Tag Archives: free speech

The Harm of Racial Slurs

by Tim Harding, B.Sc. B.A. (philosophy)

In this paper I would like to analyse the derogatory nature of racial slurs.  In particular, I shall try to answer the following questions: ‘What harm do racial slurs do?’ and ‘Do racial slurs deserve protection under the principle of free speech?’.  In answering these questions, I enlist the methodology of speech act theory.  I argue that racial slurs are perlocutionary speech acts that result in harmful consequences to target groups and individuals. They are not just offensive insults or taboo words.  There are widely-accepted exceptions to the right of free speech for words that cause harm, and I argue that racial slurs should be included amongst these exceptions.

By the term ‘racial slur’, I mean derogatory words targeting the race of a person or group.  Examples include ‘n**g*r’, ‘k*k*’, ‘ch*nk’ and ‘w*g’.  I do not include derogatory words targeting a person’s religious, political or other beliefs.  This distinction is important, because the ability to criticise beliefs and ideas is an essential component of free speech. Also, people can change their beliefs but not their race. So, on this basis, I would not count a derogatory word like ‘jihadist’ as a racial slur.

Another point of clarification is that in this paper, I intend to discuss the philosophical principles of racial slurs and free speech, rather than the policy or legal aspects of these concepts.  The question of whether racial slurs should be permitted, regulated or prohibited by law is one that lies more within the scope of political philosophy or jurisprudence than the philosophy of language.

I would like to illustrate the conflict between racial slurs and free speech by quoting some examples of actual slurs gathered by Stanford law professor Charles Lawrence III (1990: 431).  Each example is followed by a typical response, appearing in italics, that Lawrence has personally heard many times over against taking any action against such racial slurs.

  • Dartmouth College:

Black professor called ‘a cross between a welfare queen and a bathroom attendant’.

Yes, speech is sometimes painful Sometimes it is abusive. That is one of the prices of a free society.

  • Purdue University:

Counselor finds ‘Death N**g*r’ scratched on her door.

More speech, not less, is the proper cure for offensive speech.

  • Smith College:

African student finds message slipped under her door that reads, ‘African N**g*r do you want some bananas? Go back to the Jungle.’

Speech cannot be banned simply because it is offensive.

The common point being made in these responses is that such racial slurs are merely offensive insults, and that the principle of free speech outweighs taking any action against them.  That is a point that I would like to challenge in this paper.

To assist my analysis, let me contrast the impacts of these racial slurs with some non-racial slurs.  Whilst all slurs are by definition insulting to their targets, there are at least some non-racial slurs that probably cause little or no harm.  For instance, slurs like ‘ignorant’, ‘stupid’ and ‘lazy’ are often heard in heated debates; and whilst they may cause offence, the targets of such slurs rarely if ever claim to be harmed by them.  So, what are the harms caused by racial slurs?

I will commence my answer to this question by referring to speech act theory.  In linguistics and the philosophy of language, a ‘speech act’ is an utterance that has a performative function.  In colloquial terms, a speech act is ‘doing something’ as well as ‘saying something’.  Since the middle of the twentieth century, recognition of the significance of speech acts has demonstrated the ability of language to do things other than to describe reality or states of affairs (Green 2017:1).

In his seminal 1962 work ‘How To Do Things with Words’, John Austin developed his theory of performance utterances.  In a distinct break from the logical positivist view of statements, Austin (1962: 4-5) argues that there are meaningful sentences without truth values.  He claims that utterances can be found such that:

  1. they do not ‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything at all, are not ‘true or false’; and

  2. the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as saying something.

Examples that Austin gives of such utterances include saying ‘I do’ or ‘I will’ during a marriage ceremony, the naming of a ship at its launch and the offering of a wager.  He calls such statements ‘performance sentences’ or ‘performance utterances’ (Austin 1962: 6).  The action that is performed when a ‘performative utterance’ is said belongs to what Austin calls a ‘speech act’ (Austin 1962: 40).  Austin distinguished between three types of speech acts as follows:

  • a locutionary act is the uttering of a sentence with a certain sense and reference, that is, meaning;

  • an illocutionary act has a certain performative force, such as informing, ordering, warning or promising;

  • a perlocutionary act results in consequences, such as persuading, deterring, threatening, and as I discuss below, subordinating (Austin 1962: 109).

Verrochi (2015:1) enlists Austin’s theory to provide us with a methodology for actively addressing the harm that is done by racial slurs.  She argues that attempts to describe racial slurs as merely insulting or offensive, or to locate the harm in the intention of the speaker (that is, racist attitudes) are inherently problematic (Verrochi 2015:20).  In terms of speech act theory, these could be categorised as locutionary or illocutionary speech acts.  Instead, Verrochi advocates a perlocutionary speech act categorization of racial slurs:

What is needed and warranted is a system that locates the harm of [racial] hate speech not in the feelings, emotions, or thoughts of the audience, nor in the heart, intention, or thoughts of the speaker, but in the force of certain speech acts — when uttered in the ‘right’ context by people with the ‘right’ authority — to do as much as they say (Verrochi 2015:20).

Verrochi (2015: 15-20) argues that racial slurs that target historically subordinated groups (such as African-American slaves and their descendants) have the effect of intimidating these groups and re-establishing a harmful social hierarchy based on race.  In her opinion, these perlocutionary speech acts result in racism (by which I assume she means racial stigmatisation and discrimination) and promote racial subordination.

Similarly, Tirrell (1999: 43) states that the perlocutionary effect of racial slurs is clear: ‘they are angry put-downs that attempt to reduce the person to one real or imaginary feature of who they are’.  She argues that it is not simply because such a particular speaker has a particular (racist) attitude that a racial slur is harmful (Tirrell 1999: 44).  In other words, racist attitudes are not in themselves harmful – it is the perlocutionary speech acts that do the harm.  She says that:

…the heart of the expression is its designating of the person as subordinate…To call someone a ‘n**g*r’ today is at minimum to attribute a second-class status to him or her, usually on the basis of race and, arguably, to take that lower status to be deserved (Tirrell 1999: 45).

So rather than racism being an attitude or mental state of a speaker, Tirrell (1999: 45-46) regards racism to be ‘a structure of social practices that supports and enforces the subordination of the well-being of some races to the well-being of members of other races’.  (For instance, slavery in the United States had not only a negative effect on the well-being of the slaves, but it also had a positive effect on the well-being of the slave-owners and their descendants for all the free labour from which they profited).  In terms of speech act theory, Tirrell argues that ‘the social, psychological and economic practices of treating dark-skinned African-Americans as less valuable that light-skinned European-Americans give content and force to the term n**g*r’ (Tirrell 1999:49).

Tirrell (1999: 58) examines a theory that the derogation of the term n**g*r is a pragmatic effect, not a semantic aspect of this term.  Because if the derogation were a semantic aspect of the term, there could be no non-derogatory use of it, and yet there is.  Some African-Americans use this term amongst themselves as a strategy for the reclamation and blunting of the racial slur, or even as a term of endearment.  According to this theory, such pragmatic factors are the means by which the derogatory force is detached (Tirrell 1999:58).

Tirrell adds a corollary that when people who are not African-Americans use the term, it is impossible for the term not to carry derogatory force (Tirrell 1999:58), as argued by Whiting and further discussed below.  In speech act terms, Tirrell says that ‘individual speakers cannot escape the socially established meaning of their utterances, except occasionally by the grace of the communities in which they live and speak’ (Tirrell 1999: 61).  In this way, Tirrell is implying a perlocutionary force of racial slurs.

While Verrochi and Tirrell have focused on the harm caused by racial slurs to target groups, Delgado (1982: 135-149) has identified various sources of harm to individuals.  He argues that ‘such language injures the dignity and self-regard of the person to whom it is addressed, communicating the message that distinctions of race are distinctions of merit, dignity, status, and personhood’ (Delgado 1982: 135-136).

The psychological harms causes by racial stigmatisation are often much more severe than other insults, because membership of a racial minority is neither self-induced nor alterable (Delgado 1982: 135-136).  They not only impair the victim’s capacity to form close interracial relationships, but affect even their relationships with their own group.  Such psychological harms can result in mental and psychosomatic illnesses (Delgado 1982: 137).

Racial stigmatisation can also damage a victim’s pecuniary interests, by limiting his or career prospects and social mobility.  In this way, it can be seen as a force used by the majority to preserve an economically advantageous position for themselves (Delgado 1982: 139-142).

Finally, Delgado (1982: 142-143) argues that racial slurs have an even greater impact on children than adults.  Empirical studies have shown that the effects of racial slurs are discernable early in life, with minority children exhibiting distress or even self-hatred because of their colour; and majority children associating dark skin with undesirability and ugliness (Delgado 1982: 142).

In contrast to Verrochi and Tirrell, Hom (2008: 416-440) argues that the semantic strategy fares better than the pragmatic strategy for explaining how racial slurs or epithets work.  The difference is that according to the semantic strategy, their derogatory content is fundamentally part of their literal meaning; whereas according the pragmatic strategy, their derogatory content is derived from how they are used (Hom 2008: 416).

A problem for the semantic strategy is that it fails to explain the non-derogatory uses of racial slurs referred to above.  On Hom’s view the derogatory content of a racial slur (he calls them epithets) are causally determined in part by factors external to, and sometimes unknown by, the speaker (Hom 2008: 430).  Hom calls this view combinatorial externalism (CE), where the meanings of racial slurs are supported and semantically determined by their corresponding racist institutions (Hom 2008: 431).  In this way, racial slurs ‘express derogatory semantic content in every context, but they do not actually derogate their targets in every context’.  In other words, racial slurs are words with derogatory content; speakers derogate by using words with such contents (Hom 2008: 432).

To provide an example of what Hom probably means here, let is consider two sentences provided by Elizabeth Camp (2013: 330):

(1) Isaiah is a k*k*.

(2) Isaiah is not a k*k*.

On Hom’s view, sentence (1) is derogatory towards Isaiah, but sentence (2) is not, because Isaiah is not being described by a racial slur.  On the other hand, if these sentences are view pragmatically rather than semantically, they could be interpreted as meaning the following:

(3) Isaiah is Jewish.  And by the way: boo to Jews!

(4) Isaiah is not Jewish.  And by the way: boo to Jews!

So, by this interpretation, the use of the word ‘k*k*’ in sentence (2) is still derogatory towards Jews in general, even though it is not derogatory towards Isaiah in particular.  Camp calls this view subjectivist expressionism (Camp 2013: 331-332), although it is not a view that she necessarily subscribes to herself.

Whiting (2013: 366–368) supports the second interpretation above, and argues that it is typically no less derogatory to make negative claims using racial slurs than it is to make positive claims using them, whereas Hom’s combinatorial externalism suggest otherwise.  Whiting presses his point by providing a further example:

  • A. The US President is a n**g*r.

  • B. A said that the US President is a n**g*r.

Whiting (2013: 368) argues that intuitively, B’s utterance is racially derogatory, but combinatorial externalism does not seem able to explain why this so.  He says that on Hom’s account, B’s report in factually true and non-derogatory.  Whiting (2013: 368) reports Hom as later acknowledging this problem, and trying to explain that a sentence like (B) as not derogating but causing offence.  Whiting (2013: 368) responds by arguing that if a sentence like (B) was uttered to an audience of white racists, none of them might take offence but the utterance is still a derogatory racial slur.

Anderson and Lepore (2013: 350–363) reject the assumption that we need to understand the use of a racial slur as expressive of derogatory content.  Instead, they propose what they call ‘prohibitionism’ which is the view that racial slurs are prohibited or taboo words, and so a violation of this taboo might provoke offence.  They argue that this taboo is ubiquitous, that is, embedding a racial slur inside a sentence does not immunise its users from transgression (Anderson and Lepore 2013: 353).  Presumably, this taboo includes the reclamatory or affectionate use of the word ‘n**g*r among African-Americans.

In contrast, Whiting (2013: 368-369) argues that prohibitionism seems false, because it is possible for there to be racial slurs in the absence of a taboo or prohibition.  He provides the following example:

Imagine a deeply racist society in which the use of ‘n**g*r’ is not prohibited but nonetheless is expressive of racist thoughts or attitudes concerning those to whom its neutral counterpart applies. Members of the society derogate in using ‘n**g*r’, even though they do not violate any prohibition. The word, as used in that society, is surely a slur.

In my view, the above scenarios provided by Camp and Whiting neatly separate the derogatory force of racial slurs from merely causing offence or uttering taboo words.  The significance of this distinction is that, as we saw in the examples provided by Charles Lawrence earlier in this paper, the argument that racial slurs are merely offensive insults is used as a defence against taking any action regarding the use of such slurs.  Put simply, this argument is that insult and offence are common components of public debate, and to restrict their use would constitute an unjustified restriction of free speech.

On the other hand, it is commonly accepted (including in law) that free speech is not absolute.  There are well-known exceptions to the right of free speech, for instance, in cases of public safety (shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre), causing riots, incitement to crime and defamation.  The rationale behind these exceptions is that such statements cause harm.  But as I have argued in this paper, racial slurs also cause harm, possibly to a lesser extent than threatening public safety, causing riots or inciting crime, but harm nonetheless.  The harm caused by racial slurs undermines the argument that racial slurs should be protected as free speech, on the grounds that they merely cause insult and offence in a similar manner to non-racial slurs.  (To be clear, I am not generalising that all harmful speech is impermissible. I have given reasons above why I think that racial slurs cause sufficient harm to be impermissible).

In conclusion, speech act theory can provide us with a methodology for showing how racial slurs cause harm to target groups and individuals, rather than just insult or offence.  I have argued that racial slurs are perlocutionary speech acts, meaning that they result in consequences (in this case harmful consequences) rather than just express racist attitudes or emotions.  The harm lies in these adverse consequences to their intended targets, rather than in the racist attitudes or emotions of the speaker.  Because there are widely-accepted exceptions to the right of free speech where sufficient harm is caused, I have argued that racial slurs should be included in such exceptions.


Anderson, L. and Lepore, E. 2013 ‘What Did You Call Me? Slurs as Prohibited Words’. Analytic Philosophy 54: 350–363.

Austin, John L. How To Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Camp, Elisabeth. 2013 ‘Slurring Perspectives’. Analytic Philosophy Vol. 54 No. 3 September 2013 pp. 330–349

Delgado, Richard. 1982 ‘Words That Wound: A Tort Action For Racial Insults, Epithets, and Name-Calling’. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 17 (1982).

Green, Mitchell, ‘Speech Acts’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/speech-acts/&gt;.

Hom, Christopher. 2008. ‘The Semantics of Racial Epithets. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 105, No. 8 (Aug., 2008), pp. 416-440

Lawrence, Charles R. 1990 ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go: Regulating Racist Speech on Campus’. Duke Law Journal, June 1990 pp. 431-483.

Tirrell, Lynne 1999. ‘Derogatory Terms: Racism, Sexism and the Inferential Role Theory of Meaning’ in Oliver, Kelly and Hendricks, Christina (eds.), Language and Liberation: Feminism, Philosophy and Language, SUNY Press, 1999. pp 41-79.

Verrochi, Meredith. 2015.  ‘Uncooperative Engagement: An Active Response To Hate Speech’. Ph.D Dissertation, submitted to Michigan State University. <https://d.lib.msu.edu/etd/3808>  Viewed 25 May 2018.

Whiting, Daniel 2013. ‘It’s Not What You Said, It’s The Way You Said It: Slurs And Conventional Implicatures’. University of Southampton Analytic Philosophy Vol. 54 No. 3 September 2013 pp. 364–377.

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Jordan Peterson on universities

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12 basic things Australians should have learned at school

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Rowan Atkinson on insults

“The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.” – Rowan Atkinson.

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Churchill on free speech

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Words, Tweets and Stones in the “Political Correctness” Wars

The Conversation

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Last year, I came upon an interview with former Hawke Minister Peter Baldwin which, amongst other things, related the unusual story of Tim Hunt, a Nobel-Prize winning chemist.

At a conference in Korea, Hunt ventured regrettably outside of his expertise. He complained that having young women in the lab was a distraction. Older men like himself tended to fall in love with them. Moreover, Hunt claimed that girls could not take criticism without crying.

For a great chemist, we see, Hunt makes an awful social commentator. What is striking about the story is what happened next.

The story, as they say, went “viral” on social media. Someone tweeted the remarks, or uploaded the video online. The next thing he knew, Hunt was being stood down from his role at UCL, Nobel-Prize-notwithstanding.

I found myself reminded as I heard this of another unlikely story: the first novel of the Czech author Milan Kundera, The Joke. In this story, the main character vents his discontents with a Stalinist indoctrination camp in a mocking postcard to his girlfriend:

Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.

The Party censors intercepted the postcard, and did not find it amusing. Instead, Ludvik gets expelled from university and forced into military service in the mines.

To be sure, the comparison of the two stories is not perfect. Hunt was not sent to a labor camp, and the position he lost was honorary. So, unlike Ludvik, his material wellbeing and that of his family was not directly affected—only his good name. Hunt also appears not to have been joking, as far as anyone could tell.

Tim Hunt, the chemist stood down by UCL for his comments about women and laboratories.

Nevertheless, Hunt’s story is far from singular in the age of social media.

All around the world, stories of academics, media figures or employees being stood down by their employers after having been subjected to a kind of instantaneous prosecution by social media seem to be one of the signs of the Neuzeit.

For critics on the Right, Hunt’s and comparable stories show the dark, illiberal heart of what they call “political correctness”: a censorious culture preventing people speaking their minds on anything to do with matters of race, religion or gender. Many of these same critics (and, on the other side, Bernie Sanders) have also pointed to Mr Trump’s ostentatious disregard for such “political correctness” as one explanation for his 2016 catapult to power.

So what’s going on behind the increasing frequency of cases like Hunt’s: of people losing their jobs for what they have said alone—even, as in Hunt’s case, when the words in question neither reflect his professional expertise, nor target any particular individual? Are we entering a new period of social censorship, with dark historical precedents and echoes?

And what is rumbling away beneath the deep sense of grievance that underlies conservative commentators’ strident charges of “political correctness” against their opponents?

One role philosophy can play in such divisive debates is to try to clearly show each warring side “the reasons of the adversary”, and the paradoxes and problems within their own. Such, at least, is what Albert Camus proposed in the midst of the Algerian war in 1956. Camus’ attempt “to restore a climate that could lead to healthy debate” might today be tweeted with the hashtag: #tell-him-he’s-dreaming.

But not all dreams are bad for being illusory.

All’s fair …

For people labelled by conservative commentators as “politically correct”, their position looks quite different than the polemical tag implies.

What the Right calls political correctness describes the championing of a series of positions associated with the New Left. These positions hinge on the observation that the modern ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are imperfectly enshrined in countries like Australia, the UK or the US.

Behind the advertised equality of all to trade, real material inequalities are produced and perpetuated, leading to deep divisions of class.

Behind appeals to equality of opportunity, gender inequality hasn’t gone away. Its deep bases are revealed, amongst other places (continuing pay differentials also leap to mind) by the gendered nouns in public documents that for a long time simply excluded women from the franchise— as in “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal …”

Beneath the same language of equality, all-too-real inequalities exist between different ethnic and religious groups within pluralist societies like Australia. Lesbian and gay men and women for a long time faced laws that actively prohibited their forms of sexuality.

The New Left argument is that the cultural, economic and social discrimination against women, LGBT and non-anglosaxon members of our communities targeted them specifically on grounds of their belonging to those groups.

As such, it makes sense that a society which would redress these wrongs needs to legislate forms of “positive discrimination”, likewise targeting these groups specifically.

We should also educate for and enshrine new norms, attentive to the linguistic and other forms of discrimination that for far too long went without saying.

Given this reasoning, people of the New Left are likely to respond with outrage to the imputation that what they are promoting is a new form of waspish, quasi-Stalinist groupthink.

Their question is more likely to be: who could reasonably oppose these reforms, except people who still harbour older forms of prejudice, or feel threatened by the new forms of inclusivity the New Left has championed?

Camus held that philosophers could explain the reasons of adversaries in heated disputes, reopening possibilities of dialogue.

In love and war

There can be little doubt that many people who oppose progressive social reforms like marriage equality do so out of unavowed or avowed hostility to different minority groups.

Some of this group almost certainly are sympathetic to deeply illiberal political positions on the farther Right, and opposed to many of the social and immigration reforms that Australia has undertaken since the 1960s.

But not all people who contest these issues can fairly be so categorised. Many are deeply offended by any imputation that they are unreasonable, sexist, homophobic, racist or Islamophobic for defending conservative causes. Many base their positions on religious traditions with which they deeply identify.

And so we come to the first register of the “political correctness” charge. The argument goes something like this.

The impulses underlying forms of positive discrimination towards disadvantaged groups may be generous. Their flipside is a paradoxical intolerance towards everyone who disagrees with proposed policies or reforms.

This intolerance, critics allege, is manifest in a tendency to pathologise opponents: arguing as if they were all, equally and deeply flawed or bad people: racists, sexists, fascists, etc.

Rather than arguing the case against opponents of their positions, the “politically correct” silence them, critics claim. Or, in the age of social media, they spark campaigns that publicly shame them, even when their offences are not grave.

Enter Tim Hunt and company, if not Milan Kundera.

Certainly, there is a touch of the pot calling the kettle black about these complaints. For to call your opponents en bloc “politically correct” is hardly to celebrate their supple rationality and intrepid independence of spirit.

It remains true that any political sides’ demonising its opponents is a poor substitute for defeating them in open debate, predicated on a minimum of shared respect for the rules of the democratic game.

And so, the critics of “political correctness” point to cases on American campuses where activists have not let speakers from the Right speak at all, as opposed to engaging them in debate. For these critics, these shut-outs bespeak a “campus craziness” that threatens to close the universities to conservative viewpoints altogether.

Student rally against Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopolos’ scheduled talk at Berkeley earlier this year.

The same critics point to the idea which has currency on some American campuses of “trigger warnings” surrounding potentially upsetting content for different potential audiences. Such warnings, and the attempt to create “safe spaces” in which no one could be “triggered” by upsetting contents, do not promote the free and open exchange of ideas on divisive issues, the critics charge. Debate is not won (or lost) this way. It is shut down before it can begin.

And this, the critics continue, is to give way too much power to words—which are not sticks and stones, even in the culture wars. It is also to under-rate the capacity of people to confront and debate difficult content, instead encouraging a culture of victimisation and ultra-sensitivity to verbal and vicarious harm.

Supporters of trigger warnings reply that it is very easy for privileged white males to decide what should and should not be open to free and open debate. They’ve been doing this for centuries.

It is surely for the people whose identities are at stake in potentially disturbing material—for people of colour, for example, in a text on racial violences—to decide what is and is not disturbing to them.

Lefts and rifts, old and new

This last response points to the deeper philosophical fault-lines underlying the “political correctness” wars. The positions of the New Left can, and do, take two different kinds of justifications with very different philosophical credentials and histories.

For one, the defence of equal dignity for all persons, no matter from which ethnic, racial, class or gender they hail, is justified precisely by appeal to what is shared between them, regardless of their differences.

Martin Luther King’s famous line expressing the hope that one day, in America, his children will be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, is a powerful expression of this kind of justification of civil rights reform.

A second kind of justification for New Left positions is very different. This justification is not based in an appeal to common or putatively universal values.

It argues that the modern West’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity have, in their history, been used to justify such horrible intolerance and violences against Others that these ideals themselves can no longer be reasonably defended.

Indeed, it is to the extent that particular groups, different from the mainstream, have been unjustly excluded from the communities propounding these ideals that they should be celebrated, and their claims supported.

The preceding opposition, roughly, charts the difference between liberal or socialist, modernist forms of Leftist politics, and post-liberal, post-socialist forms of Leftist politics (roughly, “post-modernism”).

The modernist’s appeal to what different groups share is vulnerable to the charge of what Stanley Fish memorably called “boutique multiculturalism”. The boutique multiculturalist tolerates and defends the rights of minorities only insofar as their ways of living do not harm and discriminate against any others’.

The moment that this other culture asserts discriminatory claims or practices illiberal rites (like female circumcision, for instance), this kind of multiculturalist’s tolerance runs out, and turns into its opposite. Why any of this implies that proponents of this position are in a boutique, Fish does not argue.

The second, postmodernist form of multiculturalism, which defends difference for difference’s sake, also has its own endemic paradoxes. If we support all different or Other groups on grounds of their difference, without further conditions, we soon find ourselves committed to supporting groups who are different from us, truly—but who express their difference by deep hostility to the kinds of toleration we are extending to them.

Stanley Fish, who coined the contentious term ‘boutique multiculturalism’

At this point, we either recoil back into a modernist position, inconsistently; or consistently bite the bullet and end up by supporting deeply illiberal, difference-hostile cultures.

Needless to say, the conservative commentariat have made hay over the last several decades by pointing up examples of this latter paradox, and its potentially disturbing corollaries. They have pushed it at times into extremely contentious claims about the New Left’s supposed support for forms of Islamic fundamentalism, and the like.

This is also where sweeping neoconservative claims about the New Left enshrining an “adversary culture” opposed to the entire “Western civilization” have made their way into magazines and opinion pages around the globe.

Inter alia

Let me finish by squaring the circle, and by highlighting that all opponents of “political correctness” do not identify as on the Right, although almost everyone on the socially conservative Right today probably identities themselves as being opposed to “political correctness”.

In fact, leading Leftist philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have both presented scathing criticisms of the postmodern valorisation of difference and Otherness as a dead end for the Left.

What differentiates Žižek’s criticisms of “political correctness” from those on the Right (I am going to be generous to him here) is that he thinks that, in several senses, political correctness doesn’t go far enough.

Political correctness, Žižek charges, puts the cart before the horse, when it promotes codes of speaking and a series of polite, symbolic gestures respecting the Other which are not matched by real social changes.

Before we attend so closely to what people say, Žižek contends, we should first redress the real living conditions of disadvantaged people. Only then will what critics call “politically correct” ways of speaking no longer seem artificial and constrictive (as he thinks they do seem), and become the natural reflection of an expanded social contract.

Liberal American critic Mark Lilla, in a recent piece, has differently called for a “post-identity liberalism”. To win majorities in democracies, Lilla argues, the Left has to appeal to shared values. To build a platform around celebrating differences ends by dividing without conquering. This is what Hilary Clinton’s Democrats learned the hard way last year.

If the Democrats are to win back power, after four or eight years of Donald Trump, the “politically correct” attention to differences sans phrase will need to give way to a new language of shared struggles and ideals.

Stanley Fish might see such an opposition to postmodernist identity politics as a reversion to “boutique” liberalism. For Lilla, it is a matter of mathematics and hard-minded realpolitik.

The ConversationMatthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Joe Hildebrand on free speech

“This should make the blood run cold in any free-thinking, independent, intelligent person.” – Joe Hildebrand on Australia’s Grand Mufti’s calls to make it illegal to criticise Muslims about their religion.



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Christopher Hitchens on free speech

Christopher Eric Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011) was an Anglo-American author, columnist, essayist, orator, religious and literary critic, social critic, and journalist. He contributed to New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Slate, and Vanity Fair. Hitchens was the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of over 30 books, including five collections of essays, on a range of subjects, including politics, literature, and religion. A staple of talk shows and lecture circuits, his confrontational style of debate made him both a lauded and controversial figure and public intellectual.

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Amanda Vanstone on university students

‘Universities, once the bastions of freedom of thought, the place above all others where one could express contentious views have become beacons of political correctness. Students now need to be warned if there is something in a lecture which they might find difficult. Guest lecturers cancel speeches because students disapproving of their views threaten disruptive demonstrations. If we think the Catholic Church giving Galileo a rough time was medieval what do we think of students, rather than the university, deciding what they are prepared to hear.’ – Amanda Vanstone

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Explainer: what is free speech?

The Conversation

David van Mill, University of Western Australia

Who can say what to whom in Australia? In this six-part series, we look at the complex idea of freedom of speech, who gets to exercise it and whether it is being curtailed in public debate.

The term “free speech” is not ideal. The “free” part skews in favour of those who oppose regulation and the “speech” part puts the focus on the spoken word, even though the discussion embraces wider communication including art, writing, films, plays, flag burning and advertising.

It might, therefore, be better to drop the term “free speech” to highlight that the debate is really about whether or not we should regulate the communication of ideas, thoughts and beliefs.

This analysis, however, is not the place to rewrite the terms of reference. So I will use the term free speech with the caveat that “free” does not mean a lack of regulation, and “speech” covers a variety of activities.

Justifying free speech

It is not enough to say “three cheers for speech!”, because if we don’t know why speech is important we don’t know if it is worth protecting.

John Stuart Mill thought that freedom of thought and discussion (he doesn’t use the term “free speech”) is valuable because it brings us closer to the truth, which in turn promotes utility. Alexander Meiklejohn suggests speech is important because it allows for democratic self-government. And Thomas Scanlon and C. Edwin Baker argue that free expression is justified because it promotes autonomy.

These are the three heavyweight contenders in the debate about why speech is important.

The important thing to notice about all of them is that the justification offered in favour of speech also allows for some limitations. If expression is justified because it promotes truth, we have no grounds for defending it when truth is undermined. Speech that damages democratic processes will find itself unprotected by the self-government thesis. And if the autonomy argument is compelling we will not want to protect speech that undermines this goal.

The heated debate about “political correctness” (a term I dislike), or PC, demonstrates this nicely. The usual claim is that PC stifles free speech. This accusation is difficult to quantify. PC might, for example, limit the speech of white men but enhance that of minorities; I would need more data before reaching a conclusion.

But the complaint itself tells us something about the complex nature of speech. Why complain at all? The usual answer is that communication is being muted by PC. This seems to be an argument that we should oppose PC in the name of free speech itself. To make this claim we need to show why speech is important (enter justification here). Once we offer a justification we again have an argument for why speech can be limited.

Perhaps combining the three justifications discussed above will allow for lots of unregulated speech. This doesn’t seem to work because the three accounts often clash. Justifying speech because it promotes truth, for example, seems to allow silencing many a politician (oh joy!) and hence interfering with political speech.

These difficulties suggest that any persuasive argument about speech (as opposed to saying “three cheers”) has to embrace the fact that speech can, and indeed should, be limited. An even more confronting conclusion is that giving reasons for why speech is important makes us reveal underlying values that seem to be even more fundamental than speech itself.

Which speech deserves special protection?

Having (hopefully) established that speech is not unconditionally good, the next task is to determine what the appropriate limits should be.

This will depend in large part on why speech is justified in the first place. The autonomy account will offer different protections than the truth/utility account which in turn will differ from the self-government justification.

Mill, for example, tells us that truth is best promoted by allowing a great deal of communication. But he is willing to shut down speech if it leads to unacceptable harm. This argument faces difficulties, one being harmful speech might lead us towards truth.

His justification for speech seems to clash with his reason for limiting speech. Mill was a pretty smart guy, but even he struggled to provide a coherent and consistent position on free speech.

The thing to keep in mind is that the justifications we use to defend speech will always prioritise some forms of communication over others, and this will be our guide to picking out speech most in need of protection. This again suggests that speech is not valuable in and of itself.

Should some speech acts be punished?

What should we do with speech that is not protected by our favoured justification? The answer depends on balancing the speech act in question against other values.

If the speech is not causing harm we might want to leave it alone. Others might think that harmless but grossly offensive speech should be punished. If speech reveals wartime secrets to the enemy we might want to put the person in prison.

Engaging in hate speech in Europe can quite possibly lead to the same outcome. Libel will incur civil rather than criminal charges. And Mill suggests that in many instances the appropriate punishment for speech is “social disapprobation” rather than legal penalty.

The reason why the argument over free speech has not been put to bed long ago is that people bring different sets of values to the discussion. The debate does not takes place in a vacuum and arguments have to be assessed against social norms, values and institutions. Speech is a social phenomenon because it requires speakers and listeners to engage with one another. The “problem” of free speech does not exist for the person stranded on a deserted island.

Even people with the same values can disagree on the facts of the matter. They might accept Mill’s argument that speech can be limited if it causes harm but disagree over whether hate speech, for example, is captured by the harm principle.

The topic quickly becomes devilishly difficult. The one thing I can say with confidence is that it is unlikely a one-size-fits-all principle will help us navigate the treacherous waters of free speech.

The ConversationDavid van Mill, Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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