I heard there was some spectacle on one of the 24-hour “news” channels last night. It was some show where they handed Donald Trump a microphone and turned a camera on him. “Tortuous” was the description in one headline covering the ensuing car crash.
As predictable as was Trump spewing lies and playing the victim card are the demands to censor him. Sorry, “deplatform” him is the term preferred by people who don’t want Trump to speak.
So, that’s the philosophical question: should Trump be deplatformed/silenced/censored?
This issue isn’t about TV ratings (it certainly shouldn’t be), it isn’t entirely about free speech, though it is partially that. The question is what are people and organizations’ responsibilities regarding individuals’ speech, in particular the type of dangerous speech in which Trump engages.
I am on record as acknowledging that Trump is a problem. I am not a Democrat, and I am not interested in their petty partisan pissing matches with Republicans. Corruption and bigotry are not confined to any particular political party, despite the claims of each party in the US political duopoly.
Is Trump’s corruption and bigotry enough of a problem to warrant silencing him? That’s the question, and it is a profound one. That is because it isn’t so much about Trump as it is about the larger question of the effects of harmful speech and what a positive response to it is.
If you want to deplatform Trump because you don’t like him or don’t like what Trump says, that is not sufficient reason to silence him or anyone else. The same is true if you disagree with Trump’s (or anyone else’s) policies. There are better, more mature, responses.
A Principle for Free Speech
Early in my academic career, I was on a panel discussing free speech. Preserving academic freedom has long been a concern of mine. During my turn to speak, I gave a fairly pedestrian answer about free speech. The professor who came after me started his comments with
All speech should be permitted except speech which seeks to silence other people.
That remains one of the most profoundly wise ideas I have heard. It is a principle I have tried to apply ever since.
I combine that principle with John Stuart Mill’s idea that the answer to wrong speech is more speech. If someone is telling untruths, the positive reply is to speak the truth. If you cannot answer what you believe are errors with truth, then you need to reassess your position or better prepare your facts in response.
What Mill did not adequately consider are situations in which one is not allowed to respond to wrong speech with the truth. In the century and a half since Mill’s time, philosophy and the world in general have become far more aware of the realities that many people are denied the opportunity to participate in social institutions and social discourse. Simply saying that people should speak up in response to untruths ignores underlying issues of injustice and inequality that prevent people from being heard.
That is a big reason why I find value in the principle that speech should be permitted except speech which seeks to silence other people. It shifts the subject from “do we like this speech” to “does this speech harm other people?”
I interpret that question whether one is silencing others more broadly than silencing speech acts. Preventing someone from participating in society, like the legal system, fair employment, and so on, is effectively silencing that person. Calling for others to fear or harass a group of people is an attempt to silence those people.
We have no right to prevent other people from having and expressing their opinions and ideas. That’s why the right to free expression is enshrined in law. However, no rights are infinite, and no freedom comes without an equal or greater amount of responsibility. You have no right to harm others, so if you use your freedom to harm others, you deserve to lose the freedom that you abused.
Hate speech and conspiracy theories that defame and call for hostility toward a group are attempts to silence people. Those who engage in attempts to silence others have abused their freedom. They deserve to lose the freedom to engage in such speech. This is a fairly obvious and simple formula.
The devil is in the details, of course, and in the nuances of speech acts. It is simple to say that someone trying to incite a riot or saying that people in Group X should be abused or killed are attempts to silence others, and that person has lost the right to speak such things. But what about the myriad forms of propaganda, dog whistles, and leading innuendos that are spoken? It is difficult to know where to draw the line.
That’s where we can return to Mill’s idea. We need to talk about speech. The first instinct should not be to deplatform others by shutting them down or shouting them down. Simplistic answers are tempting but almost always wrong. Censoring speech is often counterproductive. We need to be careful even if we feel our justification is sound.
Should Trump be given a national platform? Or should he be prevented from speaking? Well, why are you asking? That may say more about you than about him. If you have a good argument that Trump is seeking to silence people, then give it. More speech is the answer to wrong speech and the only legitimate reason to restrict speech is when it is trying to silence others.
But if all you are going to do is yell at and try to cancel others, then what right do you have to do that? Think before you try to silence others, lest you become as bad as them.