Speech Codes Again

I would like to say a few words about the U. W. Madison faculty speech code, and why it and any rule substantially like it is a bad idea.

I have to admit that the code has a serious and important objective: to protect members of certain vulnerable groups from harm caused by the things others might say about those groups. Such harms are real and the risk of them is indeed omnipresent. However, from the fact that a risk is real and omnipresent it does not follow - yet - that anyone should be given protection against it.

All aspects of life are full of risk and all cultures have had more than one way of responding to them. At a minimum, these responses have included two quite different sets of institutions, ideas, and values, two subcultures which might be called "the culture of security" and "the culture of self-reliance." The culture of security covers those parts of life in which society is committed to protect the individual against the risk of harm, and it includes the law and the police, as well as all other formal rules and official mechanisms of enforcement. The culture of self-reliance covers those parts of life in which individuals are expected to protect themselves, either by hiring protectors (such as insurance companies) or on a do-it-yourself basis. It includes all ideas and traits of character that legitimize and enable individual self-assertion.

There is one part of life that we in the West have always put in the culture of security: the area of crime and punishment. As far as the threat of violence is concerned, you are not on your own. Society will protect you. Starting originally from such minimal concerns as this, the security sector has grown enormously in the last century or so. We have moved one part of life after another from the culture of self-reliance into the culture of security. With the creation and expansion of the welfare state we have decided that the state will protect the individual against the extremes of material want. With the decay of the doctrine of caveat emptor, now more or less complete, the law has arrived at the view that consumers are not responsible for inspecting and certifying the quality and safety of products they buy (which is what the doctrine meant), and that the state will now do that. With the advent of anti-discrimination laws, we are now protected by the state from the decisions of others to dispose of their own property in discriminatory but otherwise peaceful ways.

Until recently, though, there is one area that the liberal democracies have treated as special, as rightfully belonging entirely to the culture of self-reliance: namely, speech and self-expression. With the narrowly limited exception of libel and slander, you must protect yourself from the speech of others. In fact, this seems to be the only major aspect of life in which it is still true that you must provide your own protection.

Is there any good reason why self-expression should be treated as special in this way? I think there is, and the reason has to do with a simple and obvious fact: to expand the security sector is to shrink the sector of self-reliance. Inevitably, such expansion brings with it the destruction or erosion of ideas and traits that are valuable and may still serve some legitimate purpose. Once, long ago, our ancestors defended themselves against violence with an array of warlike virtues such as physical courage and a stoical contempt for physical pain. When we replaced such self-protection with social protection, these warrior-traits began to decay, replaced by the civilized individual's horror of fighting and almost exquisite sensitivity to discomfort of all sorts.

In a certain way, this transition represents an irreplaceable loss, but on the whole it is for the best. It is better that the old warrior ethic suffer erosion than that society should be full of Dirty Harry Callahans slugging it out with the bad guys. Where the problem of violence is concerned, security is better than self-reliance.

The problem of self-expression, however, is very different. We can all be secure against physical violence even though most of us do not have the warrior virtues of physical courage and indifference to pain. But there are spiritualized versions of the warrior virtues which are indispensable for the goals of speech. We cannot discover the truth or find out who we should be unless we have a sort of moral courage and a certain toughness that prepares us for participating in the dialogue in which alone such things can be discovered and found out.

A university that tells students that it will protect them against points of view that they find demeaning is telling then that they need not stand up and do it themselves. This is exactly the wrong message to send them. Dialogue and discovery are insecure and threatening experiences, and the truth itself is often painful. People who cannot tolerate the risks that come with them will not be able to go through with them. They will only develop such a tolerance if they get practice at it. As far as this is concerned, telling students that they can sneak to the authorities and inform on their professors is no better than telling them they crawl under a rock and hide. Of course, they can do such things. But people who are practiced at them will be fit for little more.

Lester H. Hunt is Professor of Philosophy at U. W. He will be speaking about the speech code tomorrow, Wednesday, April 16, at 7:00 in room 2080 Grainger Hall.