Yes, there are Ideas that Should Have no Place in Our Society A response to Geoffrey Stone’s The Noose, Ole Miss, and Free Speech

Posted on Posted in Ethics, liberal/conservative, Political Philosophy, Politics

In a recent blog post Geoffrey Stone argued that however repugnant a person’s exercise of free speech might be it should be tolerated unless it is a direct threat to another individual.

Stone’s column was a response to University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones’s statement that “Their ideas have no place here, and our response will be an even greater commitment to promoting the values that are engraved on the statue — Courage, Knowledge, Opportunity, and Perseverance.”

The incident in question of course was the hanging of a confederate flag and noose on a statue honoring James Meredith,  the African-American student who desegregated the University of Mississippi in 1962.

Stone was questioning the idea that there could be ideas that “have no place” in a university, and ultimately argues that however repugnant an idea might be it should be protected under free speech laws.

My first and instinctual response is to simply say that hate is not an idea. I agree that universities should be places of open minded discussion, especially discussion of important and controversial ethical and political ideas. However racism, or hatred of other ethnic or racial groups, is not an idea.

Hatred of others based on skin color is in the same category as murder in the sense that both are absolutely and unequivocally wrong. Neither are up for discussion. Believe what you want to about either of them but believe it in private because neither should be tolerated in public. As a society we may argue whether abortion or capital punishment are murder but murder is wrong. We may argue about whether affirmative action is a form of discrimination but discrimination is wrong.  Saying or demonstrating otherwise is not an instance of free speech because the act in and of itself is immoral and should not be tolerated.

The above position obviously begs the question somewhat so I will try to offer a more theoretical account of why certain ideas, including hatred for other ethic or racial groups, should have no place in our universities or our society.

The first point is a general one and it is that absolute freedom exists only in the state of nature. Modern political theory is based on the notion that the legitimacy of a government is based on the consent of the governed and that in a state of nature, or pre-civil state, we would all agree to certain rules in order to make our life better. The basic notion is that there are no laws or law enforcers in a state of nature and that everyone is free to do as they like. Being self-interested we naturally seek our self-interest, and so does everyone else. This makes everyone’s life miserable (this type of situation is referred to as a prisoner’s dilemma in modern philosophy). Hobbes famously said that life in the state of nature was a “war of everyman against everyman” and that life was “poor, short, brutish, and nasty.” So, we all agree to limit our natural freedom to do as we please. We voluntarily give up our absolute freedom in order to join a society in which our rights will protected.

This is a point that often goes unappreciated when people appeal to notions of individual liberty to justify a wide range of positions on things like gun control, free speech, taxation, etc.

Given that absolute freedom exists only in the state of nature a generic appeal to any right is inadequate. It not merely enough to appeal to a right to free speech to justify a particular kind of speech. One needs to appeal to a rule governing what types of speech we would all agree to give each other in the state of nature to show that a particular instance of speech is protected under a right to free speech.

In the state of nature would we all agree to allow such displays of hatred that without a doubt have terrible consequences by contributing to a cycle of racial disparity and violence.Absolutely not! Of course appealing to consequences in not merely enough to justify violating someone’s rights, but the key point is that no one has a right to speak or act in such a way violates another person’s rights.

Without a doubt such acts of hatred violate the most basic rights of African Americans, their constitutionally guaranteed rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *