My subject for this lecture is, as the title suggests, self- censorship in public discourse. I can say that more plainly: I want to talk about political correctness. Now, this is a fashionable term. We've heard a lot about political correctness lately. There are some books out there -- I think of a few, Roger Kimball, Dinesh DeSouza, Robert Hughes -- in which the problem has been worked extensively. I don't want to cover that ground. I'm not here to tell you horror stories about what happened to me when I gave a lecture on an unfashionable topic, when I slipped and said the wrong word at the wrong time and everyone got angry. No, I'd like to try, if I can, to get a little bit deeper than that.
These horror stories have been told, and they can be told again and again, but I'm really concerned about -- I think it was Joan Rivers, the comedienne, who put it -- "Can we talk?" I'm concerned about the possibility for effective public deliberation on matters of central importance to our lives together, about whether or not we are achieving, to the extent that it's possible, genuine moral discourse that engages us, that demands something of us. I'm concerned about the extent to which in American society, and, I would argue, even more broadly, many important public questions are insufficiently explored because of a dynamic of compromise and accommodation which prevents candid expression of views and the candid and genuine exchange of conflicting opinions.
I want to distinguish at the outset two levels at which we can talk about public discourse. One is the primary, substantive level at which we argue about various questions. There is a debate going on now about health care reform: What should the nature of the reform be, if any at all? We argue about all manner of public policy. What should the taxes be? Is affirmative action a good or a bad idea? How do we handle the problem of violence against women? What's the extent of that problem? And so on. In other words, factual argument about contemporary issues on which people have differences of opinion. That's one level. In my view, that kind of argument, that kind of dispute, is inevitable and productive. We learn about society, we are challenged to defend our views, and so on. The value of that kind of discourse has been discussed extensively by political philosophers and others.
There is a second level at which we can talk about public discourse, a kind of meta-discussion, a discussion about the form, the rules, the structure of primary discourse. What subjects are permissible for polite discussion? Who has the standing to address a certain question? How are speakers treated when they stray over a certain line or boundary that might be thought to delimit what is appropriate to say in public? In other words, we can argue about the way in which we argue. We can talk about what the rules for talking are. And it's at this second level, this meta-level, that I want to engage myself, that I want to address myself to in the main questions of this talk.
You do hear complaints from people that in some venues, particularly universities, the rules of discourse are such that some questions can't be raised, are such that certain kinds of argument are ruled out of bounds in a peremptory fashion.
Let me give an example. Take the subject of differences in human intelligence. This is of course a very sensitive issue: differences among individuals, differences between ethnic groups, or whatever. I'm not taking any position on the subject, just posit for you the subject itself. What is it that we know about it? What is it that we know about the inheritability of intelligence across generations? These are matters in psychology and biology and neuroscience and so on which are fit subjects for research within the specialties, but which when discussed in front of lay audiences, when talked about in public terms, because of the powerful political and policy implications, the ethical questions that this subject raises, must be discussed in the most guarded and careful of terms. Whenever we hear someone raising of this outside of a laboratory, we become alert. I posit that audiences become nervous when the subject is introduced, that our antennae go up. We're now searching for evidence that the speaker is properly treating this kind of issue. Not only are there correct or incorrect answers from a scientific point of view, but there are correct or incorrect answers from a political point of view, and there are correct of incorrect forums and contexts in which the subject can be raised in the first place.
The raising of that kind of subject has meanings beyond the specific, factual, analytical content. They have larger symbolic meanings. When a subject like that is raised, we in an audience are inclined to ask ourselves the questions, Who is talking to us about the subject? Why do they see it fit to raise the questions that they're raising in this particular context? What agenda do they have by raising these questions? What is it that they imply? How might such discussion be used? In other words, all of these other issues come to bear once some sensitive question like that is put on the table. So I think that there are serious matters here to be raised about the capacity to carry on in public certain kinds of conversations.
Of course, one well might argue that some kinds of conversations are unfit to be carried on in public, ought not to be carried on in public. This is a question that John Stuart Mill took up at length in his famous essay On Liberty, in which he defended in fairly radical terms the legitimacy of an open, public discussion, the capacity for individuals to express themselves freely, despite what the consequences might be in society. Mill makes a passionate argument in that essay. I'd just like to quote briefly from one part of it. He writes early in the essay,
"Society can and does execute its own mandates, and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."
[Mill continues] "Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough. There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them."
Now, I think that's a fairly clear statement of the problem. We have to worry, when we talk about freedom of expression, not only about the magistrate, not only about the legislature, not only about the police, who may impose formal penalties. We have to worry as well about the "social tyranny" (I use the words in quotes) imposed by the normative behavior of individuals in society, by the consensus of prevailing opinion, by an understanding of what decently can be said or not said, and by an awareness that such understandings may have the substantive effect of delimiting the range of things that are explored in public in a manner that might be dysfunctional from the point of view of our political effectiveness.
All contents copyright (C) 1995,1996 Richard Landau. All rights reserved.
Revised: January 21, 2005