Free speech or public harm?

Recent actual and cancelled appearances by Steve Bannon raise questions about traditional approaches to knowledge generation, writes Deakin philosopher Dr Patrick Stokes.

One thing you have to give Steve Bannon: he knows how to get people yelling at each other. The former Trump chief strategist and Breitbart editor may be greatly reduced on paper, but he continues to exert a disturbing influence on global affairs – and start fights just by turning up, and sometimes not even that.

Just in the last couple of weeks, he managed to cause upset simply by accepting invitations: in Australia, giving a one-on-one interview on the ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ program, and in the US by being invited and then disinvited to an on-stage session at the ‘New Yorker’ magazine’s ideas festival, after several other speakers pulled out in protest.

These events feed into a larger, ongoing contested narrative about free speech and harm. On the one hand, there’s a liberal charge that the “censorious” left is silencing right-of-centre voices via “no-platforming,” and thereby repressing speech rights and stifling debate. On the other, there’s the view that inviting those whose views serve and entrench various forms of oppression to speak in public fora causes real harm to the marginalised, by treating those views, even if only implicitly, as somehow worth discussing.

This isn’t simply a left-right issue, for much of the disagreement takes place between people who agree on the odiousness of the views in question. Liberals (of various stripes) want to see Bannon defeated in open debate; others believe that debating him merely serves to normalise views that have no place in any just society.

Yet such flare-ups are symptoms of not just a clash between free speech rights and avoiding harm, but of a deeper tension within the knowledge-generating mechanisms of society themselves, such as the media and universities, and the virtues those of us who work in these professions are meant to cultivate.

On the one hand, we take it that open and robust debate is the lifeblood of the liberal democratic polity, and that such debate is not simply a technique for acquiring power but for determining the truth.

Broadcast journalists and academics, though very different professions in many respects, resemble each other in making this commitment to open debate a key aspect of their identity. Both assume that the way to defeat bad ideas is through testing and thereby ultimately exposing them through sincere exchange. That assumption turns a certain critical detachment from one’s own views into a professional virtue: for journalists, attempting to present the facts as neutrally as possible; for researchers, being prepared to correct or discard our own views if that’s where the argument and the evidence leads us.

Those of us who work in fields built around this type of dialogue are socialised into this mindset very early on. (We philosophers are often accused of a certain bluntness, even rudeness, that comes from spending our professional lives explaining to other philosophers why they’re wrong).

Hence, I suspect, the genuinely bewildered outrage among many journalists over the pushback against booking Bannon: the idea that Bannon shouldn’t be treated as a worthwhile interlocutor cuts against very basic assumptions about how the world works and what uncovering the truth requires of those tasked to do it.

Another virtue, especially for academics, is tackling the ideas and arguments themselves, rather than getting bogged down in the particularities of who is speaking and what their motives may be. After all, we take ourselves to be part of a quest for truth, not a mere short-term power-play between individuals or groups. So shouldn’t we hear out even the odious or destructive, and engage their ideas even if only to show why they’re wrong?

[testimonial_text]That makes it easy to think of debate as something that takes place in a sort of abstract Platonic realm of ideas, one where our existing identities and power relations are left at the door. And that’s the problem: speaking and writing are actions. They’re things real people do in the real world – with real consequences.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Dr Patrick Stokes” details=”Senior Lecturer, Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences”]
Dr Patrick Stokes[/testimonial_picture]

In the case of Bannon, the ideas he promoted at Breitbart and via the Trump campaign helped to create and legitimise an atmosphere in which hateful private behaviours and oppressive public policy were able to flourish. To insist that it’s all “just words” is to abdicate our responsibility for harms our discursive practices can and do create.

There’s another problem, too. The “clash of ideas” model depends on everyone involved actually playing by the rules, more or less: telling the truth, speaking sincerely, not misrepresenting their opponent’s views, admitting errors, and being open to persuasion and correction. In short, caring about the truth, not just about “winning”.

It’s a shock to people like myself when we get out into the wider public sphere and face people who simply don’t care about those rules. Worse, we find people who are prepared to weaponise those rules against others while ignoring them themselves. Or they don’t even care about “winning” the argument: they just want the legitimation of being asked to debate in the first place. They’ve “won” the moment they slip on the lapel mic.

How do you handle such people? What do you do when they manage to elbow their way to the centre of the public sphere?

The very decision of who we should hear from is, unavoidably, not a neutral one. Every interview is a choice: we think this person is important enough, or has something interesting enough to say, that we’re choosing to raise their voice onto a public platform.

Here, a journalist may well say that for good or ill, Bannon is of public interest and thus a legitimate person to interview. He has an outsized influence, so we should hear what he has to say. But the framing matters. Do we need to know what Bannon thinks, given the role he’s played in recent American politics and now in trying to unify the European far-right? Absolutely. But do we need to present him in a format that treats him as someone we might learn something from? What is gained by doing so, and is it worth the cost? Whatever we choose will have consequences that we can’t simply wave off.

For what it’s worth, I think the right approach is the one ‘Guardian’ columnist Jason Wilson suggests: talk to Bannon, but do so in an appropriate investigative context rather than engaging him in a format that implies he’s a good-faith interlocutor.

The challenge is, and has always been, how to maintain open debate without marginalising or dehumanising others. This challenge will only get more urgent. Free speech is hard-won and worth defending. But free speech doesn’t mean everyone deserves a turn on the megaphone.

Dr Patrick Stokes is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy with Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Main photograph: Should people like Steve Bannon, whose views can result in real-world harm for some, be given a platform?

Published by Deakin Research on 12 September 2018

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