freedom to speak literally

For a while, when I saw another article claiming that such-and-such famous artist, writer, or scientist was actually a horrible reactionary, I would post a link at Throne and Altar with almost no commentary, and a title like “one more for the deplorables”.  The ongoing joke was, of course, that eventually it would occur to these censorious Leftists that they were raising the status of their enemies.  At the New York Times, Professor Agnes Callard points out that Aristotle is really very deeply inegalitarian.  Another for my series?  Thankfully, it turns out not.  Professor Callard makes some very good points about the current climate, in which (as we have had occasion to point out) speech acts are more often intended as demonstrations of virtue than expressions of truth.

There is a kind of speech that it would be a mistake to take literally, because its function is some kind of messaging. Advertising and political oratory are examples of messaging, as is much that falls under the rubric of “making a statement,” like boycotting, protesting or publicly apologizing.

Such words exist to perform some extra-communicative task; in messaging speech, some aim other than truth-seeking is always at play. One way to turn literal speech into messaging is to attach a list of names: a petition is an example of nonliteral speech, because more people believing something does not make it more true.

Whereas literal speech employs systematically truth-directed methods of persuasion — argument and evidence — messaging exerts some kind of nonrational pressure on its recipient. For example, a public apology can often exert social pressure on the injured party to forgive, or at any rate to perform a show of forgiveness. Messaging is often situated within some kind of power struggle. In a highly charged political climate, more and more speech becomes magnetically attracted into messaging; one can hardly say anything without arousing suspicion that one is making a move in the game, one that might call for a countermove.

For example, the words “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” have been implicated in our political power struggle in such a way as to prevent anyone familiar with that struggle from using, or hearing, them literally. But if an alien from outer space, unfamiliar with this context, came to us and said either phrase, it would be hard to imagine that anyone would find it objectionable; the context in which we now use those phrases would be removed.

What makes speech truly free is the possibility of disagreement without enmity, and this is less a matter of what we can say, than how we can say it. “Cancel culture” is merely the logical extension of what we might call “messaging culture,” in which every speech act is classified as friend or foe, in which literal content can barely be communicated, and in which very little faith exists as to the rational faculties of those being spoken to. In such a context, even the cry for “free speech” invites a nonliteral interpretation, as being nothing but the most efficient way for its advocates to acquire or consolidate power.

I do not claim that the possibility of friendly disagreement with Aristotle offers any direct guidance on how to improve our much more difficult disagreements with our contemporaries, but I do think considering the case of Aristotle reveals something about what the target of such improvements would be. What we want, when we want free speech, is the freedom to speak literally.

5 thoughts on “freedom to speak literally

  1. Pingback: freedom to speak literally | Reaction Times

  2. Only a relatively small number of people have the temperament for intellectual debate, and part of our universal loathing arises from encouraging too many people to attempt intellectual debate. These people are not stupid. Indeed many are very clever. But they don’t have the temperament to accept disagreement without falling into personal skepticism. For example, only a relatively small number of theists have the temperament to debate an atheist without (a) getting angry, or (b) slipping into agnosticism. I personally blame the universities, since they produce graduates who are either fanatics or agnostics. They want either to burn down the police station or they think no one can really say for sure whether the police station ought to be burned down.

    On top of this is an impatience that the liberal political order is unprepared for. Liberalism has great confidence in the power of debate to reach a resolution. Experience shows that this is confidence is groundless, and that many debates are interminable. This understandably leads to impatience because many debates need to be resolved so the society can pursue one course of action or another. When it becomes clear that a debate is interminable, it stops being a debate and becomes an opportunity to “message” what side you are on. In other words, real debates take place between friends, but these degenerate “debates” simply sort people into friends and enemies.

    • Patience is a key point. It comes from realizing that intellectual problems are really hard and that one should not expect them to be solved easily or quickly. One needn’t learn to be comfortable with one’s own ignorance and confusion, but one must learn to tolerate them. One must learn to be happy with the little bit of knowledge and clarity one can eke out.

      These are attitudes one can only learn from experience, so clearly part of what we are seeing is an education problem. If we had made our students realize how dumb they are, maybe they wouldn’t be so self-righteous.

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