May 9, 2014

Letter: McAvoy doesn't know everything

In a recent response to Grace Koh’s article “Faith and Fear” (4/18/14) entitled “Not Fit for Print” (4/25/14), third-year contributor Spencer McAvoy makes a serious plea for the Maroon to toss aside principles of free inquiry and to censor views—such as opposition to gay marriage—deemed too bigoted and nonsensical to express in public. In doing so, he has also done me a great personal favor.

McAvoy, in explaining why we don’t need free speech, writes: “The purpose of public discourse, as we inherited it from the Enlightenment, was always to arrive at the truth. Discourse is a means, not an end, and public discourse is inherently and obviously not a place for private opinion” (emphasis mine). In the author’s view, then, since opposition to gay marriage is clearly not true, it need not be allowed in public discourse.

See, I had been planning to spend my time as an undergraduate studying political theory and, hopefully, eventually go to graduate school to devote most of my adult life to considering questions such as: What is the relationship between truth and political life? What is the purpose of discourse and education in a democracy? How did the “Enlightenment” respond to classical political theory, and how has it shaped our politics today?

Luckily for me, that will all be unnecessary now because in one 800-word column for the Maroon, this third-year English major has answered all of my—and all of our SOSC professors’—questions. Good news guys: we can all go home now.

I hesitate to be so flippant, but since the author claims that one reason he wishes the Maroon would engage in more censorship is because he “find[s] all lazy thinking, writing, and editing offensive,” I find I must point out that the author’s own thinking and writing, at least when it comes to the purpose of political discourse, is pretty lazy.

For one thing, I seriously doubt that the author would simply have us operate unquestioningly under all principles “inherited from the Enlightenment.” In fact, I would ask the author to name one single principle inherited from what is, apparently, a monolithic age not made up of many diverse and different scholars and writers. Should we, as Locke pleads in his Letter Concerning Toleration, ban all atheists from polite society, since “promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist”? Or maybe we ought to follow Spinoza’s model, in which the state molds a civil religion—based ostensibly on the Bible—that all citizens ought to be instructed in? I certainly expect the author would approve of an extremely powerful single executive operating with no legislative body who also controls the state church, such as the one imagined in Hobbes’ Leviathan. These are, after all, principles inherited from the Enlightenment.

I also don’t know why the author insists on suggesting that discourse is only about truth. Certainly in the Western intellectual tradition construed more broadly, this is not the case. In Aristotle’s Ethics, a book which the author has presumably read since, as he writes, “we’re lucky enough to have a body of thinkers and texts in common,” Book X provides one of the most beautiful and compelling defenses of the “contemplative life” which is a source, not only of truth, but of deep personal fulfillment. In John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, one of those Enlightenment texts which we have inherited, the purposes of free discourse are numerous. One purpose is, as the author points out, to arrive at truth. But, Mill avers, by exposing people to discourse that is false, it improves their minds and their faculties, which ultimately improves the citizenry.

Finally, I simply have no idea what the author means when he writes “public discourse is inherently and obviously not a place for private opinion.” Is this obvious to anyone?

My intention here is not to criticize the author’s understanding of political theory, because that would be irrelevant. But the question of censorship, especially of the soft kind that doesn’t come from the government, but rather from civil society, is very much relevant to our world today. I can’t, of course, invoke the first amendment, nor any Supreme Court jurisprudence, when I ask people to take free speech seriously not merely as a legal concept, but as a moral and ethical principle. But I can ask this: do you really take yourself to know everything? To censor, or to call for censorship, is to presume that one does know everything that needs to be known about a question, and that is sheer arrogance.

On the actual question of gay marriage, I tend to side more with McAvoy than with Koh, whom he wished would be censored. But compare the attempt at Socratic wisdom undertaken by the original author, when she writes: “it’s possible to believe in something wholeheartedly and simultaneously know that you could be totally wrong,” with McAvoy’s self-confidence when he takes it upon himself to decide “for this community, what is and isn’t news, and what should and shouldn’t be admitted to the public discourse.” I wouldn’t want either of these articles censored, but I submit this question to the readers: which of these two positions is more intellectually serious?

— Nicholas Saffran, Class of 2016