Monday, February 20, 2017

Speech as action

A piece by David Solway entitled "Free Speech vs. 'Hate Speech'" makes the following assertion:

Of course, speech itself can be an act, as philosopher J.L. Austin has shown in How to Do Things with Words: in his most famous example, when the minister states “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” an act has been performed since it changes the status of the participants.

This is wrong. The words themselves are innocuous absent other considerations. If a second grader speaks the quoted words to two other second graders,the latter are not thereby married. More importantly, if a minister says the words to two people who do not wish to be married, or in fact merely disagree with those words, their status does not change. In the former case, the words are powerless because of the status of the speaker. She has no authority to change the status of her classmates, regardless of the words used. The latter case is more fundamental, because it is an example of a larger principle: the effect of words in the absence of external force is dependent on the acceptance of the hearer. Certainly, when a judge pronounces a sentence, the words used wold be of little significance apart from a mechanism to enforce them. The same result holds if the judge has no authority to pass such a sentence, as for example if  jury had acquitted the accused.

The effect of words in such case would depend on the subjective acceptance of their object. To put the matter more succinctly, no one is obligated to be offended by speech, and no one is required to perceive injuries in mere opinions. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Safe spaces

The concept of civilization only makes sense in the context of interactions between humans. A solitary individual having no interactions with others would have no use for norms and traditions that are useful in public life. A civilized society is one in which the clashes and confrontations that inevitable arise when human beings interact are managed by certain understandings regarding tolerance, accommodation and compromise. The norms and institutions of civilization are means by which the clashes of individual interests and diversity of opinions are processed so as to make social interactions worthwhile. Civilization is a consequence of the public benefits which arise from preserving individuality. Civilization thrives when individual differences are allowed to compete.

A "safe space," in the current usage of the term, is a place that is free from distressing opinions or disquieting deviations from uniformity. They are precincts where feeble ideas are allowed to persist unchallenged and unimproved, not because of the intellectual validity of those ideas but because of the emotional discomfort occasioned by alternative views. Safe spaces only appear so because of uniformity and conformity, and as such are intellectually stagnant. The aversion to individual thought and dispute makes them intellectually inert and emotionally anesthetic. The adjective "safe" is a euphemism intended to disguise an environment that is intellectually desolate, intolerant and craven.


The most significant difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, at least as it concerns practical politics, is that there was a significantly greater risk of corruption being normalized under a Clinton administration than under Trump. This is independent of whether a Clinton led government would be any more or less corrupt than the current administration. In the former case, corruption would be viewed by institutions such as the media and entrenched interests as a price to be paid for favorable policies; in the latter case, it is a target of opportunity by which to advance one's agenda and protect one's interests. Normalization of corruption is far more damaging than any policy which could be reasonably implemented by either candidate.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Thought experiment

Consider a woman, a citizen in a western democracy, Now consider that it is desirable to someone, for whatever reason, to have her behave in a particular way, to conform to some model, or submit to some reform. One way to accomplish this would be to use coercion, to invoke force or the prospect of undesirable consequences to influence her in the desired direction. Another alternative would be to use persuasion, appeal to reason, and try to convince her of the wisdom and benefit of the desired behavior, model or reform.

The first method is the resort to force. She will be made to conform regardless of her her own reason, values or choice. The second is a resort to rational discourse, to principles of analysis and evidence. Only the second of these is consistent with a respect for dignity; i.e. that a person is worthy, all else being equal, of living her life in accord with her own conscience.

Now image that the second method, the use of persuasion, is discouraged on grounds that the method of persuasion, i.e. free speech, might cause offense to someone. Thus we have in stark relief the malignancy at the heart of political correctness: that it is better to use force and the threat of personal consequences to bring about some policy or other, because to allow reasoned debate might offend subjective sensibilities. Rejection of political correctness is rejection of the notion that the benefits and individual dignity must be surrendered to protect the sensitive from disquieting opinions..