Nation, World + Society

‘Silence is the failure to do things with words’

Free speech scholar Rae Langton presented the inaugural UCLA Distinguished Lecture in Philosophy

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Rae Langton lecture
Ellen Evaristo/UCLA

Rae Langton

While delivering her vision of how we might “reimagine free speech,” philosopher Rae Langton outlined four required conditions for a healthy free speech environment.

First, free speech is for people not for corporations. Second, a successful free speech culture depends upon equality — everyone should feel empowered to participate without fear of reprisal from whomever — whereas forced silence is the result of hierarchy. Third, it requires a supportive community that provides people the training and education necessary to pursue and insist upon the truth. A society that is serious about free speech, Langton said, needs to be serious about supporting the capabilities in people that foster a culture of knowledge, for example, creating educational programs that encourage critical thinking. Last, speakers, active listeners and engaged bystanders who support an egalitarian, knowledge-seeking society are needed for free speech.

“The point of free speech is knowledge. Truth and knowledge,” Langton said recently to an audience of more than 100 UCLA philosophy students, faculty and guests. “Nobody seriously thinks that we are giving up on truth. If we gave up on truth, that would mean the end of democracy. To give up on truth would be to give up on the very thing that gives free speech its point. It matters because of knowledge, and knowledge requires truth.”

Langton, the Knightbridge Professor and chair of the philosophy department at the University of Cambridge in England, was on campus as the UCLA Department of Philosophy’s first distinguished lecturer. Langton works in moral and political philosophy, history of philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of law, speech act theory and feminist philosophy. She has a long-standing interest in speech acts and social justice. Her “Re-imagining Free Speech” talk on Feb. 1 capped a week-long visit that included two seminars on her papers — “Blocking as Counter-Speech” and “The Authority of Hate Speech” — on how speech may establish authority and how it may also be marshalled to resist abusive authority.

Made possible by the Kaplan Panzer Philosophy Endowment, the distinguished lecturer program is intended to help connect philosophical thought to a wider audience by inviting a leading philosopher to give a public talk.

“This lecture culminated an intellectually stimulating and inspiring week about the resources available to each of us — conversation-by-conversation — to work to make the speech environment conform to our ideal of it as an egalitarian forum for the pursuit of knowledge,” said Seana Shiffrin, chair of the UCLA Department of Philosophy. “We are honored that Professor Langton was the philosophy department’s first distinguished lecturer, and we look forward to bringing other distinguished lecturers to campus in future years.”

During her talk, Langton stressed that passivity is a threat to a flourishing free speech culture.

“Once you reimagine speech as doing things with words, then silence is the failure to do things with words,” Langton stated. “Enlightenment and education are part of the solution to the problem of ‘evil speech.’ Is that going to be enough? I am going to suggest that we need more.”

Her suggestion to do more involved criticizing one standard defense of free speech.

“The ideal of speech says falsehoods and fallacies just need to be uttered, there will be counter-speech, and that counter-speech will show that it is wrong,” Langton said. “But this has not worked to answer hate speech … We need to rethink speech itself and rethink how we address the ideal of speech.”

The question-and-answer period featured some lively exchanges. Langton was asked about commercial speech and commercial forces that foster falsehoods to gain readers and sell ads.

Langton pointed out that neither corporate speakers nor robot speakers are speakers in the sense that the most compelling defenses of freedom of speech, such as those offered by John Stuart Mill or Justice Brandeis, have in mind. Those defenses imagined truth-seeking thinkers engaged in sincere, if impassioned, discussions responsive to reasons.

“The extent to which free speech applies to them is parasitic on how free speech applies to ordinary citizens,” said Langton, who drew a contrast between her critiques of corporate speech and the media’s right to free speech.

“Yes, free speech for the media is really important, but not because they are important as corporations,” Langton said. “It’s because of what they do, when they are doing it correctly that contributes to the goals that free speech is supposed to be serving. It’s because of what they contribute to ordinary people as speakers and as listeners especially and as contributors to the democratic process.”

Visting law professor Larry Sager asked if there was a conceptual difference between silencing and being on the losing side of an argument.

“Being thwarted at the level of your speech act itself, or illocutionary silencing, is a more profound kind of silencing than failing to persuade someone of your view,” Langton said. “Failing to persuade someone is not achieving the effect that you wanted to achieve, but failing to perform the speech act that you wanted to perform — that’s a failure intrinsic of the act itself.”

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