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Why Progressives Want to Revive Norms Against Blasphemy

Eric Posner has written a very nice post about a structure of argument that is becoming more prevalent today. Person X argues in favor of something—say the heritability of intelligence. Person Y responds not on the merits but by saying the subject is out of bounds. We could extend Eric’s list. Larry Summers was fired as President of Harvard in part because he entertained as a possible hypothesis that very high levels of scientific aptitude may not be equally distributed between men and women. Many of his critics complained that he had no business raising the hypothesis at all.

Eric, however, fails to note, however, that in every case he discusses the people doing the shushing are left-liberals and in most cases the argument attempted to be silenced is variation on the claim that nature imposes some constraints that either explain social ordering or helps sustain a flourishing society. The arguments suppressed are always conservative in a broad sense of that term.

Thus, this phenomena is a part of a more general one that I have noted before: many progressives are turning against free speech principles. To be sure, these attempts to fence off debate do not always ask the government should do the silencing, although progressive support for speech codes at public universities and prohibitions on hate speech favor coercion. Yet for much of history the progressive side has supported expression against their silencing by social norms as well as by the government. For progressives, open debate formed the battering ram against shibboleths obstructing social progress.

Why has progressivism changed its position on the role of open debate?  First, progressivism is not as confident that the facts of the world will back up their policy prescriptions as they once were. In part, that is because their policy prescriptions have become more radical. The progressive view, for instance, was once that women should be able to go as far as their abilities and inclinations take them. Today for many progressives, there is something amiss with the world if we do not observe relatively equal proportions of men and women in physics departments at major universities. If you become less confident of the factual support for your ideas, you naturally want to hobble your opponents by fiat rather than reason.

Second, modern progressivism holds metaphysical beliefs, not unlike those of a religion, that are beyond factual dispute. No facts can be allowed to get in the way of whatever the diversity policies of the day mandate. Norms against blasphemy shut down debates about the God and His nature. Many modern progressives are opposed to religions in their traditional form, but modern progressivism is adopting the most traditional of religious moves—putting the sacred beyond question.

Reader Discussion

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on May 15, 2018 at 07:46:35 am
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Paul Binotto
on May 15, 2018 at 12:15:02 pm

Apparently it suffices to refer to political power, to assume power, never mind the correctness of it, Nothing new but the appetite seems to be getting out of hand. The modern State is an icon in the minds of many, one that demands our attention and caution.

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John T
on May 15, 2018 at 13:41:06 pm

And, our homage...

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Paul Binotto
on May 16, 2018 at 00:46:09 am

There is another reason why progressives are averse to certain subjects of debate: The progressive premises for those subjects are invalid and cannot withstand scrutiny.

To take the most obvious example, "equality" is a concept that only applies to the relationship of individual persons to the state; people are equal before the law, period. There is an argument that all persons are equal before God, but that is not, necessarily a public policy debate. In no other way are persons remotely equal. They are not equal and cannot be made so by legislation, play-acting, or altering language.

Secondly, the choice of words to be used in public debates is the province of the province of the speaker; presumable he knows his meaning better than anyone else, and hos word choice should be assessed according to a single criterion: clarity of communication.

Thirdly, if a hearer's "agency" depends on the opinions expressed by another, the hearer has little agency to begin with. The same goes for dignity,

Fourthly, there is no such thing as justice if each person has only a subjective concept of it. If justice is a subjective thing, then no one has a right to demand that others adhere to the same concept of it. If justice is subjective it has no place in public policy debates, it is a preference, an individual perspective that others may observe or ignore at their
preference. If on the other hand justice is not subjective, then it has no relevance to "offensive" anything, since what is offensive is subjective. Different standards of justice cannot apply differently to different individuals based only on differences in sensitivity. Sensitivity is not distributed equally.

Fifthly, to the extent that "hate speech" is a thing, it is an irrelevant thing. It is not violence. The silly argument that it may be violence because it can cause fear, anxiety or depression. Fear, anxiety and depression can be rational or irrational, normal or pathologic, transient or sustained. They may result form misunderstanding just as well as an ambiguous slur. "Hate speech" cannot in any way limit the persuasiveness of verbal responses to it. There is no "hateful" idea that is so compelling that reason cannot meet it. "Hate speech" is an intrinsic category error that only gets noticed because it sis so frequently shouted.

The progressives to which Professor McGinnis refers (the house progressives I will assume are not subject to the same infirmities) are desperate that their premises be accepted ab initio. This is because they are unable to rationally defend them, or at least have a great deal of difficulty in doing so.. People who value free speech, free inquiry and equality before the law should not let them get away with it.

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z9z99
on April 20, 2019 at 02:24:25 am

Mr McGinnis, here is our comment, a little late, but still better than never.

"Why has progressivism changed its position on the role of open debate? First, progressivism is not as confident that the facts of the world will back up their policy prescriptions as they once were. In part, that is because their policy prescriptions have become more radical."

THIS QUOTE SAYS IT ALL. THANK YOU!!!

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Luis and JoAnne Howard

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