No such thing

… as the right not to be offended.

Apropos of some concerns raised by other writers before, about a marked incivility in public discourse (consider, for example, the amount of vitriol expended in the Justice Isagani Cruz controversy, or the frequent dust-ups in bloggers’ comment threads), I thought this story on "First Amendment fundamentalist" Wendy Kaminer may prove illuminating.

She laments the transformation of universities and colleges from bastions of academic freedom, where free speech and the arts of argument are considered essential to education, to fortresses of political correctness, where the distinction between words and actions is fudged, and censorship trumps freedom of speech. One result: a new phenomenon called "young authoritarians."

How have students become these self-righteous ‘young authoritarians’? For Kaminer, ‘it is partly because they have been brought up in today’s victimised, intolerant culture’. She argues that restrictions on free speech are made not only by the right seeking to quell dissent among their left-leaning or liberal critics, but also by liberals themselves, who have bought into ideas of ‘hate speech’ and ‘harmful speech’.

‘One of the saddest trends among people who consider themselves liberal or progressive over the past 10 or 15 years has been this increased intolerance of free speech, and this notion that there is some right, some civil right, not to be offended, which trumps somebody else’s right to speak in a way that you find offensive. It is like a disease, an infection, that has taken hold on the left. It is an incredibly regressive notion.’

As the title of her latest book suggests, Kaminer believes  that, even though some uses of language can be offensive, we shouldn’t place any limits at all on free speech, that it should in fact be [a] "free for all."



Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

10 responses to “No such thing

  1. R.

    John, please tell this to onion-skinned Muslims, who threaten to bomb the world to extinction with the slightest imagined insult.

    You’re right about the Isagani Cruz controversy. I knew John Silva crossed the line when he started asking people to ban Mr. Cruz and cancel their Inquirer subscription. But I’d say such a mindset (Silva’s mind) is hopeless because it denies the present of a major disconnect: disallowing the freedom of others one assumes so liberally for himself. Geez, did I couch these words enough in diplomatese? :p

  2. R.

    “one assumes so liberally for oneself”


  3. R.O.

    oops, “presence” pala. Grr.

  4. I am not sure if I can agree completely with Kaminer’s absolutist argument; as a “mitigated skeptic,” I can imagine the possibility of a situation where hateful speech is itself already an action. (In older cultures such as the Hebraic, I understand, there is no distinction between words and actions. For them, word IS work.) But I am inclined to the view that there MUST be, there can only be, very few exceptions to Kaminer’s free-speech rule.

    About the Cruz controversy: I was struck by the apparent intolerance of “old people’s” views. The idea that Cruz’s views were contemptible because they were “jurassic” seemed to me to be fundamentally unreasonable.

    About “onion-skinned Muslims”: This requires a much longer, more nuanced post!

  5. Interesting contextual set up, John, to the points Kaminer is making.

    I recently had a “dust up” in the comments to Philippine Commentary. I made a mistake in my arguments and walked away feeling like I got my head bashed in by Bocobo. But, there’s a big difference in “feeling” like I got my head bashed in and actually getting it bashed in – as Kaminer would certainly point out.

    But I’m also wondering if there isn’t a difference in a university setting where ideas are held up for examination and learning and the editorial pages of the PDI where ideas are simply being advocated?

    I don’t know – I haven’t completely thought this through yet.

  6. Hmmmmm … I guess your comment software strips out href links. Here’s the dust up link:

  7. R.

    “The idea that Cruz’s views were contemptible because they were “jurassic” seemed to me to be fundamentally unreasonable.”

    Yeah. I admire the likes of John Silva and I still think Mr. Cruz’s approach was hateful and simplistic, but Silva’s method is a classic appeal to emotions, i.e., no logical value AT ALL, something straight from the American university political correctness classroom.

  8. Hi, Nick. I was actually thinking of your run-in with Dean, which I read because I’m subscribed to your RSS feed, when I stumbled on the Kaminer story. I thought it was quite uncharacteristic of Dean, especially the rather aggressive use of what we can call the second person emphatic: you, yours, and so on. I’m actually not sure if Dean was right, but — because commenting takes as much from me as actual blog-posting — I hadn’t gotten around to joining the fray!

    I have not yet thought this matter through too, although I know where I am tending. I do realize that op-ed pages cannot be as interactive as, say, comment threads, but some letters to the editor can be quite uncivil too.

  9. Here’s another angle: What makes profanity and racial slurs different from other speech?

    I was reading a piece on Chevrolet’s advertising where the public could make proposed SUV ads for the Chevy Tahoe. See,1540,2054395,00.asp

    Here’s a quote:

    “Yet Chevy and its ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, left the negative spots online, and claim to be delighted with the campaign. “Tree-huggers don’t really like full-size SUVs anyway,” says Brian McCallum, a senior vice president at Campbell-Ewald. “The only filters we kept on were for things like profanity and racial slurs. The other stuff stayed.” Why keep the negative ads up at the site? For one thing, says McCallum, it helps spark interest in the project.”

    So should they be filtering at all?

  10. R.


    Where do we draw the line? My personal answer is when there is malice? How do you define malice. I don’t know. I just know it when I ‘see’ it.

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