Have We Lost The Context Of Our Arguments?

The past decade has witnessed a notable rise in the deployment of outrageous speech and censorship: opposite tendencies, on the face of things, which actually strengthen each other’s claim. My aim in this essay is to defend the traditional civil libertarian argument against censorship, without defending outrageous speech. By outrageous, I should add, I don’t mean angry or indignant or accusing speech, of the sort its opponents call “extreme” (often because it expresses an opinion shared by a small minority). Spoken words of this sort may give an impetus to thought, and their existence is preferable to anything that could be done to silence them. Outrageous speech, by contrast, is speech that means only to enrage, and not to convey any information or argument, in however primitive a form. No intelligent person wishes there were more of it. But, for the survival of a free society, censorship is far more dangerous.  

Let me try for a closer description of these rival tendencies. On the one hand, there is the unembarrassed publication of the degrading epithet, the intemperate accusation, the outlandish verbal assault against a person thought to be an erring member of one’s own milieu; and on the other hand, the bureaucratized penalizing of inappropriate speech (often classified as such quite recently) which has become common in the academic, media, professional, and corporate workplace.  

Consider, for example, the recent campus protests following the Hamas massacre of 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7 and the Israeli retaliation that has killed 35,000 Palestinians and reduced northern Gaza to rubble. Most of the arguments on view have been containable in a placard. A Jewish student is called “genocidal” for defending Israel’s right to exist, and a pro-Palestinian student is called a “terrorist” for failing to denounce Hamas. In earlier times, these would be taken as reckless hyperbole—common enough among political novices, or provocateurs with no serious commitment to the cause under whose banner they march. Now, however, there is a temptation for the insulted on either side to claim that the words have hurt them. Hurt, that is, in a quasi-physical sense. The adjectives unsafe and hostile have been given new applications for this purpose, along with the nouns harm, assault, and trauma. And this is where the censor finds new work to do.    

The crowd addicted to slander and the crowd addicted to censorship are displaying at high visibility the symptoms of what psychologists call disinhibition. When people feel themselves entirely at home, with a group they are sure of, they shed the restraints that are useful in securing a minimal self-censorship in mixed or uncertain company. At the same time, most of the company we keep is mixed and uncertain; and the heightened pressure to curb our speech (in any sort of company that includes strangers) may stifle the impulse to utter fresh thoughts. Instead, you cheer (or shout at the top of your voice) the obvious sentiments that are shared in your group. Faced by a different and unknown group, you don’t say aloud the thing you were half minded to say: you are afraid if you said it you would suffer unpleasant consequences socially. If, nonetheless, your impulse to say it is strong enough, you retreat to your group and there utter wilder words in a louder voice than you would have dared to use in public. This pattern of advance, hesitation, and retreat in public, followed by expostulation in a safe private circle, accounts for a lot of the trash talk in current American discourse on political and social issues. 

I will be returning to this change in the character and temper of public life which has set in over the last few years—a scene of distemper, where many arguments pass rapidly from vulgar declamation to sickly apology and back. But to make sense of the change, I need to distinguish private thoughts, thoughts that are prior to speech, from the confident espousal of a possibly brave opinion that comes to us without hesitation in our inside group. 

Private thoughts begin as something pre-verbal; they arrive as intimations, associations, radical perceptions we don’t yet know the meaning of. Thoughts, at this formative stage, can never be supposed identical with whatever finds its way to expression. This fact brings us up against a peculiar element of human nature that our researches have evaded, namely the self-censorship of thought.

“The first words out may be far from the completed thought.”

We should not be surprised that so elusive a phenomenon has been so little noticed. E.M. Forster came close to describing it when he wrote: “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” You might take this as an aesthetic defense of pure spontaneity and improvisation, a claim that our truest thoughts escape into words inadvertently, and only then do we discover what we meant. I take Forster to have been saying something more complex. Our thoughts are never as predigested, never as accessible to framing or paraphrase, as our protocols for the rhetorical and logical ordering of speech may tempt us to suppose. Often, our thoughts are still searching for their own identity, and words help them to find it. But even as words help, they also contain and reduce; and we should never forget that words can only help. The first words out may be far from the completed thought. And is our thought ever, on a question of any profundity, quite complete? 

Wallace Stevens had this truth in mind in his poem “The Motive for Metaphor” when he confessed an irrational fondness for 

the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon—

The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself,
And did not want nor have to be.

The truth is that our breaking into speech comes to us covered with traces of the possible moods our thought has passed on the way to speech; and only one among that impossible-to-circumscribe array will emerge in the tone of a decisive meaning.

Our private thoughts as we begin to speak can be a kind of dreaming out loud. We will translate them properly, later on, but we begin by muttering, maybe too audibly for our own good. W.B. Yeats said that “rhetoric is heard, poetry overheard,” and it is possible that our dreaming-aloud utterances should be rated closer to poetry, at least in this narrow sense: that the affirmations they avow or imply don’t yet want to be heard, only overheard. Just as Yeats was imagining the reader of genuine poetry to be a kindly eavesdropper, we may imagine the audience that overhears the inchoate poetry of our partial speech to be not unkindly disposed—not, that is, so hostile as to betray the private words by playing them into a megaphone and assigning the speaker’s name. 

The philosopher of language W.V.O. Quine expounded a principle he called “charity in translation,” according to which, when confronted by an utterance that might be translated two ways, one of which makes it nonsense and the other, sense, we should give the speaker credit for probably intending the version that makes sense. Something like this principle should apply in situations of expressive or persuasive speech where the words may invite one of two responses, (a) that it is a non-obnoxious opinion vaguely or imperfectly formulated, or (b) that it is a bigoted opinion, so poisonously unacceptable that its speaker deserves to suffer public humiliation and ostracism. In such an ambiguous context, charity in translation suggests that we favor the innocent version of the speaker’s intention.

Dreaming aloud may be a stretched and fanciful description of how private thoughts make their way into a not-yet-answerable approximation of public speech. We can recognize anyway that many thoughts that eventuate in speech are in their essence experimental. We are testing the air, seeing what it sounds like when our friends are around, wondering how it strikes them, possibly but not necessarily curious to know the way it would be received by bare acquaintances or strangers. Of course, this testing of our view will often present itself as anything but experimental in tenor; it is just as likely to sound boisterous, categorical, flat, extravagant, and, above all, final. But would we really want the casting of our thoughts, even into the well-marked precincts of public speech, to be subject to the tightest possible moral oversight? Should we think it our civic obligation to submit to scrutiny by a tribunal of unimpeachable judges who have been charged with the care and maintenance of intellectual probity across the society? So mindful a regime would require that all our preliminary thoughts remain, in prudence, tacit, unspoken, and averse to experiment until they have been carefully rehearsed. But in that case, rehearsed before what audience? 

This situation is well known to proficient writers, almost all of whom learn much of what they mean as their work passes from a first to a final draft. But it is the nature of experienced writers that they have learned to function as their own first audience when they revise the work before publication: an audience with an unlimited veto power over superfluous words and posturing. Few of us are like that, however, in our approach to speaking up, even on a question where we are sure of our view and the contest is unavoidable. On the other hand, the well-tempered orator who always comes prepared can be a solemn bore: Such a virtuoso, we feel, has somehow missed the give-and-take momentum, the element of perpetual debut that has long characterized our popular culture. Our American habits don’t mandate civic participation in many settings: a fact of mass-suffrage democracy that is in some ways regrettable but that also has its rewards, one of which should be an unapologetic protectiveness toward the privacy of our neighbors and fellow citizens when they choose to be private. 

The truth is that many people first discover the depth of a given belief, or even the fact that they hold the belief at all, when they hear its opposite enunciated and find themselves saying No. We may say no at first to ourselves. But I think an early experience of saying no, out loud, is for many people their first intimation of self-knowledge. It can be a starting point, too, for a kind of social knowledge that in more graduated terms will lead to a patient involvement in public arguments that have more than one side. Those arguments are conducted in a mode of speaking and listening in which it is possible to hear sentences such as “Why do you put it like that?” or “Can you remind me of the evidence?” The radical and self-formative power of hearing oneself say no, often for reasons one could hardly explain initially, seems elemental in our moral nature. It is, in fact, as vital to the growth of conscience as the act of willful disobedience about which one is later compelled to reflect with an uneasy mind.  

The most pointless transgression, the most indefensible of verbal trespasses, if it isn’t punished with a ferocity that aborts thought, may lead to thinking. A friend of mine once half-shouted the word “Fire!” in a crowded room on a public occasion where the crowd had become already conscious of how absurdly they were crammed inside. It was, to repeat, a half shout only, five on a decibel scale of ten, and fortunately no-one mistook his mock alarm for the real thing, but a slightly older man nearby glared black death at my friend: “You asshole!” This chastisement from a random member of the public, which stopped short of formal humiliation, made him think hard about a certain mischief in his make-up, a perverse impishness that he had better work hard to rein in. 

Many teenagers, and especially teenage boys, have always said forbidden things aloud; now they do it online, push themselves to risk the taboo expression, and from a similar perverse motive. Will they take the dare and hurl themselves into the abyss of sheer transgression? The less overbearing the protocols of punishment, I suspect, the more likely it becomes that the culprit will accuse himself in private and learn from his temporary idiocy. Reform, in these cases, may also require the support of a modest group of charitable but disapproving peers. Conscience, in any case, is the internalization, the making-private, of a feeling that originated at a moment of public exposure. Conscience itself is never reducible to a physical cause, but its origins are related to the experience of embarrassment.  

These intuitive and too seldom noticed points of ordinary psychology have shaped my thinking about the social-media regime of surveillance, censorship, unconscious as well as voluntary self-censorship, and the organized humiliation of persons whose words stray outside the bounds of acceptable opinion. Our current prevailing ethic of social control and behavioral discipline got started in the first decade of the 21st century, and it had already jumped forward at scale by the time of the Tahrir Square protest of January 2011, which overthrew the government of Egypt. 

When the #MeToo blacklists emerged in 2017, it became impossible to set a limit on the possible reach and influence of social media. With the Floyd protests and riots, two years after the climax of #MeToo, sexual harassment was swapped out for racism as the surveillance target of choice. In 2021, the New York Times science reporter Donald McNeil was asked to resign for having induced awkward feelings of uncertainty in a high-school student on an educational tour after she asked about the low word for a black person and he quoted the word to explain his sense of its uses. Later the same year, a Yale law student was asked to report to diversity officers for disciplinary instruction after he sent out a social media invitation to a “Trap House” Federalist Society reception where fried chicken would be served among the available fare. 

“A thin layer of numbing deference wraps itself around the scene of discussion or argument.”

Doubtless thanks to the habits of close watching and listening everywhere—backed by a threat of reprimand or termination—many undesirable varieties of crude and vulgar speech have been eliminated or beaten back toward invisibility; and no well-brought-up person will lament the departure of people who cannot learn to shun the deployment of degrading speech after a fair warning. But there is a drawback. People, when they know they are being watched, act differently from the way they act when left to themselves, free of the suspicion that hidden eyes are focused on them and hidden ears tuned in to their frequency. The morale of a person or a self-selecting group is subtly dampened, the vivid but undefended word or gesture is quietly suppressed, and a thin layer of numbing deference wraps itself around the scene of discussion or argument. The sense of speech as play—as a thoughtless diversion at times—is lost. For anyone in a position to compare the climate before and after surveillance, the difference is as detectable as a sudden change in the weather. A day that started off warm has turned tepid.  

You may notice the syndrome easily enough in a classroom when a second teacher or a visiting parent comes in to observe. The relaxed familiar shorthand (students think) may not be suitable in the new company; it may be wise to lower your voice a bit, say a little less—and less pointedly. The depressing change grows unmistakable when those watchful eyes now include your classmates or new and uncertain friends or friends-of-friends, who may take any partial verbal transcript as an opportunity to frame a picture around a few reported words or phrases—words, maybe, half-meant at first and less than half understood. This sequence of speech, record, and almost-instant transmission has by now been so normalized that it is hard to say whether the censorial effect is always intended. But the effect, if not the intent, of the report of the supposed infraction is to dial back the spontaneous impulse of the eccentric individual and make him or her conform to the acceptable type. 

Others have warned against the conformist pressure of social media; but the pessimistic prognosis can’t be repeated too often. For all the advantages they bring, in the form of a quick, free, and wide diffusion of new facts or presumed facts, social media have become a tacit and in some measure paralyzing influence on free inquiry, not only in education but in less purposeful social settings. Universities, in particular, ought to take a public stand against the dulling-down of spirited conversation that has been an unintended consequence of the presence of social media. The possibility of being misquoted, or quoted and characterized misleadingly, is a constant presence in the minds of most students and many teachers. The pervasive known presence of social media makes the anonymous report a likely channel of reward or of dangerous rebuke. It seems in the interest of education, more broadly, to discourage the use of either signed or anonymous reports on the non-public utterances of other people. The cost of having ignored this encumbrance of being watched and unkindly overheard without our permission has been a drastic reduction of the natural energetic contact between private thoughts and public speech, which is to say: a loss of the virtue of sincerity, without which all thought and all speech are worthless. 

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