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Peter Singer-Philosophy, Controversy, and Freedom of Speech
Peter Singer

Freedom of speech has traditionally been a cause championed by the left and liberal side of the political spectrum, against conservatives who have sought to limit the expression of radical ideas. Recently, however, we have seen something different: a section of the left actively opposing freedom of speech. At Middlebury College, in Vermont, for example, Charles Murray, the co-author of the controversial book The Bell Curve, about race and IQ, was shouted down.

Are there defensible limits on freedom of speech?  John Stuart Mill, the great nineteenth-century defender of individual freedom, though that there are.  He distinguished between publishing in a newspaper one’s opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor (which he thought should be permitted) and saying the same to an excited mob in front of a corn-dealer’s house (which he thought might properly be prohibited).[1]

Today we are less worried about violence to corn dealers, and more concerned about incitement to racial or religious hatred.  Consistently with the distinction Mill was trying to draw, I believe that the right of free speech does not extend to a right to incite racial hatred, which often leads to violence against members of racial or ethnic minorities. Racial vilification, sometimes referred to as hate speech can be distinguished from other forms of speech because it is an appeal to our emotions, rather than to our intellect or our finer feelings.  Granted, the line is not always easy to draw, and where it is not, drawing it will be a task for the courts.  But the principle is tolerably clear.

By this standard, Charles Murray’s work is not racial vilification, for it is aimed at our intellect, presenting complex evidence and making arguments based on that evidence.  You may think the evidence is selective and the arguments unsound.  You may point out that some will find his conclusions offensive.   The proper response to that is to refute the evidence, or present contrary evidence, and to point to holes in the argument.  Preventing Murray speaking will only give him more publicity, and boost sales of his books. Moreover, it seems likely to encourage those predisposed to his view to conclude that his opponents have no answer to his position.  For if there is an answer, these people will ask, why would Murray’s opponents need to prevent him speaking, especially in a university that has many people who would, one can reasonably assume, have the resources and ability to scrutinize his arguments and the data on which he relies?

At Middlebury College last March, after the events involving Murray, a number of faculty members wrote and signed onto a statement of principles under the heading “Free Inquiry on Campus.”[2] The principles included such points as:

  • Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.
  • Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.
  • A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.

The statement prompted a counter-statement by a group of Middlebury students entitled “Broken Inquiry on Campus.”[3]  The counter-statement offers us an opportunity to examine the thinking of some of those who prevented Murray from communicating with those who had turned up to hear him.  Here is one revealing passage, written in response to the faculty assertion that “Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.” To this the students reply:

By elevating bigotry and engaging with it in open debate under the misguided view that all ideas must be respected, we risk elevating biased opinions with no solid, factual foundation into the realm of  “knowledge”  and affirming the unconscious biases many hold … If we hold that the contest of clashing viewpoints is the only way to solidify knowledge, it naturally follows that we have a responsibility to articulate some parameters for which viewpoints are worthy of such a process.

The students assume that Murray’s work consists of biased opinions with no solid, factual foundations; but that is precisely what needs to be demonstrated.  By silencing Murray and preventing any debate, the protesters passed up an opportunity to show that his conclusions lack a solid factual foundation.  Perhaps, instead of pressing the university administration to cancel Murray’s visit, they should have pressed for a debate in which an expert opponent of his views – and there are many such people – could have exposed the flaws in his argument.

The students also appear to believe that it is possible to articulate parameters for deciding which viewpoints are worthy of entry into the contest of clashing opinions.  Presumably, since Murray’s work attempts to appeal to our reason rather than to our emotions, the students believe that these parameters can be set on the basis of an assessment of the content of the work, rather than, as I have suggested, its tone and the nature of its appeal.  But how is that to be done, without debating and discussing the content of Murray’s work?  And why do the students think that they are in a position to decide this for others – for those who had come to the event to hear what Murray had to say, and, presumably, to hear other members of the university community respond critically to it?  If they simply assert that they know that Murray is wrong, Mill’s assumption of infallibility is squarely applicable.

The students do have more to say on this matter, but it cuts directly against what I have been arguing are key values for a university and for any community that values an open search for knowledge:

We contend that experiences and emotions are valid ways to see the world, and that the hegemony of rational thought-based perspective often found in a university setting limits our collective creativity, health, and potential.  If we are to move from opinion to knowledge, it is truly imperative to listen, understand, and reflect upon the various lenses members of our community use to view the world.

It is, of course, important to listen to a range of different opinions, and to know how other members of our community view the world.  That includes knowing what they are experiencing and what emotions they are feeling.  The assertion that emotions are “valid ways to see the world,” however, should be firmly rejected, and we should uphold what is here referred to, critically, as “the hegemony of rational thought.”  Otherwise, we open the door to all the nationalist, racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic emotions which as we saw only too clearly in the 2016 presidential election, are very widely held in this country. I doubt that the Middlebury protesters would regard these emotions as “valid ways to see the world.”  How then are we to decide which emotions are valid ways of seeing the world, and which are not?  Not, I presume, by counting which emotions are most widely held by members of our community.  I can see no other way than holding them up to rational examination.


[1] On Liberty, Chapter 3.

[2] https://freeinquiryblog.wordpress.com/

[3] https://brokeninquiryblog.wordpress.com/

Read Professor Singer’s essay in The Value and Limits of Academic Speech