When I launched my new “Work in Progress” series yesterday I didn’t think I’d have material for another item so quickly, but thanks to a reader tip, I stumbled across this article from the New York Times yesterday, by Bryan Van Norden, a “professor of philosophy,” entitled “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience.”
You can imagine where this is going right away: it’s an attack on John Stuart Mill’s understanding of the supreme value of free speech (and the Enlightenment itself, which is now attacked much more by the left than by conservatives, who were the chief historical critics of the Enlightenment for a long time), and a tacit argument for censorship and suppression of “incorrect” opinions. Norden tries to obscure and deny that this is what he means, but he’s explicit in suggesting Herbert Marcuse should replace Mill as a guide to thinking about these matters.
The problem with Mill’s argument is that he takes for granted a naïve conception of rationality that he inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes. For such philosophers, there is one ahistorical rational method for discovering truth, and humans (properly educated) are approximately equal in their capacity for appreciating these truths. We know that “of all things, good sense is the most fairly distributed,” Descartes assures us, because “even those who are the hardest to satisfy in every other respect never desire more of it than they already have.”
Of course, Mill and Descartes disagreed fundamentally about what the one ahistorical rational method is — which is one of the reasons for doubting the Enlightenment dogma that there is such a method. . .
However, our situation is very different from that of Mill. We are seeing the worsening of a trend that the 20th century German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse warned of back in 1965: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.” This form of “free speech,” ironically, supports the tyranny of the majority. . .
[I]nstitutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers. To award space in a campus lecture hall to someone like Peterson who says that feminists “have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” or to give time on a television news show to someone like Coulter who asserts that in an ideal world all Americans would convert to Christianity, or to interview a D-list actor like Jenny McCarthy about her view that actual scientists are wrong about the public health benefits of vaccines is not to display admirable intellectual open-mindedness. It is to take a positive stand that these views are within the realm of defensible rational discourse, and that these people are worth taking seriously as thinkers.
Neither is true: These views are specious, and those who espouse them are, at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists. The invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience.
Comment: Norden tacitly assumes that the public as a whole is incapable of making any distinctions or judgments about claims made by controversial thinkers. In other words, the public is too stupid to be trusted, and must be protected by their betters. By people like Norden. How convenient.
Question for Norden: If it is right to prohibit public access to certain ideas and individuals, how soon before you and people like you argue that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to vote, for exactly the same reason certain people shouldn’t be allowed to speak?