Taking the liberal high road

Free Speech and Academic Freedom in 2020 

A brief meta-commentary.

A philosopher, I would say, enjoys thinking about things, and does it a great deal. But he or she does so in a particular way: with a reverence for argument, careful reflection and with an insistence upon clarity and striving to verbalize one’s thoughts precisely, i.e., to carefully serve them up for consideration in a public language.

As a philosopher, I believe in argument. But I am also – for good reasons I think – sceptical about the power of argument as a persuasive tool in the culture at large. And yet, if nothing else, argumentation can dispel misunderstandings and thereby progress an emotional as well as rational dialectic among disputing parties. In this case, listening to a liberal like Ottlinger (one of the guys appearing in the video) sincerely put forward the reasons for why he thinks ‘TERFs’ should be welcomed into public debates alongside opponents may help shatter perceptions of bigotry, for example.

Now onto the video itself.

I think that Ottlinger’s argument is powerful against certain leftists who are driven exclusively by a kind of myopic, monocular and perhaps oversensitive concern for the marginalized and oppressed. Once we recognize that there are other important values at stake, we can place these concerns in a wider context, and at least recognize that there is a serious rationale for allowing speech that is harmful.

But for a more sophisticated, say Marxist, leftist, isn’t the reply that this justification for more free speech is predicated on there being a fair and well-functioning forum of public deliberation? They may agree that in an ideal liberal democracy, all voices within the frame of public consensus have the right to a fair hearing and for there to be norms of (civil but robust) engagement among such voices.

But given the way things are, there is no reason to include harmful speech if its putative justification is that it contributes to the maintenance of liberal democracy and ultimately the creation of consensus which can guide the exercise of legitimate authority, since this justification doesn’t work. After all, they would claim, there is no liberal democracy, and no hope of creating one through public discourse, since the mechanisms of public discourse are broken and corrupt. Illiberalism is a response to illiberalism. It is a form of corrective censorship and manipulation of discourse.

I think in its extreme form, this reply is overly bleak. But there I think there are two Marxist theses here that are, in some form, quite plausible.

  1. The ideology thesis: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” The dominant practices, norms and strains of thought in a society tend to be those that benefit the ruling class.
  2. The ideology explosion thesis: the ideas that benefit the ruling class (or rather, that benefit the prevailing system which has benefited them) go beyond the most obvious pro-system ideas like private property rights, respect for the police, meritocracy, freedom of contract as the only or core freedom, and so on. They include ideas relating to gender, national, race, disability, family structure, and so on.

I find (1) plausible because of the way that capital facilitates the domination of political and media institutions. There is also the human tendency to accept and carry on with what is, rather than imagine and pursue radical alternatives.

I find (2) plausible if we add that there are other explanatory factors for how these other ideas take hold, although a lot of details need to be worked out. As a very general claims, I find it plausible that once a core social-economic system like capitalism takes hold, there is a tendency for subsystems to emerge which prop it up.

If (1) and (2) are correct, then we can infer that the table of public deliberation is tilted in favour of a certain (ultimately class-based) interests. The leftist response is then to create spaces which are not so tilted, or that are tilted in the opposite direction, to generate a discursive countercurrent which might eventually find its way back to, and fight against, the dominant ideological current of thought. And of course, ‘playing dirty’ within already-rotten mainstream fora is justified by the same logic.


In my view, we should take lessons from each position: we should act on liberal principle and fight the forces that corrupt and bias public discourse. This is what we might call The Liberal-Progressive High Road. Whether it is an expedient one in the struggle towards justice is an empirical matter and depends on how optimistic one is about reform. It seems to me that a certain kind of revolutionary Marxist might dismiss the High Road as a serious option. Such a person might argue that the only way to fight the forces of corruption is to overthrow capitalism. Any deference to liberal values in the meantime is pointless if not counterproductive.*

But I would hope that most people could in principle agree with the anti-perfectionist model of discourse that Ottlinger outlines. That is, once one’s preferred system is established – one which eliminates or softens ideological corruption – we should see free speech as the key mechanism for negotiating (unavoidable) political disagreement, and defend it against the argument from harm wherever such harms, if they exist, are unavoidable in attaining that end.

* Other revolutionary Marxists would disagree. Those like the author of DePonySum and his conversational partner, for instance, are concerned about an overly censorious culture taking hold while at the same time endorsing some kind of socialist revolutionary change.

2 thoughts on “Taking the liberal high road”

  1. Hi Notes from the Fly Bottle

    It’s not that either I or Aleksandr don’t believe in improving discourse and culture. It’s just that we reject the idea, popular among certain segments of the left, that the fundamental locus of oppression is representation i.e. the language we use to talk about each other.


    1. You’re right I misrepresented you. Paragraph prior to edit:

      * Other revolutionary Marxists would disagree. If, as the author of DePonySum argues, we should downplay the goal of improving “discourse and “culture” understood as representations”, perhaps one can accommodate the liberal principle of free speech as outlined here while striving after concrete revolutionary aims. After all, what people are saying just doesn’t matter that much. This attitude seems to adopt the High Road but not out of reverence for the principles which inspire it.

      Take the view represented here to represent some other possible, related view.

      Liked by 1 person

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