Why there is no such thing as a free marketplace of ideas (and shouldn’t be)

By January 6, 2018 No Comments

Antifascist protesters at UC Berkeley (image credits: Stephen Lam/Reuters)

By Anton Mukhamedov

Whenever I discuss free speech on university campus, an expression that gets particularly under my skin is “the free marketplace of ideas”.

I oppose it firstly on aesthetic grounds. “Marketplace” sounds degrading: I don’t hear free speech rolling down like waters, “grappling” against falsehood or anything of the kind. In fact, while Milton believed that free speech was instrumental to discovering the truth, the “free marketplace of ideas” commodifies the very idea of truth, apparently defining it as something that one may exchange for a negotiated value. There is nothing absolute about it.

A case has certainly been made against absolute truth by those we lazily refer to as “postmodernists”. Isn’t it surprising that those who seemingly reject this philosophical tradition also undermine the truth much more insidiously? I frankly don’t care much about whether such thing as absolute truth exists in the first place, but if you were to worship something, in order to be consistent you’d at least have not to attach a price to it. This is pure commodity fetishism,—but I’m digressing.

In 1919, the US Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act which labelled it a crime to advocate for interrupting production of war materials. Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes dissented, proclaiming that “when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more (…) that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market”. This, according to him, was the intended meaning of the First Amendment. In the context of the first wave of Red Scare and increasing militarism, Judge Holmes’s view is staggeringly principled and courageous. Yet, it participates in the commodification of speech. An invisible hand, but to determine the truth, then?

And yet, attempt to demonstrate,—empirically or logically,—that the truth is ultimately determined through a free market-like competition of ideas, and the whole house crumbles! It was nothing but a card house to begin with actually. Had the cards been on the table since the start, we would have seen that the game was rigged against those with lack of access to the social platforms that guarantee you’re being heard, whether we’re talking about the media, the publishing industry or university campuses: believe it or not, not everyone with interesting ideas gets to tour around a country on invitation by colleges.

But let’s steal the comparison and run along with it! A free market implies a high level of consumer protection and agreed upon standards of trade. If students attending talks at a university should be assimilated to consumers, then surely we should guarantee an adequate level of respect which implies that they’re capable of hearing the ideas without discrimination, harassment or other degrading treatment.

In a speech on December 4th, Judith Butler, Professor at UC Berkeley, described her reaction to the invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos on campus by College Republicans in spring 2017: “The problem I had with his planned talk was not that he was expressing conservative ideas; the problem was that he brought cameras into his lecture hall on several occasions, and projected images of members of his audience on a screen against their will and then proceeded to shame and berate people for being fat or for being trans or, indeed, for being ugly in his view.” She had thus inquired whether College Republicans “could not invite someone with the same viewpoints but who would neither threaten to expose members of the audience against their will through the trigger cam nor incite harassment against targeted members of the audience or the campus community”. The invitation went through.

Berkeley then became a stage for extremely heated and polarised debates between proponents and opponents of the invitation of the far right speaker, with voices like Judith Butler’s given little space, as the disagreement ultimately crystallised in violent clashes. Yiannopoulos had to cancel the talk causing even more noise, but if he hadn’t, he probably would have turned his entire speech into complaints about censorship, if he didn’t do something much worse and harmful,—such as publicly exposing undocumented students.

The extension of invitation to speak to far right bigots such as Milo and the subsequent controversies only hamper the free exchange of ideas, unless of course your definition of it includes protesters being shot in the stomach. But even if they weren’t so inflammatory, personalities such as Mike Cernovich, Milo Yiannopoulos and others often make it clear that they are only interested in preaching to the choir. How else to explain the insistence on subjecting groups with seemingly adverse opinions to campaigns of targeted harassment such as the one described above or treating them with disrespect in other ways, whether prior or during their speeches? Had those speakers been businesses, they would’ve probably been guilty of consumer discrimination. American campus conservatives have to explain how they can reconcile their passion for free speech with the idea that some student groups are apparently not worthy of hearing conservative ideas without being directly threatened or insulted.

Controversies such as this one are the epitome of the failure of the “competitive” or free market model of free speech, where various factions fight to have their views recognised at the expense of others in a debate that grows more heated, often reaching a point where it’s almost impossible to hear anyone and where invitations extended to speakers are not genuinely promoting a respectful conversation as much as they intend to provoke or “trigger” the opposing group.

What other models are there, you ask? Is it even possible to conceive of freedom of speech in another way?

Well, if free speech was to be upheld, it should be understood as a social construct with various actors with often opposing views going at least as far as recognising the dignity of their adversary. What’s the point of speaking if no one listens? In a FAQ on the College Republicans’ invitation of Mike Cernovich, Columbia’s Office of University Life clarified that the right to speak included “the right to be heard”. They should have gone even further, clarifying that such a right was meaningless so long as the speaker was not addressing every social group and individual with equal respect, that there was, in other words, a right to listen.

This is a point where we might distinguish between formal and substantive freedom of speech. Substantive freedom would differ from the formal one insofar as the platform in question was also protected from those willing to instrumentalize their right to speak in order to spread vicious attacks and stir hate, and that in addition to the speaker, the audience members were treated with common decency and given space to express disagreement. Finally, it would imply that agreed upon standards of mutual respect preserved the atmosphere of constructive disagreement.

The only model guaranteeing a substantive freedom of speech is collaborative in nature. It implies some level of prior consultation by opposing factions to make sure that events and talks are truly welcoming to everyone. Even more fundamentally, it’s a mutual recognition of the simple fact that we rely on our contradictors for our speech to truly resonate and to have influence beyond the relatively small group of those already convinced by it.

Such a vision, truly upholding the ideal of a university as a vector of positive social change, is also a rejection of a simplistic approach to competition as necessarily as a zero-sum game, as any real, substantive and fair competition of ideas is always rooted in some sort of compromise. The ideas outlined here are ambitious and will be deemed by some as unrealistic. They challenge the consumer freedom of choice in the domain of “exchange” of ideas, because the value of a genuinely free and dignified discussion is unquantifiable in a society where the people least interested in freedom of speech use it to boost their careers.

Unless we construct such open spaces where preserving humane conversation is more important than scoring political points and upholding one’s popularity, free speech is dead, and what’s more is that we have helped kill it.

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