May 01, 2014

Self-defeat, self-deceit, and freedom of speech

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, May 1, 2014

Self-defeat, self-deceit, and freedom of speech

I shake my head in disbelief at logically self-defeating statements, especially when behind the logical self-defeat there lurks a self-deceit that squelches dissent. The antidote? Truth-seeking use of reason coupled with respectful exercise of free speech.

The following examples (which I've stumbled across over the years) will clarify.

“There is no truth.” Umm. Is this true? I suspect that the person saying this is deluded about and hiding from—you guessed it—truth.

“Language does not communicate truth.” Oh really? If it's true, then it's false. If it's false, well, then language does communicate truth.

“All observation is theory-laden,” and so, it is sometimes (often) implied, all observations should be dismissed as biased. Okay, but isn't this an observation? And so isn't it biased, too? Surely, at least some observations are informed by, and actually get at, the real world—and thereby allow us to test against bias.

“Don't be judgmental.” If set out as a condemnation (as is typical nowadays), then is this a case of being judgmental? Surely it is. As such, it's a judgment pretending not to be a judgment. It would be better to encourage an accurate and wise judgment.

“Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness.” This is web/software organization Mozilla's justification for pushing CEO Brendan Eich out from his job. Eich had supported—gasp!—traditional (non-gay) marriage. Apparently, Mozilla's pretense concerning “diversity” and “inclusiveness” excludes those who differ.

“Don't be intolerant.” Yes, this seems tolerant. But it isn't. It's a case of intolerance of intolerance—and thinking otherwise is self-delusion.

For many persons the intolerance of intolerance presents an intellectual impasse, so I'll say more.

Recently a group of citizens from Weyburn, Saskatchewan (my hometown), attempted to block a U.S.-based critic of same-sex sex and same-sex marriage from speaking at a public meeting in Weyburn, a meeting to which the speaker was invited. (The speaker was detained temporarily by Canadian border officials at Regina airport, and was arrested later for speaking at University of Regina without invitation or permission.) The reality of the Weyburn group's intolerance was clearly lost on the group's members, who called themselves, ironically (and I'm not kidding), Intolerance Free Weyburn.

How do we get past the apparent impasse of the intolerance of intolerance? A first step is to realize that not all intolerance is bad and not all tolerance is good.

Intolerance of student cheating is good, and tolerance of student cheating is bad. Intolerance of drunk-driving is good, tolerance of drunk-driving is bad. Intolerance of child abuse is good, and tolerance of child abuse is bad.

The issue in the larger democratic, social realm is to figure out which is which: of what should we be tolerant, of what should we be intolerant?

How do we best figure this out?

I submit that it's via encouraging the exercise of free speech (done respectfully) to set out publicly accessible reasons (not mere in-house faith reasons) aimed at truth and the common good. And then build on that.

(This gives us grounds for thinking that shutting down freedom of speech à la Intolerance Free Weyburn is a bad form of intolerance.)

Surely, the free exchange of ideas—even deeply controversial ideas—done carefully for the sake of truth-seeking is what makes democracy great. Surely, respectful and open-minded discussions are crucially important for the preservation of liberty. Surely, mere disagreement does not equal hate.

Sometimes lurking behind logical self-defeat is self-deceit, and sometimes lurking behind “non-judgmentalism,” “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” and “tolerance” is an ideology that's grossly intolerant of dissent.

All this to say: We who live in a democratic society have a responsibility to discern what is true and good, express our findings freely, show respect to those with whom we disagree, plus urge those with whom we disagree to do likewise.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)


Climenheise said...

A thought on "all observation is theory-laden." Barbour's version is similar: "All data is theory-laden." This is different than saying "only" theory-laden. It acknowledges the role of perspective, but also acknowledges the role of reality in itself. Our observations use our own perspectives (what else can they do?), and they observe reality in itself (unless one is simply delusional).

So this particular bromide (all observation is theory-laden) is one medicine worth taking. Providing one does not use it to thereby discount the place of objective reality. I may use my perspective, but my perspective can be shown to be closer to or further from truth.

Hurrah for critical realism!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks for your thought, Daryl. I stand with you in shouting "Hurrah for critical realism!"

I have a wee quibble, however. I think that instead of "all observation is theory-laden" it would be better (closer to truth) to say "some or much, but not all, observation is theory-laden." I have two reasons for this. First, I think there are in fact some observations that aren't theory-laden. Such observations consist of a pre-conceptual awareness of, say, a colourful shape or movement in one's field of vision (which grounds subsequent interpretation). Second, I think that some sort of minimal non-theory-laden observation is needed in principle to know that, as you say, a "perspective can be shown to be closer to or further from truth [objective reality]." Otherwise, this showing has no traction in the external world.

My philosophical quibbling aside: Hurrah for critical realism!

Climenheise said...

I differ from you in saying that all observation is theory-laden. For example, colours in Zimbabwe are different from colours in Canada. Here I haad (once upon a time) red hair (so we called it); there I had brown hair. Red and brown are one colour in Ndebele (if my limited language skills are correct). But critical realism says that we do not dismiss observations because they come through our perceptions. They are still more or less accurate, conforming to reality to a greater or lesser degree.

The point of observing perception is to bring about a "chastened foundationalism", to admit the limitations inherent in human observation. The point of observing that it is still reality that is perceived is to acknowledge (celebrate) the fact that we really to touch/have contact with the real in itself. Reality is not a construct of our minds, as a perspectivalist might suggest.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Red and brown might be one colour in the Ndebele language, that is, there may be one Ndebele word to describe both red and brown, but it doesn't follow from this that red and brown are one colour in reality. The English words "red" and "brown" refer to the reality that light sometimes has different wave-lengths. Significantly, those different wave-lengths remain real and maintain their distinctiveness regardless of the language we use to describe them. I suggest that some languages acknowledge those differences better than other languages. (Think of the English word "snow." I understand that the Inuit language is much more sensitive to the textures, stickiness, slushiness, etc. of snow and thus has multiple words to describe snow to reflect the textures, etc. But the fact that our word "snow" doesn't acknowledge these differences doesn't mean the actual differences in snow don't exist, nor does it mean that, as many skiers know, those actual differences can't be observed if carefully attended to.)

I agree that there are limitations inherent in human observation (we tend to suffer from what philosopher J. P. Moreland calls "a habituated way of directing our attention or inattention"), so we must be careful in our observations. But I disagree that these limitations preclude a pre-conceptual awareness which at a basic level constitutes—and serves as a check on—our observations. Without such pre-conceptual awareness of the world I think that, in fact and in principle, judgments about (your words) "more or less accurate" and "conforming to reality to a greater or lesser degree" cannot get off the ground. Our concepts of the real would never have an actual awareness of the real to grip onto.

If your view is a "chastened foundationalism," I suppose my view would be a "chastened chastened foundationalism." :-)

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

In case it's of interest, a few years ago I wrote the column "Skepticism concerning colours". I argue that it's reasonable to think that we do in fact know colours.