Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Imus and Freedom of Speech

There's a new webforum that just started called the Citizens' Symposium. The idea is to take a topic and ask a couple of bloggers from different points of view to write a short essay and respond to the others, then throw it open to general discussion. It's a wonderful concept and the first one is up. It's topic is free speech and in this initial symposium, I play Agathon. Please take a look at the essays, they are quite interesting.

It has had me thinking about free speech again. In my piece I ask whether free speech is an end or a means. I argue in line with the classic Enlightenment view that it is a means to good political discourse which is necessary for a functioning democracy. As such, we allow all all voices a seat at the table until what they are saying proves false. Then it works like March Madness, it's a single elimination tournament, get falsified and you're eliminated, voted off the intellectual island.

But one of the other commenters has me thinking about the virtues of false statements. There is always the epistemic reason given so eloquently by William Whewell in the 19th century who argued that falsehoods are the gateways to truth, that they may not bring together the right facts for the right reasons, but they just might bring together the right facts in a way we had never considered before. Logically, even the loser get lucky sometimes.

But then there is the thought that we build up immunity to a disease by being exposed to it. If we live in a germ free environment, we make ourselves more susceptible to illness. This virus metaphor seems the perfect segue for consideration of Don Imus. In my symposium essay, I argue that we need to encourage a wide variety of viewpoints by limiting free speech -- eliminating both falsehoods and bullying speech. This is where Imus gets condemned. But could it be that I'm wrong and the best way to eliminate the power of the bullies is not to eliminate the bullies, but to have them around in order to learn how to fight back effectively? By keeping around a few germs, does it keep us on our intellectual immune system and allow our public discourse to remain healthier or are they more like a cancer and if any is present will it just keep multiplying, pushing all other cells out of the way until it takes over the space held by authentic civil discussion, killing the body politic?