Can Free Speech Be Excessive?

The classicist David Konstan wrote an article entitled “Parrhesia”, which is the concept of free speech as that was practiced in Athens when that was a Fifth Century B. C. democracy.  That meant a person, as a citizen, could speak candidly, as if he were among friends, when he spoke his mind, though that did not mean he should engage in flattery, on the one hand, or insolence, on the other. As that idea is elaborated in the Fourth Century B.C., when Greece has become a series of states, some more despotic than others, that means one must curb one’s thoughts unless being outspoken is taken to mean that you have said things that ought not to be said, and so the person who pushes this limit is being courageous even if foolhardy because such people will be censored for their outbursts. Konstan sums up his point this way: “The term is located at that inevitable ideological juncture where debate rages and where what some believe must be brought into the open is just what offends others.” I think that this distinction between candid speech and obnoxious speech is very applicable to the current controversy in the House of Representatives about whether Ilhan Omar went too far when she used anti-Semitic tropes in referring to AIPAC money and the divided loyalty of Jews. She believed it and said it. Did that go too far? Nancy Pelosi thought so but a considerable number of Democrats did not. I want to address that question.

I used to think that there were no limits on free speech other than libel laws and “shouting fire in a crowded theatre”, which legal savants reclassify as an action rather than the expression of a thought or a feeling. I thought that people did not need to be decorous when they expressed themselves because that would limit the free speech of people who weren’t particularly articulate or educated, those people going back and forth over the line between making an argument, venting a feeling, and doing other things that would offend a philosopher, such as engaging in ad hominem arguments. If people are free to speak their minds, you can’t rein them in because what they say would not stand up in court or at a college bull session. The people who shouted curses at Negro students going to newly integrated schools in the Fifties were engaged in free speech. I did not object to shouting down government officials trying to deliver public addresses during the Vietnam War. They had plenty of platforms, including the national news, from which to offer their opinions, and shouting them down was a symbolic way of saying that the argument about the war was over and that anti-war protesters were certain that it should be ended as quickly as possible.

I did modify this view, timid soul that I am, by invoking a very different value than free speech: civility. Politeness and courtliness are even more important than free speech. That is because the cause you are advocating will win or not on its own merits but courtesy is a permanent and universal virtue that has prior allegiance. And it also will help you win the rhetorical debate. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught me that his being morally superior to the racists was part of his appeal. He and his followers did not so much hate their opponents as fear their wrath, while the segregationists had only their hatred to express and had no reasoned argument. And I had come to learn, well before the Age of Trump, that mean spirited people are probably on the wrong side. I went to an anti-war rally at the Pentagon where marchers were harassing a black soldier who was maintaining his position, some of his superiors standing behind him for moral support. The protestors thought and said he was betraying his race by not joining them. Easy enough for them to say and I didn’t think people who believed in racial equality should pick out black soldiers for their opprobrium. What was equal about that? I also, but only once, went to an anti-abortion rally because I thought life did indeed begin at conception, but I never returned because the people there were very self-righteous and angry, emotions I thought not appropriate for civil discourse.

And so there are limits to free speech, these coming from an appeal to other values both practical and moral. Konstan, however, supplies a way to balance off free speech with considerations that are intrinsic to the idea of free speech. Free speech is limited by the need to be tactful and not to be a flatterer. He thinks that makes sense because usually you are dealing with a social superior and so it is difficult to avoid buttering up your better and it is best to avoid speaking of things that are considered inappropriate. So don’t speak of what Freud spoke of, because incestuous sex is not a fit subject for social discussion. But if that is the case, then a great many topics may become taboo simply because a part of the population is insulted or embarrassed at their mention. We could not comment on topics which one or another community found objectionable and so we would be in the land of political correctness rather than the land of free speech. Colleges would become places to make people comfortable with their beliefs rather than places which challenge their beliefs.

Those seem to be the circumstances that surround Representative Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel, where she used Anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish money and the divided loyalty of Jews. Nancy Pelosi wanted to pass a resolution against Anti-Semitism but numerous of the recently elected members of the Democratic Caucus didn’t want that to happen and so the House finally passed a resolution against all forms of hate, a resolution so innocuous that even most Republicans signed on. Had not Representative Omar simply been exercising her right to free speech when she said these things, or had she hit a nerve by talking of things that are beyond the pale of discussion, too sensitive to bear mention? The quandary of which Dave Konstan speaks is right here with us and not just an insight into ancient usages.

There is a solution to this problem. Representative Omar could have cut the knot by simply being more candid rather than beating about the bush by making scurrilous comments on the causes of the American political bias against Palestinians. “Candid” is a concept that I raise as an alternative to “tact” as a way to deal with what free speech entails. People appreciate candor in politicians, however much they will also elect politicians known for too much trimming of their sails. Donald Trump was candid in that he was right out there with his sexist and racist sentiments while Hillary was much too cute and measured, or at least enough voters might have come to that conclusion to deny her the Presidency. Now, Representative Omar is not known for candor. Thomas Friedman, who comes from the large Jewish community that lives in her district, and of which she was not unaware, noted in the Times last week that she had been against the Boycott of Israel Movement before she was in favor of it, and that she supported a two state solution, even though she was also in favor of the right of return of Palestinians to what had been their homeland, which would mean the end of the Jewish state. So Representative Omar could, in a public speech or on the floor of Congress, tell us what she wants to see as the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli Issue. Does she want a two state solution, the drafters of such plans acknowledging that the new Palestinian state on the West Bank could not have an airport or an army, just self-determination? Or maybe what she wants is a one state solution, which means the end of the Jewish state because it is hard to believe that democratic elections would continue in an Arab led state after the first one, given that there are no democratic states in the Arab world, with the possible exception of Tunisia. Or maybe she wants all the Israelis to move elsewhere: to Uganda, which is what Herzl suggested to the Second Zionist Congress, a plan they rejected, or else move to a section of Alaska, which is what Michael Chabon imagines in his “The Jewish Policeman’s Union”. Say what you want to say; say what you believe. You are, after all, a congresswoman and owe it to your constituents to be outspoken without pandering or sliding around your message. That is the way the exercise of free speech earns respect rather than ridicule.

So candor joins civility and tact as a complement to free speech that constrains it, but candor is also a complement that enhances free speech in that it encourages people to be clear in what they are saying, and that may be particularly useful in democratic elections. While Konstan imagines subordinates controlling their free speech lest they offend their superordinates, the present situation has superordinates--the candidates--trying to impress their subordinates--the voters--who have this chance of exerting power at the ballot box to oust politicians from office or invest politicians with an office. Will the candidates be candid? Joe Biden is particularly quick on his feet in coming up with candid responses. Just a week ago, he said that Mike Pence was a decent man who was embarrassed by the silence that greeted him at a European meeting when he invoked the President of the United States. Some commentators noted that Pence was not so decent when it came to LGBTQ issues. Biden was quick to add via Tweet that of course Pence was wrong on that issue, which was credible since Biden had outraced his principal, the President, when he came out in favor of gay marriage. Biden may, in his campaign, have to come up with something candid, which means both truthful and incisive, to explain what happened at those Anita Hill hearings oh so long ago. I think he can do it.