Home » Our Stories » The Value and Limits of Academic Speech » Necessity of Offense 
Shane Courtland
Shane Courtland

Over the last ten years there has been a palpable increase involving student resistance and protest due to the, purportedly, offensive content of an invited speaker’s research and/or speech. One of the reasons behind this resistance is that such controversial speakers seemingly offer particularly offensive viewpoints regarding sensitive topics.  A goal of such resistance is to shut down “intolerant or ignorant perspectives…. to curtail voices that are insensitive, or outright hostile, to their experiences on campus” (Groetzinger 2015). It’s also claimed that listening to such speakers “is not an educational opportunity, but a threat.” In particular, some add, “When you ask us to consider the other side of the argument, you are asking us to consider our assumed inferiority as a logical position. In no way does this consideration further our (or your) education” (Charles Murray at Middlebury 2017).  

My thesis is that the shutting down of speech, merely because it’s offensive (via its content), necessarily undermines certain types of knowledge. In particular, it undermines practical knowledge. That is – knowledge centered upon value judgements. If we are to allow the banning of offensive discussions and/or speakers, then such policies are not, epistemologically, without their costs.   

Let’s presuppose that the offended parties have “landed upon” (they believe/assert) the true view. In other words, those seeking to shut down discussion because they are offended happen to have the correct view regarding that discussion. Not about it being shut down, per se, but about the truth conditions regarding the content of the speech/discussion.  

Mill 

In John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, he offers one of the most compelling arguments for allowing the free expression of ideas.  Either the idea being expressed is right/true or it is wrong/false.1 If it’s the former, then to suppress that idea would rob humanity of an exchange of error for truth. If it’s the latter, on the other hand, the suppression of the false idea robs humanity of a livelier impression of the truth.  Without confronting falsehood, we might, then, be embracing a dead dogma (Mill 1989, 20). 

Since a presupposition of this essay is that we have already discovered the truth, we will entirely focus on the latter problem — dead dogma. Mill was optimistic that as humanity progressed, we would likely discover the truth regarding many contested ideas. He lamented, however, that such discoveries would tend to dilute the “diversity of opinion.” He writes, “But though this gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion is necessary in both senses of the term, being at once inevitable and indispensable, we are not therefore obliged to conclude that all its consequences must be beneficial” (Mill 1989, 45). This narrowing of held opinions is such a problem “that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil’s advocate can conjure up” (Mill 1989, 39). These heterodox and false views should be pressed upon “the learner’s consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion” (Mill 1989, 45). 

The reason that such advocates would be required, though the truth was already discovered, is that knowledge requires more than the mere holding of true beliefs. One also needs justification.  And, justification requires that a person be pressured by diverse opinions. Mill writes, “On any other subject no one’s opinions deserve the name of knowledge, except so far as he has either had forced upon him by others, or gone through of himself, the same mental process which would have been required of him in carrying on an active controversy with opponents” (Mill 1989, 46-7).  To have a justified belief, according to Mill, requires encountering and defusing a belief that actively resists the one you assert to be true. That is why the advocacy of even false views is so important. Without this advocacy (by sincere believers or a talented devil’s advocate) we lose the only justification/ warrant that humans can attain. And without a claim to justification/warrant we, ipso facto, lose any claim to knowledge.   

Moral Knowledge 

There are forms of knowledge (e.g., practical) that are, at their core, evaluative. That means that when one asserts “X is the case” it is tied, unlike other forms of knowledge, to a pro-attitude. For the remainder of this essay, I will discusses one particular kind of evaluative knowledge – moral knowledge.        

In his 1937 essay, “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms,” C. L Stevenson lays out three requirements to the “vital” sense of “good.” For the sake of this argument, I will only explore Stevenson’s second requirement – magnetism.  He writes, “A person who recognizes X to be ‘good’ must ipso facto acquire a stronger tendency to act in its favour than he otherwise would have had” (Stevenson 1937, 16). To sincerely hold that something is morally “good” (e.g., “It is true that X is good”) requires that the affirming person is, in some way, drawn to that thing, action, or whatever.  If a person declares that “X is good” and is not-so-drawn, ceteris paribus, it is entirely appropriate to question either that person’s sincerity and/or to claim that the person fails to grasp the meaning of “good.”  

Psychopaths, arguably, lack this sense of magnetism. Gerald Gaus, in Value and Justification, refers to this as “semantic dementia” (1990, 297).2 He writes, “The psychopath, we can say, often possesses sound beliefs as to what grounds a judgment that something is disgusting, exciting, benevolent, or horrible, but the intentional affective states to which these judgments refer are quite beyond him” (Gaus 1990, 297). The psychopath may possess warranted beliefs regarding morality, but something is nonetheless missing.  

To see what is missing, and why it is significant, I will refer to an analogy that Gaus offers in the same text. He writes:

[C]onsider the ascription of amusingness to X.… A person who believes a joke to be funny because he has been informed by an expert authority that it is so has a (true) belief that the joke is amusing, but his grasp or appreciation of its amusingness seems privative compared with he who believes it to be funny because he finds it to be so. The difference is not simply that the two have arrived at the belief by different epistemological paths; the purely testimonial credent seems to have a less complete or intimate grasp of the joke’s amusingness. (Gaus 1990, 149-50)

In a sense, then, the psychopath is in a similar boat to this completely humorless person. The semantic dementia of the psychopath is part-in-parcel of his being unable to possess knowledge of certain types of value.   

Offense and Moral Knowledge 

Let’s put the pieces together. For the sake of argument, say that we have landed upon the right moral views regarding some very contentious issues. All of our moral views regarding race and gender (from now on, R&G), for example, happen to be the correct views to hold. In other words, if we were all knowing we would affirm our conclusions regarding all moral issues associated with R&G.  

To have full knowledge of R&G requires that we have pro-dispositions. This is Stevenson’s magnetism.  If this attachment is not there, we would lack full knowledge regarding R&G. We would be suffering something akin to the semantic dementia that encumbers psychopaths.  A lack of attachment would entail, in a sense, a failure to understand R&G.  

In addition, if Mill is correct regarding dead dogmas and the need for dispute, then that means that we will require the engaging of views, and perhaps even sincere individuals, that contradict the views we hold regarding R&G. If, however, we fail to engage and entertain those counter-views, then we lose full knowledge – again. As Mill argues, we would lose the only justification that mankind is capable of, the active collision between true and false views. At best, our views about R&G (though true) would only be another dogma.  

By now we should see why offense is required. To have full knowledge of R&G requires that we actively encounter views that contradict positions in which we have a pro-disposition. Such an encounter, by the tension it brings, due to the affects involved, will lead to some uncomfortableness and disapprobation. It is this tension, then, that is offense. And, unfortunately, there is no way to avoid it without sacrificing moral knowledge. To stop to the encounter leads to a dead dogma. To erase the affect leads to a variant of sematic dementia.  Moral knowledge requires that one, to some degree, be offended.3

Works Cited: 

“Charles Murray at Middlebury: Unacceptable and Unethical, Say Over 500 Alumni.” 2017. Accessed August 25 2017. https://beyondthegreenmidd.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/charles-murray-at-middlebury-unacceptable-and-unethical-say-over-500-alumni/  

Cleckley, Hervey M. 2014.The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. 3rd ed., Whitefish, Mont., Literary Licensing. 

Gaus, Jerry. 1990. Value and Justification. Cambridge University Press.   

Groetzinger, Kate. 2015. “Angry Student Activists Aren’t a Problem, They’re the Engine of Change.” Quartz. Accessed August 25 2017. https://qz.com/551802/guess-what-shouting-at-administrators-is-how-students-are-getting-things-done-at-brown/ 

Hervé, Hugues, P. Justus Hayes, and Robert Hare. 2003. “Psychopathy and Sensitivity to the Emotional Polarity of Metaphorical Statements.” Personality and Individual Differences 35: 1497-1507.  

Mill, John Stuart. 1989. On Liberty and Other Writings. edited by Stefan Collini. Cambridge University Press.    

Stevenson, C.L. 1937. “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms.” Mind 46 (181): 14–31.