THE HARMS RACE

According to John Stuart Mill, in a liberal democracy all is permitted save what is prohibited. And what can be prohibited must be demonstrably harmful. But what’s meant by harm? It can’t be just a setback of interests. Your opening a coffee shop across the street from mine might set my interests back considerably, and so I might say you’ve harmed me. But it’s not the kind of harm we deem actionable.

Suppose I tell you you’re wrong about something, something to the truth of which you’ve been deeply committed. I’ve hurt your feelings, and a hurt is a harm. But is it the kind of harm you’re entitled to demand that I forego? It would be were it not that telling me I’m wrong to speak my mind might hurt my feelings. Well, somebody’s feelings are going to get hurt. So whose should it be?

Some people think we should be setting our sights on minimizing harm, and so we should privilege those whose feelings are most likely to be hurt, and/or hurt the most. But these kinds of interpersonal utility comparisons are notoriously susceptible to the fallacy of self-identification, i.e. to the squeakiest wheel getting the grease. Each of us will try to designate our own #card as trump. I’ll want it to be my J-card. No, it’s trans women. No, it’s ‘indigenous’ women. Actually it’s white heterosexual men. And so on.

Other people are getting just a tad fed up with the ‘harms race’. (My wife independently coined the term, but neither of us can believe no one else thought of it too.) If everyone’s a victim, then for all intents and purposes no one is. And that suggests we should probably drop this appeal to hurt feelings entirely, and replace it with … With what?

I have an idea. Let’s not replace it at all. Let’s say that unless there’s a demonstrable likelihood of my inciting physical violence, I can say whatever I want.

Well, maybe not. In most liberal democracies I can call you a nigger or a kike or a fag in private. I can even say I think all niggers or kikes or fags should be killed. But not in public. And not because saying so is likely to incite violence. Nor because, if you happen to be black or Jewish or gay, your feelings might be hurt. Rather it’s because – and this was Thomas Hobbes’ argument for censorship – such expressions undermine the conditions of civility.

I think Hobbes is dead right on this score. But the question is this: Does denying the Holocaust, or mocking the concept of indigeneity, or insisting that marriage be confined to between a man and woman, undermine the conditions of civility? Put another way, do any of these positions express, even in this attenuated sense, ‘hatred’ of Jews or Indians or homosexuals? They do not. Or at least the onus falls on the would-be censor to show that they do.

But what’s been happening, both in public discourse and now within the academy, is not just that that onus has been reversed. It’s that any attempt to discharge that reversed onus is itself counted as hate speech. To be charged with anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia just is to be convicted of it.

But precisely because we’re committed to civility, here’s what we all-too-easily forget. Apart from consequences like actual incarceration, being convicted of an offense requires giving it uptake. Don’t. The next time you’re accused of racism, or homophobia, or whatever, don’t tell your accuser how much that hurts your feelings. She cares about her feelings, not yours. Just look at her with a look of genuine incomprehension, as if she’s just accused you of wearing a blue tie on a Wednesday, and ask, “And so …?”

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