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John Durham Peters: Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the

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John Durham Peters:
Courting the Abyss:
Free Speech and the Liberal
A humble presentation by
Brent Roberts, COMT530
April 2007
Free Speech and “the Abyss”
• What is “free speech”?
• What is “the Abyss”?
• How do these ideas come together?
Public Communication
• “In the heart of every democrat since beats the
pulse of Athens envy, and a desire to put on a
toga and speak swelling oratory. The early
modern era adds a new item of apparel and
medium of communication to the mix: friends of
democracy like to fancy themselves donning
powdered wigs and taking quill in hand to
compose declarations and encyclopedias that
will set tyrants trembling.”
What is a “liberal”?
• “insistence on religious and other forms of
ideological diversity”
• “rejection of conscious design as the
ultimate source of social order”
• Respect for due process
• Respect for “equal protection against the
tyranny of the majority”
• “appreciation for eccentric behavior”
What is a “liberal”?
• Moderns/liberals
– Committed 100% to
free speech
• Fundamentalists
– Low threshold for
– Sickened and offended
– Sensitive to violence
and insult
• Why do they do it?
– If it doesn’t kill us, it makes us stronger
– “Showing off”
– Civic righteousness
“Liberal citizens are supposed to run the
gauntlet of what disgusts them and to find
a little poison gas in the air a good
immunization against bigger woes.
Citizens grow in wisdom by passing
through folly, and dalliance with demons
adds up to the greater education of all.”
Where is JDP on Free Speech?
“Defending the speech we hate does not mean we
need to learn to love it or think it is really good
stuff. Refusing to make laws prohibiting speech
and expression does not mean that speech and
expression are necessarily free of ill effects.
One can oppose censorship while maintaining a
capacity for judgments about the value and
quality of cultural forms.”
The free speech story
• Heroes
– Big names: Milton, Mill, Locke, Thomas
– Today: Journalists, Librarians and ACLU
“Librarians are perhaps the most passionate
believers in the free speech story in the
United States, with the ACLU.”
“Marketplace of Ideas”
• What is it?
– “motor of democratic life”
– “nasty talk will call forth countervailing words
of equal force and greater wisdom”
Marketplace of Ideas-Origins
• Milton, Areopagitica (1644)
“Let her [Truth] and Falsehood
grapple; who ever knew truth
put to the worse, in a free
and open encounter.”
JDP on the Marketplace
• “worst of the intellectual frameworks
commonly foisted on the essay”
• That “writing and reading should take
place in an unrestricted, open-ended, and
voluntary space, fair enough.”
• BUT……
Homeopathic Machismo and Free
Speech Theory
• Define homeopathy
• Define machismo
• Define homeopathic machismo
“The notion that a tincture of poison will lift
us to heights of tolerance and civicmindedness.”
Emergence of the
“marketplace of ideas”
• 20th Century
“The real grip on the public and legal
imagination is held by the idea that we are
righteous in proportion to our refusal to
Libraries (again!)
“People whose livings and lives depend on
the propagation of information and
opinion in speech and text naturally
believe theirs to be holy work.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
• Fought in the Civil War
• Supreme Judicial Court of MA
• Supreme Court justice, 1902-1932
• “Great dissenter”
• Abrams (1919): “free trade in ideas”
• “most famous exponent of the idea that
the first amendment’s purpose is to teach
us to appreciate ideas that we hate”
• “consistent defense of the right of all
parties to compete”
• “not free thought for those who agree
with us, but freedom for the thought of
those we hate”
Judge’s “two bodies”
• Personal opinions
• Judicial opinions
• “He wanted a strong first amendment not
because he thought more speech was the
cure for bad speech, but because he
wanted to leave the evolutionary
battlegrounds uncluttered—like a Roman
official making sure the gladiators all have
water and bread before they head into
Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)
• Supreme Court 1916-1939
• Seen as radical
– Fought monopolies
– Fought to protect industrial laborers
(especially women)
– Defended individual human rights
– “Brandeis brief”
• Active discussion: “Sunlight is the best
• Noxious doctrine
• “If there be time to expose through
discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to
avert by the processes of education, the
remedy to be applied is more speech, not
enforced silence.”
Skokie Case
“The peculiar righteous indignation of
insisting on the other’s right to free
speech, even at the risk of one’s own life,
points to an emerging professional, selfsacrificial culture”
Landmark free speech cases
• Times v. Sullivan
• Cohen v. California
• Pacifica
• Hustler v. Falwell
• RAV v. St. Paul
Critical Race Theory
• What is it?
• “call for a tender recognition of particular
cultural traits and pains”
Self-esteem and care
“absolutist first amendment response to hate
speech has the effect of perpetuating racism”
(Mari Matsuda)
“rich and the educated consistently support free
expression rights most vigorously…libertarian
faith is a philosophy of the privileged”
JDP’s position
“We need not be moral and intellectual Gumbies
while we wait for the returns to come in on the
gore and vomit that some of our liberal
colleagues want to suspend judgment on. Life is
too short to think we can postpone some
decisions forever. Impersonality is, as Paul
knew, a good norm to live by, but it does not
mean that we stop fighting for decency in the
“Watch, Therefore”: Suffering and
the Informed Citizen
• Milton and Mill
• Today
• Two questions:
1. “What is our
responsibility to
distant and local
2. “When, if ever, is it
just to shut our eyes
to the misery of the
3 ways to look at suffering
I. Catharsis
II. Compassion
III. Courage
Responses to pain and suffering
• Psychological relief
• Intellectual illumination
• Aroused to sympathy, called to action
• “Shut our eyes”
Samantha Power
• “Distance is no excuse for ignorance”
• “Too much faith in human decency and
due process keeps us unprepared to cope
with the brutal realities of genocide”
• “People who could know, but do not
bother, are implicated to some degree in
the crime they could have helped prevent”
• “Pity is the totalitarianism of the
• “Distance furnishes clarity and catharsis”
• Pride and deception
• “Pity is a persuasive technique rather than
an ethical virtue”
• Thoreau
• “We have to pay attention because the
present is different from what was and
what will be”
“The past is solid, the future is gas, but
the present is liquid”
“Possible futures (and pasts) come into
being or vanish with every event”
“The now will never leave us in peace.
Whether we pay attention to the news or
ignore it, we will regret it either way.”
Conclusion: Augustine
“Since you cannot do good to all, you are to
pay special regard to those who, by the
accidents of time or place or circumstance,
are brought into closer connection with
Social Science
• Evidence
• Self-denial, detachment, self-restraint
• Removes personal bias
• “Skepticism toward any and all firm
Social Science: “chaste discourse”
• “colorless style of social scientific writing”
• Detached inquiry
• Franklin
• “Time, not contention, is the measure of
truth; participants must restrain
themselves and their passions in the quest
for truth; discourse must be mellow,
irenic, and civil.”
• Statistical analysis=“lingua franca of the
social sciences”
• Data!
• Democracy is quantitative
• Reducing many voices to a single data
• “Numbers are democracy’s ideal language:
suited for gods, machines, and collectives”
Objectivity & Self-Mortification
• Philip Marlowe, George Smiley, John
Wayne, Sherlock Holmes
• Doctors
• Journalists
• Enlightenment/spirituality
• “God’s-eye vide of a spectator of the
drama of world history”
• “In our private choices we unwittingly
promote something else”
• “Few people recognize the autonomy of
events from their own willings and doings”
• Ignore individual fates
• Removes possessiveness, ego,
• “meaningfulness lies only in the
• “Life experiences are, in a sense, artifacts
of insufficient sampling”
• “illusions of selfhood”
• “statistical discipline teaches us to place
the other before the self”
Stories v. Statistics
• Stories
– Fudge details
– Compress characters
and events
– Teach the ethic of
• Statistics
– Tell it all
– Give us the grand
– Teach the ethic of not
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