Guest post: Exploiting what looked like a principle of free speech

Originally a comment by Artymorty on Weeds.

do they agree that wrong-think should be suppressed and never analysed?

Well, “our” opinion about one specific example of one specific view being presented in one specific context doesn’t extrapolate to whether “we” agree that all “wrongthink” should be suppressed and “never” analysed.

For example, most people agree that Holocaust denialism no longer merits the legitimacy of a platform at a respectable academic institution. This isn’t at all because Holocaust denialism is supposedly “wicked” and should be suppressed: it’s because such views have already been aired plenty, and analyzed to death, and there’s by now such broad, overwhelming evidence against them that the subject is done and buried. There’s nothing left to argue, and it’s reasonable to assume that anyone arguing so is not presenting a reasonable viewpoint in good faith. This is why, famously, the tobacco lobby deliberately kept offering up speakers to deny that cigarettes cause cancer, long after they knew otherwise. They were cynically exploiting what superficially looked like a principle of free speech to suppress years of medical research consensus, to the detriment of society’s public health, and the probable death of countless thousands.

I can see how some people might fancy themselves offering up a neat exercise in showing off their open-mindedness and evenhandedness by, say, inviting a Holocaust denier to speak on campus, but I think it could much better be argued that doing so just undermines the values that any respectable academic institution would presumably uphold.

How this overlays onto your AIDS denialist example depends on a few factors:

– how broad is the consensus that AIDS denialist theories have already received broad, thorough review and been properly rejected by overwhelming evidence, which has received overwhelming consensus in the field?

– what kind of institute was this person speaking at, and would him airing his views in that environment be seen to be undermining the insitute’s credibility and/or giving undue credibility to the speaker’s views?

To sum it up briefly: not all views are appropriate for all forums. I by no means believe that Holocaust denialism or flat-earthism or AIDS denialism should be suppressed on, say, the entire Internet. Because free speech, etc. But there’s plenty of room to evaluate the appropriateness of platforming certain topics within certain environments.

However, that threshold — the threshold where a topic should no longer merit being treated as an ongoing, open question, and therefore should not merit some platforms that would grant it that legitimacy — must be taken very seriously. We’ve seen students slip into believing that any views they find “wicked” should “be suppressed and never analysed,” to use your words. I obviously think that needs to be rolled way back.

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