Face, Respect, the Sin of Gossip, and ‘Freedom From Speech’

The debate about ‘freedom from speech’ has accelerated.  Greg Lukianoff, author of the Freedom from Speech broadside, has cooperated with Jonathan Haidt, an author I have quoted on Blue Kennel to write an article for The Atlantic criticizing the concept of ‘freedom from speech’ and its negative impacts on mental health.  And I have done a post already on the misuse of some Bible verses to support ‘freedom from speech’.  But there have been other cultures and other ways of dealing with this issue.  Freedom of speech is not universal in world cultures!

Theron Bowers, at Mercator.net, wrote on how insults have been dealt with historically in the West.  In the earlier West, they had court jesters [often people with neurological problems, I’ve heard] that could say things that no one else safely could about the kings and the establishment.

In the not so distant past, angered kings and nobles punished insolence by death, beatings or imprisonment. Although not a jester, the French satirist and court gadfly Voltaire was imprisoned for insulting the aristocracy.  Even in democratic America, men violently protected their honour.

Our leniency with insulting behavior is taken for granted in this age of historical illiteracy.  The legal change is not as amazing as our attitudinal shift.  In 2006, Australian actor Russell Crowe pleaded guilty to third-degree assault for throwing a phone at a surly hotel clerk in New York.  Crowe says that the incident was overblown.  History is on his side; but the law and the social mood are against fights for honour.

Jerome Neu in a new book, Sticks and Stones, the Philosophy of Insults, explores insults and our response to them. vIt has only been within the last century that insults were no longer a justification for assaults and even homicide.  Society did try to regulate the responses to attacks on honour with such customs as the duel.  From our judgment seat of the here and now, most would consider duels and gunfights irrational barbarism.  However, as Neu notes, duels initially limited violence and helped to avert larger feuds between families. . . . Moreover, when we stopped burning blasphemers for insulting God, it was inevitable that lesser creatures, even a king, would have to turn the other cheek.

It is excellent, of course, that in the midst of these fights about ‘hate speech’ and ‘freedom from speech’, we should have a historical study of insult in the West to put things in perspective; the younger generation knows little history.

We do have civil laws about ‘libel’ and ‘slander’.  [Civil law, under the American Bill of Rights, is a lot less limited than criminal law, i.e., the government cannot criminalize speech, but speech can be a civil tort.]  The definition of ‘slander’ is very limited compared to the definition of popular 1970’s Christian teacher Bill Gothard, which is “telling the truth with the intention of hurting.”  And for him, gossip was “the sharing of negative information about anyone with those who are not part of the problem or part of the solution.”  This definition, strictly applied, would shut down book and movie reviews and most intellectual debate altogether.  Fortunately, it is not the legal definition of slander or libel.  At civil law, slander has to be false, and it has to be done with the intention of ruining a person’s reputation in the eye of the public, for to many people reputation is an asset.  Many ordinary insults don’t qualify under this standard.

Then there is the world’s most populous culture, that of China and the countries influenced by it.  Central to Chinese culture is the concept of mianzi, generally translated ‘face’, a kind of combination of reputation and self-esteem.  Pierre Ostrowski and Gwen Penner, authors of It’s All Chinese to Me, warn that the Chines may excommunicate you if you cause them to ‘lose face’, and list the twelve major ways of causing people to ‘lose face’:

  • Not showing proper deference to one’s elders or superiors.
  • Criticizing someone publicly.
  • Turning down an invitation with an outright “No.”  In China, saying “No” to a request is considered rude or impolite. “Maybe” or “I will discuss it with so and so” is sufficient.
  • Being late on a flimsy excuse.
  • Interrupting someone while they are talking.
  • Threatening to fire someone or actually firing them.
  • Catching someone in a lie and exposing it.
  • Becoming angry with someone.
  • Catching people not being able to do something, like speak good English, or catching them not knowing something.
  • Admitting to making a mistake, or forcing someone else to do so.
  • Getting ‘fall down drunk’.

At the same time, asking very personal questions like how much money you make, or pointing out that you are overweight, are perfectly acceptable!

Some of these strictures [not all of them] sound like some of the virtues they are now trying to inculcate in bosses in the Western World.  While there has always been somewhat a civility code in offices, it seems to be stricter now than in my childhood.  There may be an economic explanation for this. Tyler Cowen, in his excellent e-book Average is Over, declares that three things are scarce:

  1. “Quality land and natural resources”
  2. “Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced”
  3. “Quality labor with unique skills”

and two things are not:

  1. “Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy”
  2. “Money in the bank or held in government securities . . . (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)”

Peter Drucker, of course, being Peter Drucker, wrote a book about this back in 1993 called Post-Capitalist Society.  By Post-Capitalist he did not mean socialist.  He meant that money, or financial capital, would have less power than the aristocracy of talent.  It follows from that that the boss, representing financial capital, had better be nice to his more skilled employees and not scold them harshly.  [It is of course otherwise with the unskilled, but few of them are in offices.]  Some of the things a boss can’t do resemble some of the things that cause Chinese to ‘lose face’.

I have not read Jerome Neu’s book.  But I think there’s lots of reason to believe that the human desire for ‘freedom from’ speech, or ‘freedom from’ a lot of other things, is a basic instinct, and, like it or not, often trumps the desire for ‘freedom to’.

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