Looking Back, Looking Forward: Serendipity on Thursday
If you’ve read Fish over at #19 – either the interview or the title essay of his book – you know the following about his argument:
• “Free speech” is a conceptual impossibility. Speech must always be bounded, always contextualized – that is, emerge from some background of presuppositions – in order to be meaningful; otherwise, it is only sound. (It is sense and not sound that we argue over.)
• The idealized “open mind” is an empty mind (as a mind without context/presupposition would be a mind that took no position, made no discriminations, and did not adjudicate).
• Speech always has a purpose – e.g. to inform, to persuade, to trivialize – so it both privileges (what the speaker/community agrees with) and suppresses (what the speaker/community disagrees with).
• Speech is (like) an action: it always operates within and affects a community. Few people would argue for “freedom of action” – to allow people to act however they want – the same way some people sometimes argue for “freedom of speech.” Everyone draws a line/imposes a limit on such “freedoms,” and a “crisis moment” will reveal that line/limit.
• There is always some “cost” to be paid by the community whenever someone speaks, and the cost depends on what is spoken as well as the community’s norms/presuppositions. Whatever one’s position re: freedom of speech, one must recognize that there are costs. Those who would defend free speech “on principle” yet “trivialize” (or simply “harass away”) the potential negative effects/costs of speech. . . .
The below from Fish —
“Arguments like Schmidt’s only get their purchase by first imagining speech as occurring in no context whatsoever, and then stripping particular speech acts of the properties conferred on them by contexts. The trick is nicely illustrated when Schmidt urges protection for speech “no matter how obnoxious in content.” “Obnoxious” at once acknowledges the reality of speech-related harms and trivializes them by suggesting that they are surface injures that any large-minded (“liberated and humane”) person should be able to bear. The possibility that speech-related injuries may be grievous and deeply wounding is carefully kept out of sight, and because it is kept out of sight, the fiction of a world of weightless verbal exchange can be maintained, at least within the confines of Schmidt’s carefully denatured discourse.
To this Schmidt would no doubt reply, as he does in his essay, that harmful speech should be answered not by regulation but by more speech; but that would make sense only if the effects of speech could be canceled out by additional speech, only if the pain and humiliation caused by racial or religious epithets could be ameliorated by saying something like “So’s your old man.” What Schmidt fails to realize at every level of his argument is that expression is more than a matter of proffering and receiving propositions, that words do work in the world of a kind that cannot be confined to a purely cognitive realm of “mere” ideas.”