Teresa M. Bejan
+ Your AuthorsArchive @tmbejan Prof @Politics_Oxford of Political Theory & author of Mere Civility (HUP, 2017; paperback, 2019) bit.ly/MereCivility Jul. 22, 2020 5 min read

1) Last week, I made the case for ‘free speech’ as parrhesia — the Ancient Greek word for ‘saying it all’.

2) I argued that critics of ‘cancel culture’ are right to worry that the right to speak one’s mind freely, without favor or fear, is under threat.

But as I explain in my 2017 Atlantic essay, cancel culture’s defenders care about free speech, too -- but as 'isegoria'.

3) The word isegoria also comes from Greek, meaning ‘equal speech in public.’

It describes the equal right of citizens in Ancient Athens to take the speaker’s platform and address the democratic assembly.

4) This right was one of the most radical features of Athenian democracy.

It meant that every adult male citizen had the right not only to speak but, more importantly, to be HEARD by his peers.

When he spoke, his fellow citizens listened.

5) Of course, part of listening meant holding him accountable for what he said - sometimes by shouting or literally ‘de-platforming’ him.

Understandably, it was sometimes scary to speak your mind freely in the Assembly (as Plato’s brother, Glaucon, found out).

6) Today, we think of free speech in the sense of isegoria—as the right of every person to have an equal ‘say’ in public affairs —as essential to democracy.

Unfortunately, in practice, this ‘equal voice’ is normally limited to voting for representatives to speak for us.

7) But proponents of cancel culture want us to do better, to realize the ideal of equal speech by creating a public political culture in which every person has the equal freedom to speak --

and to have their voice COUNT and be HEARD.

8) As it stands, our public political culture is vastly unequal. A few voices have the power to monopolize discussion—

And those powerful speakers sometimes exercise their parrhesia in ways that harm or ‘silence’ others, often on the basis of their race or gender identity.

9)This is the objection to @jk_rowling and her comments on trans-women, and why many people objected to my using her as an example.

Proponents of cancel culture argue that ‘silencing’ Rowling through economic and social sanctions is simply a way of holding her accountable --

10) Limiting or denying her a platform arguably equalises speech, ‘turning up the volume’ on voices that have been suppressed and excluded for too long.

The same idea of Isegoria motivates calls for 'no platforming' or speech codes on campus.

11) In order for speech to be free, it must first be meaningfully equal.

In other words: parrhesia should give way to isegoria.

Some voices must be silenced so that others can be heard.

12) I am sympathetic to these arguments, up to point, because I agree that equal speech is an essential aspiration in democratic societies.

Some of the followers I gained last week may be disappointed to hear this!

13) But in debates about cancel culture, both sides are emphatically ‘missing the point’ when it comes to opponents’ concerns.

Many self-styled practitioners of parrhesia are indifferent to the righteous indignation against them grounded in concerns about equal speech.

14) Thus I never said that the value of parrhesia was absolute, or that it’s justified as a means to truth or justice, let alone equality.

Free and frank speech *can* lead to truth, *can* promote justice, *can* defend equality, but it can also falsify, injure, and demean.

15) (In fact, John Stuart Mill’s argument that free speech is justified, above all, as a means of truth-production is one of the things I disagree with him about most!)

16) Nevertheless, when it comes to the public sphere, I give parrhesia priority.

Certainly, I weigh its value more heavily than many of my colleagues.

I do this because I’m sensitive to an important fact —

17) That even as identity *absolutely* shapes how speakers are received, and whether they can get a hearing in the first place--

Nevertheless, it remains the case that *identities* don’t speak. Individuals do.

18) Identity categories may be politically necessary as vectors of oppression.

And yet, identity does not determine what individual human beings think, nor what they have to say.

Members of racial, gender, or ethnic minorities certainly don't think or speak univocally.

19) A culture that protects the freedom to speak one’s mind — and to be wrong, and change it!—is thus critical in allowing individuals from different backgrounds to develop their minds and voices,

To get a hearing not because of *who* they are, but what they have to say.

20) Moreover, projects of mutual understanding -- which are *also* political necessary in democracies -- depend on the willingness of parties to *say what they actually think*.

21) Call it a feature, call it a bug: we all have minds of our own.

In order to *really* change them, we need to be free first to speak them, and have discussions in which we can trust that our interlocutors want to *persuade*, not *punish* us.

22) I see this individualism as fundamental to my vocation as an educator.

And to speak frankly: I am worried about the number of academics willing to endorse *punishment* over persuasion in the case of 'powerful' figures like Rowling or @bariweiss.

23) I’d (lovingly) encourage colleagues to check their privilege here, and remind them that from the perspective of 95+% of our co-citizens, we are the powerful.

We may not *feel* that way—but neither will any individual on the receiving end of collective Twitter outrage.

24) Consider also what sort of example we’re setting for our students when we say that those who are wrong should not be corrected (with mere civility), but *punished*.

What kind of case is this for the life of the mind, or the special freedoms that we, as academics, enjoy?

25) To conclude: I want parrhesia AND isegoria.

Still, I’m skeptical that the latter can be realized on the scale of the public sphere or society at large.

26) And I fear that the strategies of suppression exclusion employed to do so will be ineffective at equalizing speech...

But all *too* effective at destroying parrhesia for *everyone* -- above all those struggling already at the margins.

27) As I said in 2017:

’The genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together, by securing the equal right and liberty of citizens to speak their minds...’

28) ‘The alternative is allowing the powers-that-happen-t-be to grant that liberty as a license to some individuals and deny it to others...

When the rights of all become the privilege of the few, neither liberty nor equality can last.’

29) I still think that.

P.S. Many, many thanks to @abbey_st @nescio13 @MarxinHell @schillingerdk @CLU_theory and many more for comments and push back, I’m really grateful.

I look forward to thinking more about why I’m wrong, with your correction and encouragement!

You can follow @tmbejan.


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