APA Speech Policy, the Marketplace of Ideas and Doing Public Philosophy

I don’t often engage in debates, philosophical or otherwise, in internet forums. I have kids and better things to spend my time on. But I did recently take a stand against the American Philosophical Association’s new policy on Bullying and Harassment, available here.  Brian Leiter has also strongly opposed the policy over at his blog. In a nutshell it says that the APA will not tolerate racist, sexist, verbal abuse and outright threats of violence against members of the profession. It goes on to say that those who engage in such activities should “cease and desist.”

I posted the following on the APA Blog and Daily Nous Blog:

After reading this statement, I have to confess that I’m glad I (i) did not renew my APA membership and (ii) no longer serve on the APA Public Philosophy committee. Uncivil speech is inevitably part of public discourse. Threats should not be. Call the police if you’re threatened with physical harm. Verbal attacks or insults directed at someone because of their race, sex/gender, age or disability status should be met with better arguments, not group censure or public shaming. Let the marketplace of ideas do it’s work. Cease and desist language is for lawyers, not philosophers.

While I completely agree that threats of violence are unwarranted (as well as illegal), I believe that the other kinds of speech (racist, sexist, ableist, hate), while considered uncivil, are perfectly permissible in public forums. Threats of violence are not. Toleration of uncivil speech is bound up with the very American idea of a “marketplace of ideas” (Mill, Holmes, etc.).  Out of the cacophony of the market in ideas (yelling, screaming and arguing), the truth will hopefully emerge and prevail.  If someone decides in advance what kinds of speech and ideas are permitted expression in the market, then some good speech and true ideas might never come to light. Public shaming and group censure also tend to chill free speech and thus undermine the working of the marketplace of ideas. I’d rather live in a world, to loosely paraphrase the jurist Learned Hand, where I, as a citizen of a democracy, can freely express myself, than one where I, as a subject ruled by a “bevy of Platonic Guardians,” have my expression policed by those who are supposedly so enlightened that they know what constitutes acceptable speech. Unfortunately, I think the APA has decided to become the Platonic Guardians.


Some background on why I’m interested in this issue: I served on the APA’s Committee on Public Philosophy. This committee initiated the Bullying and Harassment policy statement after I left. While I was on the committee I noticed that more and more members were going down this dangerous road, away from promoting public philosophy generally (no matter how uncivil or objectionable) and towards promoting a more sanitized or circumscribed version of public philosophy (civil and within the bounds of what is considered acceptable academic discourse). Unfortunately the rough-and-tumble world of politics does no operate according to the same principles at work in the Academy. Ideally, people both inside and outside the Ivory Tower would be respectful, civil, not racist, not sexist, not ableist, etc. But the reality is much different. Bridging the divide between academic and popular discourse can be daunting. That’s the challenge of doing public philosophy.

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