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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Why is Freedom Good?

So I've been listening to some podcasts from FIRE. I was thinking, why do we think freedom of speech, of the press, and academic freedom, are valuable things? There are some great interviews here, including a fascinating 2-hour one with the former director of the ACLU Ira Glasser, and another by with Jonathan Rausch, the author of Kindly Inquisitors. Yes, there are conservative and libertarian defenses of free speech along with moderate, liberal, and left-leaning ones here. Actually, it won't kill you to hear a defense from the opposite side of the spectrum from where you are. When was the last time you learned from someone that you completely agreed with?  

So why are these good things?  That the question actually needs to be answered, rather than taken for granted, is the first thing I learned from these conversations. So this is not a dumb question.

1. First of all, freedom itself is a good thing, in general. We know this because restrictions have to be justified. For example, if Congress passed a law to say that composers could not compose in Db Minor, you might object because there is no compelling interest for the state to do this.  Someone telling you what to do has to have a good reason for doing so.  We value freedom because we hate arbitrary constraints, and even justifications of constraints have a paradoxical cast to them: "Nuns fret not..." (Wordsworth). Also, people have great urges to restrict other people's freedom in numerous ways, so it not just that freedom is good, but that it must be protected.  

2. Freedom of thought and its expression seems very a basic kind of freedom, because it encompasses almost everything basic to human life. It includes religion, politics, literature, and almost everything else.

3. My father once told me that freedom of the press was originally based on the idea that the king could not execute an advisor who gave him advice he didn't like. I don't know if that is true, but freedom seems key to healthy politics of any kind, not just good governance, but the freedom to participate in it. Just imagine saying, "yes, you can participate in politics as actively as you want, but just not through expressing an opinion."

4.  Civil Rights movements gained their gains by talking about their causes, making persuasive arguments.  This is what Rausch, who is gay and Jewish, claims in his interview. Arguments against gay rights were not suppressed by the government, but just lost out to better arguments.  Other kinds of freedoms, then, resulted from a debate in which those reactionary arguments were allowable.    

5.  The scientific method itself, the idea that we can learn things about reality, depends on the ability to correct other people's opinions (this is also a paraphrase of Rausch).  Freedom of expression is an epistemological principle, not just a mere convenience or feel-good idea.

6. The idea that freedom of speech only protects powerful white males is not true. As one of the interviewees points out (Alice Dreger) a woman who resigned from Northwestern due to censorship), many feminists have been targeted by the kind of witch-hunts we've seen recently with Tuvel. This is because a white male doing some boring research on a medieval poet and raising no controversy is not as likely to draw attention as someone doing edgy work on contemporary identity politics and making a perceived misstep. Dreger's case was about publishing an article in a journal she edited about a disabled man getting a blowjob from a nurse, for example.  Restrictions on speech are more likely to affect disability studies than medieval poetry.  

7.  We shouldn't, then, concede issues of academic freedom to the right, and on the left be mostly perceived as anti-freedom. We don't really need censorship if our arguments are good enough. The argument against political correctness once seemed a mere vestige of the culture wars, and many of the notorious cases seemed cooked up. But freedom of expression should be a value held by everyone interested in healthy politics and the pursuit of knowledge, whatever their political persuasion.    

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