Monday, March 31, 2008

Truth emerges from debating ideas in a free and open contest


Someday I want to track down the origin of this idea, and the best articulation of it.

The earliest I've found so far is in Milton, who wrote:

"And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, (when we censor)... we misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
(Aereopagitica, 1644)

Anyhow, I've been busy with Fitna lately, and it reminded me of John Stuart Mill's essay "On Liberty," published in 1869, which we all had in school, right? It contains quite a vigorous defense of freedom of speech.

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

What I found was that the final paragraphs of the essay are stunningly apt for the current debate over the use and possible abuse of freedom of speech by Geert Wilders.

"Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion."

That's the complaint leveled against Wilders, all right: that he's passing the bounds of fair discussion.

"Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent."

In other words, to people who hold a viewpoint, any strong argument or disagreement against it seems rude.
This at first would appear to apply to Wilders' criticism of Islam. Except that I think most Muslims don't think it's difficult at all to answer his arguments; but he has refused to debate with them!

"But this, though an important consideration in a practical point of view, merges in a more fundamental objection. Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is mostly impossible, unless by accidental self-betrayal, to bring home to conviction. The gravest of them is, to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion."

Wilders, appears to be guilty of this: by selectively quoting the Quran to his purpose; or by focusing only on Muslims who have carried out attacks in the name of Islam, rather than the 99.999999% who live peacefully in the Netherlands.
But Mill doubts _ as I do _ that you can "prove" Wilders is being sophistic.

"But all this, even to the most aggravated degree, is so continually done in perfect good faith, by persons who are not considered, and in many other respects may not deserve to be considered, ignorant or incompetent, that it is rarely possible on adequate grounds conscientiously to stamp the misrepresentation as morally culpable; and still less could law presume to interfere with this kind of controversial misconduct."

If no one else will say it I will: Wilders is smart, and it's not going to be easily possible to show he's arguing in bad faith.
Time has passed Mill by and we now think Law *should* presume to interfere with such misconduct: via hate speech laws. Mill would have opposed them, despite being an early anti-racist.

"With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like ... it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation."

To me, this cuts both ways. In circles that agree with Wilders, his commentary gets 'praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.' _ I've seen it on some sites out there.
On the other hand, it's true that the prevailing opinion around the world _ against Wilders _ would like very much to prevent him from "interperate discussion."

"Yet whatever mischief arises from their (unfair arguments) use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions."

Again, one could see either Wilders or Dutch Muslims as "comparatively defenseless" (but I see neither as such). But which is the received wisdom, that Islam is dangerous or that Islam is harmless?

"The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men..."

Of course, one side calls Wilders a bigot; and Wilders calls Dutch who don't subscribe to his view 'dhimmi' _ by which he means, cowards willing to capitulate in the face of Islamic aggression. This is rather different from the actual meaning of dhimmi, but people use words the way they want...

"In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence."

And this sways me to the viewpoint: Wilders really is the one who is challenging the established wisdom, which is that Islam is not a threat. Unfortunately for Wilders, he didn't moderate his language, or avoid unnecessary offense _ and as Mill predicted, he therefore won't really get a hearing of his view.

"Opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candour, or malignity, bigotry or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves;"

This would tend to condemn Wilders. Check, check, check, check.

"But not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own: and giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are"

This would tend to help Wilders. Assuming he really thinks what he says he thinks. I feel we have to take him at face value, even though there's justifiable suspicion he's just trying to win votes by bashing Muslims _ like Slobodan Milosevic or any number of European populists.

"...exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favour."

This very much tends to work against Wilders _ he keeps back all kinds of things which would tell in Islam's favor.


"This is the real morality of public discussion: and if often violated, I am happy to think that there are many controversialists who to a great extent observe it, and a still greater number who conscientiously strive towards it."

Mill was something of an optimist, I think we can say.


Derek said...

Great post, Toby. Lots to think about, and you've made me want to go read Mill - no small feat. :) All I've known of him prior to this was that he was a 19th Century American philosopher who expounded upon the idea of Free Will, and was quite a genius as a youth.

And, according to the Monty Python sketch where the Australian philosophy professors sing their pub-room Philosophers Song:

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will / After half a pint of shandy was particularly ill...

But anyway. Seriously, if I can steal some time for myself I want to write a post on my own blog linking to this post of yours. Assuming I can think of anything interesting to add, of course.

Derek said...

D'oh! ...English. Mill was an English Philosopher. My bad.

Toby Sterling said...


Thanks _ I reckoned not a lot of people would have patience for that post, so kudos.

I think it's important to "go deep" now and again.
We had quite a debate in the newsroom about how to handle the Wilders film (and in the end, it's definitely a business where when the news strikes you just do the best you can).

Anyhow, so I also thought it would be good to kind of explore doubts and principles I've been kicking around on a fundamental level _ and I always find that cutting teeth on something concrete helps in that.

Do you agree that my logic starts getting sloppier / harder to follow as the post goes on?

Just curious. Philosophy is hard, especially for amateurs...

For yours _ I recommend reading the top part of that essay; he really goes to town on all the reasons stifling debate is wrongheaded. There are some Patrick Henry style one liners in there, the kind that make you go: YES. SO RIGHT.

The Dutch have a cute saying: "Dat is een waarheid als een koe" = "That's the truth like a cow," i.e. so big and solid it's pointless to deny it.

Derek said...

@ Toby

Actually, no - I wouldn't agree that your logic becomes harder to track as the post goes on. I thought what you said followed pretty naturally from the passages of Mill.