Adventures in Meta-Blogging: What is the Truth Value of Writing About Rights?

Some words about the epistemological status – or the truth value – of the narrative contained in this blog. I argue that all writing about human rights and democracy is a mere proposal and an attempt at truth. Whenever I say something about those topics I do not pretend to proclaim the truth. If there is any truth in the world at all, then probably not in the domain of political theory, morality and values. Perhaps there is, but we won’t know. It’s likely that all we can say about such subjects is mere opinion.

However, even if in political theory or morality we cannot prove anything or be certain about anything, this doesn’t mean that all opinions are equivalent. There can be good and bad opinions because opinions are – or should be – based on arguments and reasons, and arguments and reasons can be good or bad. If all opinions were of the same quality then no one would ever try to convince anyone.

Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they can’t be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the (perceived) force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that

  1. opposite opinions disappear as a result of free discussion and persuasion rather than force and coercion
  2. an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus resulting from free discussion and persuasion can reasonably be called a truth.

Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Truth eliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and when there remain no good reasons or arguments against a claim do we have something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good arguments against them are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments—and not mere prejudices—are available.

As everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions, expressed throughout this blog, elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers etc. It’s not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation—on the condition that I would have the power to do so—then I wouldn’t be acting democratically and I would therefore be incoherent. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy. Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but truth that informs government policy. Which can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it’s not typical of a democracy and not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.

For example, the fight against inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it’s a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding the maximum or minimum amount of inflation, or opinions regarding topics such as abortion, equality, justice etc. There is intense debate about those topics. The predominance of opinions regarding those topics, and hence also government policies, shift from one side to another.

But what we see in topics such as abortion and many others, is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped giving reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or “feelings” or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, not something more or less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.

What is Democracy? (39): Government of the Stupid, by the Stupid, and for the Stupid?

When the merits and demerits of democracy are discussed, we often hear that it’s not very wise to let the people govern themselves. Democracy must be rejected because the will of the people is necessarily ill-considered, emotional, stupid, based on instinctive and hasty reactions and so forth. The people are said to be disinterested, apathetic, indifferent and generally not smart enough to deal with the complex problems of today, and this is a sufficient reason to exclude the people from political decisions. They are not qualified to rule and are perhaps not even qualified to choose their rulers. Something which no amount of education can possible remedy. Politics should therefore be something inherently unequal.

This rejection of democracy is only correct when applied to a limited kind of democracy in which there is no place for public debate and active participation guaranteed by freedom rights. It is evident that the debates which precede and which are almost automatically engendered by a democratic vote, a referendum or a council meeting, vastly increase the willingness and the ability of the people to judge complex matters. If the people are allowed to vote on a certain issue, then many of them will instantly start to debate the issue and will become aware of the different arguments in favor of and against a certain solution. The same is true for those merely watching the debates.

This awareness not only increases the knowledge of the people, but also their interest in the issue and in related issues. Political participation eliminates the lack of knowledge and interest harmful to its functioning, at least to a certain degree. Why would you be interested in and knowledgeable about something if you can never use your knowledge in active deliberation and decision taking? Why would you have an opinion if this opinion will never have serious consequences, and if nothing depends on your decision?

The “stupidity argument” against democracy is therefore circular: it excludes people from politics because they are supposedly too stupid for this “profession”, but they lack knowledge precisely because they are excluded.

Limiting Free Speech (8): The Fairness Doctrine, Limiting or Improving Speech?

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – currently no longer applicable – that required television stations to deal with issues in a fair and balanced way, and to present contrasting viewpoints and give them all some air time (but not necessarily equal air time). The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine.


The FCC, when headed by Reagan appointees, abolished the policy because

the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of [the Fairness Doctrine] restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters

and hence “chills speech” and violates the First Amendment. In order to avoid to go out and find contrasting viewpoints on every story, some journalists will supposedly refrain from covering some stories. Hence you have a de facto, not de jure, limit on free speech resulting from self-censorship.

What scarcity?

Another reason given for abolishing the doctrine was that the “scarcity argument” is no longer valid. In the old days, when the number of media outlets was limited, the public couldn’t go elsewhere to find other viewpoints, and the Fairness Doctrine could be justified. Today, however, with the internet, blogosphere, cable and satellite television, this is no longer the case. If anything, there’s too much punditry.

Public support

There’s some truth in all of this, but still I think there are good reasons for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

  • First of all, the claim that it limits free speech is somewhat awkward. How can a rule that multiplies the number of views and arguments that are represented in the media, be called a limit on the freedom of speech? If journalists will not cover a topic in order to avoid having to go and find opposing views, than this is either because there are no opposing views (if there are, they will quickly assert themselves) or because the journalists are lazy. After all, why do we have Google?
  • Secondly, there’s public support for the Fairness Doctrine. A recent poll by Scott Rasmussen asked whether the government should require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of liberal and conservative political commentary. 47 percent said “yes”, 39 percent were opposed.
  • Thirdly, the scarcity argument is still valid, albeit in another way. Sophisticated audiences, tech savvy, with knowledge of where to find information and enough spare time to do so, will not benefit from a reinstated Fairness Doctrine. They will make sure that they get their balanced information from different sources if one source isn’t balanced. But other people will benefit, in particular those who rely on one or a few media-outlets for their information. Some of these people may be burdened by low levels of education and poverty, and hence are especially vulnerable to the effects of one-sided reporting.
  • And finally, it is common knowledge that the quality of public debate and information in the U.S. is not what it could be. What we hear and see on television, radio and the internet is often no more than shrill partisan shouting. The issues are oversimplified, nuances get lost, sound bites rule, and much of the time the really important issues are pushed back by sensational trivia or personal attacks. A requirement to air opposing views would temper this and would improve the quality of political debate.

Democracy rests on opinions: opinions of candidates on policies, opinions of the people on candidates and policies, opinions on proposed policies and on executed policies. It’s therefore of the utmost importance that these opinions have some kind of value and aren’t knee-jerk impulses, prejudices, intuitions based on personal attacks, etc. Only well-considered opinions are good opinions and well-considered opinions are those that are tested in discussion and that survive as many counter-arguments as possible (see here).

Clearly, the media have a responsibility in this respect and have to present the struggle between arguments. They shouldn’t just be the mouthpiece of one side of the argument. They are indeed the “fourth estate” and are necessary for the functioning of a democracy.

We shouldn’t forget that opinions are not readily available. They are the result of thinking, studying, deliberation and discussion. If we want the people to have opinions, and preferably well-considered opinions, then we have to create frameworks for debate. We shouldn’t allow democratic elections – or even opinion polls and referenda – to be a simple system for tapping opinions that aren’t based on debate, or that often don’t even exist as opinions when they have to be tapped.

Limiting Free Speech (4): Derogatory Speech

In this series, I examine the possibility of limiting certain kinds of speech, and especially the possibility of legal limits. As stated in the introductory post in this series, such limits are possible but should be exceptional given the importance of the freedom of speech.

So-called derogatory speech is a form of speech which expresses ridicule, mockery, contempt or derision. It is a disparaging kind of speech that often takes the form of cartoons, caricatures, pamphlets, comedy shows, outright insults etc.

The main justification for limiting free speech is the possibility that speech violates others people’ s rights. When I claimed that limits are justified in the case of holocaust denial and hate speech, I did so because I believe that these kinds of speech can violate rights, and when rights come into conflict, a balance should be found and one right has to give way for the other. In some cases, limiting the right to free speech of holocaust deniers or hate preachers is a lesser harm than the harm that would be done if they were allowed to speak.

In the case of derogatory speech I think this is not the case. Derogatory speech is often silly, sad and pathetic, but the only harm it does is the insult suffered by the target, or perhaps a feeling of dishonor and a loss of self-esteem. People should be able to live with insults and there are no rights to protect self-esteem or honor. The reason we have a right to free speech is to protect speech that causes offense. Inoffensive speech hardly needs protection.

But is it really true that insult is the only harm produced by derogatory speech? One could argue that derogatory speech causes other kinds of harm. It perpetuates negative stereotypes of certain minority groups in society, groups which are already relatively vulnerable. Or it devalues the collective image of the group, thereby deepening social divisions and increasing the risk of discrimination. It may also erode the capacity of the majority culture to be receptive of new identities or communities. Tolerance may suffer.

Moreover, derogatory speech makes it more difficult to have a rational debate on important subjects. It poisons the debate. Neither the Muhammad cartoons, for example, nor the subsequent reactions from parts of the Muslim community did anything to foster the debate on the multicultural society. Ridicule, just as threats of violence, kill the discussion.

John Rawls reminded us that free speech should contribute to rational debate. The purpose of speech is to convince, to examine arguments, to revise one’ s opinions in the light of as much information as possible, to submit one’ s opinions to a critical public etc. Neither ridicule nor threats can advance such a vision of debate. (source)

All this is undoubtedly true, but is it enough to prohibit derogatory speech? I don’t think so. The best defense against harmful speech is either counter-speech or simple disregard. If we start to prohibit insulting speech, we take the slippery slope: anything can be insulting.

Cultural Rights (1b): Tolerance

Tolerance as such is not a recognized human right, but it is closely connected to human rights. Why have the right to free speech or freedom of religion if your speech or religion is not tolerated?

Another person, another opinion or another way of life is not just something we have to tolerate like we tolerate bad weather. Social life is not completely negative or meaningless. The company of other people is not only a burden we have to tolerate. The company of others, especially the public company of others, is beneficial because it is necessary for thinking and knowledge. See my post on Kant.

The other person is a necessary part of each human life. We not only tolerate the other person, we also use him, follow him, contradict him, discuss with him, help him etc.

Diversity and tolerance of diversity can be very beneficial because they make it possible for us to learn from others, to debate with others and take into account their objections and counter-arguments, whereby we can come closer to the truth. We can take advantage of diversity and of tolerance of diversity, because diversity means other opinions and criticism of our own opinions. The school of tolerance teaches people to reap the benefits from conflict and difference, and makes people suspicious of all efforts to eliminate conflict or to let it degenerate into violence. Tolerance is more than just a restraint on violence. It contributes in a positive way to life.

Diversity is not, however, something static. Tolerance does not mean accepting diversity as it is and as it will always be. The purpose of tolerance is not to make opinions coexist without interaction of any kind other than bare acceptance, and acceptance is more than an armistice necessary to keep the peace between interests of which no single one is strong enough to impose itself. It must be possible to convince other people, to create a common will, a general interest or even a consensus that is limited to a small group. The function of tolerance is not to separate people and opinions, nor to maintain differences as they are. Its function is to make confrontation between opinions possible. Tolerance keeps aggressive people out of each other’s way; it does not keep people as such, let alone points of view, out of each other’s way. Confrontation can, of course, modify points of view and can eliminate (or enhance) differences. We have opinions on opinions, we judge, we convince, we become convinced, and we change our opinions accordingly. That is why difference in a tolerant world is something dynamic.

It is not because we tolerate someone or some point of view, that we do not have the right to say that this person is mistaken or the right to try to convince this person. Without the possibility to convince, the right to free expression loses much of its meaning. The pleasure of expressing an opinion, showing off and expressing our identity are not the only reasons for expressing an opinion. In most cases, we express an opinion because we want to convince other people. However, taking into account the importance of convincing could lead to another aberration. Tolerance should not be considered as something temporary, necessary as long as opinions differ. Opinions will most probably always differ, and we will therefore always need tolerance.

Given the importance of convincing, we should not blame people for being intolerant when they criticize or even laugh at another point of view. You can be tolerant and “politically incorrect” at the same time. After all, tolerance is there to make criticism possible. Without tolerance, there is only unity. And unity implies the absence of criticism. You are intolerant only when you suppress opinions or customs, when you persecute, physically attack or discriminate people who have another opinion or custom, or when you use force to change people’s opinions or customs.

Tolerant people therefore do not have to leave things as they are for the love of peace, because of indifference, lack of power, or whatever. If you want things to be different, go ahead and argue. You should not be accused of intolerance. Tolerance is sterile when it is no more than putting up with each other or avoiding to persecute people with different beliefs. Tolerance should lead to relationships based on the benefits of difference, criticism and public life.