Thursday, 8 February 2018

Declining standards of argument

In an increasingly polarised society we are losing respect for freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is an essential ingredient of liberty, as political philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment showed clearly. Without freedom of speech, societal and scientific progress stalls, error is allowed to flourish unchecked, ideas cannot be examined to establish their truth or falsehood, the human capacity for logical reasoning atrophies and eventually, as J S Mill pointed out, even true beliefs become ritualised dead letters that we recite without understanding. Freedom of speech is thus essential to society. However, for individuals, freedom of speech is not always comfortable.

Mill set his limits to freedom of speech at the point where it was likely to cause serious harm to a person who was spoken about. For example it would be legitimate to criticise a person’s behaviour whilst speaking in a calm meeting but illegitimate to incite a mob outside that person’s house.

Let me give an example in order to show that protecting people’s feelings isn’t necessarily good even for them, let alone for society at large. In order to learn my trade as a writer I had to subject myself to a lot of criticism. At first I didn’t like it one bit. Not all of the criticism was even valid; some of it was upsetting or came as a shock. But the point is, some of it was right and necessary to my improvement; it took me a while to admit it, but without it I simply wouldn’t have learned enough to be professionally published. I could have protected my feelings by refusing to listen to anybody who didn’t see fit to praise me, but I would have unknowingly paid a great price. In fact I still need constructive criticism because I’m by no means perfect at what I do and I never shall be.

The crucial issue is, there is no right not to be offended. It has been truly pointed out that everyone is offended by something and you can’t ban everything. You do not suffer serious harm by having your feelings hurt. It may even do you good in the long run.

Today however various groups and institutions have mistakenly taken the view that certain sensitivities should be protected from criticism because of the sincerity with which they are held or some other superficially sound reasoning. In consequence we have opened the Pandora’s Box of trying to work out what might offend other people so as to be vicariously offended on their behalf. It is not infrequently discovered that such proxy offence-takers are far more sensitive than the directly-affected people themselves.

My point is, we have inculcated in recent generations the notion that giving offence is wrong, people who give offence are therefore wrong, and in order to prevent them from giving offence they should not be allowed to speak at all. In order to prevent them speaking it is deemed reasonable to employ abuse, shouting down and sometimes even violence.

An important point to remember is that a person who loses his temper loses the argument. It is much more effective to offer a rational refutation than to offer abuse. Assuming your opponent is rational, we are bound to conclude that if he had a rational counter argument he would use it. Therefore by resorting to abuse he shows he’s run out of good reasons to object to your point of view but can’t allow himself to admit it.

A second important point is that sometimes there is no perfect answer but there are several good answers which different people may genuinely prefer for different reasons. Not everyone who disagrees with you is necessarily wrong. Sometimes you must agree to differ.

A third important point to remember is that at some time or other you may be wrong. If your opponent proves his point through rational argument, you have gained a truth and given up a falsehood. You should be grateful to have learned something, not angry you lost. Needless to say this is a great deal easier said than done. But in the long run it’s truth that sets you free.