A Free Speech Credo

I. Free speech is nothing if not offensive.

  1. Free speech just is the right to say offensive things.
  2. Popular, safe speech needs no protection; only unpopular, unsafe speech does.
  3. Free speech needs protection precisely because and to the extent that it bothers, annoys, dismays, infuriates, emotionally wounds—and, yes, offends—other people.
  4. You have the right to offend me, and I have the right to offend you.
  5. I find attacks on free speech deeply offensive.
  6. You have a free speech right to attack the right to free speech.
  7. To oppose free speech is to favor censorship.

II. What free speech is not.

  1. Free speech extends well beyond the First Amendment.
  2. Free speech is a moral right that should be protected by legal rights in all countries on earth.
  3. You do not gain more free speech if you are given a louder megaphone, a larger podium, a bigger audience; but you lose free speech if such things are seized from you by an authority.
  4. It is incoherent to suggest that you win "more" free speech for yourself by silencing your ideological foes.
  5. Free speech never was equivalent to some fair quantity of speech; it was always about whether or not you were being silenced by some authorities.
  6. The appalling ignorance spewed about free speech in the last few decades demonstrates how important it is that we teach philosophy, logic, and especially American civics (or the civics of liberal, open societies) in schools.
  7. Those who do know the issues behind free speech—professors, lawyers, philosophers, historians, journalists—must step up to teach and correct about free speech, or this principle will be lost.
  8. Defending important principles of democracy, like free speech, demands courage.
  9. Citizens of a free republic, perhaps especially intellectual and well-spoken citizens, have a positive obligation to exercise that courage.

III. The politics of free speech.

  1. A generation ago, free speech was not just another liberal cause—it was one of the most essential and defining of liberal causes.
  2. A person who is not a free speech absolutist does not deserve to be called a "liberal."
  3. The Old Censorship that liberals railed against in the 1960s—conservative demands for censorship of both obscenity and far left propaganda—is moribund.
  4. For several decades, until very recently, free speech was a cause that united American liberals and conservatives.
  5. There is a New Censorship on the left as well as, to an extent, the right.
  6. The New Censors are governments eager to rein in hate speech; some Silicon Valley corporate executives and their employees; some university administrators, professors, and student agitators; and those journalists and activists who agitate for more.
  7. The New Censors are dominant in most of the centers of power—they are leaders in today's Establishment.
  8. The New Censorship is, especially in its rapid rise, quite new and genuinely alarming.
  9. The attack on free speech has become so striking and dismaying to some liberals that some have gotten into the business of denying that an attack exists; but this is wishful thinking.
  10. Former defenders of free speech are contemptibly hypocritical or cowardly not to stand against the new censorship.
  11. That goes double for academics.
  12. Academics not willing to give a full-throated defense of free speech on campus betray academic freedom—freedom of inquiry.
  13. Campus speakers who take views offensive to the left now need police protection; some campuses require the speakers to pay protection fees.
  14. Political speeches safely delivered on campus in the past were more shocking and "offensive" than speeches shouted down today—the standards have changed.
  15. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Patreon, and a few others have more real-world power and influence than many U.N. members.
  16. Moral panic about trumped-up charges of bigotry is being used to justify not just censorship, but political censorship—the worst kind.
  17. It is now a well-established fact that the Internet giants are intolerant of certain political speech.
  18. Much of the speech controversially censored by Silicon Valley, campus authorities, and governments has an important political aspect.

IV. Hate speech must be protected despite its offensiveness.

  1. Most people who want to protect hate speech also happen to abhor hate speech.
  2. People want to protect hate speech not because they approve of it, but because they have a much greater horror of censorship.
  3. The New Censors often pretend not to understand the difference between defending free speech and approving hate speech. They deserve to be excoriated on this essential point.
  4. There is no First Amendment exception for "hate speech."
  5. The essential problem about a "hate speech" exception to free speech is that the phrase is irreparably vague.
  6. There are no widely-agreed standards of "hate speech"; there is little agreement on what constitutes "hate speech."
  7. A great deal of what now passes for "hate speech" is, in fact, merely political speech that somebody else hates.
  8. It is morally wrongit is outrageous—to censor political speech.
  9. Sometimes, the "hate" in "hate speech" is most accurately understood as a feeling not of the speaker, but of the person damning the speech.
  10. The best short definition of "hate speech" in this dishonest sense is: speech that enfuriates the Establishment, i.e., our would-be censors.
  11. "Hate speech" used to be restricted to speech clearly motivated by bigotry against race, religion, or sexual orientation.
  12. You must defend, without hesitation, the freedom to utter hate speech—even speech that is outrageously bigoted—or you have abandoned free speech as a civil right.
  13. Until very recently, this was the position of the ACLU and of liberals generally. Many still believe this.
  14. It is absurd to suggest that anyone who defends free speech is ipso facto bigoted, racist, or—ironically—fascist.
  15. The actual fascists of history did a great deal of censorship.
  16. The irony is that censorship, rejection of free speech, and indeed thought control are essential to the totalitarian mindset—an irony lost on certain uneducated and miseducated youth.
  17. We could still return to more enlightened standards of free speech, having realized the enormity of error in this abandonment of principle.
  18. Many well-intentioned social movements, once considered "progressive," have deservedly died out; the New Censorship, like Prohibition and Eugenics, should be one of them.

V. To abandon free speech is to confer arbitrary power.

  1. As people have different values and emotional make-ups, people are capable of hating and being offended by many things.
  2. Historically, people have found different religions, philosophy, cultures, races, research, and even language—even art and music—to be deeply offensive, malevolent, and, yes, hateful.
  3. Permitting censorship based on disagreements overs facts and aesthetics empowers the authorities to determine facts and aesthetics.
  4. Similarly, permitting censorship of political discourse empowers the authorities to determine who wields political power.
  5. Once the authorities gain the power to mold our thoughts, they will not easily give up that power.
  6. Once they gain sufficient power to censor, authorities always grimly impose their values and their vision of reality by force.
  7. The values of the powerful, the elite, the Establishment, are guaranteed to change; they always have; and how often have they been 100% correct?
  8. Therefore, if you are worried about right-wing censorship, you should also be worried about left-wing censorship.

VI. Censorship violates our right to autonomy.

  1. Those who are most eager to take away your right to free speech want to impose their own beliefs on you.
  2. Censors are would-be thought controllers.
  3. If you want to be in control of your own thoughts—your own values, religion, philosophy, aesthetic, etc.—you must support free speech.
  4. Censors are worthy of the deep contempt of the free citizens of an open, truly diverse republic.
  5. No one—absolutely no one—can be trusted to wield the power to determine what millions or billions of people shall believe.
  6. The bloody Inquisition and the fatwa-wielding mullahs, the secret police and propaganda ministries, the holy warriors and the Bible-thumping do-gooders, they all had deep contempt, indeed deep hostility, to those who would dare to think their own thoughts about important truths.
  7. I value the right to think my own thoughts.
  8. The thought controllers are utterly convinced that they know best and that others are wrong.
  9. "Why is there a need to think your own thoughts?" the heretics are told. "The truth is known. If you deny it, you are anathema, a heretic, an enemy of the people, a traitor to the state."
  10. The New Censors insist that their concerns are merely pragmatic, obvious, and eminently reasonable; but that is what most censors have said.
  11. All censorious regimes have in common a furious hatred of the free-thinker, rejection of the individual, hatred of the outsider—the stern demand that we subject our minds to that of a controlling group.
  12. You cannot support censorship without ultimately wanting to impose an entire thought-world.
  13. Indeed, the most passionate new censors today are entirely convinced of their own thoughtworld, indeed they want to impose it on the rest of us, and indeed they have the deepest contempt for those who differ from them, even slightly.
  14. It might be hard for some citizens of an established, old democracy to understand, but thought controllers throughout history have had contempt for the dignity of most people.
  15. Respect for the diversity of individual minds absolutely requires free speech.
  16. This standardizing, collectivizing, controlling impulse is inherently dehumanizing.
  17. We will inevitably lose the habit of thinking and speaking for ourselves, of fearing being ourselves.
  18. Our very dignity rests in our being responsible for our own thoughts.

I hereby license this document under the Creative Commons nc-by-sa 2.0 license. Please feel free to circulate copies, as long as you don't profit from them and you use my name (and note any changes you happen to make, such as additions and deletions).

An opinionated FAQ about Facebook's censorship of the alleged "far right"

A lot of people understand neither free speech nor what the far right is. Here's a beginner's guide.

Yesterday, Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by the same company, announced a purge—a fair description—of accounts by a roster of famous right-wing figures as well as Louis Farrakhan. What are we to make of this?

Who was banned?

The names include

  • Alex Jones: both popular and much-reviled right-wing conspiracy theorist, previously banned from various other platforms
  • Infowars: Alex Jones' news/info company; in addition, reportedly, 22 Infowars groups or pages were removed from Facebook, as of last month
  • Reportedly, any account that shares Infowars links will be summarily banned from Facebook
  • Paul Joseph Watson: British YouTube video star specializing in ironic take-downs of the far left; has been employed by Infowars
  • Milo Yiannopoulos: another Briton, flamboyant gay conservative/libertarian who specializes in provoking the left
  • Laura Loomer: a right-wing commentator and activist maybe best known for disrupting a production of Julius Caesar in which Caesar is portrayed by a Donald Trump lookalike
  • Paul Nehlen: an "America first" right-wing political candidate who has tweeted many anti-Semitic remarks
  • Louis Farrakhan: leader of the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim leader famous for anti-Semitic, anti-white, and homophobic remarks

One thing all of these except Farrakhan have in common is that they've made anti-Muslim (or at least anti-Muslim extremist) comments, but more about that below.

Why were these people/groups banned?

The specific reasons are not clear and have not been made (fully) public. The Verge reported rather cryptically, and uncritically, that Facebook said the banned accounts "violated its policies against dangerous individuals and organizations." I wasn't able to locate the Facebook press release.

The Verge also reported this, without naming a specific source other than "the company":

But the company did point to some of the actions leading up to the accounts’ removal:

* First in December and again in February, Jones appeared in videos with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Facebook has designated McInnes as a hate figure.
* Yiannopoulos publicly praised McInnes and British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who Facebook has designated as a hate figure.
* Loomer appeared with McInnes in December, and more recently declared her support for far-right activist Faith Goldy, who was banned after posting racist videos to her account.

This is bizarre; rather than cite specific things the banned figures said or did that are obviously bigoted, or couching their explanation in terms of specific terms of service, Facebook apparently thought it was relevant to point out that the banned people associated with or praised people like Gavin McInnes, designated as "a hate figure," and "far-right activists" Tommy Robinson and Faith Goldy. It looks like guilt by association.

Wait. Before you go on, explain: Why is that bizarre?

Because it specifically eschews any attempt to pin a particular case to a particular objective standard. It's fundamentally vague and thus fundamentally unfair. If you have an association with or even merely express approval of a verboten figure, you yourself can, apparently, be banned. What if I say I've liked some of Paul Joseph Watson's videos? (I do.) Does that mean I should be banned? (Too late, I quit Facebook, but still.) Maybe more to the point, does it mean that I agree with everything that Watson has ever said? Of course not.

Facebook apparently called these people "right-wing." What really does "right-wing" mean, anyway?

Prepare yourself for a brief lecture about political terms.

"Right-wing" has two very different meanings in American political discourse. On the one hand, it means "conservative": being supportive of traditional views on social issues, especially Christian values interpreted fundamentally, of devotion to country and national interests, and of relatively unregulated free markets. In general it means traditional (formerly bipartisan) American political values of small government and individual liberty, but within some religious constraints.

By the way, libertarians are sometimes called "right-wing" presumably because they favor unregulated free markets, but sometimes they're called "left-wing" because they also support social liberalism. Go figure.

On the other hand, "right-wing" also is taken to mean "tending toward fascism of the Nazi sort." Thus, some progressives want you to believe that the National Socialist Party of Germany is supposed to represent the values of American conservatives, just taken to an extreme. There are a few problems with that:

  • The Nazis believed in giant, ever-present government, regulating everything, i.e., totalitarianism, as well as a massive social welfare state. It wasn't the National Socialist party for nothing. Mussolini and Hitler both began their political careers as, and thought of themselves as, socialists. They both became strongly anti-Communist, but the conflict was an internecine left-wing one.
  • Nazis hated the idea of a free market, and many Nazi leaders were hostile to or deeply skeptical of Christianity (some were devout, to be sure).
  • Racism is not a uniquely conservative value; extreme racism of the fascist stripe is not a particularly conservative value. In the U.S., some of the most open of our racists also express conservative values, and progressives have made hay of this fact. But in the past, some of the most racist and eugenicist people in the history of the U.S. were in favor of welfare state and even socialist policies. Remember Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat late of West Virginia and a former KKK member who recruited Klansmen? He wasn't the only one. And today, anti-semitic (and anti-white, and arguably anti-Asian) racism can still be found on the left.
  • In short, fascism was a racist and nationalist perversion of an already perverted doctrine: imperialist internationalist socialism.

By the way, I'm not meaning to apologize for those American conservatives who (openly or not) are racists, who do want to wield the awesome power of the state to repress their enemies, who hate foreigners on principle, etc. Indeed such people really are like Nazis. They’re not nice and I don’t support them at all.

The problem is that most mainstream conservatives are not particularly racist—even if they support systems that happen to favor their own "white privilege," which is another issue—they are not imperialistic nationalists, and they sure as hell could not entertain anything so horrific as a genocide. And, of course, they don't support socialism, but then the left probably doesn't mean to imply that they do.

So much for "right-wing."

What does this term "far-right extremist," that I hear bandied about so much, really mean?

Those bandying it are making a spurious accusation of guilt by association. When leftists calls a conservative "far right," or a "far-right extremist," they blur the distinction and commit the fallacy of ambiguity, i.e., they use word "right" in two different senses in order to tar merely strong conservatives with the brush of fascism. Their dirty little implied argument is this:

  1. Paul Joseph Watson (just for example) isn't just conservative, he's extremely conservative.
  2. That means he's both far right, and extreme. So he's a far-right extremist.
  3. The Nazis and the KKK were far-right extremists.
  4. Therefore, Paul Joseph Watson is like a Nazi or KKK, or ideologically aligned with them. (Probably punchable!)

This sort of thing is not just fallacious, it’s libelous.

When you want to refer to an American or British conservative as being unremittingly so, but not a fascist and still within the broadly classical liberal Anglo-American tradition as it has been handed down to us in the early 21st century, you can call the person an "arch conservative" or in Britain maybe a "staunch Tory."

You would call such a person "far right" only if you wanted to falsely, libellously imply that the person is fascistic. “Far-right extremist” merely compounds the libel.

But today’s American conservatives are fascistic, right?

As my Irish friends say, go feck off. Re-read the previous two answers.

No, they aren't. Some good friends and family members of mine, whom I love, are conservative. They hate the elements of fascism listed above as much as anyone. I personally have a lot in common with them, although being an agnostic and rather more principled on issues of liberty, I think I'm closer to the libertarian outlook. If you say conservatives are fascistic, you're insulting my friends.

But libertarians are crypto-fascists, too. They use talk of liberty and free speech as a cover for their insidious racist views. Right?

You need to feck off even harder, you ignorant twit.

No, you can't get any farther from a fascist than a libertarian. Libertarians favor individual rights rooted in respect for our inherent value and autonomy, love minimal government, and hate racism. Fascists favored huge, powerful governments, didn't give a fig for individual rights, and were totalitarians and racists. Libertarians hate war generally, but they especially hate wars of aggression and even of intervention (such as in Iraq and Syria). Fascists are extremely jingoistic nationalists and imperialists. Libertarians tend to be very tolerant of foreigners and many of them support open borders, and the idea of empire-building strikes them as abhorrent.

In fact, historically straight-up socialists have had a hell of a lot more in common with socialists of the National Socialist variety. Yes, really.

Fine, but aren't the above-listed people actually far-right in the bona fide fascist sense?

I don't know all of them, so I can't tell you. Here are a few comments.

Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist type. I have met his ilk before; possibly you have as well. He lacks judgment. He does seem to be quite conservative in the American sense. He's said some things that are extremely insensitive on almost anybody's view. All that said, I haven't seen much evidence that he's a fascist per se. He's a nut. There's a difference. All fascists are nuts, but not all nuts are fascists.

I like Paul Joseph Watson's videos about architecture and his pessimistic takes on demise of Western (not to say white) civilization. He's also quite fun to watch when he takes down left-wing inanities. He pulls no punches, and he's probably said some things that I wouldn't approve of; but then, we all have said things I wouldn't approve of. I see zero evidence that he's a fascist or on the "far right" in that sense. He strikes me as being libertarian, but I'm not sure. Maybe conservative.

Milo Yiannopoulos is "provocative" and comes across as an insensitive asshole, especially to the left; he makes shocking personal attacks sometimes, which is probably the main reason he is now persona non grata. The whole incident in which he seemed to apologize for the priest who molested him was quite creepy. But beyond that, Milo is an incisive libertarian type; I don't think it's quite right to call him conservative. I'm quite a bit nicer than he is, but I have agreed with a lot of stuff he's said. So have plenty of conservatives and libertarians who have come to watch him. Neither he nor they are fascists. (He's a flamboyant British gay man with a black boyfriend, for god's sake.)

Laura Loomer: I don't really know who she is. Never watched or read anything by her.

Paul Nehlen: Ditto. I didn't know of him before his ban. I read a few things like this that give what looks like rather good evidence that he's a vicious anti-semite. He might very well be a bona fide fascist, for all I know. I’m not a fan.

Louis Farrakhan: America's crazy black uncle. Keep America weird. Let Louis be Louis.

So maybe there's one "far right" figure, in the sense of fascist, among them, unless you also count Farrakhan, most of whose political views are pretty close to historical fascism as far as I can tell. The rest are very loud activist types with large to enormous followings that the Establishment wants to squelch. That's really why they were banned. Not because they really are fascist types.

Besides, I don't think we should ban fascists from our largest platforms. Maybe from smaller ones, sure. I reserve the right to ban fascists from this blog. But when it comes to larger platforms, to “the public square,” I'm a free speech absolutist.

But wait. At least they’re Islamophobic, i.e., anti-Muslim bigots, right?

I don’t know any of their views on Islam well enough to say. Disliking mass immigration by certain people who avowedly have an “extreme” politico-religious view, i.e., those who (like maybe 44% of European Muslims) declare they want to turn European nations into religious (Sharia) states, isn’t necessarily bigoted. You can be open to friendship and cultural exchange with radically different cultures without wanting your culture to be transformed into those other cultures. Religion matters a lot. Opposing immigration by moderate Muslims (like Westernized Turks) does strike me as bigoted, though.

I think some resentful and stupid conservatives really might be personally bigoted against Muslims generally, so I can’t really say in any one case. I’ve had moderate Muslim friends and family members; I don’t support any ethnic or religious bigotry.

Official U.S. immigration policy (last time I checked) also officially excludes Communists from immigrating. Did you know that? I’m all in favor of excluding them. Communists are an influence we don’t need. But I’ve had Communist friends.

OK, then, with that background about the political labels: Did Facebook and Instagram violate the above-listed people's free speech, or did they not? Were theycensored?

No, not in the sense in which the term is understood in American jurisprudence. As silly-clever progressives will never tire of reminding you, the First Amendment does say that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, and therefore, no company can violate your free speech rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.

But yes, in a broader moral sense. Americans seem to have a huge blind spot when it comes to the topic of free speech, forgetting that the right was discussed long before the United States existed, and that it was applied to the church as well as the state. American constitutional jurisprudence does not exhaust all there is to say about free speech. OK? So get off your high horse there.

What's the case that Facebook did violate free speech rights in a broader sense? Well, it's this: Facebook and Instagram have become massively powerful and influential networks, in some ways more powerful than many governments. They serve all of humanity. They are among the main fora whereby civil discourse—including political discourse—takes place. They are the public square of the 21st century.

We all ought to have the right—the moral right, if not the political right—to participate in this public square. If you're excluded from it, how do you exercise your necessary, essential democratic rights of participating in public deliberation?

Of course, this isn't to say that others must be forced to listen to you. I should be able to block you quickly and easily if I personally don’t want to listen to you. I have absolutely no problem about blocking people who treat me disrespectfully. I have an absolute right to block myself from hearing you, but not to block others from hearing you.

And yes, those blocked people were also censored. Not all censorship is done by government. Churches, schools, corporations, publications, libraries, and other organizations with authority over what people can say and hear can practice censorship of various kinds. Of course, the most dangerous and objectionable kind of censorship is done by the government. Never forget that. I am much more worried about censorship by governments in Europe and Canada, and future censorship by the American federal and state government, than I am by any corporate censorship.

Should we be surprised by Facebook's action?

Hell no. Silicon Valley and Facebook in particular have been preparing us for this for a few years now, having banned many conservative accounts and repeatedly justified their stances, albeit in a dishonest, mealy-mouthed and wrong-headed way. I suppose it is surprising to a degree, however, whenever standards are shifted, as they have been. How far are these people capable of going? Pretty far. The ultimate answer might surprise even me.

Does anyone actually support these people being banned?

Oh yeah. Lots and lots. It's rather scary just how popular the ban is among the left and much of the Establishment commentariat. Who knew just how repressive the left would be if given the power? (Answer: many of us.)

Should Facebook and other Big Tech be regulated?

No. The government dictating to them how they should run the public square entails that the government will ultimately run the public square. We should eschew that idea, as attractive as it might be as long as "our people" are in power, for the same reason we should eschew the idea of government-run news media: Anything potentially so powerful is much too easily corrupted and becomes a honeypot for would-be criminal masterminds and dictators.

At least with the free market, we have the opportunity to seek out better ways to organize ourselves if we find ourselves excluded from biased forums. How long do you think the likes of Facebook will enjoy their hegemony if they continue to behave this way? As long as the rest of us have the means and freedom to organize independently, then not too bloody long. People like freedom and fairness, it turns out.

Should the banned people sue Facebook for defamation?

Maybe. I'm not sure. It's an interesting idea.

So what the hell should we do?

Decentralize social media and get behind a coming Declaration of Digital Independence. Don't worry too much. It's OK. It'll happen. I have very good reason to think it will. It won't happen overnight, but it's coming. This is one reason why both Facebook and Twitter have made rumblings in the direction of decentralizing social media. They know they have to get out front of the movement. They know it's coming.

So Larry, does this mean you're going to delete your Facebook account?

Been there, done that.

Go and do the same. Facebook must be put out of business.

I'm serious. Please delete your Facebook account. First, urge your FB friends to do the same. If you support free speech (and privacy!) and want to send a message to our would-be corporate overlords, you must know by now that it's the right thing to do.

I'm not sure my career illustrates the value of a humanities degree, but the BBC thought so anyway

I was quoted by the BBC explaining the purpose of the liberal arts:

BBC graphic

The BBC article quotes this 5-year-old post from the very blog you are now reading.

A few days earlier, I was on the BBC's list of "star performers" with humanities degrees, a sidebar of their article explaining "Why 'worthless' humanities degrees may set you up for life":

"Star performer" is not exactly the description I would have given myself, but who am I to disagree with the BBC?

Also, of course, humanities degrees are not all created equal, and your mileage may vary.

There are no NPCs

International travel drives home that insight that, contrary to a put-down used by immature people, and consistent with Jordan Peterson's frequent observation that our biographies are all fascinating, there are no NPCs in the world: the variety of human experience is stunning.

Yesterday I was delayed (here in Tokyo) by a long, long queue of pretty young Japanese women, all dressed exactly alike (black skirt, white blouse). I was told they had been interviewing for jobs. When I asked why they dressed all alike, I was told simply "Japanese culture." I instantly imagined someone watching the parade of future businesswomen and thinking of them as interchangeable drones, or movie extras, or "NPCs." But I am incapable of viewing them that way.

These ladies were not "NPCs." Each had her own story; the perspective of each would, upon sufficient examination, be fascinating. The fact that they were dressed alike, while perhaps odd to Westerners like myself, is meaningless when it comes to their real individuality.

If the error of racism is dehumanization, its opposite is to look past apparent, reductive commonalities to what is unique, contextualized, and valuable in each of us. And that ultimately comes down to our minds—to how we think things through. I don't mean just our thought processes, but also the many products thereof, including our culture: philosophy, religion, musical tastes, how we conduct ourselves, our fundamental values. These things you must be capable of considering and tolerating, not necessarily supporting. I mean conversation of the sort that friends have, in which, while there might be some give and take and even occasional harshness, there is both sympathy, if not for position, then for common humanity, and a sincere desire to comprehend a point of view.

No one can claim to be enlightened (or "woke") on issues of race, gender, etc., if they are capable of dismissing whole classes of other people. The problem of prejudice has as its root an inability to consider others as individuals. And you can't claim to be tolerant if you are incapable of enjoying, without disgust, a conversation with a very different person, even a person with features you dislike or disagree with. (Of course you can't expect to like everything about everyone.)

So let me ask some hard questions.

  • Democrats: are you capable of having such a conversation with Republicans? Republicans, can you talk seriously with Democrats without giving up in disgust?
  • Committed feminists and men's rights activists, could you talk to each other without quitting in horror? I don't mean you have to tolerate abuse (I don't); but if they're just saying stuff you dislike, but politely, can you handle it?
  • Socialists, could you have a beer with a libertarian? Libertarians, will the thought that the person you're boozing with would love for you to be taxed at 70% (or whatever) permanently turn you off?

Etc., etc.

Even better, can you look past your disagreements and see lovely things about the other person?

You are intolerant, you are bigoted, if you are incapable of these sorts of conversations. Sorry to be harsh, but it's an important truth a lot of people seem not to realize, and they need to start doing so.

I doubt anybody really disagrees with me, too. I'd be fascinated to hear if anybody did. Many of us just need to grow a little more, and get off our high horses, and our social and political discourse could be radically improved.

How about it?

Ad Astra Per Aspera

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The Meaning of Life

...just in case you haven't figured it out yet.

In this old answer, which I still believe and endorse wholeheartedly, I integrate many of popular answers—happiness or flourishing, meaningful work, benefiting mankind, love and family, and integrity—into a single narrative. Three parts below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Is Western civilization collapsing?

A perennial topic for me (and many of us) is the notion that there is a deep malaise in Western civilization. There are, it seems to me, three main camps on the question, "Is Western civilization collapsing?"

1. The conservative position. "Yes. And it's a horrible thing. For one thing, elites have basically stopped reproducing. They're inviting people from foreign cultures into their countries, and they're reproducing faster than their elites. The result will be an inevitable cultural replacement after a few generations, although probably not before we go through a period of bloody civil wars. And Western traditions are not being passed down. We are becoming less Christian every year. Our universities are teaching less and less of the classics of Western civilization. Though they spend longer in school, our graduates are more ignorant of their cultural roots. We have no desire to create beauty any longer. We have nothing, really, to live for. Our heart is simply not in it any longer; we're in the death throes of this civilization."

2. The postmodern position. "Are you really even asking this question? So you think Western civilization is 'collapsing'? Well, maybe it is. If so, good! But if we're going to be honest with ourselves, we should recognize that there is much about Western civilization that deserves to die, and the sooner the better. What will replace it? Who knows? Who cares? But you must be a racist Islamophobe if you think it will be Islamic. But probably, you're just an idiot because there is no reason to think Western civilization is 'collapsing.' It might be, however, transforming, and into something better, something more tolerant, open, and multi-cultural."

3. The optimistic position. "Oh, not this again. Haven't you read Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now? Look, almost all the metrics look better than they've ever been. People always think we're on the brink of disaster even when things are awesome. The world is better educated than it's ever been. People in third world countries are moving into the modern world. Look at the Internet! Look at technology! Look at all the entrepreneurship and discovery that is happening every day! How on earth can you fail to recognize that, far from being in our death throes, we are ramping up a new global civilization with, perhaps, some new values, but which enjoys radically transformative changes for the better every year."

Here are a few notes to put these into perspective. The conservative position is a position about the health of traditional Western values and culture. It takes the view that these values and culture should be preserved, that they aren't being preserved, and that Westerners therefore are living increasingly meaningless lives.

The postmodern position is a primarily a reaction to the conservative position. It denies that there is a problem worth solving because Western values and culture are better off dead and buried.

The optimistic position certainly appears to be about another topic altogether, i.e., not about the health of traditional Western values and culture, although it pretends to be responding to conservative worry. It equates "civilization" not so much with Western traditions and values, precisely, as with the sort of globalist system of capitalist economies and the largely Western-derived education and culture that has sprouted and flowered in the 20th and especially the 21st centuries. You can see it in most of the big cities of the world. The success of this civilization is not to be evaluated (on this view) by some subjective measures of morality, or religion of course, or using sociological metrics that go proxy for these, but instead by more objective measures of well-being such as GDP, literacy rates, and longevity rates.

These positions interact in interesting ways.

  • A very strong case can be made that it is precisely certain Western traditions (democracy, industrialism, free enterprise, science, etc.) that have enabled the global success celebrated by the optimistic position.
  • The postmodern position is, too, absolutely rooted in some Western values (such as cultural tolerance and Christian charity).
  • And the optimistic position is widely (and in my opinion rightly) regarded as too optimistic; almost all of us detect some manner of deep moral malaise in Western civilization (such as dangerous populist racism, on the one hand, or the dangerous weakening of Christian values, on the other), even if we don't necessarily think of it as threatening civilization itself, and the happy talk does not do this justice.
  • And the postmodern position is surely right to suggest that Western civilization has undergone and is likely to continue to undergo radical transformations that have made the Western roots of American and European societies look positively foreign. But does that mean the collapse of civilization, or its transformation?
  • And if it is transforming and not collapsing, is that unequivocally a good thing?
  • Are important values, that conservatives perhaps talk about more than progressives, being lost? Put aside your political differences and ask yourself: might that be important? And what consequences might that have for the new global order?
  • Is it true that there must be some transcendent purpose and deep values that undergird our lives, or else (as conservatives suggest) civilization, that will cause not merely its transformation but its wholesale replacement with some other civilization that does celebrate some transcendent purpose? And if that's true, what values would replace Western ones?
  • Could something like progressivism itself constitute a global value system?
  • We already know that any such progressive value system largely conflict with traditional Christianity and some other Western values, but doesn't it also conflict with Islam?

I don't suggest any conclusion now. I just thought that contextualizing the debate would be interesting.

Why is consciousness mysterious?

So why, precisely, is consciousness mysterious? What is it, anyway? My view on this, in short, is that the weirdness, the mysteriousness, of consciousness lies primarily in the fact that it is an event, an activity, which is a kind of property of the brain. Much of the ontological weirdness of consciousness stems from the fact that properties (and events) have the same sort of weirdness we puzzle over when we think about the problem of universals. Just as properties aren't things with spatial dimensions, so various mental events and properties aren't things with dimensions.

When people open up heads and examine brains, they should no more expect to see thoughts bouncing around than when they hold a ball in hand and expect to see the abstract properties of roundness or redness. You can only see the object which is round and red. Like the abstract roundness and redness that the ball exemplifies, thoughts aren't things. They are properties of a certain kind, i.e., they're events, they are happenings or goings-on.

Ah, you say, that's too quick. We can see instances of some properties and instances of some events, to be sure; we can see this ball's redness and that it's rolling. But, you cleverly add, there is no way anyone will ever perceive an instance of someone else's consciousness in the way the conscious person is aware of it. So consciousness is an unusual sort of property (or event), to be sure. I readily admit that. An outside observer can't observe consciousness going on in the way that the person who is conscious can. But that's because, unlike every other kind of property, we are familiar with mental or conscious properties through introspection. Introspection is part of our equipment. A ball can't (as far as we know) introspect and reflect on anything about itself. I can introspect and infer that you have similar thoughts, perceptions, and pleasures and pains to mine; but never will I, through introspecting, become aware of your thoughts, perceptions, and pleasures and pains. (That is, unless such a thing as "mind-reading" exists, which I doubt.)

Do we need to posit the existence of another ontological category (the irreducibly mental) in order to account for the "raw feels" or "qualia" of introspected consciousness? Well, no, we don't actually. We know through research into the brain that certain thoughts, perceptions, and pleasures and pains—and here it's hard to know what words to use—"are mapped onto" or "are caused by" or "have the underlying substrate of" certain sorts of brain events. If no perceptible brain events (of one sort), then no thoughts (of a kind); and if no thoughts (of that kind), then no perceptible brain events (of that sort). So when an MRI shows a certain area of the brain lighting up, you aren't seeing a memory, because a memory is known and understood, irreducibly, by introspection. You can see evidence that a memory is taking place, though. Sufficiently advanced brain science might even indicate what the memory is of. But our perception or apprehension of the brain event will still be different from the introspective experience of the memory, it will not be the same as its raw feel or quale.

If you insist that this means I'm a dualist, because I'm saying something is irreducibly introspective (or mental) after all, then I'll say that the irreducibility is similar to the irreducibility, again, of properties or events. It makes no more sense to say that a thought is some physical thing than that a property is a physical thing. It isn't a thing at all. It's a different ontological category, yes, but not because it's mental, but because it's an event (or a property).

Some part of the difficulty that some philosophers have with the mind-body problem, I'm convinced, is owing to a rather simple materialistic model of the universe: everything that exists is some physical object. But when you point out that there are, after all, physical properties, relations, events, sets or groups, etc., then they say, oh, well that's a different problem. At least they're all physical. Sure, but what makes them physical? That they are reducible to fundamental particles? Well, no. The color or weight or density of a rock is not reducible to fundamental particles, because properties can never be reducible to things. Properties are ontologically basic.

Once you start taking seriously the notion that there are a fair few (not an enormous number of) irreducibly basic concepts, concepts that cannot be semantically reduced, analyzed, or defined in terms of other things, then it becomes quite easy to say, "Well, mental properties are properties of bodies, because it's bodies that have such properties, but we (the havers of those bodies) are acquainted with such properties only via introspection."

If you have your wits about you, you will see another opening now. You will press me then to distinguish between the properties known by introspection versus those that aren't, or to define "introspection" without reference to some irreducibly mental feature. Maybe we could, armed with such a definition, invent a self-aware AI, or decide whether some AI really were self-aware.

To that I answer: that's a scientific, not a philosophical, question. It's a question about the brain, or about systems that share whatever feature brains have that makes them (sometimes) exhibit consciousness. I suppose brain science is getting closer and closer to an answer all the time. All a person can tell you is when he is conscious and of what he is conscious (and notice, if he's telling you that, then not only is he conscious of something, he is introspecting that he is conscious of it). Then a scientist, wielding these reports, can gather the MRI (or whatever) evidence that is needed to see what distinguishes the brain events that are accompanied by consciousness (and introspection) from those that aren't.

So when someone like Daniel Dennett (a philosopher I read before he was famous and cool) declares that consciousness doesn't exist, my reaction is to say that it's an overreaction to a hard problem that is poorly understood.

Why racism is wrong

Denial of individual humanity

The problem with racism is the collectivism—the tribalism—the treatment of people as mere tokens or representatives of their races. That, as it turns out, is a profoundly appalling and consequential attitude to take. Treating people as mere tokens of their race literally dehumanizes them. Why? Because it ignores, often accompanied by great contempt and hatred, the very feature that make a person human: their unique ability of reason, to think things through, to think for themselves, to direct their own lives.

We humans are defined by our rationality, Aristotle said. He wasn't wrong. What distinguishes us is our ability to reason, not just in the sense of making a logical inference here or there (lots of animals can do that), but in the sense that we can reflect deeply and at length about important decisions, the direction of our lives (past, present, and future), our assumptions, and our values. Our ability to think things through, to step back and take stock: that is the nature of human rationality. And that is the thing that makes us human, and that is the thing that makes us each unique, and that it is the thing that is dismissed without a thought by actual racists.

Racists, probably without quite realizing it, make some assumptions when they encounter a member of a disdained race: "This person is merely a representative of that race. His uniqueness does not matter. His difference, his thoughts and values, his humanity—none of that matters. He's fungible, interchangeable, equally worthy of contempt as any other member of his race."

Our rationality, as I described it, is also—as I maintained at length in an essay on this blog—equivalent to our free will. It is also what gives us each our dignity, that which commands a basic sort of respect, no matter what. The reason a person should never, no matter how terrible his crimes, be discarded like only so much trash, is that we wish to respect that feature shared by all the rest of us. A mass murderer may be as awful a person as you can imagine, but no decent, sober person in the light of day wants to torture him to death; to do so would be to, as it were, discard his dignity, his humanity itself.

So we can say just as well that a racist essentially denies the freedom and dignity of members of hated (or disdained) races.

At this point, I should acknowledge that people can be more and less racist. For example, there are people who generally hate members of other races, but make exceptions for religious or political allies or personal acquaintances. They can also be merely biased, tending to discount any individuality and uniqueness of members of a disdained race, but rarely doing so wholly. A complete racist, by contrast, couldn't imagine being friends with the disdained or hated race; one might as well be friends with a slug or a rock, or any other thing that is undifferentiated and worthless. The race per se is dehumanized for the thorough racist.


Let's talk a bit about what "dehumanizing" means, because I think it's very important to understand, if you want to grasp the awfulness of racism. Perhaps the best way to get a bead on it is to consider some clear examples, of all sorts.

Think of

  • the slaveowner who cannot tell his slaves apart and thinks the only bad thing about beating a slave to death is the loss of labor.
  • the medieval lord who naturally thinks of his serfs as mere animals, like deer or foxes, that are part of the land, and that may be disposed of however he pleases.
  • the soldier at war who so thoroughly hates the enemy that he delights in any enemy deaths, no matter how unjustified.
  • the 19th-century factory owner who quite literally does not care whether the workers live or die, so long as more are available to keep the operation going.
  • the totalitarian leader driving the only expensive vehicle on the city streets, pleasantly regarding of all the people around him as "workers" or the "proletariat" or "das Volk," making plans for punishment of dissidents and hated groups in concentration camps.
  • the KKK member, the new-Nazi, the identitarian, the race purist, the Stormfronter, the troglodyte who utterly and completely hates some race (or several races), who thinks of them as subhuman vermin to be exterminated or, at best, to be avoided at all costs.
  • the true zealots, i.e., those who are so committed to a political ideology or religion that people who do not share it are so far beyond redemption that the zealots literally cannot care whether the heretics (or benighted, etc.) live or die.

There are other categories as well. These aren't the only sorts of people who dehumanize others. Another sort of example would be the criminal sociopath, a genuine misanthrope who lacks a conscience and views all other people as mere tools to be manipulated. Another still would be a truly vicious criminal gang, which views everyone unassociated with the gang to be little more than weak prey.

What all these people have in common is a failure to evaluate others as individuals with a unique mind and the inherent freedom and dignity that go with them. Instead, the dehumanizer regards them as mere instances of some hated, despised, or in any case undifferentiated group: they are mere slaves, mere serfs, mere enemies, mere workers, mere proletarians, mere n‑‑‑‑‑s or Jews, mere heathens, mere [fill in the blank with an epithet for some utterly despised political enemy].

Note that we can have a similar dehumanizing attitude toward groups that it is more popular to hate, such as criminals, pedophiles, and—let's not forget—racists.

So why is racism wrong?

Let's recapitulate a few things. Racism begins by regarding people of the despised race as mere members of that race, i.e., lacking any individual identity worthy of consideration. When racists do not consider others' individual identity, that means they have dehumanized them.

It is the dehumanization aspect of racism that leads racists to do horrible things to others, when they do, things that their victims (unlike, for example, convicted criminals) certainly do not deserve. Notice, this is true of all sorts of dehumanization. We are restrained from particularly brutal, inhumane behavior against people whose shared humanity and equal dignity we acknowledge. If we acknowledge someone's shared humanity, we are generally (except perhaps under duress and other extraordinary circumstances) incapable of flouting that dignity. We might punch someone we respect in the chin, but we won't torture him. We might force a disliked employee to work overtime, but we wouldn't callously put her life in serious danger or consider enslaving her. We might teach or report respected citizens in a biased way, but we wouldn't literally propagandize them or force their minds. There are some things that we simply do not do to our fellow human beings, if we accord them basic dignity.

The denial of a person's humanity—which racism implies—has of course enabled all sorts of inhumane treatment, throughout history, as trivial as snubs that indicate "you mean nothing to me" and as profound as genocide. We might also point out that racism is profoundly and unnecessarily unfair, i.e., it singles out people by race—a feature they didn't choose—for poor treatment. That, I suppose, is so obvious as not to need much further argument. It is, again, that denial of a person's humanity that makes such poor and unfair treatment possible. And that comes back to collectivism: the racist regards the despised race as mere undifferentiated representatives of their race, their individual minds being unworthy of consideration.

The audience of this little essay is not racists; I wouldn't expect racists to be persuaded by my arguments. But maybe some of them will read this. I imagine that the obviousness of the considerations of the last two paragraphs are such that any such racists would be unlikely to be moved to reconsider their racism. After all, no doubt most racists have somehow been confronted with the fundamental inhumanity and unfairness of their attitude. But they can't bring themselves to care.

But I have something else to say to (and about) such people. There's another sort of reason to think racism is wrong that might, perhaps, give some racists pause: racism is extremely bad for the soul. Here I don't mean anything religious (although you can apply the notion in that way if you wish). I mean that racism involves denying your shared humanity with other people who very obviously possess every bit as much dignity and freedom as you. When your hate, contempt, or utter indifference to some other people is so profound that you are incapable of crediting their humanity, something surely must have died within yourself. You, the racist, become the sort of person who is instead capable of monstrous, inhumane behavior. Denial of humanity in others can lead you to inhuman acts. That is how your soul is at risk, so to speak.

Moreover, the collectivism or tribalism that lies at the root of your callous attitude toward others of a disdained race can and probably will be turned on other classes of people. Who knows where, for you and those you influence, it will end? Just for example, the KKK did not stop at hating blacks; they also turned their ire toward Jews, Catholics, and Catholic immigrants (maybe especially the Irish). The roster of groups hated by European fascists (beyond merely the Jews) was also large. The ability to regard all members of any one group as an undifferentiated collective of "vermin" opens your soul up to more of the same, compounding the madness. This will not just harm others, if it does; but it will certainly harm you, the racist, deeply.

If that means nothing to racists, there's nothing that anyone can say to them, surely. But it ought to give them some pause.

I can imagine a committed, acknowledged racist—such people exist—responding that they would never dream of "monstrous, inhumane behavior" toward anyone of the race they hate. They simply want to have nothing to do with them. If you talk to neo-Nazis, some of them do say things like that: the Holocaust (if you can get them to admit that it happened) really was horrible. They just don't want to live in a society with Jews or blacks in it.

So let me be clear: I'm not saying all racists are like the very worst racists. As I said earlier, I know there are gradations of racism. Also, I am not trying to establish an obvious conclusion (that racism is wrong) cheaply, by assuming (falsely) that everyone who deserves to be called a "racist" is capable of participating in lynchings or genocide, for example.

But that isn't how my argument works. My argument is that racism does, in its most extreme or pure form, thoroughly dehumanize its targets. It is that dehumanization—that failure, to some degree or other, to acknowledge our shared humanity and equal dignity—that makes it possible for racists to do some truly awful things.

The thing that makes racism so awful is the dehumanization. As I argued, that is a feature it has in common with other of the most brutally destructive forces in human history: slavery, serfdom, dehumanizing the enemy, abusive labor practices, totalitarianism, zealotry, and true extremism. It's also similar to sociopathy and gangsterism. It's all about denying others their basic humanity: failing to regard them as having independent, unique minds worthy of basic consideration, minds that give us, all of us humans, the free will that gives us our equal dignity.

I wrote this essay primarily to clarify these issues to myself. I don't pretend to be a race theorist, but as with many topics in philosophy, I don't let that stop me from trying to clarify and test my own thinking on a topic. I hope you found this interesting and, whether you think I am right or wrong, I welcome your feedback below.