Brendan O’Neill is a controversial polemicist whose radical politics are difficult to unpick and fathom. When he wrote about truth and free speech in the March 2017 edition of Spiked, of which he is the editor, I found myself nodding in full agreement with some paragraphs, but recoiling from others as misrepresentation and bad reasoning. I think O’Neill is pushing his own agenda, which has free speech in mind only so long as it serves his own interests.
Here’s my own reasoning, staring with a summary of O’Neill’s argument.
Broadly speaking, his argument is that we are being lied to and censored in the name of truth by ‘what we might call the new clerisy: the insulated, technocratic-leaning political class that has dominated public life for the past 30 years or so’. The term clerisy is borrowed from extensive but tendentious Milton quotes. It is extended by referring to ‘the political and cultural establishment’ as a new kind of church assembly functioning to determine what topics can and cannot be discussed, and what is the truth of them.
O’Neill says the new clerisy is ‘often at the forefront of using either law or the considerable power of social stigma to prevent or weaken the expression of problematic views. And strikingly, they do this most frequently and most fervently in relation to the things that they consider to be “the truth”’.
People are no longer trusted to see truth from falsehood; it is no longer believed that, in Milton’s words, the public’s ‘knowledge thrives by exercise’. Rather, the public is viewed as the child-like victim of false claims, of media manipulation, of awesomely powerful advertising, and other forces likely to warp our minds and fill us up with misinformation. Thus we must be protected from the consequences of freedom of speech and be given ‘the truth’.
He argues that contemporary notions of enforced truth are based on a false and selective display of scientific objectivity expressed through ‘“empirical data”, pie charts, narrow, usually very convenient facts, often arrived at through advocacy research designed to discover precisely those facts so that they might be utilised to serve the ends of policing behaviour, re-engineering social attitudes, and other petty political projects’.
The Milton problem
In making his argument he quotes Milton at some length, apparently defending freedom of speech as the sole avenue to truth. But he does not mention that Milton was not defending an unfettered free speech, as O’Neill leads us to believe. Milton was merely seeking to protect his class and religious views from censorship. I suspect Milton would have been happy to call for and spectate at the public immolation of anyone arguing homosexuality, feminism, or any number of other heresies of his day.
I can’t help feeling that citing Milton on free speech is like citing the Taliban on religious tolerance. Both want rights for themselves that they were and are happy to deny to others. In some senses that makes the Milton pass an admission that O’Neill’s own advocacy for unfettered free speech includes permission for idiots to incite violence and murder. O’Neill never presents a coherent argument for or against legal argument on these points. Should we permit speech that deliberately leads to illegal acts – particularly violence and murder?
O’Neill’s argument seems to be that the law of the jungle should apply to such situations: unlimited free speech a la O’Neill implies also the freedom by those who can seize it to turn their words into any and all actions. That’s anarchy O’Neill is preaching, and that’s an argument which makes me feel uncomfortable about the implied rejection of Enlightenment values.
The Mill problem
O’Neill also cites JS Mill:
In Mill’s words, ‘Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.’ That is, truth, or at least the conviction that one is speaking the truth, is utterly dependent on a free sphere that allows for complete liberty of contradicting our ideas, and mainstream ideas.
Again, I think O’Neill misrepresents Mill, who was a man ahead of his era in many ways, but whose ‘complete liberty’ was never intended to extend to advocacy of hate and murder rather than a genteel public discussion conducted by his educated peers. Mill also wrote seminally on the undesirability of a majority to oppress a minority in a democracy, which implies that any completely unlimited free speech, invariably settled in favour of a majority (or a minority able to enforce its views) runs counter to liberal democratic values, and to his own oppression-of-minorities argument.
I wonder whether O’Neill isn’t a bit of a technocrat himself, unable to read without doing so literally rather than within a historical context and with judgement about what that means now. But O’Neill is credited with having been a revolutionary communist, meaning he was almost certainly familiar with historical materialism. That makes me think he believes his audience is unable to see historical context and the limitations on reading both Milton and Mill too literally. And that makes me wonder whether he pushing a deliberate hustle.
The Truth problem
O’Neill’s weakest point is the conflation of free speech with creating or finding truth. I find his definition of truth to be shallow and rhetorical in an argument that must rest on it.
While he rejects empirical truth when used for political ends, he suggests the clerisy has ‘lost faith in the standing of truth itself, in the ability of truth to win in a “grapple with falsehood”. This is because by “truth” they don’t mean the kind of thing that Milton or Mill or other enlightened thinkers were interested in: the profound truth of human understanding, the deep truth of knowledge, the truth of humanity’s unique capacity to know his world, and to change it, too.’
He has a passing shot at post modernist relativism about truth, but he has no clear alternative for that relativism himself: he proposes it is relative precisely because he argues only absolutely unlimited free speech can set it in place. That seems to me like an argument for might is right rather than for free speech or truth.
Can I do better?
Let’s start with the simple reality that the word ‘truth’ is an abstraction, like all other measures of human value. It stands for something absolute and fixed. And in that context it can exist in its absolute sense only in religion and ideology, which are epistemological siblings, since both depend on faith where rationality runs out in justifying their objects.
But as an abstraction, we can apply truth to many phenomena, like ‘the sky is blue, the grass is green’, and many words like ‘Frank and Mary told the truth when they admitted to smoking pot’. These applications of the word truth deal with apparently uncomplicated situations. But context is everything.
A scientist could make a convincing argument that the sky only appears blue, and grass only appears to be green to human and similar sensory organs. It has no ‘true’ colour in that it appears differently under different circumstances to different sensory organs or equipment.
If Frank and Mary are two black teenagers in Mississippi who denied using marijuana for 72 hours of police questioning by white officers who used intimidation and violence, plus the statement that they told the truth when they said they smoked pot was made by a white prosecutor, the proposition becomes less clear cut.
Hence when we all talk about truth in common every-day settings, it is as a conditional kind. Contrary to popular belief, this is also true for alleged scientific truths.
Many technically trained but under-educated people today propose that there are truths based on science. They are wrong. These are not truths at all, but best explanations for natural phenomena and technical applications at a given point in time. If any scientific theory or proposition ever attained the status of truth, that would be the end of science, because science must remain fully contestable to be science rather than something else. And here free speech is absolutely essential. There can be no barrier to hypothesising if we desire science to remain a vital component of our Enlightenment heritage. However, scientific debate is a far cry from the absolute freedom of speech O’Neill demands, even in the deepest, darkest Christo-fascist USA.
The same reasoning applies to political settlements – best bet gambits are better than worse ones, or none at all. Until there are better bets to be had. In politics these are never truths, just compromises to address particular circumstances. They require robust free speech, but not the unlimited kind. And this is where I think O’Neill comes undone on truth. His assumption that truths are required or involved at all in how human affairs are governed is just wrong-headed. Or he’s talking ideology/religion, which are the only fields of human engagement to seriously propose absolute truths. Always as refutation to rationality. Always as the instrument of censoring others. Always to re-badge prejudice or superstition as unchallengeable. Exactly the way O’Neill accuses the clerisy. But not accurately. That is now how politics is played in the USA, maybe, but not in the rest of the West by a long shot.
It’s not that O’Neill isn’t right about a cloying bureaucratic policing of free speech, but political correctness has not yet claimed legitimacy for turning lunatic words into lunatic action. That legitimacy actually still comes from voters – and those who do not vote.
O’Neill’s false target
Contrary to everything O’Neill has to say on the subject, it isn’t that the clerisy is shutting down free speech, it’s that the generations who became adults after 1980 were too ill-educated, and consequently too detached to really care about free speech. Perhaps also too ignorant to draw a distinction between saying terrible things and doing so to cause people to do terrible things. Free speech is not the freedom to act without consequence, the way the Christo-fascists in the USA have been able to assert as a right, and to normalise in the face of astonishing indifference and political impotence. Similar problems are extant elsewhere in the West, but to a far lesser degree.
What O’Neill should really be angry about is the perversion of education that took place around the Western world, starting in about the mid-1970s. Perversion because the idea of education was sold out to free market ideology and the fetish of measuring the wrong things, which accomplished only the elimination of everything in high schools and universities that cultivates the faculty of critical thought, and replacing it solely with technical training and rote learning. The upshot was the yuppies, beholden to the cult of material selfishness and the almighty MBA, followed by the techies, beholden to nihilism and spoilt by high salaries that made detachment from civil society easy. Both these products of the de-education system idolised, and continue to idolise, sociopathic tendencies, narcissism, and lack of responsibility for the world they expected to inherit, complete with all the benefits that need to be fought for, but without any willingness to do the actual fighting. Slowly those benefits are disappearing after 30 years of a self-destructive cargo cult mentality: if we talk free markets and create business plans with metrics, surely the theoretical benefits will be delivered, contrary to all evidence. Particularly those benefits that accrue only to being informed and speaking out publicly. Speaking to influence the political decisions made today that will affect us long into the future.
I’m with O’Neill that one of those issues is definitely enforced political correctness. It does stifle open discussion of serious issues. But only because the de-educated generations do not realise it’s all political economy.
At its most simple level, political economy is the politics of distributing available wealth. The issues sacrosanct under politically correct prohibitions are all claims by specific interest groups for a larger share of the wealth at the expense of someone else. The wealth in question is always finite, so it’s a zero sum game in which there will always be losers. Those who do not have the wealth already to buy power and influence have learnt to work at making their claims sacrosanct, and to mobilise O’Neill’s clerisy to censor those who speak against those claims.
Far from being about freedom of speech leading to revelation of truth, this is all about money and power. As everything in human affairs has always been.
O’Neill should know all of this back to front. So what is his real project in railing at the clerisy?
My answer? O’Neill is pursuing his own slice of the economic pie. His interest is greater discontent, and more willing ears for his own rhetoric. I am not saying this isn’t an honourable pursuit when compared to some others, but that’s not what he said, which is why what he did say made me suspicious.
So, I have described his use of Milton and Mill quotes as at least tendentious, his definition of truth as at least naïve, if not deliberately misleading, and his omission of the de-educated generations from his argument as the fulcrum for a self-serving agenda. And yet I enjoyed his essay. It is engagingly written and reaches out to be embraced. That’s his gift as a polemicist. It is just not quite sincere, and less than convincing for it. And that ought to raise questions about his own capacity not to be blinded by his own convictions.