Coerced Silence

In some post somewhere near the beginning of my blogging with an intentional focus on “education,” in attempts to define and understand it as a social system as well as in attempts to discover the ways we are “taught” how to behave outside of those curricular and pedagogical walls, I asked myself and what audience I might have imagined having, “What is a school?”  I’m not sure I have met a definition that I would want to stand by as a “good” as I understand the term.

 

Much of what follows comes at the impetus of this column by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian, “Free Speech v ‘Community’” and the impetus for his column comes out of this Op-Ed by Georgetown Law Prof. Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post, “Shut up and play nice: How the western world is limiting free speech.”

 

(I sure wish IU Law Prof Dawn Johnsen would write Op-Eds like this; but perhaps the political weather would not favor her coming out critically about, well, anything done in the era of Obama.)

 

Turley writes (and Greenwald quotes)

“Free speech is dying in the western world. While most people still enjoy considerable freedom of expression, this right, once a near-absolute, has become less defined and less dependable for those espousing controversial social, political or religious views. The decline of free speech has come not from any single blow but rather from thousands of paper cuts of well-intentioned exceptions designed to maintain social harmony. . . .

“Of course, free speech is often precisely about pissing off other people – challenging social taboos or political values. . . .

“Such efforts focus not on the right to speak but on the possible reaction to speech – a fundamental change in the treatment of free speech in the West.

***

 

Many of you will be aware that I was terminated from an aide position in a public school system after barely three “business” weeks of work.  The reason given?  My blogging “ridiculed the administration” and “was not conducive to a collaborative environment.”  No specific blog post was cited and in the HR denial of my “appeal” it was made clear that several blogs were examined.  Again, no specific blog posts or the time frame of postings that might have been examined.

 

Now, initially I supposed it was one post in particular, “Instructed to Ignorance,” which its very title might be admitted to be a “challenge” to “social behavioral norms” inculcated in schools via curriculum and hierarchical structures.  Perhaps the whole of it is “objectionable” to the “harmonious” operations of the system.  At the time I assumed the administrator of the building might have objected to this section:

 

The Principal, a man, comes out into the hallway and approaches a group of five kindergarten boys.  One of the boys had been making loud growling and roaring noises, the others, laughing and talking.  The man, 6 feet tall and of athletic build, tells them their behavior is unacceptable and inappropriate, disturbing other students as they work in their classrooms and disturbing him as he works in his office.  The boys stand, motionless, and stare up at him, most of them have their mouths open.  The growling, roaring boy has his firmly shut.  Is appropriate behavior the instruction?  Or is it rather that the Principal is a large, scary man?  Like the dogs they are at this age, they will forget and need a repetition of a training stimulus.

“If behavior is not controlled, it becomes random.  The control of response is essential to the human enterprise.  But ultimately response can be controlled only by force.  Culture is defined as instructions for performance; or, culture turns behavior into performance.  Meaning, it is proposed,  is sustained by redundancies, the constant reiteration of cultural directions….Without that redundant reiteration behavior disintegrates.  (Morse Peckham, Explanation and Power)”

In the age of constructed and limited environments (tightly controlled) passed off as unlimited fantasy machines, i.e., the computer and its digital spawn, it is a gift to find randomness at all.  Long live the growling, roaring child who stalks the hallways with hands shaped into claws and eyes wide in performance.  It is this behavior that we step on rather find a way to channel.  We want our students to be like the gray-pink pork under cellophane at the grocery store–no variation, no flavor, bred to predictable consistency…we’ll let you know if you get to handle the spice rack as an “enrichment” possibility.  Perhaps we fear the wildness in one will be a kind of nitrogen-fix for the other withering and wilting children in our hot-house schools.

Long live the wild things allowed a wilderness of unconventional thinking; long live the adult, the parent, the teacher, strong enough to love them and reinforce their wildness, and, of course, to keep their dinners warm.

I have no knowledge of what might have actually been at issue in the situation.  I am left speculating as the representatives of systems must not ever commit the sin of revelation.  One commenter did privately offer what I’d say is a rational institutional perspective.

 

…if I read this about myself, I would feel upset and, probably, somewhat betrayed to be described by an employee as “…a large, scary man”….I know that this pulls the entire thing out of context; however, that is what people do….

If I was a parent and read this I would be concerned.  I would be concerned that kids were described as “the dogs they are” again, out of context.  And I would be concerned about the description of the principal.  I would also be concerned that an employee who I trust my kids with might write something about them in a public forum.  I would not be cool with that.

Rational, perhaps, as all “reasons” are rational, but as Turley notes above, “reactionary” in its “predictive” condemnation.  This is almost to say, “If there is a chance you might offend, speak not and so ensure an harmonious operation of our systems.”  This, of course, is the basis of the coercion of those “on the inside” who might have knowledge of which a public ought to be aware and allowed to be angry or sanguine or apathetic or whatever about.

 

 

***

 

Below I excerpt another post from Greenwald at The Guardian that again seems to me to bring into sharp focus the “ethos” that has shrouded our very conceptions of “freedom” and “liberty,” the core of which must be that set out in our First Amendment to the Constitution (this “Right” is on offer in our local newspaper on the Editorial page).  Here it is in full.  It’s simplicity guards its great power:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 

As I noted on Sunday, the New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan devoted her weekly Sunday column to an excellent critique of her paper’s coverage of US drone attacks. While noting that the Times has done some good work in attempting to bring transparency to the Obama administration’s secret killings – in particular its May “kill list” article revealing that Obama adopted a ludicrously broad definition of “militant” that skews the “data” on civilian deaths – she then wrote:

“Since the article in May, its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration’s description of those killed as ‘militants’ – itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers.”

There are, to put it mildly, numerous reasons for serious skepticism when it comes to administration claims about its drone program and civilian deaths….

All of this makes Sullivan’s call for journalistic challenge to administration drone claims not just unremarkable but self-evident. But her desire for adversarial skepticism very much upset perpetual government defender Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution. At his aptly named blog “Lawfare” – the term of derision used by war cheerleaders to mock the notion that “law” has any role to play in restraining their endless wars and the leaders who fight them – Wittes, in his headline, proclaimed Sullivan’s article to be “Very Strange”. After quoting her criticism that the paper has insufficiently challenged administration claims on drone deaths, he wrote:

“I find this a bewildering argument. The Times is not an advocacy organization whose job it is to ‘aggressively challenge’ the government’s claims of the rates of civilian casualties – except to the extent that those claims are untrue.”

It’s amazing that someone not only believes – but is willing to say publicly – that it is not the job of a newspaper to “aggressively challenge” government claims on a highly controversial assassination program that is shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty. That, more than anything else, is the core purpose of journalism (at least in theory): the reason “freedom of the press” is protected in the First Amendment. And it’s precisely the media’s systematic failure – more accurately: its unwillingness – to engage in this function that has produced the last decade’s most destructive outcomes.

 

Was it once assumed that the US government, alone among the world’s governments, was meant to perform its operations in public and under the scrutiny and critique of that public?  It can no longer be assumed, if it ever was (if naively so).

 

But that said, that amendment is respective of laws made by an elected government.  What are the “laws” of corporate governance in respect to these restrictions?  What are the “laws” of “public” corporations in respect to these restrictions?

 

***

 

 

 

People who resist the natural human tendency to follow, venerate and obey prevailing authority typically have a much different view about how oppressive a society is than those who submit to those impulses. The most valuable experiences for determining how free a society is are the experiences of society’s most threatening dissidents, not its content and compliant citizens. It was those who marched against Mubarak who were detained, beaten, tortured and killed, not those who acquiesced to or supported the regime. That is the universal pattern of authoritarian oppression.–Glenn Greenwald

 

These national issues having to do with the bully-ethos of our national “foreign policy” are of course on a different order of magnitude than my personal situation, but I would argue this is only a difference in degree and vastly similar (and as important because more “knowable” and identifiable locally) in kind.

 

I believe I can speak personally about how speech is limited.  My speech, though, has not been abrogated; instead my economic life was.  When the bar is closing the bouncer calls out, “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”  This is in a sense what has happened.

 

Yet, this is tantamount to the same coercion; the same oppression.  My lesson, unlearned of course, or “untrained” I might say, is that I cannot speak out against those who might allow me to buy food and shelter in this society.  Money, income, wages, employment–all these considerations abrogate speech.  These are acculturated muzzles to free thought and discussion.  The “government” need not pass laws against it as my very existence and “opportunity” (for life, liberty and the pursuit of…) is limited by other institutions and their power to damage individuals in the service of their own “truth.”

 

In an update to one of the Greenwald posts he quotes J.S. Mill as sent to him by a reader.

 

 

I admit, and you may lament, that I do not like to use one word when a hundred will do, but I take a cue from Hazlitt as a reviewer–I quote at length so as not to limit meaning that may inhere in the larger structure of a piece.  If I select from Mill then I am “reading Mill” for you.  And you should know that even the fulsome selection below does not do justice to the thinking in Mill’s great work On Liberty.  But even I know there are limits!  From our vantage we must read much of this, sadly, in an ironic register.

 

 

CHAPTER II.

OF THE LIBERTY OF THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION.

(J. S. Mill, On Liberty)

 

 

Though the law of England, on the subject of the press, is as servile to this day as it was in the time of the Tudors, there is little danger of its being actually put in force against political discussion, except during some temporary panic, when fear of insurrection drives ministers and judges from their propriety; and, speaking generally, it is not, in constitutional countries, to be apprehended that the government, whether completely responsible to the people or not, will often attempt to control the expression of opinion, except when in doing so it makes itself the organ of the general intolerance of the public. Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in or opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

 

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

 

First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.

 

Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.

 

The objection likely to be made to this argument, would probably take some such form as the following. There is no greater assumption of infallibility in forbidding the propagation of error, than in any other thing which is done by public authority on its own judgment and responsibility. Judgment is given to men that they may use it. Because it may be used erroneously, are men to be told that they ought not to use it at all? To prohibit what they think pernicious, is not claiming exemption from error, but fulfilling the duty incumbent on them, although fallible, of acting on their conscientious conviction. If we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and all our duties unperformed. An objection which applies to all conduct, can be no valid objection to any conduct in particular. It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right. But when they are sure (such reasoners may say), it is not conscientiousness but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions, and allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind, either in this life or in another, to be scattered abroad without restraint, because other people, in less enlightened times, have persecuted opinions now believed to be true. Let us take care, it may be said, not to make the same mistake: but governments and nations have made mistakes in other things, which are not denied to be fit subjects for the exercise of authority: they have laid on bad taxes, made unjust wars. Ought we therefore to lay on no taxes, and, under whatever provocation, make no wars? Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.

 

I answer that it is assuming very much more. There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

 

***

 

Two English teacher quotes:

 

Whitman from “Song of Myself.”

 

The past and present wilt — I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a
minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through
with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too
late?

 

 

And Emerson from “Self-Reliance.”

 

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

 

 

 

 

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