Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hate Speech and Philosophy

I thought I'd maybe add my own angle to the Hart debate going on over at Feser's blog. I don't intend to address the controversy head on, and I think Feser and the comboxers are doing a fine job of that. What I want to do is focus in on a particular point he made in his most recent post. While identifying the reasons why a natural law defense should be attempted in the public sphere, Feser writes:
"The second reason is that the liberal, who claims to favor intellectual pluralism in the public sphere, needs constantly to be forced to put his money where his mouth is. If you press against him natural law arguments against abortion, “same-sex marriage,” etc., then you thereby compel him either seriously to engage with those who object to his social liberalism, or to reveal himself as a hypocrite. But if you fail to press such arguments, you cannot blame him if he dismisses opposition to the liberal social agenda as without a rational foundation -- and if he is also able to convince the fence-sitters that it lacks one."
I think this is actually a pretty interesting thing to talk about, and I want to do so within the context of Canada's most recent (apparently not) controversial Supreme Court decision.

As Feser rightly notes, I think the general liberal strategy, at least when it comes to things like homosexuality, is to just ignore the actual debate or caricaturize the opposition in such a way that they could never be taken seriously. And I think this is the fault of both sides. Liberals for their ignorance, and conservatives for their laziness. That is, there aren't a lot of easily accessible defenses of natural law (or any traditional morality at all) out in the modern world. Now, I'm not saying that everything should come in simple Wikipedia graphs, but there's often nothing. I think traditionalists have a problem with sort of resting on other people's laurels; they assume that some smart guy in the past has figured it all out a long time ago before there was Netflix, and that they aren't really going to add anything worthwhile. Whether or not this is true or not, it's not really a helpful strategy. 

And this is a problem. And not just for goodness' sake. For people like me who actually have a personal investment in the issue, it's a really big problem. People on the pro-gay side constantly have groups and soldiers on the march for them, justifying their way of life. I have almost nothing. Or at least nothing of substance. I have to spend hours trying to find legitimate philosophy on the subject. But there is tons of pro-gay, pro-liberal philosophy being constantly published and taken as the norm. But there's next-to-nothing on the other side. Or what is on the other side is so religious that it could never be taken seriously. If it's true and right, show others, even if it's hard. If it turns out it's not true and right, you should at least know; you're talking about people's lives after all.

Anyway, what does this have to do with Canada? Well, apparently Canada's Supreme Court (not sure if this should be capitalized (check the Bluebook)) just upheld the conviction of a fellow who was passing out anti-gay pamphlets. The pamphlets (and he) were calling homosexuals sinners and sodomites and were calling for, in so many words, a change in Canada's social and political policy as it concerns homosexuality. I'm pretty sure this guy, William (Bill) Whatcott, is sort of a bigger deal in Canada, but I don't really know anything about him. At any rate, he was convicted under a hate speech law for passing out the pamphlets, and the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction, despite his claims that such laws violate his fundamental right to free expression.

I do not want to discuss Canada's Supreme Court's legal analysis. And I'm sure someone could do a pretty complex analysis (I'm positive some law review up in Canada is doing one right now (in the snow with maple syrup or whatever)), but I don't know enough about Canadian law to do anything like a real analysis, and I don't write on this thing to do more law stuff. From what I've read, I do think it's pretty bad law, and I think (or I'm positive) that our Supreme Court would go unanimously the other way, but again, not what I want to talk about. The most important thing you should get from the decision is that their Supreme Court held that certain speech, if it is "likely to expose" certain groups to "hatred" (which is only vaguely (and synonymously)  described with words like "detestation" and "vilification" in the opinion), can be punished. What I want to talk about instead is Feser's quote in light of legal decisions like these.

I'm not sure if this story was unpopular because it happened in Canada and no one cares about Canada (sorry, Canada), or because it presents such a difficult problem from the liberal mindset that no one wants to bring it up. Now, I think the United States has a pretty decent tract record of separating the argument from the right to speak (see Westboro), but the LGBT movement is a pretty strong thing, and I think a lot of people in this country think that "hate" is some special category that has to be controlled, even if it means telling people that they can't talk.

Which is sort of the point I want to make. That is, people in the conservative or traditionalist camp have been so caricaturized or are so lazy themselves that their viewpoint has become equated with "hate" in such an extreme way that their position becomes so weak that, in places like Canada, it can be judicially brushed aside. Now, I'm not the type of person who holds free expression sacrosanct, but I absolutely think that this decision (and any others like it) was a mistake. The reason it's a mistake, of course, and any person should be able to see this, is because it effectively ends the debate in the public square. The society, all the way up to the top, has said that homosexuality is really actually okay, and that anyone who doesn't think so is so wrong that the only reason they could still be going on is because they are full of hate, something not worth protecting.

Feser says that liberals claim to favor intellectual pluralism. They do. That's correct. I mean, it's true that they claim to favor it. But for Canada having a position that is against homosexual behavior has become so meaningless that it's not even worthy of pluralism. This is obviously hypocritical, but it doesn't matter. The position has been so relegated to the backwoods, with things like Nazism, that to even make room for it is just to sort of humor the liberal mindset. Which is what good liberals did before, I guess; the weird kids could sit at the table, just so the liberals didn't look hypocritical, but they'd be ignored and mocked. Now they're just kicking them out altogether. And I think this has a lot to do, honestly with the fact that the only people who get any voice in the matter are people who quote Bible verses, etc. And this, again, is both side's fault. The Bible-versers get the most worked up (because it's not nuanced, and it's easy), and the liberals on the other side focus on them (because it's not nuanced, and it's easy). It's just bad philosophy and straw-manning all around.

What I'd really like to know is if some of the stuff I say on here could meet the legal definition of hate in Canada. I don't think so, but I could see an argument being made: that the conclusions of my arguments cause people to condemn and (ultimately) hate homosexuals, that the language I use, "defective," is likely to cause people to take action against homosexuals. For example, I was arguing with some fellow, and I linked him to my blog, and he responded with something like, "don't send me to that hate-filled trash!" And I think this is meaningful. Because the consequence of natural law arguments is that homosexuality is condemned, the same consequence of much less sophisticated arguments, the natural law arguments can be labeled as hate.

Now, please do not read this as a defense of Hart's position. I don't think defending natural law is pointless in the modern world. On the contrary, I think it's the most important thing a conservative can do. That's what I mean by this post and this whole blog. In fact, that fellow who I was arguing with, as soon as he got done with all the "hate" language, could see that I had won the argument from the beginning. All I mean by this post is that it's becoming more and more difficult, especially in light of decisions like the Canadian one, to actually have a legitimate conservative voice. And I don't mean that people are incapable of understanding the arguments, that they can't be appealed to in the social context they reside (which is closer, I think, to Hart's point). I just mean that people are trained and are reinforced by their legal systems to assume the arguments are bad. In other words, it's not that the people are incapable, ultimately, of giving the arguments a fair shake; it's just that the game's been rigged from the beginning. The players aren't able to see all the pieces. 

(Also, please do not think that I think quoting Bible verses is necessarily a bad thing. It's not. It's just not particularly helpful when it's the sole ammunition in complex moral debates.)

I really do think a lot of First Amendment law is ridiculous. I don't think, for example, that virtual child pornography should be protected under the First Amendment. But I do appreciate that our Court errs on the side of protected speech. This issue is, at the very least, still legally live in our country. It may be philosophically pretty dead, but no one's afraid to really get their hands dirty, like they might be in other countries. Not that our Court is some great thing, but I'd be embarrassed, Canada.


  1. You know, I was just in a knock-down fight over this kind of thing elsewhere. Just thought I'd mention that.

    But this has me curious.

    But there is tons of pro-gay, pro-liberal philosophy being constantly published and taken as the norm.

    Is there really? I mean, I will absolutely grant that there's a ton of pro-gay, pro-liberal views out there. But did you specifically mean philosophy, as in, 'ethics papers' and such? What was meant here?

    1. I did not mean "ethics papers" when I was talking there, no. I was actually referring to things published on the internet. I was speaking to the fact that I didn't even Hear about "natural law" (in any serious way) until my mid-twenties. I'd heard all about the different types of utilitarianism, deontological ethics, etc., and you can see people refer to them (at least in idea) all the time in modern debates on the internet. (I would say that the status-quo is Basically "you should cause more happiness to more people to be a good person." This is hardly developed by the people when you push them, but I digress.) I just meant that I think it's weird that I (of all people) felt like I had to publish (on the internet) a basic write up of natural law and homosexuality, considering the fact that it was a dominant Western view, and the view of Many people (or so they say) who oppose things like gay marriage, etc. Like, if it's so important and so popular, why is it never mentioned, and why do you have to go to obscure websites and blogs to find anything decent on it?

      But, from my experience (and I've been in school about 100 years), I've not really seen anything published academically in the natural law tradition either. Maybe something in virtue ethics. I don't have any big lists of pro-gay things published versus anti-gay (whatever this would mean) if that's what you mean. There's obviously exceptions to this rule, but yeah. In law, for example, I don't think I ever came across anything that could really be labeled a traditional defense of natural law. I mean, in the cases, definitely. But in the explanations or the introductory material before the cases, etc., you get a lot of utilitarianism, etc. At least, you get a sort of obvious modern spin. Direct comparison on number of papers published, though? I don't have that.

      Why, what about that quote concerned you? What was the fight about? The one on Feser's blog?

  2. Why, what about that quote concerned you? What was the fight about? The one on Feser's blog?

    Well, nothing too major. I was just trying to understand what you meant since you said pro-gay, pro-liberal philosophy. The last word threw me.

    And I suppose that stood out to me because, in my experience - and maybe yours is different - there is actually very little in the way of 'arguments for gay marriage / for regarding same-sex sexual behavior as acceptable' in circulation. Now, there's is tremendous amount of sympathetic writing about gay marriage, etc. There are a lot of emotional appeals, or casting opponents as hateful and evil, etc. But 'arguments for' seem to actually be pretty thin on the ground.

    The closest I see would be attempted shootdowns of anti-SSM arguments, or at least caricatures. Like, 'SSM will lead to the instant destruction of society!' or the like. But my impression is that SSM/gay topics tend not to be argued for directly by advocates, at least not in an intellectual 'here is why we should do this' sense.

    Is your experience otherwise?

    I will say, I absolutely agree with you that various kinds of arguments against SSM - natural law, etc - are lacking online, and that the whole 'biblical quote' thing is what you're most likely to encounter.

    1. I don't know whether there are a lot of comprehensive arguments, as far as academia is concerned, as to why homosexual activity is acceptable or moral, etc. It may be that at this point it would be a little redundant and unnecessary. A sort of preaching to the choir kind of thing. And I think across-the-aisle type arguments are rarely made. People who support gay marriage know it's simply a matter of time. Mostly because people on the other side don't really care (or know why they should care) enough. Academia doesn't really need to concern itself with the other side. But you are absolutely correct in identifying the fact that there is homosexual "sympathy" all over the place. Everything has a pro-gay twist to it, no matter the subject.

      I have seen some quasi-legal, quasi-philosophical defenses of gay marriage in legal academia, especially as it concerns the health of the citizenry and the upbringing of children. "Policy arguments," as law people call them. I've also come across a number of purely legal arguments, especially as it concerns equal protection, due process, the constitution, etc. etc. To be fair, there are arguments the other way too, saying that gay marriage has nothing to do with those things. The legal analysis ultimately is what matters with respect to whether it will be made legal, but it truly is meaningless with respect to whether it's moral. The modern world confuses the two a lot, but yeah.

    2. I'm probably not being clear here. I agree with you that natural law and other non-religious arguments have been pretty hard to find - you have to dig to find them. I think Feser's book has actually had some success on changing this, but I can recall years ago hearing about these 'natural law arguments' and Aristotileanism, and hunting around for books written on the subject that I could understand. I think I picked up a reference someone made to a book by Fr. William Wallace, and that was basically a science textbook, and would have been stuck there until TLS. For most people, 'natural law' seems to mean 'look at what animals do in the wild - oh, there are seagulls who engage in same-sex behavior, so the natural law arguments all fail'.

      I also agree 'across the aisle' arguments are rarely made, which I find insane - and not just on this subject. It baffles me that, say... conservatives have no 'try to convince the liberals' approach or strategy in mind.

      Maybe the problem here is - you may viewing, say... pro-LGBT media as arguments, or really thin stuff as arguments. Like, 'opposition to gay marriage is just hate and bigotry!' or 'see, gays aren't all promiscuous - here's a monogamous couple!' or the like. That, I agree, is around in abundance. Reflexively, I don't categorize those as arguments, but as rhetoric, and that's probably largely unique to me - which may well be what had me wondering about all this.

  3. Not Anonymous, the name is Matt.

    Sadly we Canadians are in a sorry state, there are many people pushing for laws that will ban any books from schools that disagree with the governments stance on gay "marriage". It's also almost impossible to have an actual discussion about natural law. First your completely right, there is close to nothing published for defense natural law. Very little that you can bring up in academia for your defense (that is relatively new, Anything older that 20 years is faaaar to out dated. But I'm sure that's not news.) And far to much caricaturing of opponents.
    Secondly (this stems from the first I think) people hate discussing the topic in a calm manner. You cant even bring it up (again your right) without being disregarded for hatefulness. The dialogue has been completely shut down. Canada doesn't have much to stand on in that regard. (Even with the fact that we are way better in hockey than the states and maple syrup is awesome)

    1. Hello Matt, thanks for visiting! I'll address one major point you made.

      "Even with the fact that we are way better in hockey than the states and maple syrup is awesome"

      Translation: "We are so much better than you guys at things you don't care about!"

      Heh, just kidding, just kidding. Both my parents grew up right on the border with Canada, so I got a lot of Canadian jokes growing up. No, but I was surprised to hear that this is how you all approach free expression. Have people been talking about this up there? It seems like it'd be pretty big news.

    2. To tell you the truth this is the first I have heard of this particular instance. I don’t watch almost any TV most of the networks are about as liberal/secular as you can get. They were probably praising the Supreme Court. And this hardly even comes up as a blip in what is censored. As I said above there are various laws that allow for outrageous things to go on in the name of “equality”. In a way it trickles down, look at our leadership, Obama is probably more conservative than Harper (our prime minister).
      I think Rank (below) hit the nail on the head. Canada is slowly but surely slipping in to totalitarian regime (that just happens to be better at hockey).
      By the way, great blog.

  4. Apropos to the blog (and not so much to this particular post), Elizabeth Scalia has a nice reflection over at First Things:

    PS Keep up the great work Joe!

  5. It's interesting that liberalism eventually leads to totalitarianism. That is, it starts with everyone getting a voice, and then people realize that certain people need to have their voices protected, which means that certain voices are silenced to protect others. At first, the pro-gay and anti-gay thinkers sit around and yell at each other, but, eventually, the very idea of "attacking" the pro-gay thinkers is anathematized. Patrick Deneen has argued that individualism and "statism" are not opposed but that the first logically entails the second, and I'm inclined to agree. No thoroughgoing individualism can avoid the conclusion that state control (and eventually total state control) is the only method for guaranteeing individual survival. Yet another reason to reject libertarianism.

    I can only hope that a similar situation does not play out in the US for many years to come.

    1. Yes, all of this I agree with. I mentioned in another post (or somewhere else) that libertarianism is actually what introduced me to some of Feser's (and other traditional philosopher's) work. Like any good 20-something year old kid, I was a pretty staunch libertarian, and I came across some stuff Feser wrote on Nozick (someone I still like, for the record). Little did I know at the time that it would all take me in a very different direction.

      I don't think this is as big of an concern in the U.S., at we tend to think free speech is sacred. We'll screw it up in other ways, but I think free speech will hang on for a while. I think anyway. It wouldn't be totally absurd to think that "hate speech" would gain some ground here, but yeah.

  6. What are the best, most accessible books/articles on natural law that you've read so far? I've read Feser's stuff, but have you found anyone else good?