Greg Lukianoff: Freedom From Speech

As president of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Greg Lukianoff is no stranger to the trends on campus as evidenced by UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ invitation to be “civil.”  Greg has written a 9,000 word “broadside” entitled Freedom From Speech.

Eugene Volokh has been kind enough to offer some excerpts:

The increased calls for sensitivity-based censorship represent the dark side of what are otherwise several positive developments for human civilization. As I will explain in the next section, I believe that we are not passing through some temporary phase in which an out-of-touch and hypersensitive elite attempts — and often fails — to impose its speech-restrictive norms on society. It’s worse than that: people all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right. This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended. Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.

The phrase “sensitivity-based censorship” strikes home, as has become glaringly clear from the demand under the guise of the right to express one’s opinion to be free from disagreement because it hurts someone’s feelings.

While Eugene offers some additional quotes from Greg’s book, I suggest that anyone interested in the issue spend the five bucks to get a copy.

One curiosity stemming from Eugene’s post is his reply to a commenter referring to “newspeak” from George Orwell’s 1984, suggesting that we are on the road to narrowing the range of thought by limiting the range of language necessary to express disfavored concepts.  Eugene replies:

I’m telling you: It’s not happening today. Language is changing, as it always has; some of this change is being driven by people’s moral views, as it always has. No changes that I can see are narrowing the range of thought, nor destroying the literature of the past (except insofar as Chaucer, indeed, has been inaccessible to ordinary English speakers for centuries).

This is a very strong assertion, given the climate of political correctness that imposes rather harsh restrictions on the use of disfavored language.  A commenter responding to Eugene offers this:

What I see happening is not so much the elimination of words as a trend toward redefining them in such expansive ways that they eventually lose any precision of meaning…which I think is no less destructive in terms of robbing language of its communicative powers.

This has been an issue discussed here many times, where words have become so disconnected from any definition and used so “expansively” as to lose their communicative powers.  Is this just the natural change of language to reflect people’s “moral views,” or something more nefarious?  Are these mutually exclusive?

6 thoughts on “Greg Lukianoff: Freedom From Speech

  1. Bruce Coulson

    Opus the Penguin (from Breathed’s Bloom County) crafted a portmanteau word for this phenomena: ‘Offensensitivity’. Back then, it was the punch line in a cartoon strip. Now we’re entering a new world where the trump card is ‘I’m very offended by that’.

    I don’t think it’s become more nefarious than previously; rather, there are fewer people willing to challenge the expansion of definition of words so that they mean whatever the speaker choses them to mean (or wishes his/her audience to understand them to mean).

    1. SHG Post author

      And to what do you attribute the observation that there are “fewer people willing to challenge the expansion of definition of words”? Is this a cause, effect or mere coincidence?

      1. Bruce Coulson

        Like most complicated issues, a bit of all three, plus extras. After all, most people get offended by some form of expression, and more than a few wouldn’t mind shutting down such scurrilous speech. It’s easier than ever to find like-minded people who are equally offended by ‘X’. And generally, the people who want to shut down offensive speech are willing to spend more time and energy to do so than those who want to defend it. Once the trend started, more people were willing to go along with stopping offensive speech, since they weren’t the ones being affected, and it always was being presented as the ‘fair and right’ thing to do. Challenging the behavior became more costly in effort, and fewer people were willing to put forth that effort. Changing/twisting/expanding the meaning of words is a part of the offensensitivity movement, and benefits from the above tendencies. Then there’s the pleasure to be gotten from stopping ‘evil’ and banning harsh words; putting bullies in their place. Everybody wants to be a hero, and banning ‘bad’ speech lets you be a hero.

  2. Fubar

    No changes that I can see are narrowing the range of thought, nor destroying the literature of the past (except insofar as Chaucer, indeed, has been inaccessible to ordinary English speakers for centuries).

    Transcription from poorly penned Chancery Cursive on a wadded parchment ball discovered during excavation of a site near Canterbury, possibly an ancient schoolhouse. Considered by some authorities to be the precursor of the modern paperwad, with bawdy inscription by a semiliterate schoolboy. Other authorities contend it is entirely fraudulent:

    Hem lokynge affrayed and adrad
    As tonge multiplie, trowin’ hem bad,
    Forget dilatacioun,
    And soote collacioun.
    Eke, noon of hem wordes hath trad!

  3. Pingback: Free speech roundup - Overlawyered

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