Respect for Value-Based Boundaries of Free-Discourse

Time to bring this to a worthwhile conclusion-so-far. I used the Grenfell effigy-burning as the recent opportunity to pick up on this debate: When is Free-Speech a Hate Crime? and Are There Any Limits to Free Expression?

In fact, Grenfell was the first item on a particularly excellent edition of BBC TV Question Time this Thursday. Mairead McGuinness as the voice of non-UK-partisan reason, Diane Abbott with her own perspective as a regular victim of hate-speech and back on form after a couple of worrying years(?). And, a treat to see Jordan Peterson in an uncontroversial context. Great contributions also from David Aaronovitch and Kwasi Kwarteng.

I summarised my own position – offered as a steelman of myself in a footnote to the previous above – as follows:

In life in general, there are rules and rules are there to be respected – and, if broken, responsibility for the consequences respected in turn.

In free-speech, free-expression of free-thought, religious or otherwise, is enshrined right from the top at the UN. Thought and expression are never a crime in themselves. Such thought and expression may always be “offensive” to someone.

But, – a very subtle and important BUT – there ARE rules about motivation for choosing to express them; choosing audiences and contexts for that expression; and choices in publicising their expression. These include questions of potential victimisation of disadvantaged groups beyond the local audience and victim (if any) of the immediate physical expression.

These rules will never be simple to legislate for every objective possibility, yet society needs to enforce and sanction their transgression, escalate such sanctions on repeat transgressors, publicly uphold the values in the rules and incentivise potential transgressors to modify their future behaviours and so on.

Criminal law and enforcement by police are a blunt instruments for such problematic value-based rules. It’s is only a matter of practical alternatives that police and criminal process are brought to bear in public cases – usually initially to question motives and context and warn of potential consequences where judged necessary. It would take further circumstantial evidence before any consideration of any such case being brought into the criminal justice system – but the possibility may always need to be considered. My personal preference would be something like “community policing” before getting anywhere near the criminal system, but the glare of publicity in such cases generally demands a clean audit trail so, eg of questioning under caution(?), is probably unavoidable in practice. I’m not the legal expert. Suspicions under public order offenses is probably as good a fudge as any available. God forbid anyone suggests “thought police” 😉

But, these are practical enforcement issues that do not change the basic premise that, even in free-speech, there are rules to be respected.

And, my ORIGINAL MAIN POINT, that this respect of rules – mostly the same rules incidentally – applies in ANY discourse, especially where there is obvious disagreement and not just those that escalate to public offense.

Interesting that Mairead McGuinness’ main closing point in the QT debate was that the sad events were really a loss of RESPECT, a coarsening of public discourse generally. As you can see in my own summary above, respect in discourse generally has been the primary focus the whole time.

But respect for what? Jordan Peterson’s point, like Peter Tatchell’s in my previous post, was the extreme care needed when calling-out instances of free-speech as potential hate crime. Tolerance for free-speech is so high that exceptions have to be seen to be exceptional. As Peterson said,  the psychology of motivation – why? – matters most and it cannot be a matter of someone “defining” expressions of hate-crime. In my own “rules” of respectful dialogue, and in “legislating” for hate-speech enforcement in the steelman above my caveat is that attempts at objective definition of the rule are to be avoided, and that a fudge permitting judgement is essential.

It is for this reason that the more objective, scientistic, freedom-extremists struggle with the concept of any exceptional boundaries to free discourse demanding any respect. Fortunately we still have wiser heads in positions of authority. But for how long?

The real scare is the direction in which public – unmediated anti-social-media – discourse is evolving. Fake news and alt-facts ain’t the half of it.

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[Post Note: One to add to the collection – policing our inner monologue?]

[Post Note: And the memetic fact of the matter – evolution by cyclical causation- “Today’s Laptop Activists Seek Attention, not Truth“. Even truth needs to be communicated, so attention to truth also requires seeking attention for its communication. Game theory anyone? Needs a new post in light of the Axelrod simulation.]

[And: It gets scarier. Some people still hanging onto the false hope that inhuman communication and machine processing is amenable to ethical rules. Hat-tip Jamie Bartlett.]

[And: A real case that got as far as conviction: “Unchecked, they would have inspired violence and spread hatred.” As scary as you like.]

[And there’s more: Today (14th Nov) Bercow the speaker of the house during PMQ’s after May reports the “we have an EU deal” status of the proposal she has to put to cabinet …. constantly using the word “respect” to describe the rules of decorum in the house, so that the nominated speaker has the right to be heard.]


Also published on Medium.

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