world (e.g., muslims are more violent) and then, after stating that proposition, merely asserting that the proposition is true. They might say, “that is just the facts”, or “the fact is”, or “facts don’t care about your feelings”. Questioning whether the proposition stated is actually true or not makes the interlocutor look foolish, weak, or stupid. They look foolish because the proposition, after all, is apparently a fact. The interlocutor looks weak because they are attempting to distort the truth and thus cannot handle ‘reality’. And they look stupid because who would question the truth in the first place?

These fact assertion tactics are often coupled with hedging terms: ‘just’, ‘simply’, ‘merely’, etc. Hedging terms attempt to reduce the bar of evidence required for supporting the truth of a proposition and, in doing so, attempt to make the proposition appear more obvious. People who are already sympathetic to believing the proposition (whether the proposition is actually true or not), hear the hedging term as justifying their belief as not only as being true, but also obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it requires no actual evidence or argument to support the claim being made. 

For example, suppose we get into a discussion about radical skepticism, specifically: how can I know I have hands if I cannot know I am not in a computer simulation? A common tactic is to respond as follows: “Look, we are in an external world, and that’s just the way it is”. Any attempt to respond to the proposition “we are in an external world” is viewed as it being the case that we are not actually in an external world. Further, no evidence is actually given to support that proposition, because claiming the proposition as “just the way it is” frames the position as being so intuitively obvious that it doesn’t actually require any evidence at all.

So obviously true that anyone who disagrees with it must be a foolish liar who is ignoring the truth for alternative reasons, whether it be their leftist, or gay, or communist, or socialist, or post-modernist, or marxist agendas.

What is ‘free’ speech anyway?

Free speech advocates – or perhaps more accurately, free speech warriors (FSWs) – view themselves as championing and defending our individual right to freedom of speech. Generally, it seems most FSWs see this battle as a small, but necessary, fight in a much larger culture war against social justice warriors (SJWs) who, according to FSWs, are ‘post-modern cultural marxists’ (whatever that means) attempting to co-opt language to ultimately change our culture (whoever “our” is). So although saying we should not use (or perhaps ban) racial slurs or derogatory comments seems intuitive enough, FSWs claim it is a slow and slippery sloped path (logical fallacy pun intended) to a world in which our language is completely control by the government or the intelligentsia (whoever they are). The slogan often associated with FSWs is: “I might not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.

There is a lot to unpack there and, to be frank, I am bereft to enter into this at all. That said however, all I want to do in this entry is consider what it is we mean when we invoke “free speech”. It’s unclear to me precisely what ‘freedom’ or ’speech’ refer to, or if FSWs even understand how perhaps their own interpretation of ‘free speech’ might be problematic or inconsistent with other views they might hold. That aside, I want to quickly explore two interpretation of ‘free speech’ which are both problematic for different reasons.

The most naive interpretation of free speech I can think of would be as follows: 

Naive Interpretation: exercising ‘free speech’ would be to express ones opinions in any way (i.e., ‘speech’) without receiving any criticism (whether legitimate or not) or incurring any punishment (whether social exclusion, de-platforming, or government intervention) (i.e., ‘free’). 

I don’t think many would defend the naive interpretation because it is self-defeating. Not allowing for (i.e., banning of) criticism would be by itself a restriction of free speech. Second, if it is an expression of ones opinions in any way, then physical violence or destruction of property could be one of those ways. Since, all other things being equal, even the most staunchest of FSWs think such violence is unjustifiable (“I may agree with your message, but not your methods”) then we can restrict the ways people express themselves. Third, FSWs advocate for free speech precisely because it allows views and opinions to be criticised and put under public scrutiny – for doing so allows bad idea to die and good ones to flourish. I think these reasons are enough to rule out the naive interpretation of free speech.

Perhaps a more plausible interpretation can be given as follows:

Plausible Interpretation: exercising ‘free speech’ would be to express ones opinion in any non-violent way without receiving irrational criticism, or incurring any punishment (whether social exclusion, de-platforming, government intervention).

So, ‘speech’ here would be construed as an expression through a medium, whether verbally, written prose, or artistically (through art, music, poetry, etc.). We could allow for criticism, as longs the criticism was ‘rational’ which roughly means that the criticism is not based upon pure emotions or likes/dislikes. But this more plausible interpretation seems problematic too. We often think that incurring some sort of repercussion to be acceptable, and that these punishments are used in an attempt to curtail certain types of speech, while compelling others. The examples are numerous:

1. If someone were to cry out “fire!” in a crowded cinema,   when in fact there was no fire, we would expect that person to be punished for causing social trouble and panic. We might even expect that person to be punished by the government or law enforcement of some kind. 

2. If Jimmy keeps crying out “wolf!” when there is in fact no wolf, it seems a society might, and would be within their rights to, ostracise Jimmy as punishment (no government intervention required).

3. If someone enters into our home or place of business and says things (or does non-violent things) we disagree with or find disrespectful, intuitively we are within our rights to remove them (sometimes by force) from our premises. 

4. Manners and respect are mechanisms of compelling speech. Demanding to be called by a title (Mr., Mrs., Ma’am, Sir, Dr., etc.,) or using ‘appropriate’ language (please, thank you, etc.,) and punishing those who refuse to use them is an attempt at forcing speech use upon another. 

5. We demand that a person stop spreading fallacious and detrimental rumours about us, and we can invoke the law to intervene on our behalf.

These five examples show cases in which punishment can be induced by way of law enforcement, social groups, individuals, and a case in which speech can be compelled. These cases are cases in which we are intuitively fine with, yet are incompatible with the plausible interpretation, I take it that there is some serious problems here for those who wish to hold onto this view.

Perhaps another way to approach the problem is by thinking about how we conceive or understand ‘free’ in the first place. Think about the discussion surrounding free will, and whether we have it. Half the trouble is defining what we mean by ‘free’ in this context too. But nobody would think that to have a free will meant doing whatever it is that you want; just because I want to fly but cannot does not mean I am not free. “Free”, in this context, does not mean “unrestricted”. That is, you can be restricted (e.g., by the laws of nature), and still be ‘free’. 

Perhaps in the same way “free speech” does not mean “unrestricted speech”, but rather setting appropriate boundaries about what can be said, and allowing a space in which people can explore. 

Forgetting the importance of Intuitions

If we are dealing with earnest participants, it seems the purpose of debate is to convince our interlocutor into accepting our position, or have them abandon or weaken their current beliefs. At the least, the purpose of such discussions would be to defend our own view, or explain it to another. How then, do we, or should we, pursue such discourse? Put another way, what is the methodology of,or the rules that govern, discourse?

The most pervasive methodology appears to be an appeal to Reason. The rules of reason can, very roughly, be summarised as follows:

  1. Subject S can only believe that proposition P if and only if S has a reason for believing that P.
  2. S must cease to believe that P when S are provided a reason for believing that P is false.

Additionally, is a complete hostility to what is vaguely described as “feelings”. That is, how one feels about P, regardless of whether they believe that P or not, is completely and utterly irrelevant. Reason, it is thought, is the only proper justifier for a belief.

Thus far, my observations here are neither novel or unique. But what I want to challenge in this entry is this idea that feelings should not sway our beliefs, or even serve as justifiers for them. In this entry, I make a rough argument that our intuitions are a particular type of feeling and that intuitions, all other things being equal, are a perfectly valid justifier for believing that P. Given that much of our fundamental beliefs (i.e., I exist in a real world, and not a simulation of one), axiomatic principles (mathematics and rules of logic), are based on nothing but intuition – that is, a feeling that they are true – that this is grounds for accepting, at least, a type or variety of feeling, i.e., intuitions.

I think the philosophical paradox that makes my point most salient is the problem of radical skepticism and closure principle. Consider the following the closure principle:

1. For S to know that P, S must also know not H, where H is any proposition (or hypothesis) that is contra to, or otherwise incompatible with, P. 

2. If S does not know that not H, then S cannot know that P.

3. S does not know that not H.

C. S does not know that P.

This is a perfectly valid argument, and is highly intuitive. Consider the principle with a concrete example. John is at the zoo and sees a zebra shaped object. John forms the belief that, “that is a zebra” (P). However another person, Mary, says it is possible that the zebra shaped object could be a horse that has been painted to look like a zebra. The competing hypothesis is “that is a painted horse” (H). With the current evidence, John cannot rule out that the zebra shaped object is a painted horse (not H), so, according to the closure principle, must stop believing that “that is a zebra” (P). 

But consider the following. You are sitting in front of a computer, so you most likely believe that “I am sitting in front of a computer”. However, a competing hypothesis is that you are in a computer simulation that perfectly simulates reality: can you know that you are not in a computer simulated reality? If you cannot know not H, according to the closure principles, then you cannot know that you are, in fact, sitting in front of a computer. 

One can apply this computer simulation hypothesis to any proposition about the external world (and, some have argued, to any proposition). But does that mean you will now abandon your belief that you are in reality? Of course not. Even when the argument is perfectly valid (and quite possibly sound), people will stick by the guns. One might suggest they accept the argument, but that believing you are in a simulation is not helpful or useful, so choose to ignore it. But such an argument ignores the problem, acts as an ad hoc justification that balks at reason and is easily curtailed (e.g., believing that the world is a simulation is still just as helpful). The truth is though, we would still hold that we are not in a simulation because of these reasons, but because we have a very, very strong feeling – i.e., intuition – that the world we are in is very real. 

Answers to the problem of radical skepticism have been numerous. Some suggest we simply reject the closure principle. Others suggest that we do not know anything at all. But why are these answers unsatisfactory to many, if not all of us? The simple reason is because they are counter-intuitive answers, that is, answers that do not feel correct. And we take these feelings very seriously. And it seems to me that if we did not, then all people would do is consistently bite the bullet on every argument or dispute we have. 

For instance, counter-examples are often trotted out in both academic and folk discussion in an attempt to illustrate why some proposed theory is wrong or at least has serious flaws. But what is the mechanism in which counter-examples do this? A counter-example is attempting to demonstrate some proposed theory produces counter-intuitive results, (i.e., the answer produced by a theory feels wrong), and for that reason ought to be rejected, or at least modified.

But perhaps most striking is the pervasive view that reasons ought to dictate beliefs is, itself, based upon an intuition. For what justifies our belief that reason ought dictate belief? Why it is an intuition that reason simply ought to, and anyone who disagrees is simply mistaken. 

The irony of all the above is that I have attempted to justify the importance of intuitions and feelings with reasons, and, because of that, I am suggesting that if people recognise my reasons as sound, then that reason should dictate their beliefs regardless of their intuitions. For this quagmire, I have no answer.

But, I should qualify an important counter-point here. I am not saying these ‘feelings’ or intuitions are ‘truth makers’ or have ‘truth-making’ properties, or that they cannot be challenged or defeated. Intuitions can change, some seem more fundamental or ‘deeper’ than others, while providing a solid argument or pointing out an intuition conflicts with other intuitions can unhinge and remove them. But note that the same can be said of reasons: having a reason or argument for believing that does not make true, and arguments can be changed or rejected if they conflict with other arguments or reasons a person holds. But what I am saying is that these intuitions play an important role in our epistemic practices, and that they perhaps ought to.

But I think highlighting the importance of intuitions and feelings, and taking them seriously, will help us understand ourselves and others, and the beliefs we all hold. Because if we ignore intuitions, these peculiar type of ‘feelings’, in favour of being “purely” rational and only listening to arguments and reason, we have missed a significant and important epistemic tool that we use to justify our beliefs and, surprisingly often, find truth. Ignoring intuitions, or believing we do not have any, also blinds us to really knowing what we believe, and why we believe it.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: V – Conciseness

V

Conciseness

To be concise means to be brief and to-the-point. To be effectively concise requires having only the necessary information structured in the shortest, clearest, and simplest way possible. If a sentence, or paragraph, or essay is concise then the reader will have a much easier time navigating and comprehending it. If the writer is concise they can fit more into their essay. The reader will also thank you for not wasting their time with unnecessary details or flourishes.

Often students are not concise, instead choosing to be wordy and discursive. The reasons for why students are not concise, or not as concise as they could have otherwise been, vary. Some (1) mistakenly think the sentence or paragraph is concise and that the expert is wrong. Other times, (2) they believe the sentence cannot be any more concise than it is presently. A student might also, (3), argue that there is such a thing as being too concise, and that being too concise is overly restrictive, resulting in a loss of meaning or detail. And, (4) understandably, often many mistake ‘philosophy’ for being a subject that requires the flowery expressions and turns of phrases comparably continental philosophers (self-help, new-age books).

Reason (4) is simply a result of undergraduate students being exposed to certain conceptions of philosophy (such as a layman understanding of philosophy), and only certain kinds (self-help, Nietzsche, Rand, De Botton, etc.). I think, in cases like this, it is just a matter of explaining to the student that academic philosophy is done quite differently. Student’s who were being vague or discursive for reason (4) often become concise because “that is just how it is done at the University”.

Reasons (1), (2), and (3), are a matter of students having to learn a craft and realise that they do not know what they are talking about. That is, the students holding to 1, 2, and 3, need to recognise the expertise of their marker, tutor, professor, etc., that when the experts tells you it is not concise, then it is not concise. With regards to (3), the student needs to recognise that being concise requires not losing necessary and valuable information. The trick this student must learn is to be concise and keep all the important information. With regards to (2), this student lacks imagination. This student needs to enumerate the different ways of expressing the same idea and, through this procedure, generate the most concise sentence, or paragraph, that they can. With regards to (1), the student lacks insight; they simply don’t realise the sentence or paragraph is not what it could have been.

You might wonder how one becomes concise. My answer is that we learn to be concise the same way we learn anything: practice. In the same way as the musician, or the artist, or the carpenter, produce great work and demonstrate excellent skill, they treat their subject as a craft. Students need to think about writing essays as practicing the craft of writing. And, in the same way the musician, or the tradesman, takes care of every detail in their work, so the student needs to treat each word as being as important as the totality of the paper it resides in.

The student needs to ask themselves constantly: “can this sentence, this paragraph, this section, this paper, this chapter, be any more concise?”, and then explore whether it can be.