On the Value of Intellectuals, by Brad Kent

“George Bernard Shaw near St Neots from the Millership collection” from the Birmingham Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In times of populism, soundbites, and policy-by-Twitter such as we live in today, the first victims to suffer the slings and arrows of the demagogues are intellectuals. These people have been demonised for prioritising the very thing that defines them: the intellect, or finely reasoned and sound argument. As we celebrate the 161st birthday of Bernard Shaw, one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived, we might use the occasion to reassess the value of intellectuals to a healthy society and why those in power see them as such threats.

Born in Dublin on 26 July 1856 to a father who held heterodox religious opinions and a mother who moved in artistic circles, Shaw was perhaps bound to be unconventional. By age 19 he was convinced that his native Ireland was little more than an uncouth backwater–the national revival had yet to see the light of day–so he established himself in London in order to conquer English letters. He then took his sweet time to do it. In the roughly quarter of a century between his arrival in the metropole and when he finally had a modicum of success, Shaw wrote five novels–most of which remained unpublished until his later years–and eked out a living as a journalist, reviewing music, art, books, and theatre. That eminently readable journalism has been collected in many fine editions, and we see in it an earnest individual not only engaged in assessing the qualities of the material before him–much of which was dreadfully insipid–but eager to raise standards and to cultivate the public. He prodded people to want more and gave them the tools to understand what a better art would look and sound like. And he did so in an inimitable voice that fashioned his renowned alter ego: the great showman and controversialist, GBS.

“George Bernard Shaw, circa 1900” from the Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shaw became more widely known as a playwright in late 1904, when King Edward broke his chair laughing at the Royal Command performance of Shaw’s play John Bull’s Other Island. He was no longer a journalist by trade, now being able to live by his plays, but Shaw continued to write essays, articles, and letters-to-the-editor in leading papers to set the record straight, to denounce abuses of power, and to suggest more humane courses of action. When he published his plays, he wrote polemical prefaces to accompany them that are sometimes longer than the plays themselves. These prefaces, written on an exhausting range of subjects, are equally learned and entertaining. Indeed, it has been said by some wags that the plays are the price that we pay for his prefaces.

In many ways continuing his fine work as the Fabian Society’s main pamphleteer in the 1890s, his prefaces suggest remedies for the great injustices of his time. And, what’s more, the vast majority of his prescriptions are as topical and provocative today. For example, if you’re American, should you opt for Trumpcare or Obamacare? Read The Doctor’s Dilemma and its preface and you’ll have a compelling case for neither, but rather a comprehensive and fully accessible public healthcare system, the sort now common in Canada and most European countries. That’s right, people were feeling the Bern–we might say the original Bern–well before Mr. Sanders was born.

Some of Shaw’s opinions came at a great cost. When he published Common Sense About the War, which was critical of both German and British jingoism at the outset of the Great War, he ran too much against the grain of the hyper-patriotic press and government propaganda, thereby becoming a pariah to many. But his star gradually returned into the ascendant as the body count mounted and a war-weary population came to share his point of view. The run-away international success of Saint Joan brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and, as Shaw said, gave him the air of sanctity in his later years.

“George Bernard Shaw with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, May 1949”, from Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Shaw always maintained that he was immoral to the bone. He was immoral in the sense that, as a committed socialist in a liberal capitalist society, he didn’t support contemporary mores. Instead, he sought to change the way that society was structured and to do so he proposed absolutely immoral policies. A good number of these beyond universal healthcare have seen the light of day, such as education that prioritises the child’s development and sense of self-worth, the dismantling of the injustices of colonial rule, and voting rights for women. But those in power continue the old tug-of-war, and the intellectuals of today must be as vigilant, courageous, and energetic as Shaw in the defence of liberal humanist and social democratic values. Witness the return of unaffordable tertiary education in the UK, made possible by both Labour and Conservative policies.  We might recall that Shaw co-founded one of these institutions–the renowned London School of Economics–because he believed in their public good.

Whenever Shaw toured the globe in his later decades–he died in 1950 at age 94–he was met by leading politicians, celebrities, and intellectuals who wanted to bask in his wit, wisdom, and benevolence (Jawaharlal Nehru, Charlie Chaplin, and Albert Einstein are a few such people). Time magazine named him amongst the ten most famous people in the world–alongside Hitler and the Pope. Everywhere he went, the press hounded him for a quote. Yet despite the massive fees he could have charged, he never accepted money for his opinions, just as he had declined speaking fees in his poorer days when he travelled Britain to give up to six three-hour lectures a week to praise the benefits of social democracy. He would not be bought–or suffer the appearance of being bought.

On his birthday, then, we would do well to think of Shaw and maybe even read some of his plays, prefaces, or journalism. We might also cherish the service and immorality of intellectuals. And we should always question the motives of those who denigrate their value.

This piece was originally published in OUPBlog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Mealy-Mouthed Cowardice of America’s Elites After Charlottesville

As is so often the case, Fareed Zakaria’s analysis is the best I’ve read on this subject. As Bill Maher recently pointed out, sure, there was violence on both sides in World War II as well, but one side was still right

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017

Much of the United States has reacted swiftly and strongly to President Trump’s grotesque suggestion that there is a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who converged last weekend on Charlottesville and those who protested against them. But the delayed, qualified and mealy-mouthed reactions of many in America’s leadership class tell a disturbing story about the country’s elites — and the reason we are living in an age of populist rebellion.

The least respected of today’s leaders are, of course, politicians. The public largely views them as craven and cowardly, pandering to polls and focus groups. And that is how too many Republican officials have behaved in the face of Trump’s words and actions. With some honorable exceptions, men and women who usually cannot stop pontificating on every topic on live TV have suddenly gone mute on the biggest political subject of the day.

I…

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Trump: For the love of Putin

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, July 13, 2017

The latest revelations about Russia and President Trump’s campaign are useful because they might help unravel the mystery that has always been at the center of this story. Why has Trump had such a rosy attitude toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin? It is such an unusual position for Trump that it begs for some kind of explanation.

Unlike on domestic policy, where he has wandered all over the political map, on foreign policy, Trump has held clear and consistent views for three decades. In 1987, in his first major statement on public policy, he took out an ad in several newspapers that began, “For decades, Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States.” In the ad, he also excoriated “Saudi Arabia, a country whose very existence is in the hands of the United States,” and other “allies who…

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Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

Aimé Fernand David Césaire, photo credit manomerci.comAimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (1913-2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as they rarely coincide in one person!

In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’. The term was chosen so as to be provocative, a way of re-claiming the word nègre, which had become a racial slur, while simultaneously shocking those who heard or read it into paying attention. Through his philosophy, political writing, and especially his poetry and plays, the world pays attention still.

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire through the resources below; an excellent place to start is with Meredith Goldsmith’s article from The Poetry Foundation.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Aime Cesaire‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Chidi, Sylvia Lovina. The Greatest Black Achievers in History, chapter 1

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir, ‘Négritude‘. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Goldsmith, Meredith. ‘Aimé Fernand Césaire‘, 1913–2008. In The Poetry Foundation

The Country is Frighteningly Polarized. This is Why, by Fareed Zakaria

An excellent piece by my favorite political commentator on the cultural and political polarization that’s driving America apart, and on ill-conceived attempts by both the left and right to quash free expression they don’t like.

Fareed Zakaria

Wednesday’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice was a ghastly example of the political polarization that is ripping this country apart. Political scientists have shown that Congress is more divided than at any time since the end of Reconstruction. I am struck not simply by the depth of partisanship these days, but increasingly also by its nature. People on the other side of the divide are not just wrong and to be argued with. They are immoral and must be muzzled or punished.

This is not about policy. The chasm between left and right during much of the Cold War was far wider than it is today on certain issues. Many on the left wanted to nationalize or substantially regulate whole industries; on the right, they openly advocated a total rollback of the New Deal. Compared with that, today’s economic divisions feel relatively small.

Partisanship today is more about identity…

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A Politic of Forgiveness and Responsibility, by Dylan Flint

“Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities” Lamentations 5:7

Whether or not we buy the metaphysical presuppositions of this passage from the Bible, and others like it, we cannot deny that we do not choose the household we are born into nor can we choose our country of birth.

To put it bluntly, I did not choose to be American.

I moved to China in the midst of an ugly election and considered, like many others, going (in my case staying) abroad if a certain candidate was elected. Well, he was elected, and I probably won’t stay abroad. But, then again, I do not know what the future holds.

Living in China during this election cycle has caused me a great deal of reflection surrounding three things: the sociopolitical climate of my new home, the shortcomings of democracy, and what it means to be an American.

In many ways, China is ahead of us. For starters, they’ve already had their experiment with communism and thrown it out as no good. In America, however (pardon the metaphor) we seem rather stuck, unable to do our business or get off the pot. Yet, in many other ways, China seems centuries behind. The current government at times easily reminds us of something out of the Dark Ages: complete centralized authoritative rule, shadow policy making, the imprisoning and beating of dissenting artists, and a hell-bent policy of eliminating any hint of revolution. And while the beheadings aren’t held in the square, China currently executes more of its citizens than any other nation in the world.(1)

While we are quick to lament, and rightly so, I can not deny that it works. In fact, I have never seen so many happy people in my life.

Cyber-threats, terrorism, misinformation, hacked elections, these are all non-issues. At least, not ones felt by ordinary citizens. With closed borders, the great firewall, and a state-run media, this is the reality.

And what about crime? Likewise, it is a non-issue.

But why is this so?

One can cite the fact that the government wastes trillions of renminbi (RMB) on new construction projects, many of which will never see the light of day, simply so people can stay employed. While I do not deny this contributes to the low crime rate, I feel I have struck something deeper — something ingrained in the social fabric of the people. In China, there are no second chances. I have found the concept of forgiveness to be a strangely western, strangely Christian idea.

When I asked a group of Chinese students, aged 20–35, about the private prison system in America, many agreed that it was unjust and that rehabilitation has fallen behind cheap labor and profit in priority. But when I asked those same students if they would invite a convict back into their lives after they had served their time, I was shocked by the fiercely absolute “No” I received. Not one of them said they would hire the person if they owned a company, and many suggested they wouldn’t even associate with the person. Even if the person was a child when they committed the offense, the answer was still the same. The verdict was in: if you did something that landed you in jail, you are forever an outsider. It is no wonder people don’t commit crimes.

While I found this to be a bit cruel, I had to remember that outside Christendom this is the way things work. And I am starting to realize that forgiveness comes at quite the cost.

Higher principles are not cheap. They demand a lot from us.

Last year, when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to more than a million refugees, she was doing so because it was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the tangible consequences appear to have been devastating. Whether the rate of terror has actually increased due to the influx of refugees, or politicians are merely fanning flames of xenophobia, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Regardless of who is responsible, the country is in turmoil.

Now, I would like to believe that, given enough time, Merkel’s good graces will be rewarded. However, it is hard to see such a thing outside the classroom. All I can see is sensible people living in fear, opportunistic politicians cashing in, and daily injustices committed against those who seek refuge.(2) This is a spotty resume for “doing the right thing”, to say the least. But beyond this, I think there is a real lesson here. I think we must realize what it is our higher principles ask us to overcome.

We have to understand that this growing alt-right protectionist polemic that passed Brexit, put Donald Trump in office, and may put out Angela Merkel is not all based on false news, rhetoric, and politics of fear. Despite what I am about to say going against everything I was taught by Hollywood, the reality is that foreigners wreak havoc on familiar social norms, dissent is painful to bear, tolerance is exhausting, criminals hardly ever learn from their mistakes, and our enemies know to hit us where it hurts: they take advantage of our good graces, making a mockery of our higher principles. Free trade, open borders, second chances, all of it attracts exploitation.

When taking one honest, good-long-look at China, it is not hard to see the draw of a massive one party system with closed borders that censures the media and silences civil unrest at all costs.(3) It is so peaceful here. And while the harmony may be faux, there is real solidarity. Despite all the problems China faces (and they are immense), the sentiment of the people is that we are all in this together — we are all Chinese.

It pains me to admit that this sense of identity is gone in America, if there ever was such a thing. Despite the few radical god-fearing patriots, the sentiment of American solidarity — the home to pioneers of freedom, people who believed they could build the future they wanted for themselves, the shining beacon of hope for the tired, hungry, and poor of the world — is completely gone.

Maybe I envision America’s past as does a child who reads a storybook, and maybe I see China through the eyes of a foreigner, but I still believe free people can come together of their own volition, and that this is somehow better than the alternatives. However, I would be lying if I said this belief isn’t constantly being challenged by everything around me, or that I have never considered its outright abandonment. In fact, it may be worth asking ourselves why it is we even have this belief. What is this something extra that makes it better if we make decisions for ourselves, and come together on our own, instead of someone one else forcing this upon us?

This very same question is to be found, incidentally enough, in the history of Christianity. There the question takes on the form: why is conversion in the heart better than conversion through coercion?

Many Christian philosophers, Pierre Bayle comes to mind, have argued that this is just clearly so — that only a true conversion takes place if it happens in the heart of man, not merely in his outward demonstrations. But this argument, though I agree with its conclusions, often ends with an appeal to the “natural light” of reason. In other words, a conversion in the heart is just obviously better. But, absent this vague intuition, it is hard to see why.

I’ve always believed the ends to never justify the means… but, if God is the end, it could hardly matter how you got there. After all, you arrived at God.

*     *     *

Benjamin Franklin once said, “those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

As a juvenile, I believed this quote to be expounding the sagacity of the libertarian. Now, as an adult, I see it more as a proclamation, or rather a warning, of the insecurity of a democracy. On the one hand, if essential liberties are lost, then the entire system collapses. On the other, if an individual wishes to relinquish his liberty in exchange for some relief from the anxiety that that liberty expounds upon him, then he loses his place in that system. In other words, everyone must believe in it for the system to work. What a frail thing indeed. That is, unless we take ‘belief’ to mean something other than it does in its pejorative sense. In any event, if I were not a talented, energetic, young Aristotelian who stood to gain from toppling monarchs, it would be hard to see why anyone would want to buy into such a thing.

It could be rebutted that a democracy ensures against corruption, and I would reply that profit-seeking corporations are running America. It could be replied that a democracy represents the people, and I would say then that the last honest politician was shot in the head. It could be said that a democracy ensures against the homogeneity of opinion and the stagnation of ideas, and I would say we are overrun with opinion and everyone’s “good” ideas. It could be said that democracy encourages progress, and I would say America is behind a lot of the world. It could be said that democracy and religious freedom go hand-in-hand, and I would say purchasing good vibes at a megachurch hardly constitutes unabated spiritual development. It could be said that only in a democracy do we get to choose our leader, and I would say that over half the voting populous didn’t select America’s current president.

Now to be sure, charges against democracy are nothing new. Plato famously argued in his masterpiece Republic that the next logical step after the beautiful, multifarious democracy was tyranny. And it isn’t because some tyrant comes and takes our kingdom: it is because we give rise to the tyrant. This is simply the natural consequence of our desires playing the part of the ruler in the political organism that is the state. So the story goes: our customs and values diminish from generation to generation because, in a democracy, the father is on equal ground with the son; when things go wrong, as they are bound to, we desperately elect a leader who promises to continue to give us everything we wish for. But the thing is, because we have destroyed our values in the relativism that cohabits with democracy, the leader lacks that which it takes to be a good leader. The beautiful tragedy runs its course, and we become slaves to the tyrant — the embodiment of our passions — in his wild pursuit to save us.

But let be also known that Plato likewise believed in something called the Form of the Good: a metaphysical force which has the power to transform the natural world, including its natural consequences.

While I do not doubt that this is a hard notion for people to understand, let alone believe in, I find it compelling. And the reason why is I have been transformed, if not by it, then by something similar. See, the thing I can not deny, no matter how bad things get in America and how good things get for me in China, is that I have been given a second chance — a second chance I did not deserve.

*     *     *

As a heroin addict in my early 20’s, I tore through the lives of others. In my wild pursuit for pleasure and comfort, I abused my freedom just as much as America is being abused today. My family, my community, my society, my culture, have now all forgiven me, and my debt for this is insurmountable. But it isn’t a debt I don begrudgingly.

I moved to China to repay a debt to my father — to become my own man: a self-sufficient man who under his own propensities can nurture and provide for himself and others — and it is becoming one of the defining experiences of my life. The process of going back over our lives — our histories — and making right our wrongs, is one of great beauty, tremendous insight, and strengthening of soul. It is not a journey of dread. It is the path we want to be on, and, for me, it all began with a choice, a free choice.

Now, I am compelled by this path. It is not by force that I am compelled, but by a sense of moral duty. I am beginning to see what a life of service means, and it is something I really want. I want to repay my family, my community, my country, my western ethos, which gave me another chance at life.

I was once asked as an undergraduate what the Form of the Good meant to me, and for the first time I have a genuine answer: being able to implement your own ideas and to have the consequences be of benefit — to see the lives of other people improve by your hand. It is hard to imagine such a thing flowering and reaching its fullest fruition in a country that stifles free expression and assembly.

The spirit of the west — freedom of conscience, forgiveness, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom to influence, self-governance — is sick and dying, but it is not dead. Being able to believe what you want, to say what you want, to think what you want, to go after what you want, and to fall flat on your face, but then to be given a second chance, the means of redemption, the opportunity to really learn, and then to see it all work — to see yourself become a positive force in the lives of others — that, that is worth saving.

But I am fully aware that unless one has shared this experience, it is hard to see how they could reach the same conclusion. In other words, it is hard to see why ordinary people should buy into these higher principles if they don’t immediately benefit from them.

I recently read that chaos, insecurity, anxiety, complaining, deceit, and rhetoric are not signs that a democracy is failing. Rather, these are signs a democracy is working —that this is a democracy in action.

Maybe it is the case that we don’t need everyone to be convinced. Maybe the system need only produce a few good men — maybe even only one. I take some solace in the idea.

*     *     *

So why then is it better if conversion takes place in the heart? If answers must be given, this is because once the Father dies, it can live on in the Son, and the Son can one day pass on the torch. Absent this internalization, it is hard to imagine a thing surviving once our father leaves us.

And, after all has been said, what does it mean to be an American? For me, it means having the freedom to become influential in the lives of others, for better or for worse. It means taking part in a socio-political environment where goodness at least has the potential to reach its highest expression.

But what will happen to us? Will a democracy give rise to a tyrant, a few good men, or to a philosopher king? This I obviously do not know, but since I have recovered from my passions, and things are beginning to fall into their proper place, I am hopeful, nay faithful, that the same thing can happen to her.

Despite the fact my generation is being handed a broken country, I assume the responsibility it entails. I forgive my father’s transgressions. I forgive my country’s mistakes. And I, of my own volition, compelled by moral duty, seek a life in politics.

It is true I never chose to be American. But today, I do.

1)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_China

2) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39096833

3) I have in mind Tiananmen Square June, 4th 1989.

*A version of this essay was originally published by Chosenmag.com in April 2017

~ Dylan Flint is a Seattle native with deep ties to the Pacific Northwest. He has been writing continuously ever since getting sober in 2013. He has written on a wide range of topics, from spirituality and addiction to politics and poetry, but everything has always had a philosophical bent. Philosophy is not only dear to Dylan, he considers it a part of himself–an “expression of his soul” to use his own words. Dylan received his BA in philosophy from the University of Washington in 2015. Since graduating he has spent time in Germany at the University of Tubingen, and for this past year, he has been teaching English in China’s Jiangsu province. When he isn’t reading and writing, Dylan enjoys skiing, hiking, traveling and generally being outdoors. This fall he plans to return to the Pacific Northwest. He has been accepted to the philosophy masters program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. After he completes this program, he plans to pursue a PhD in philosophy and dreams of one day being a philosophy professor so he can share his love with the next generation of thinkers. To follow Dylan’s thoughts and experiences along the way, you can check out his blog at www.medium.com/@aphilosophersquarrel or on Instagram @aphilosophersquarrel

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

‘Free Speech’ is a Blunt Instrument. Let’s Break It Up, by Robert Simpson

April 15, 1967, Spring Mobilization to End the War, San Francisco

Free speech is important. It guards against governments’ dangerous tendency to repress certain kinds of communication, including protest, journalism, whistleblowing, academic research, and critical work in the arts. On the other hand, think of a doctor dispensing bogus medical advice, or someone making a contract that she plans to breach, or a defendant lying under oath in court. These all involve written or spoken statements, but they don’t seem to fall within the domain of free speech. They are what the legal theorist Frederick Schauer at the University of Virginia calls ‘patently uncovered speech’: communication that warrants no special protection against government regulation.

However, once we extrapolate beyond the clear-cut cases, the question of what counts as free speech gets rather tricky. A business whose website gets buried in pages of search results might argue that Google’s algorithm is anti-competitive – that it impedes fair competition between sellers in a marketplace. But Google has dodged liability by likening itself to a newspaper, and arguing that free speech protects it from having to modify its results. Is this a case of free speech doing its proper work, or an instance of free speech running amok, serving as cover for a libertarian agenda that unduly empowers major corporations?

To answer this question, we need a principled account of the types of communication covered by free speech. But attempts to provide such an account haven’t really succeeded. We can pick out cases on either side of the divide – ‘Protections for journalism and protest? Yes! For perjury and contracts? No’ – but there aren’t any obvious or natural criteria that separate bona fide speech from mere verbal conduct. On the contrary, as theorists have told us since the mid-20th century, all verbal communication should be understood as both speech and conduct.

Some authors see these definitional difficulties as a fatal problem for the very idea of free speech. In There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too (1994), the American literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish argued that ‘free speech’ is really just a rhetorically expedient label that people assign to their favoured forms of communication. There’s a grain of truth in this; but it doesn’t change the fact that governments still have a tendency to repress things such as protest and whistleblowing, and that we have good reasons to impose institutional safeguards against such repression if possible.

Instead of throwing out free speech entirely, a better response might be to keep the safeguards but make their sphere of application very broad. This is roughly what happens in Canadian law, where nearly any type of conduct can fall within the constitutional ideal of ‘free expression’, provided that it is trying to convey some kind of meaning. The downside is that if nearly anything can qualify as ‘expressive’ in the relevant sense, then we cannot categorically privilege expression itself as an inviolable norm. WhistlAll we can ask lawmakers to do is factor in the interests that such expression serves, and try to strike a balance with all the other, competing interests (such as ‘equality’, for example, or ‘national security’). While such trade-offs are standard in Commonwealth legal systems, they have the unwelcome effect of making it easier for governments to justify their repressive tendencies.

I’d propose a third way: put free ‘speech’ as such to one side, and replace it with a series of more narrowly targeted expressive liberties. Rather than locating actions such as protest and whistleblowing under the umbrella of ‘free speech’, we could formulate specially tailored norms, such as a principle of free public protest, or a principle of protected whistleblowing. The idea would be to explicitly nominate the particular species of communication that we want to defend, instead of just pointing to the overarching genus of ‘free speech’. This way the battle wouldn’t be fought out over the boundaries of what qualifies as speech, but instead, more directly, over the kinds of communicative activities we think need special protection.

Take the idea of public protest. Standard free-speech theory, concerned as it is with what counts as speech, tends to draw a line between interference based on the content of the speech, such as the speaker’s viewpoint (generally not allowed), and interference that merely affects the time, place and manner in which the speech takes place (generally allowed). But this distinction runs into trouble when it comes to protest. Clearly governments should be blocked from shutting down demonstrations whose messages they oppose. But equally they shouldn’t be able to multiply the rules about the time, place and manner in which demonstrations must take place, such that protests become prohibitively difficult to organise. One reason to have a dedicated principle of free public protest, then, is to help us properly capture and encode these concerns. Instead of seeing demonstrations as merely one application of a generic free-speech principle, we can use a narrower notion of expressive liberty to focus our attention on the distinctive hazards faced by different types of socially important communication.

If this all seems a bit optimistic, it’s worth noting that we already approach some types of communication in this way – such as academic freedom. Universities frequently come under pressure from political or commercial lobby groups – such as big oil, or the Israel lobby – to defund research that runs counter to their interests. This kind of threat has a distinctive underlying causal mechanism. In light of this problem, universities safeguard academic freedom via laws and regulations, including guidelines that specify the grounds for which academics can be fired or denied promotion. These moves are not just a specific implementation of a general free-speech principle. They’re grounded in notions of academic freedom that are narrower than and distinct from freedom of speech. My suggestion is that all our expressive liberties could be handled in this way.

The subdivision of expressive liberties isn’t going to magically fix all the genuinely controversial issues around free speech, such as what to do about search engines. However, we don’t need to resolve these debates in order to see, with clarity and confidence, that protest, journalism, whistleblowing, academic research and the arts need special protection. The parcelled-out view of expressive liberties captures the importance of these activities, while sidestepping the definitional problems that plague standard free-speech theory. These are not merely theoretical advantages. Any time a country is creating or revising a bill of rights, the question of how to protect communicative practices must be considered afresh. Multiple expressive liberties is an approach worth taking seriously.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Robert Simpson is a lecturer in philosophy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He writes regularly about social and political philosophy. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!