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 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.