Culture of Discussion: Right to Insult?
In his defense of what we would today call free expression, John Milton utters a plea in Areopagitica for what he considers the most basic freedom:
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. (Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, February, 2010)Why should we allow him that? Because through untrammaled utterance, truth will out -- as he reminds us concerning truth only a few lines later in his text:
Let her and Fals[e]hood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors[e], in a free and open encounter. (Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, February, 2010)What interests me in today's post is that Milton apparently meant for this "free and open encounter" in the interest of truth to include polemics and even personal attacks, as we see in Milton's attack upon Anglican bishops in Book 1 of his Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty:
I trust God will manifest it ere long to be as false a slander as your former slanders against the Scots. Noise it till ye be hoarse, that a rabble of sects will come in; it will be answered ye, No rabble sir Priest, but a unanimous multitude of good protestants will then join to the church, which now because of you stand separated. This will be the dreadful consequence of your removal. As for those terrible names of sectaries and schismatics which ye have got together, we know your manner of fight, when the quiver of your arguments, which is ever thin and weakly stored, after the first brunt is quite empty, your course is to betake ye to your other quiver of slander, wherein lies your best archery. And whom ye could not move by sophistical arguing, them you think to confute by scandalous misnaming. (John Milton, Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty, in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes, Hackett Publishing Co., 2003, page 659)Whether Milton be right or wrong in the substance of his accusations, he is definitely being polemical in his leveling of personal attacks and even of insults. He accuses others of slander. He might well be accused of it himself. Certainly, his opponents could well feel themselves insulted. Consider his even more polemical tone further in the same text as he continues his attack upon Anglican bishops with words that slur the Irish and the Catholics:
The prelates which boast themselves the only bridlers of schism, God knows have been so cold and backward both there and with us to repress heresy and idolatry, that either through their carelessness or their craft, all this mischief is befallen. What can the Irish subject do less in God's just displeasure against us, then revenge upon English bodies the little care that our prelates have had of their souls. Nor hath their negligence been new in that island, but ever notorious in Queen Elizabeth's days, as Camden, their known friend, forbears not to complain. Yet so little are they touched with remorse of these their cruelties, for these cruelties are theirs, the bloody revenge of those souls which they have famished, that whenas against our brethren the Scots, who by their upright and loyal deeds have now bought themselves an honourable name to posterity, whatsoever malice by slander could invent, rage in hostility attempt, they greedily attempted; toward these murdrous Irish, the enemies of God and mankind, a cursed off-spring of their own connivence, no man takes notice but that they seem to be very calmly and indifferently affected. Where then should we begin to extinguish a rebellion that hath his cause from the misgovernment of the church. Where but at the church's reformation and the removal of that government which persues and wars with all good Christians under the name of schismatics, but maintains and fosters all papists and idolaters as tolerable Christians. (John Milton, Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty, in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes, Hackett Publishing Co., 2003, page 663-664)Although Milton is blaming the bishops for an indifference to the souls of those under the sway of English rule, an indifference that left the Irish in their Catholic faith, he clearly has disdain for the Irish themselves, as well as for Catholics generally and for . . . idolaters (whoever might be intended by this slur). Obviously, Milton is hardly above slander, insults, and polemics generally.
Should such ad hominem attacks be permitted?
I would say yes. Strictly speaking, they stand mostly outside a culture of discussion, for they are usually poor arguments for or against a substantive position, but they should be protected speech because the defensive wall constructed to guard free discussion needs to be at least as encompassing as the wall built around the Torah in Rabbinical Judaism.
Absent that wall of protection, even a substantive statement could be taken as an insult, so if insults are not protected speech, substantive arguments could be forbidden. In a hierarchical society, the substantive words of a one lower in the hierarchy could be taken as insulting if such words question the views of someone higher in the social structure. In Korea, Japan, and China, for example, with their strongly hierarchical social structure, precisely this sort of problem arises, such that the substantive disagreement of a 'junior' with a 'senior' can be taken as an insult by the latter. Substantive critical arguments are thereby suppressed, and truth -- as Milton would say -- often suffers. This has been pointed out by Ho-Chul Lee and Mary Patricia McNulty in "Korea's Information and Communication Technology Boom, and Cultural Transition After the Crisis," for they note that Confucian hierarchy stifles free expression because debating or criticizing individuals of higher rank is considered impolite:
Traditionally, most Koreans have a modest demeanor and are shy in presenting themselves in public. Compared to many other cultures, Koreans may appear to have poor oral communication abilities, such as presentation and public speaking. Traditional Korean culture teaches that it is impolite to debate or criticize, in particular against more senior ranking persons and the elderly. Korean audiences generally remain silent and do not raise questions or express opposing opinions; both presenters and audiences for the most part feel uncomfortable discussing and debating issues. Koreans believe that a direct response can hurt the other party's feelings, and so sometimes use ambiguous expressions instead of clear "yes" and "no" answers. The traditional Korean demeanor is an obstacle to developing a culture of discussion that is a fundamental factor of democracy and also can be a hindrance in the modern business world.From this study, we see just how subjective the sense of 'feeling insulted' can be. In East Asian societies shaped by Confucian values of hierarchy, any open expression of opinion can be taken as an insult by a higher-ranking individual, and the awareness of this by lower-ranking individuals can too often suppress uncomfortable truths.
For most Koreans, "saving face" is a top priority. In Korea, "saving face" means preserving one's dignity, self-respect, or good reputation and entails careful attention to the expectations of others, including adherence to the social order. Modesty is a key component of "saving face." These cultural aspects of Korean culture have stifled free discussions and debates, and due to such behaviors, Koreans are easily misunderstood and/or underestimated in western societies where a more assertive "show and tell" demeanor is positively encouraged and is the norm . . . .
Koreans' modest demeanor is closely related to East Asia's traditional culture. East Asian societies have developed to include a hierarchical social order based on Confucian values. The hierarchy puts priority on etiquette in keeping social order. Young people are expected to respect elderly people and obey them, just as lower-ranking persons are expected to show respect and obey more highly ranked persons. Under such a hierarchical structure, young and low-ranked persons are not free to express their opinions. This emphasis on courtesy and deferential behavior, particularly regarding younger and older persons, sometimes imposes a barrier to free expression . . . . (Ho-Chul Lee and Mary Patricia McNulty in "Korea's Information and Communication Technology Boom, and Cultural Transition After the Crisis," Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), April 18, 2004, page 27 [paper written when authors were at Office of the Senior Vice President for Economic Development and Chief Economist at World Bank, Washington, DC])
Without the right to insult, a free and critical culture of discussion can therefore not be achieved, and since the latter is necessary to the pursuit of truth, then 'insults' must be accepted as legitimate, legally protected expressions.