Bad Arguments Against Free Speech: Humanizing the Speaker
As a warm up to the upcoming year, I thought it would be insightful to run a little blog series titled: ‘Bad Arguments Against Free Speech,’ whereby we take commonly heard arguments against freedom of speech and raise the issues that occur with these criticisms. Having been involved with freedom of speech for over three years there has been a myriad of arguments levelled against speakers we have attempted to host, some better than others, some just outright pathetic and repeated far too often (with the weakest being the premier of this series).
So, for this blog’s debut, I present: Humanizing the Speaker
What is ‘Humanizing the Speaker?’
So, the argument goes, when an organization/society/institution chooses to host a speaker with controversial views, detractors of the speaker will argue that the speaker’s presence will do little further for the sake of debate, but rather, create a skewered emotional perception of the speaker and obfuscate legitimate criticisms of the speaker.
In example, in October 2018, LtD Sussex hosted Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco. Soames’ presence was controversial because Serco is contracted to operate the Immigration Removal Centres (a place in which people whom the Home Office deems to have inadequate immigration paperwork are placed until their deportation) on behalf of the Home Office. These Immigration Removal Centres, in particular Yarl’s Wood, a centre focused on women, has come under critical criticism with some trafficking victims being detained for months. These are very legitimate criticisms of the UK’s IRCs. In any case, protesting students termed Rupert Soames as a ‘rape profiteer,’ amongst other things, and opposed his presence positing that it was unnecessary, and he would merely try to butter up the audience with his smooth words.
What’s Wrong with this Approach?
Primarily because it’s so arbitrary and invariably implies a definition of what is human and not. I will choose a similar example to best explain these issues, though the underlying reasons differ. Under Nazi philosophy, it was frequently viewed that Biology and Law were the same, in that they viewed that laws were an extension of nature and that those of ‘pure’ racial descent would intuitively have a code of ethics. Constitutionalized laws (as we have today) were alienated from nature and were created by corrupted biological elements of nature – that is, products of miscegenation (mixed race people) and Jews (which Hitler in 1943 termed as ‘bacterium ipsellum’). Nazi academics posited that Jews and those of corrupted biological descent were unable to understand the law of nature and created abstracted, imaginary laws to obscure their evil deeds. Thus, they concluded a pure human, and by extension humanity, would never break the laws of nature – if they did, they were corrupted, not a product of nature, and thus inhuman.
In 1964, Werner Catel, a professor of pediatrics, previously a medical consultant to the Third Reich for its Aktion T4 program, the Nazis’ involuntary euthanasia program, gave an interview. When asked on his opinion that the death penalty had been abolished in West Germany, Catel demurred:
‘Don’t you see that when a jury makes a decision it is always judging human beings, even if they are criminals? We are not talking about humans here, but rather beings that were merely procreated by humans and that will never themselves become humans endowed with reason or soul.’
(Source: Law of Blood)
I am not suggesting that any of the aforementioned protestors feel in any way aligned with what the Nazis argued here (in fact I would argue many are well intentioned in regard to the issues about IRCs). However, the argument of ‘humanizing the speaker’ is comparable insofar that both argue one should not treat them with the according respect expected with the typical human. Devoid of empathy, we can see the criminal/speaker for what they are. The Nazis arguing their biologically predisposed infraction from natural law, and contemporary arguments positing that bad views/actions or active consent to bad things robs them of their right to be perceived as a human.
I don’t suggest that protesting students are going to restart the Aktion T4 program for political opponents, but the attitude of preventing humanization that some have argued, as did the Nazis, is a political tool to keep things polarized (or a moral clarity). To keep things black and white is to give the good guy/bad guy axis further vigor, as ‘humanization’ necessitates a level of personal investigation that may blur the political battle lines you have held, and most perilously, call into question some of your political assumptions, and to enter the metaphorical grey zone, is to credit some form of empathy.
There are other issues which are smaller points:
- Many protestors have argued for compassion and empathy as central pillars to their political drive, which I view as laudable. In any case, for those who have simultaneously advocated that someone must not be humanized due to the individual’s corrupting eloquence, they would have to concede that the act of empathizing is a potentially corruptive process that can obscure that objective evaluation. By the very least, this calls into question the absolute ‘good’ of empathy and compassion as political ideals in of themselves, unless they are arbitrarily applied.
- How ‘bad’ does an individual’s actions or views have to be to no longer be humanized? And how does this differ according to each political axiom in its justification, aside from it being expedient to dehumanize others for their own gain?
- Who is in a position to define who is human or not?
In any case, I have heard the argument of deplatforming a speaker as a means to prevent them being humanized quite frequently, but I have suspected that it as a means of argument has not been critically reflected upon. Granted, there are papers that have concluded that the primacy of the voice over text in persuasive ability is stronger with a better humanizing capacity, though I would argue most know are implicitly aware of this. The argument of humanization stumbles lazily into the debate of what it is to be human, and its best answer can be boiled down to ‘human is what I consider to be good, on my predefined values.’ I would assume the vast majority of us would reject this as a premise of humanity, and along with the other strings of argument I have presented, how absurd the position of ‘humanizing speaker’ is.
NB: I am not suggesting these protesters are Nazis, or Nazi sympathying individuals, and are rather well intentioned people. However, I do feel that the example referred to is very illustrative in debunking the humanization argument.