Jonathan Chait embraces extended notion of silencing

There are many things to be said about Jonathan Chait’s recent article attacking Political Correctness, and Lindsay Beyerstein says most of them, incredibly well.  But what I want to talk about is a small, fascinating fact. This is that he has embraced one of the more controversial ideas of 1990s feminism– that speech can silence other speech, and in ways that are so difficult to fight that a free speech advocate should be concerned.  Not all of his examples are like this– as Beyerstein rightly notes, a couple of them are examples of vandalism and theft on the part of leftists.  But I’m interested in the ones that are.

First, some background.  Feminist critics of pornography like Catharine MacKinnon, Rae Langton and Jennifer Hornsby have famously argued that pornography can silence the speech of women. There are lots of ways that this claim can be criticised (and I myself have criticised Langton’s version of it). But one of the most standard sort of criticisms is to insist that women aren’t silenced– that they can and should fight back through speech. It doesn’t make any sense, this line goes, to suppose that speech can silence in the way that they suggest. (Though of course even those making this argument acknowledge that speech in the form of censorship laws can silence.)

Often, the debate between “free speech” proponents and their critics is cast by free speech proponents as a conflict between those who think all speech should be seen as contributing to the free flow of ideas (defenders of free speech) and those who make the misguided claim that some speech silences, and thus works against the ideal of free speech. That’s what Chait at first seemed to be doing in his article. But then he turned his attention to those who “call out” microaggressions, and gave extended examples of how this sort of criticism, especially online, can have a silencing effect. He also discussed the case of a writer who felt silenced by an outpouring of online criticism of her views. In these discussions, he was clearly taking the side of those who felt silenced by speech of others. And he was clearly outraged.

This move of Chait’s is interesting as it means that in his case both sides are in agreement that speech may be silencing in such a pernicious way that one shouldn’t just shrug and say that more speech is the remedy. The disagreement, then is simply over which kinds of speech are of this kind. And a fascinating fact about Chait’s article is that the kind he is critical of is actually the kind that “free speech” advocates usually consider the most untouchable– substantive political criticism.

(I think there’s a huge amount of interesting work to be done, by the way, on ways that “calling out” can silence, and on the issue of when such silencing is problematic and when it isn’t. I don’t have settled views on this. But I’d rather not get into that in comments.)

5 thoughts on “Jonathan Chait embraces extended notion of silencing

  1. One issue, where perhaps that further work could be done, is this:

    Safe spaces – If one accepts that in some contexts speech can silence other speech, safe spaces (like this one) – that restrict freedom of speech in order to prevent such silencing – seem like a good idea. Who gets such safe spaces? Is it just oppressed groups, or do the institutions that feminists take to be part of the problem also get safe spaces? Are safe spaces merely a corrective for the silencing of the powerless, or is freedom of speech generally to work through the interaction of spaces of varying degrees of hostility?

    I can see a pull in both directions here, and would be interested to hear readers pespectives on this.

  2. I’m wondering if there is a connection between speech that should (in some people’s opinion) be silenced (anything from legal bans down to petty criminality of vandalism and theft of media of expression) and Sam Harris’ rather contentious claim “Some propositions are so dangerous it may be ethical to kill people for believing them” (which I first heard about recently, here:

    Possibly there is no real connection. I’m drawn to comparing these two notions because on the face of them they seem so nutty. Also, if killing someone for their beliefs is ethical, then assertively silencing speech that would promote those beliefs seems easy to justify. I know assuming the most nutty position makes less nutty positions easy to justify, and that even if the less nutty position were true, it provides scant support for more nuttiness.

    Also, I’ll admit:
    1) I am a layperson
    2) I am unfamiliar with the details of the example Dr. Saul used in her original post: feminist critiques of pornography, and critiques of those critiques.
    3) I hold my views on free speech pretty weakly, as I feel I lack data on the consequences and rigor in the theoretical framework.
    Feel free to ignore me.


  3. I find this subject hard to think clearly about, because there are so many issues involved. But let me try to distinguish a couple of things:

    Part of Chait’s commentary is about self-censorship. Another is about adopting a kind of harm principle, where an organization won’t endorse or support those kinds of speech that may be harmful to some. So, he discusses that case of the university cancelling the Vagina Monologues because it may be exclusionary to women without vaginas. And he also considers cases of bloggers who won’t take a certain stand because they are worried about having to face a public backlash.

    These are of course different (though Chait seems opposed to both), but I think also different from the pornography case Saul mentions above. For one, the motivations for all three are different. One is (seemingly) altruistic, another self-protection directed, and the pornography case something different altogether. (While not deeply familiar with Mackinnon, I don’t think “fear of being faced with more negative speech” is the silencing feature).

    It’s also worth being clear on what it means to “call someone out” online. I’m sure a lot of such calling out is productive – and might even help the person called out (and others) see that and why their view is mistaken. A lot of it is just name calling, ridicule, and the like. There are surely appropriate places for ridicule, but too often it seems a lazy excuse not to engage in the idea (let’s face it, ridicule, and meanness, can be fun!). In other words, it’s not really substantive criticism.

  4. I too found that move on Chait’s part interesting. The phrase “political correctness” has been throughout its history a description of the feeling that certain kinds of free speech were unduly restrictive of other people’s ability to say whatever unpopular or rude things they pleased in any context. The problem was not that people used to have that freedom and lost it, since some had previously enjoyed it only insofar as their views were far better tolerated than others. The problem was that a shift in the content of views considered rude had taken place, such that some people suddenly found their comments or opinions on the other side of what was considered popular or socially acceptable. The experience may have been uncomfortable and inspired indignation. This problem is a productive sort of tension that causes all parties to reconsider their commitment to freedom of speech in a variety of social contexts, as opposed to taking for granted that the way people reacted to free expression in any particular place and time was the same for everyone.

    Anonymous #1, I take you to be suggesting that this space is a “safe space” in the sense described. If so, I suppose whoever “gets” a safe space depends on who creates one. I’m guessing that many safe spaces exist for discussion of whatever comments or ideas wouldn’t receive a welcome hearing in this space. Not all of my comments have been posted here by moderators. I did not find that this decision curtailed my freedom of speech or my ability to access another “safe” space where that idea might be discussed. I’m not sure which institutions are supposed to be part of the problem, so I may be missing some important aspect of your point.

  5. So I took the following lessons from this article:

    (1) Moral disapprobation is a powerful force that ought to be used carefully and prudently.
    (2) We, as anti-oppression people, should seriously think about whether we prefer to shame people into proper behavior or whether we would like to accomplish this through the free exchange of ideas.
    (3) We ought to notice the fact that censorship mostly comes back on the very people it was supposed to protect.
    (4) We ought to CAREFULLY think about our position on “civility,” as a lot of rebellious art by the very people who are oppressed is frequently un-civil.

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