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February 28, 2018



Re: innate flaws: What then?

Well then we'd need to build structures of democracy and government that ameliorate some of our flaws. This is not easy, but looking around the world it is possible to see some ways to at least do better than we do now.

Paul Cotterill

Habermas' response to your challenge, Chris, would be something along the lines of:

"The idea that "innate flaws in human reasoning" can distort communications seems to presuppose that reason and communication are distinct human activities, but the whole basis of my 'linguistic turn' towards deliberative democracy based on a universal pragmatics was a reading of the empirical evidence, esp. Kohlenberg, which shows that reasoning is innately a interpersonal communicative process, that we are hardwired to mutual understanding (Verstandingung) and that logically, therefore, disruption to clarity of communication (and thus the value of free speech) is logical consequence of 'non-lifeworld' influences (of capitalism).

He'd say it in about a 1,000 pages, which is a bit of a sales problem, but I think he's right.

Patrick Kirk

One third of people seem to be racist and the rest of us have no issue with abusing and ridiculing them. If we have the right to make hurtful comments that offend and de-legitimise a third of the population, then they have the right to make comments that offend and de-legitimise us. If they lose that right, them all of us will end up being censored.

Ed Seedhouse

If human reasoning is so innately flawed how did we manage to make moon rockets, computers and the like? How did we manage to find out, for example, that the visible universe had an origin in time and has not been here forever?

I think science proves that human reasoning, properly handled, is good enough. What we need to do is to find a way to generalize this success to other kinds of reasoning. This is a difficult, but by no means hopeless endeavour.

Ed Seedhouse

Also, if human reasoning is so flawed that we cannot trust it, then surely the very conclusion that our reasoning is so flawed cannot itself be trusted!


'Instead we need to ask: what would a rational, pluralistic inclusive Habermasian political discourse look like?

I agree with Paul that we need

a public sphere in which, as far as possible, all citizens have a right to express, and have heard their views, through formal democratic structures and civil society mechanisms.'

Would it not look like a huge computer network say, where the majority of citizens get their serious, evidence backed, information from sources as diverse as bloggers such as: Stumbling and Mumbling to a Tim Worstall and everything between?

Just asking.

If so, no need to abandon the highest demands placed on us by Mill or a Voltaire is there? I always think of Russell's bookshelf when I think of the bloggers on my own democratic list. 'Look there, I have the Bible and next to it Voltaire.Poison and Antidote.'


I think you're misunderstanding Mill.

Let's say many are immune to reason and persuasion. This means there is no objective social utopia, socialist or Fukuyama-n.

If we are to reject repression, we must be free to self-organise into polities which reflect our prejudices and, to some extent, make people who don't share them feel unwelcome.

Avoiding repression requires people to be free to move between these cultures and polities. To choose at any time whether to live on Daily Mail Island or in Guardianistan.

But without free speech, we cannot discover difference and we cannot make the choice.

So the function of free speech, and why it must be protected, is to expose people to the choice of cultures on offer, and allow new ones to emerge.

A Leviathan is required, but with very strict parameters: to guarantee free movement, prevent subversion and underwrite free speech.

This allows you to create your Marxist paradise and for anyone like-minded and attracted to it to join in. Equally, it allows their children to become Singapore-style techno-feudalists, or Amish.

If we apply this to your example of homophobia, we might assert that it's OK for a polity to be homophobic so long as gay people are free to leave and aware of the alternatives.

The ultimate form of democracy is to vote with your feet.

Dave Timoney

The nature of debate hasn't really changed since Mill's time, even if the characters and the media have. Afua Hirsch's description is a perfect thumbnail of the Victorian Church of England: a long-established monopoly supplier of opinions that enjoyed huge structural advantages. Mill's irrelevance is less to do with a change in circumstances than with his focus on a type of speech that reflected the manners of "posh white men".

Modern laws on speech tend to focus on what should not be said because of its social harm (incitement to racial hatred, singing the Horst Wessel song etc), but the "free speech" of popular discourse concerns who has the right to speak (and to dominate speech), which is why an elitist like Mill keeps getting dragged into the debate to support contemporary vested interests.

The Internet has been (on balance) a Habermasian force for good because it has widened access to speech. Hoist by their Millian petard, elitists have been obliged to claim that this increased plurality is actually a growth in irrationalism and impropriety, while myths like the filter bubble are promoted to deny the potential for greater dialogic democracy.

For that reason, I'd take the suggestion of "innate flaws in human reasoning" with a pinch of salt, not because I don't beieve such flaws exist, but because I doubt they matter that much. Much of what we assume is irrational is simply evidence of framing. For example, it's as easy to construct a questionnaire that leads to conflicting answers as it is for a government to make an agreement with conflicting clauses - see the Irish border.


Well, I wasn't going to say anything and then I read the comments. They're cute! I assume they were all posted by straight white people whose lives and rights have never been threatened by officially-sanctioned bigotry. My black grandparents couldn't vote; my father was so tortured by his commanding officer in the Air Force in the 1960s that the organization was motivated to give him an honorable discharge; one of my female family members was forced to (briefly) marry her rapist; everybody I know who was born poor suffered because the primary American narrative that describes poverty amelioration involves nothing but the application of bootstraps. That the state, and its paid publicity apparatus, should be primarily focused on making sure every vilely-racist snowflake gets his megaphone time is an opinion that can only be held by people who think they're safe. "Free speech" doesn't mean that lies and facts get equal airtime, or that people who sanitize and distribute bullshit for a living count as cultural critics.

Speaking of which: Anybody who feels that Jordan Peterson is anything other than a complete & highly comedic moron isn't arguing from a serious perspective, either. He hasn't been silenced at all, in fact (he even still has a job, the dear thing), and the problem is exactly that his silly opinions do conform to the narrow range of acceptable views; they're the goofy, awful things your racist grandpa thought 50 years ago, repackaged as self-help motivational speeches.

we might assert that it's OK for a polity to be homophobic so long as gay people are free to leave and aware of the alternatives. The ultimate form of democracy is to vote with your feet.

And where are we supposed to go, exactly? With what money? Under whose protection? And who decides what a "polity" is allowed to believe, anyway? This sounds suspiciously close to an unregulated market, with sanctioned witch-burnings.

Also, the idea that the dumb things people have so far invented is proof that the human mind is an infallible machine is weird. How much better might the world be if its self-appointed conquerors hadn't been confined to particular cultural narratives — women can't do math, black people are a kind of animal, etc. These stories, which were allowed to pass for facts in their time, have had provable effects on society. Without them, the human race might've devised innovations more useful than a purely symbolic moon landing and an iPhone with a hypothetical battery. Who knows? It should be in the public interest to eliminate these narratives as diligently as possible, no matter how the economy is organized.

This seems pretty much like the thesis of the post? Only with the names & arguments of dead theorists carefully applied, of course. I still don't know what Jordan Peterson's doing in there.


If you give the masses the vote you can fully expect their opinions and therefore votes to be manipulated by cheer leaders and publicists. Most of the time this hardly matters, the cheer leaders and publicists merely want to sell more tellies or cars etc.

But what beats me is Brexit. Seems a stupid idea, not worth wasting a nanosecond on. The big question is why the mega rich supporters of the Telegraph and the Mail etc are so very keen on it. Putting aside the rhetorical rubbish about sovereignty and plucky little England and the racism the big question is what is in it for the mega rich.

Because all I can see is faster decline with nothing but bad effects for the economy. Land, property and business will all be worth less and no Sunny Uplands. This may offer a one off buying opportunity but what then. Sure, the likes of JRM might make a few bob shorting the £ but after that - nada. Has no one told the mass voters that a race to the bottom will not be a nice thing - for them.

So what is the real motivation driving the Brexit newspaper barons. Is all this trouble worth a reduction in the cost of butlers and maid servants?


Bernays in Crystalising Public Opinion and Propaganda sets out how matters were then and still are to a great degree, though admittedly the internet does permit some more heterodox views some more space for expression. Though note how the bots are being deployed to disrupt discussion which their masters dislike.

Rogerh -good question. Increased control of the Uk government is one possible answer where the press barons are concerned. Murdoch is said to hate the English so perhaps he just wants to do as much damage as he can before he dies?


Afua Hirsch "The marketplace of ideas, like many other markets, has monopolies, rackets and biases. Long-established “suppliers” of opinions with entrenched positions in “the sector” enjoy huge advantages. "

well if there is one person benefitting from the monopolies, rackets and biases it is Afua Hirsch. I don't think I'm the only person on the planet tired of being lectured by this uber-porivileged person about how downtrodden she is.


@ rogerh

and countless other Remainers lecturing us poor stupid Brexiteers.

"The big question is why the mega rich supporters of the Telegraph and the Mail etc are so very keen on it"

I have two contradictory answers to this. the first is that they sell a product, so they give customers what they want. If their customer base is Brexit, they are a pro-brexit paper.

The notion that newspapers form public opinion is obviously the wrong way round. People are free to buy the Guardian or The Independent if they feel the need. surely it is readers that form the newspapers opinions.

The second answer is that while the Daily Mail was pro Leave, the Mail on Sunday was pro Remain. Much to Mrs Dipper's annoyance. She stopped buying it. To my point above.


«But what beats me is Brexit. Seems a stupid idea, not worth wasting a nanosecond on.»

That's ridiculous: it is a bad idea, but it is worth discussing because it is about important issues: less sovereignty and independence for the english as an USA protectorate, or more sovereignty and independence for the english people as a big voting block in the EU, for example.

«The big question is why the mega rich supporters of the Telegraph and the Mail etc are so very keen on it.»

That is pretty easy: in a first approximation the English Union (sometimes mislabeled as the United Kingdom) is dominated by the english elites, and as Murdoch is reported saying, he is a big cheese in England with a lot of influence on the Westminster and Whitehall elites and close to none on the Strasbourg and Bruxeless elites.

Secondarily, a large part of the english business and property elites would rather be even more under USA protection than less: they see the USA but not the EU as the ultimate protection from socialist confiscation, like the USA protect the elites of Dubai and Kuwait from the 80% of their population who are poor immigrants. These are largely the "whig" components of the Conservatives (rhe "redwoodians").

Finally, a significant part of the business and property elites, in particular the property elites, the tory component of the Conservatives, feel that mere membership of the European Union is a national humiliation. In the past the english elites were TOP DOG in the English Empire, today they are TOP DOG in the English Union, but they are outraged to be just a "big dog" among 2-3 others in the EU (the "moggists").
They would be happy with the EU only if England had 80% of the votes in EU Parliament and the EU Council, and 80% of the EU Commission members were from the Eton/Oxbridge english elites, because that's what they regard as the natural state of affairs that obtained 1640-1940.

All three elite factions want to "take back control": Murdoch and other publishers want to keep their control over UK politics, the "redwoodian" libertarians keep control in USA hands, the "moggist" elitists want to keep control in the hands of the southern Eton/Oxbridge upper classes.


Whether or not people have a right to free speech is irrelevant when it comes to TV, radio and newspapers, as they decide the parameters of who to invite for comment on any particular issue.
Remember a few years ago the endless parroting of 'Of course we all agree that the cuts/austerity are/is necessary...' and any discussion about economic matters is usually confined to asking the opinions of MPs and a representative of 'business'.


«It should be in the public interest to eliminate these narratives as diligently as possible, no matter how the economy is organized.
This seems pretty much like the thesis of the post?»

Well, it is a very ancient thesis: that wrong thoughts voiced as wrong speech may act as incitement to wrong actions, and the wrong actions are so horrible that every effort is justified to eliminate any possibility of wrong thoughts becoming wrong speech leading to wrong actions.

As long as we all agree what "wrong though" is.

Fortunately our extreme far-right Conservative government knows, and the MoD+MI6 hunt and liquidate those who express the wrong thoughts through wrong speech, because in the future they may commit wrong actions that are horrible crimes. Better safe than sorry, according to the Conservatives and their voters.

Handy Mike

Of course the classical liberal case for free speech is questionable. *Everything* is questionable. That's Mill's point, and it's a hard point to miss. Which is why, I suppose, attempts to miss it always look so strenuous.

You have to ignore the jarring irony of questionable phrases like 'homophobia' and 'normalisation' in telling a questionable causal story about speech and societal dispositions. You have to resort to the laughably questionable method of supporting that argument by merely linking to Waldron's rather questionable book. All of this atop the hope that that people won't have considered it questionable whether Littlejohn's piece was indeed 'homophobic'. Not a questionable assumption around here, but I read it via the link, and guess what?

Pushing on, you have to join the questionable, and rather fake, panic about fake news to allege that public discourse has lost interest in evidence and reason. In questionable support of which you have to claim that pro-Leave lies weren't challenged by the media. Actually, that one's not merely questionable, it's just straightforwardly false and silly. But then you can rely on, or at least link to, Hugo Dixon's questionable In-Fact site.

Then, really leaning in now, you have to draw a perversely questionable conclusion from the Newman-Peterson affair. Instead of the rather more obvious one, which is that given how that interview generated several further news-cycles, generally outside the MSM, it matters less and less who or what Channel 4 news and their kind decide to exclude or distort.

Having thus, very questionably, made the case for a monolithically heedless media establishment, it's much easier for you to carry on missing the point with your next questionable claim, that the business of speech is a business indeed, and in that, subject to the same hazards as business in general.

You do seem to have spotted that all this might amount to a rather questionable case for repressing free speech though. So instead of that, 'we' want reason and expression governed by whatever sinister discursive bureaucracies second generation Critical Theorists hope will secure the political outcomes they desire. Questionable certainly, but mainly just incredibly chilling.

Now, while it's questionable how much familiarity you really have with the works of Waldron or Habermas, I had assumed you'd read Mill. But perhaps this too is questionable. Why else would you have omitted the Millian argument most obviously pertinent to our present difficulties with free speech: that the tremendous social force of convention and conformity, enforced by publicly voiced disapproval, are as much a threat to freedom of expression and thought as the coercive rules a 'Habermasian' Public Sphere would inevitably deliver? Littlejohn seems aware of this argument in his piece, why is it missing from yours I wonder?

It's just all very questionable. Maybe better just to let people carry on questioning.


Hi Emma,

The world is an unregulated market, by your terms. And if we accept one of the key recurring themes of this blog, that people very often don’t act rationally and are often immune to persuasion, we face a dilemma. Do we impose liberal values on people under the guise of universal human rights and respect, using a mixture of education, wars of liberal intervention, foreign aid, legislation and shutting down free speech we disagree with?

One might argue that all it takes is a overlong period of economic stagnation for the liberal orthodoxy to become resented. Hence Trump and Brexit.

You scoff at people voting with their feet, but ignore that we now live in the age of mass population movements. People aren’t just fleeing war zones and persecution, they’re fleeing bad government and shit economies.

So we can keep trying the liberal model that very large numbers of people reject, albeit for many different reasons. Or we can imagine what laissez faire might look like.

Self selecting, self governing communities. As I wrote, the only way to avoid social and ideological inspired conflict is to create a market authority which can guarantee free movement and free speech. It’s the BDSM principle applied to politics: whatever turns you on, so long as it is consensual.

Maybe such a Leviathan is a much of a fantasy as the notion that humanity, given the chance, tends towards liberalism.

But nothing really prevents us trying it within the modern concept of the State, or indeed within the concept of the supra-national State, such as the EU. Maybe the UN can be put to better use.

Think about it this way: what if the real problem with somewhere like North Korea is that the people there don’t understand the alternatives to living in NK and don’t have the option to leave?

derrida derider

"Murdoch is said to hate the English ..." - Anonymous2

Another thing to blame Tony Blair for.

Dave Timoney

"The big question is why the mega rich supporters of the Telegraph and the Mail etc are so very keen on it".

Most of the rich, and in particular the larger capitals, are not in favour of Brexit. That rightwing newspapers are is not simply a reflection of a more Brexit inclined sentiment among the smaller capitals in their readership, or the prejudices of the proprietors, but of the structural nature of the media. This is significant enough to outweigh loyalty to the interests of UK capitalism.

Newspapers are language products whose growth historically mirrored the creation of monolingual nation states, so they have a commercial interest in the discourse of nationhood. This means they invest far more in concepts such as sovereignty or native rights, not to mention symbols such as the Crown or the Union Jack, than is objectively justified by either the interests of their readership or their owners.

Brexit is the fever dream of a newspaper industry in a slow but terminal decline, exacerbated by the stresses and strains originally outlined by Tom Nairn in 'The Break-Up of Britain'. That no one is sure how to implement it is evidence of the lack of a consensus among UK capitalists.

The political challenge is to come up with a settlement that pays lip-service to the idea of leaving the EU while not screwing the economy. The problem is that a settlement that does this while simultaneously preserving the national ideal of our rightwing newspapers isn't possible.


"If we apply this to your example of homophobia, we might assert that it's OK for a polity to be homophobic so long as gay people are free to leave and aware of the alternatives.

The ultimate form of democracy is to vote with your feet." This is surely the daftest thing I have read in a long time. Being forced to flee your homeland because the public or state persecute you has a name: it is called exile. It is not a good thing or justified by an appeal to democracy and stands JS Mill on his head since the protection of minorities is one of his reasons for preferring liberal constitutional states to other forms of government. A Liberal state as conceived by Mill and other classical theorists is the opposite of such an idea. You also seem to misunderstand the quote from Lenin, the masses voting with their feet were fleeing an unpopular ruinous war to return back to their homeland and care for their families. Thus helping to destroy Tsarism. It has absolutely nothing to do with your feeble attempt to argue Gay people should tolerate homophobia and piss off elsewhere.Like Putin in Russia.

The arguments of Mill are reasonable if you are assuming that the free debate in question is taking place between educated "gentlemen" discussing Philosophy at Cambridge Uni at a certain time in history. Trying to persuade other gentlemen of the desirability of certain technical ideas or to support votes for women. The problem with this idea of free speech is of course two fold. Outside the Uni the media is monopolised by capitalists who distort debate so it is not free. The second problem is that it is not clear that you can avoid the harm principle being violated. All my arguments for liberty Mill says are qualified by the utilitarian rule that we should ban activities which cause involuntary injury to others. The Benthamite foundation of Law and Morals.

If I publish a pamphlet by handing it out on the street to passers by, and in my pamphlet I say the "Jew" is the cause of all our misery "let us march on their houses and burn them down", what should happen to me? Suely if the legislature can ban arson it may ban those who wish to incite it by criminal law. There is liberty, but then there is unjust harm namely licence, which should be forbidden. Such a policy is not contrary to a liberal society but required for one to exist. A demand that we burn down the houses of the gays is of the same form. And no, Staberinde, people do not have to become or should not have to become exiles to avoid the harm society should prevent by public justice.


The decision to drop Leveson 2 is relevant here.

Much of the noise about free speech comes from those who wish to lie and bully with impunity.

The arguments for free speech presume a balance of power now lacking as the checks and balances have been removed.

If you don't think so then try to imagine how you would fare if a tabloid decided to attack you.


"What if the many irrationalities that distort debate now are due not just to capitalist ideology and power structures, but to innate flaws in human reasoning? What then?"

Thankfully, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has the answer in the FT this weekend. Firstly, the Anointed One must be identified. Happily, this is McDonnell himself:

"Rob Marris, a former MP who served in McDonnell’s first Treasury team, says he is only interested in ideas that accord with his world view: “He is inclusive, as long as you don’t cross him.” "

Then, having identified that you do not need to concern yourself with the ideas or views of others, you feel sufficiently emboldened as the Anointed One to make a comment like this:

“Our objectives are socialist. That means an irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people.”

So, there you have it. You appoint yourself the "Anointed One" and create an "irreversible shift" to avoid trifling matters like democratic votes which are contaminated with the flawed views of others.


Hi Keith,

The problem with your argument is that you envisage a homogenous world as your destination. Eventually, people will be educated and persuaded out of their bigotry. The racists and homophobes will grow old and die off.

In other words, liberal values win.

But we've seen plenty of evidence that liberal values don't always win, that society can regress ans well as progress, and that a liberal culture is not everyone's agreed destination.

The problem is democracy. If people are allowed to change their minds, then they're allowed to change constitutions and tear-up human rights too.

Enforcing liberal values eventually leads to wars of liberal intervention, which are fine until your enemy is bigger than you (China), has stuff you depend on (Russia, Middle East) or is willing to fight on partisan/terrorist style if they lose the formal war.

Surely we have to accept that the world must accommodate people who disagree with liberal values, that it always will, and that if we are to minimise conflict and maximise human happiness we must make it easier for people who hold similar values to associate and for those who find themselves in a 'hostile territory' to get out?

You cite antisemitism, but Israel is actually a good example of my point: all Jews are welcome, and one else - perhaps not.

Mill's notion of tolerance is an ideal that doesn't work in the real world, where people don't have to put up with compromise and fudges. Instead, they fight, they seek devolution and independence, they migrate, they ghettoise, they gentrify, they create echo-chambers, they read the newspaper that agrees with them.

I actually wanted tolerance to work. I'm a centrist and willing to live in a world of compromise if others are. But they're not. We live in a world of irreconcilable values, where the progressive Left's red lines are fundamentally incompatible with those of a great many other people - and those people can vote Leave, Boris and Trump.

Instead of trying to rub along with each other, let's not. Let's embrace our NIMBY-ism see whose communities thrive and which ones stagnate. Let's embrace true subsidiarity, devolution and independence movements everywhere.

That's diverse and pluralistic. It means everyone is free to be themselves and be among their fellow travellers - so long as some can enforce free speech and free movement.

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