Three thinkers on when we should call out harmful speech
What speech is harmful, how do we know, and what do we do if we find out?
- Modern debates over free speech rage on the internet, but what do experts say?
- Some think it is easy to go too far in limiting public debate by offending parties, others argue limits are part of normal discourse.
- While the debate isn't settled, these thinkers can give you some starting points for your next discussion.
If you've been online in the past few weeks, you've probably come across at least one person discussing free speech. The debate over if it is threatened, who has it, who needs it, what it is, and what form it should take goes back long before the days of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.
Recently, the debate over what limits are being put on public discourse is the center of attention, with a great deal of focus placed on the question of what conversations are worth having. Some, including the signers of the famous Harper's Letter, fear that free speech is threatened. Their detractors fear this is a front to keep the traditionally marginalized from expressing their concerns. Previous controversies have centered around who gets to speak at what institutions and if the withdraw of an invitation to speak, or the denial of it to begin with, is a kind of censorship.
But, are any of these concerns valid? What do experts on argumentation have to say about these issues? Today, we'll consider three experts' stances on when speech can be harmful, when people shouldn't be given a platform, and when we should grit our teeth and suffer their opinion.
Stance #1: Meta- argumentative allegations are a tool that should be used sparingly.
Dr. Hugh Breakey of Griffith University lays out his case in the essay "'That's Unhelpful, Harmful and Offensive!' Epistemic and Ethical Concerns with Meta-argument Allegations."
Breakey argues that "meta-arguments," statements that focus on external features of an argument rather than an argument's soundness, can be used to critique arguments by pointing out the harm that an argument might cause.
As an example, imagine that somebody tells an armed mob without evidence that grocers are the cause of a crippling food shortage. Pointing out that this argument might cause harm provides an ethical good (the speaker might not make the argument now that they know harm may come of it) and an epistemic good (the argument might be improved or abandoned if the weakness of it is pointed out). While meta-arguments aren't good or bad by themselves, this example shows how they can be used positively.
However, other times critiques that seem clear to one party in an argument can seem groundless to others. In these cases, meta-arguments can derail discussion rather than clarify it. Worse, it can be impossible to get back on track after these allegations are made.
Big Think reached out to Dr. Breakey, who offered this elaboration on his position:
"When we call out what someone says in an argument as offensive, harmful or unhelpful, it can feel like we are applying an impartial standard. We're setting down sensible, objective rules within which constructive civil debate can occur. But the reality is that our judgments about such matters are likely to be as controversial and contestable—and, unfortunately, influenced by emotional and cognitive biases—as our views on the original topic of the debate. Reasonable people can disagree on the risks of harm created by speech, the ethical weight that should be given to those harms, where the moral responsibility for those harms properly lies, and how these factors relate to the importance of freely discussing the original topic of the debate. These are all complicated and difficult questions, and will be answered differently by people with different political views and life experiences. As a result, we need to exercise great caution in leveling allegations of harm and offence during an argument. Otherwise, the very differences that led to the original debate—and that make that debate worthwhile—will be used to foreclose it."
Given these concerns, the essay ends with a call for "argumentational tolerance" that is weary of using meta-argumentative allegations in general, but is open to using them when the speech in question is obviously harmful, such as instances of hate speech or calls to violence.
Stance #2: Platforms lend credence, and some people shouldn't be given that.
Another stance is taken by Professor Neil Levy of The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, in their essay "Why no-platforming is sometimes a justifiable position."
They agree with many others that free speech is valuable and that good-faith arguments are generally good. However, they find the idea of deplatforming for meta-argumentative reasons more compelling than others might.
In Dr. Levy's essay, they ask you to imagine that a university has invited a speaker who rejects climate change's existence to speak on that topic. While that position is bunk, the very act of being invited to speak by a prestigious university grants credence to what the speaker has to say, which cannot easily be refuted by other, better arguments.
Things like being invited to speak by a prestigious school or having seemingly valid credentials can be "higher-order" evidence in favor of their position. Higher-order evidence, Dr. Levy explains, influences how we evaluate arguments. Higher-order evidence in favor of our position can make us more confident in it, while opposing evidence can lead us to moderate our stances.
However, Dr. Levy points out the difficulty of countering higher-order evidence, or the legitimacy it confers, by rational argument alone. They further out the usefulness of attacking the credibility of the speaker's bunk arguments by focusing not on the argument but on the higher-order evidence's validity. Here, ad-hominem attacks and meta- argumentative critiques of their speaking at all can remove the higher-order evidence. Deplatforming, often critiqued as the suppression of speech, can also be useful, as it prevents a person from being granted the legitimacy that a speaking invitation can bring.
There is a difference between this position and that of Dr. Breakey. Dr. Levy is more concerned with matters of fact rather than debates over what constitutes acceptable discourse. However, this stance is clearly more open to the idea of using meta-argumental allegations to keep speech non-harmful and productive than other common positions are.
Stance #3: Deciding what speech is “acceptable” is a fundamental aspect of public discourse.
Lastly, we have the stance described by the University of Illinois Professor Nicholas Grossman in an essay titled "Free Speech Defenders Don't Understand the Critique Against Them."
Professor Grossman considers the current debate around "free speech" and suggests that the debate is really over what we consider socially acceptable these days—a discussion which we've had before and will have again.
As he points out, most people would agree that there is nothing wrong with deciding that Holocaust denial is odious. Furthermore, they would likely also agree that private actors can (and should) use their capacities to limit the space available for a Holocaust denier to speak in. Most people would also hardly shed a tear if the denier faced social consequences for their speech. However, not everybody agrees on giving the same treatment to J.K. Rowling in light of her statements concerning transgender individuals.
Professor Grossman argues that our current discussions are really about where the line of "acceptability" is. Are people, like Rowling, crossing that line when they imply transgender women are not women? If so, what social consequences should they face, if any? What else might be on the other side of that line now? How do we know? The line has moved before, consider how common the public use of racial slurs was in the past, is the idea of moving the line now any different?
They agree with Dr. Breakey in thinking that these are big questions without easy answers. However, Professor Grossman suggests that, in determining what speech is socially acceptable, these discussions can, and must, take place for debate to move forward. In contrast, Dr. Breakey suggests that these concerns can derail other debates if not used properly.
How can I use this?
Perhaps the most obvious take away is that all three of these thinkers agree that certain speakers, notably those inciting violence or those deliberately trying to cause harm using racial slurs, can (and perhaps should) be challenged. It suggests a semblance of agreement exists around the idea that some speech does harm and that this legitimizes certain follow up actions to prevent the speech.
This idea is nothing new; even John Stuart Mill agreed with the idea of censoring speech that could cause immediate violence.
The three thinkers considered here also all agree on the importance of open debate in general. None of them are suggesting that you should be arrested for giving an unpopular opinion. They all argue in favor of using reasoned, respectful debate to advance our understanding of various issues.
However, they disagree on how easy it is to know what is respectful debate and what is speech worthy of critique, deplatforming, and social consequence, and what to do when that line is crossed. While the three do seem to be concerned with slightly different scales, Professor Grossman focuses on societal debates while Dr. Levy focuses on institutional level problems, the differences endure, and each stance can be applied at various scales.
Despite this lack of agreement, they all provide strong arguments for their position and a launchpad for further debate. Though, we might need to already agree on a few points before that debate can even happen.
- How the free expression of others benefits us - Big Think ›
- When can government restrict speech? - Big Think ›
- How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free ... ›
- John Stuart Mill on free speech and dangerous ideas - Big Think ›
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Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.
- A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
- Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
- An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
Credit: logika600 / Shutterstock<p>Remaining healthy requires regular screenings. Here again we see a disassociation between risk reduction and proactivity. Seventy-seven percent of respondents don't talk to their doctors about lifestyle habits that support brain health; 51 percent have never been screened for depression; 44 percent have never had a neurological exam; and 32 percent have never been screened for hearing problems. </p><p>Common early warning signs of dementia, <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/americans-worry-alzheimers-disease-survey-140644803.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">according to</a> Dr. Jason Karlawish, co-director of the Penn Memory Center, include repetitive questions and stories, difficulties with complex daily tasks, and trouble with orientation. </p><p>In terms of intervention, <a href="https://bigthink.com/21st-century-spirituality/does-lack-of-exercise-lead-to-dementia" target="_self">exercise</a>, <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/obesity-dementia" target="_self">diet</a>, building a <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-reserve" target="_self">brain reserve</a>, and challenging your brain (such as learning a new language or musical instrument) are all proven methods for staving off the ravages of Alzheimer's. Oxytocin has also <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/alzheimers-oxytocin" target="_self">showed promise</a> in brain-addled mice, while researchers found positive results for a <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/intermittent-fasting" target="_self">group of intermittent fasters</a> in promoting neurogenesis. </p><p>Epidemiologist Bryan James says that dementia is <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/04/15/176920391/how-exercise-and-other-activities-beat-back-dementia" target="_blank">not an inevitable result</a> of aging. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's simply not pre-destined for all human beings. Lots of people live into their 90s and even 100s with no symptoms of dementia." </p><p>Professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, Andrew Budson, <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/americans-worry-alzheimers-disease-survey-140644803.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends</a> aerobic exercise and the Mediterranean diet. As has long been known, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and healthy fasts like nuts and olive oil seem to have brain-boosting properties. </p><p>To learn more, take the <a href="https://www.mdvip.com/brain-health-iq-quiz" target="_blank">Brain Health IQ quiz</a>.</p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
The U.S., China, and Russia are in a "vaccine race" that treats a global challenge like a winner-take-all game.
All for one (vaccine)<p>Launched this April, <a href="https://www.who.int/initiatives/act-accelerator" target="_blank">the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator</a> brought together a panoply of governments, scientists, businesses, and global health organizations with the goal of accelerating the development, production, and distribution of an efficacious COVID-19 vaccine. The "vaccines pillar" of this initiative is <a href="https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/covax-explained" target="_blank">the COVAX Facility</a>.</p><p>COVAX is coordinated by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The program maintains a diverse portfolio of COVID-10 vaccines, monitoring each to identify promising candidates. It has also partnered with manufacturers to ease investment risks and serves as a purchasing pool for self-financing countries, while offering fundraising efforts to poorer ones.</p><p>"[G]overnments from every continent have chosen to work together, not only to secure vaccines for their own populations, but also to help ensure that vaccines are available to the most vulnerable everywhere," Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, <a href="https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/boost-global-response-covid-19-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-covax-facility" target="_blank">said in a release</a>. "With the commitments we're announcing today for the COVAX Facility, as well as the historic partnership we are forging with industry, we now stand a far better chance of ending the acute phase of this pandemic once safe, effective vaccines become available."</p><p><a href="https://www.vox.com/21448719/covid-19-vaccine-covax-who-gavi-cepi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Vox</a>, Berkley noted that the ACT Accelerator is the largest global collaboration since the Paris Climate Agreement. He added, "This type of solidarity is critical because otherwise what you're going to end up with is just a constant reintroduction of infections and the inability to go back to normal."</p><p>As of Monday, 64 higher-income countries and 92 low- and middle-income countries—representing nearly two-thirds of the world's population—<a href="https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/boost-global-response-covid-19-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-covax-facility" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">have signed commitments to COVAX</a>. Thirty-eight more are expected to sign soon.</p><p>COVAX's goal is to have 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. Experts estimate this amount will cover high-risk and vulnerable people, as well as healthcare workers, worldwide. Participating nations must cover those populations before administering vaccines according to national priorities. As part of the agreement, countries agree to support equal access to the vaccine once it becomes available, a move aimed at preventing hoarding and price gouging. </p><p>Currently, CEPI is supporting nine candidate vaccines, of which eight are in clinical trials.</p>
Why has the U.S. backed out?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7167e0bf1593a7cb29c1a116041116e3"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LUAsKbH7yeY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The United States is gambling that its bilateral deals with various pharmaceutical companies will win the "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/coronavirus-vaccine-trump/2020/09/01/b44b42be-e965-11ea-bf44-0d31c85838a5_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vaccine race</a>." This U.S.-only initiative, named (sigh) <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/06/16/fact-sheet-explaining-operation-warp-speed.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Warp Speed</a>, has already spent <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/14/the-us-has-already-invested-billions-on-potential-coronavirus-vaccines-heres-where-the-deals-stand.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">approximately $10 billion</a> and is pushing to deliver 300 million doses by January 2021. Many experts worry this speedy push through the regulatory path could result in <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/here-s-how-us-could-release-covid-19-vaccine-election-and-why-scares-some" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">premature and dangerous approvals</a>.</p><p>China and Russia have likewise bet on their own high-priced ponies. Russia is touting <a href="https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/09/russia-offers-its-untested-covid-19-vaccine-for-free-to-un-officials/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an unvetted vaccine</a> nicknamed (double sigh) "Sputnik V." This vaccine has only concluded <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30402-1/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">phase 1 and 2 trials</a> with a small number of participants, yet Russia claims to have already received international requests. Meanwhile, China has administered <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-vaccines-foc/in-coronavirus-vaccine-race-china-inoculates-thousands-before-trials-are-completed-idUSKBN26705Q" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tens of thousands of doses of a vaccine</a> before completing phase 3 clinical trials. </p><p>An additional barrier to the United States' participation: COVAX is a WHO-led initiative. Earlier this year, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/865685798/president-trump-announces-that-u-s-will-leave-who" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">President Donald Trump admonished the WHO as a corrupt organization</a> and claimed it assisted China in covering up the coronavirus outbreak and its severity. Though he presented no evidence for the accusation, Trump has used it as the basis for <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/21/64-high-income-nations-join-effort-to-expand-global-access-to-covid-19-vaccines-but-u-s-and-china-do-not/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">his threat to cut ties with</a>, and funding for, the agency.</p><p>"The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China," said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House, said <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-who/white-house-slams-who-over-criticism-of-push-for-covid-19-vaccine-idUSKBN25S62T" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in a statement</a>.</p><p>He added, "This president will spare no expense to ensure that any new vaccine maintains our own FDA's gold standard for safety and efficacy, is thoroughly tested, and saves lives."</p><p>By shirking COVAX, these countries hope to gain peerless access to a vaccine. Each could secure large numbers of doses for its citizens while also reaping the political boons to follow. In the United States, President Trump has pinned his re-election bid on a timely vaccine, while Chinese officials seem posed to use a vaccine <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/11/business/china-vaccine-diplomacy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">to repair diplomatic ties</a>. </p><p>But the loss of such rich economies will prove a blow to COVAX and the ACT Accelerator. Vaccines are notoriously expensive and risky to develop; the costs to manufacture doses at scale will be immense. <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/08/1070162" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus</a> stated the ACT Accelerator would cost roughly $30 billion, and the final bill for the tools to combat novel coronavirus would be at least $100 billion. But that's a pittance compared to the <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-imf/imf-says-10-trillion-spent-to-combat-pandemic-far-more-needed-idUSKBN23I27P" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$10 trillion already spent on the pandemic</a> so far.</p><p>"COVID-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that demands an unprecedented global response," <a href="https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/21-09-2020-boost-for-global-response-to-covid-19-as-economies-worldwide-formally-sign-up-to-covax-facility" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tedros said</a>. "Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery. Working together through the COVAX Facility is not charity, it's in every country's own best interests to control the pandemic and accelerate the global economic recovery."</p>
The winner won't necessarily take all<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNzY2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjExMzA1M30.2kF2U_8veNWxmaxOnSned_WTQMRtscbB5dmT5efJHsc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C180%2C0%2C181&height=700" id="55cd7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c56717cda300a40edc23795c8ee23c2f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="SARS-CoV-2 vaccine" />