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lies and lying liars
September 13, 2010 5:50 AM   Subscribe

The marketplace of ideas and bad-faith arguments.

I'm looking for instances in which liberal thinkers like Mill, Hayek, Habermas, and Rawls deal with the problem of bad-faith arguments. When these people talk about a "marketplace of ideas," what allowances do they make for lies, propaganda, intellectual dishonesty, denialism, and so on? How do they explain (or explain away) the crushing efficiency of rhetorical tactics that refuse reality or just plain muddy the waters?

I'm talking less about cognitive biases and more about deliberate bad faith, though both are interesting to me.

Please also note that I'm using "liberal" in the academic, political science sense. That is, I'm not talking about American Democrats, even if the sorts of bad-faith arguments that most easily come to my mind are from Fox News. I'm interested in the way liberal theorists of democracy, across the left-right spectrum, have addressed the problem of lying, denialism, trolling, etc.; it's not about "liberals" in the sense of party politics.
posted by gerryblog to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm unclear about a couple of things:

1) I'm looking for instances in which liberal thinkers like Mill, Hayek, Habermas, and Rawls deal with the problem of bad-faith arguments. Are you asking how these people deal with their own bad-faith arguments, or those of others? And what, exactly, do you mean by a bad-faith argument?

2) How do they explain (or explain away) the crushing efficiency of rhetorical tactics that refuse reality or just plain muddy the waters? I don't know what this means.
posted by dfriedman at 6:01 AM on September 13, 2010


Easy answer: in a free market of ideas, other people will point out the errors. Their voices will tend to win out.

"Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." -- Louis Brandeis
posted by John Cohen at 6:04 AM on September 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Do you require the thinkers to be the classic liberal thinkers such as above? Because I know there are some moderately current Canadian Supreme Court cases on aspects of freedom of expression that specifically refer to poisoning the groundwater of the marketplace that you may be interested in. I'll try to find them.
posted by Lemurrhea at 6:09 AM on September 13, 2010


dfriedman:

1) Are you asking how these people deal with their own bad-faith arguments, or those of others? And what, exactly, do you mean by a bad-faith argument?

How they deal with the inevitability of lying in the marketplace of ideas. By bad-faith argument I want to cast a wide net that includes things like denialism, trolling, cherrypicking facts, willful misinterpretation, and so forth. I'm interested less in the person who *really believes* Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim and more in the person who knows it's bullshit but pretends to believe it anyway.

(2) How do they explain (or explain away) the crushing efficiency of rhetorical tactics that refuse reality or just plain muddy the waters? I don't know what this means.

Sorry. All I mean is that lying really works -- for instance, it's impossible to have a useful policy conversation about climate change because of the success of denialists in spreading lies and misinformation.

John Cohen posted exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for, though the "easy answer" that truth will always win over falsehood in a free market of ideas seems to me to be almost empically disproven at this point.
posted by gerryblog at 6:15 AM on September 13, 2010


Lemurrhea, no, that sounds like exactly what I'm interested in. I've love to see those cases.
posted by gerryblog at 6:16 AM on September 13, 2010


John Cohen posted exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for, though the "easy answer" that truth will always win over falsehood in a free market of ideas seems to me to be almost empically disproven at this point.

Reality usually turns out messier than political/legal/philosophical theory.

Also keep in mind that there are other rationales for free speech aside from an efficient market of ideas. Most people who make this kind of argument aren't so utopian that they imagine that poor reasoning or lies will never prevail; they may like free speech as freedom per se, and then justify it after-the-fact with the market or truth-seeking rationales.
posted by John Cohen at 6:24 AM on September 13, 2010


Another issue is: what would be the alternative? Do you want some government official to decide what's true and what's not, what's well-reasoned and what's not? How would you ever trust this decision-maker?
posted by John Cohen at 6:32 AM on September 13, 2010


A couple examples of why you wouldn't want to trust any truth-seeking official (TSO):

- In a democracy, this TSO would be swayed by popular opinion. The TSO might be less favorably inclined toward unpopular or dissenting opinions, e.g. socialism or radical opposition to US foreign policy.

- Let's say you think it's outrageous for people to say Obama is a Muslim when he's obviously a Christian. But why assume the TSO will agree with you? Why do you think it's so clear that Obama is a Christian? Because he says he's a Christian! But how do you know he's not lying? It's at least as much in Obama's political interests for him to say he's a Christian as it is for his opponents to say he's a Muslim. (You could argue that he's been going to church for decades, but a skeptic could easily explain how this could have been disingenuous behavior to suit his political interests.) The TSO would need to investigate all this and come up with findings in order to enforce "the truth." Wouldn't that be a lovely spectacle?
posted by John Cohen at 6:43 AM on September 13, 2010


Even though there are lots of falsehoods that are still widely believed, there is at least some reason to think that truth eventually prevails over falsehood. Human civilization does, after all, show some forms of progress. When we consider what used to be considered normal, such things as the crusades, the Inquisition, the witch burnings, the bizarre medical practices such as the bleeding of patients, the geocentric view of astronomy, the divine right of kings, and so forth, a lot of bad ideas have eventually been abandoned (although the current war on terror has at least some points in common with the crusades, so the bad ideas are not completely abandoned - at least, not yet). Who knows what progress the future will bring? It may be that by the 22nd century, the human race will have fully rejected all of the foolishness which continues to plague us in the 21st century. Of course, that is only speculation. It is also possible that by the 22nd century, civilization as we know it will have completely fallen apart and the remnant of the human race will have fully reverted to barbarism.
posted by grizzled at 7:00 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Milton's Areopagitica ... A defense of free speech (and, of free religious practice) as a good thing in and of itself, relying partly on religious justifications, i.e., God wants us to seek truth and the state should not suppress that in case the state is wrong:

"And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:04 AM on September 13, 2010


You might be interested in this casebook by Columbia law professor Vincent Blasi.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:34 AM on September 13, 2010


I hesitated before answering this question as, unless you are working as an academic climatologist, the tone of your comment on the climate change issue implies a certain... commitment to your beliefs, and a degree of epistemic certainty, that is not entirely healthy, especially if you absorb the arguments I'm about to suggest.

Nevertheless: This is a bit more recent that Mills et al., but Stanley Fish had made some important arguments that bear on this question. I'd recommend his book, The Trouble with Principle. For example:

The abstractions at the center of First Amendment jurisprudence - freedom of expression, the free flow of ideas, self-realization, self-governance, equality, autonomy - do not in and of themselves point us to the appropriate distinctions or help us to order a set of facts on the way to rendering an opinion. Before we can proceed to do those things, the abstractions have to be filled in with specifications of what is included in their scope, specifications they themselves do not provide.

Although free speech values supposedly stand alone and are said to be independent of circumstance and political pressure, they only become thick enough to provide a direction for decisionmaking when definitions and distinctions borrowed from particular circumstances (and borrowed selectively in relation to some substantive agenda) are presupposed as their content. You must determine what you mean by “expression” or what is and is not a “free flow” or what does and does not constitute “self-realization” in relation to what notion of the self before any of these so-called principles will have any bite. And since these are not determinations those principles can make for themselves, when they do have bite, when invoking them actually gets you somewhere, it will be because inside them is the outside - substantive values, preferred outcomes, politics - from which they are rhetorically distinguished.

– Stanley Fish, The Trouble With Principle, pp. 141 - 142.


Thus:

One of the first questions I always ask students and audiences is “What is the First Amendment for?” I ask the question not because I want to recommend a particular answer but because I want to say that if you have any answer to the question, any answer at all, you are necessarily implicated in a regime of censorship. The reason is that when you say that the First Amendment is for something - perhaps for giving the truth a chance to emerge, or for providing the minds of citizens with the materials necessary for growth and self-realization, or for keeping the marketplace of ideas open in a democratic society - it becomes not only possible but inevitable that at some point you will ask of some instance of speech whether it in fact serves its high purpose or whether it does the opposite, retarding the search for truth, stunting the growth of mature judgment, fouling the marketplace.

This is not an empirical but a logical inevitability; for if you have what has been called a consequentialist view of the First Amendment - a view that values free speech because of the good effects it will bring about - then you must necessarily be on the lookout for forms of action, including speech action, that threaten to subvert those effects. Otherwise you would be honoring the means above the end and cutting the heart out of your moral vision. And to continue the logic, at the point you discern such a threat and move against it, you will not be compromising the First Amendment; you will be honoring it by performing the act of censorship that was implicit in it from the beginning.

– Stanley Fish, The Trouble With Principle, pg. 115.

posted by gd779 at 7:50 AM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


though the "easy answer" that truth will always win over falsehood in a free market of ideas seems to me to be almost empically disproven at this point.

Hardly. Obama is President of the United States. More importantly, he has some important things to say on this very subject: "I never said change would be easy."

Truth winning out requires hard work. Very hard work. Such is the lot of the small d democrat. So get cracking at the water cooler, in the bars and on the internet. Its up to people like us to steadily spread the truth.

To add: there is a heavy cost to lying, too, if you are caught. Nobody believes you anymore. This is really the corrective of a marketplace of ideas.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:53 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


This quote from J. S. Mill, (from On Liberty, Ch. 2) is sort of relevant here:

But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes.... Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either. The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it ...

Of course, Mill was talking mainly about persecution, though he includes "social penalties." Presumably, bad-faith arguments have less "crushing efficiency" than execution or censorship.

It's also worth noting the Mill thought that freedom of speech could only work in a society where people had a reasonable level of education. From the same essay (Ch.. 1):

Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.
posted by nangar at 9:04 AM on September 13, 2010


Beware of relying too much on Milton. However memorable the passage about the fugitive and cloistered virtue is, he wasn't prepared to allow freedom of thought to Catholics and other impious or immoral people:
"I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled: that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or manners no law can possibly permit ...". (Quoted from Project Gutenberg.)
Areopagitica was a defence not of unlimited free speech per se, but of unlicensed publication--the former law required books to carry at least a printer's mark, precisely so the printer of a heretical or immoral book could be identified and punished.

But bless you Eyebrows, you got me to go back and read Aeropagitica again. Gods I wish I could write like that.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:18 PM on September 13, 2010


"To add: there is a heavy cost to lying, too, if you are caught. Nobody believes you anymore. This is really the corrective of a marketplace of ideas."

In the example of Fox News, Glenn Beck etc, they're called out on unambiguous falsehoods on a nearly daily basis from many sources with no apparent effect on their audiences.

A thought I've had before is that public schools could teach defense against propaganda and the importance of checking against multiple sources before trusting anything, in the vein of "Education is the glue that holds democracy together."
posted by EtzHadaat at 12:22 PM on September 13, 2010


"Areopagitica was a defence not of unlimited free speech per se, but of unlicensed publication--the former law required books to carry at least a printer's mark, precisely so the printer of a heretical or immoral book could be identified and punished."

Yes, and I'm not sure Milton entirely makes his case (see nagnar's quote above you for one counterpoint), but it does touch on what the OP is after and it's deeply influential on the First Amendment and on American thought about free speech, press, and religion.

"But bless you Eyebrows, you got me to go back and read Aeropagitica again. Gods I wish I could write like that."

I know, it's soooooooooo gorgeous!

And I sincerely hope that was a multi-godded blessing! ;)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:55 PM on September 13, 2010


I'd say that the executive summary of all of these is that liberal thinkers tend to justify the existence of bad faith arguments, lying, etc., with more bad faith arguments (namely, "Truth will win out in the end"). Look at John Cohen's rationalizations as a perfect example: "Do you want some government official..." as though that's how it really works.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:12 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


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