Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Right to Insult?

John Milton
(Image from Milton Reading Room)

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.

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])
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.

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.

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At 8:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was struck by this question found in the midst of this blogspot:

"Should such ad hominem attacks be permitted?"

My hopes were immediately raised by this question, having often been on the receiving end of such as I relate my adventures.

But the last paragraph answered that question, and my trusting hopes were dashed.

JK, nephews Jeffery and Bill, and others who so desire: It appears my literary efforts, and also my self esteem, will continue to suffer.


At 8:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's the unfortunate price that we pay, Uncle Cran, for our right to speak sweet reason.

Or to tell outlandish whoppers like the ones you like to tell . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:16 AM, Blogger Dario Gomez Escudero said...

I have read with much interest your post and must agree with you (now that my son is in bed) that "without the right to insult, a free and critical culture of discussion can therefore not be achieved."

This statement reminds me of Milton´s reference to Sir Francis Bacon,who wrote about "the language of the times" (Areopagitica pg 17 of my online version). Certainly, insults are a lively part of the language of our times (our kids know a lot about it!). I must admit, however,that I never related Milton´s request for freedom to the free use of insults. I always saw Areopagitica as an anti-licensing tract and always regarded all Milton said in Areopagitica as his reasons to build his arguments against the censoring authorities of his times.

Well, perhaps Milton refered to insults indirectly when he mentioned that "Good and evil [...]grow up together almost inseparably."(8) What he does not mention is whether insults are good or evil. I suppose all depends on the situation.

Actually, Milton advices censors to think of regulating in a holistic way, "to rectify manners, we must
regulate all recreation and pastimes, all that is delightful to man" (11). Certainly there is plenty of delight in such type of language from time to time,or at least when my kid is not around.

At 7:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, thanks for the comment. I could probably find even stronger statements of insult in Milton's writings -- though I bet that Milton would insist that the insults that he levels are factually based.

Milton might not have been consciously thinking of the freedom to insult as he was writing Areopagitica, but if pressed, he would -- I think -- have defended the right.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:17 AM, Blogger Dario Gomez Escudero said...

Hello Horace,
On my way to work I was thinking about a passage in Areopagotica where Milton may have meant to insult others and I came up with Milton´s funny description of the censors calling them "two or
three glutton friars" who "are seen together dialogue-wise in the piazza of one titlepage,
complimenting and ducking each to other with their shaven reverences."(pg 7).

Well, this is to me a very insulting image of the religious leaders, isn´t it?

Also, I was wondering if Milton´s indirect references to women could be regarded as insults. What I mean is that, as far as Areopagitica is concerned, Eve is depicted (in my view)as a character whose creation has got the sole aim of showing Adam what evil is (10). That sounds to me very insulting !

Anyway, I love your blog. I learn a lot from you. Thank you very much.

At 8:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, thanks for the kind words on my blog. I use this blog as a way of working out my views on things. This process is productive because I don't know very much.

Thanks also for the Milton material and suggestions. I'll look into these. I wonder if the image of gluttonous friars was meant to convey that the censors gorge themselves on reading but impose asceticism on all others.

Oh, and call me "Jeffery" rather than "Horace," for I don't use the latter except for official reasons.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:29 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...


I read this with interest (I followed the link you posted at Milton L).

As you suggest, there is indeed even more vituperative language to be found in Milton, and while it makes amusing reading, it also foreshadows a terrible Civil War. When discourse crosses a certain line it leads to violence: first you ridicule your enemy, then, if hostilities persist, you dehumanize him so you can destroy him. The line between ridicule and dehumanization is therefore an important thing to recognize, as a political barometer if noting else. Perhaps the location of this line varies from culture to culture. For example, the language that is characteristic of Parliament when it questions the PM in the UK would be unthinkable in the US Congress.

In any event, where will Nigel Farage's kicking at the wasp nest lead? There are elections coming up in the UK, which might explain some of his motive, but at the same time, too, one wonders if Farage's is expressing a kind of outrage--giving voice to a sentiment that also embodies a movement. While the EU President probably won't get his head chopped off, Farage has dehumanized him to the point where many people are wishing perhaps that he should get his head chopped off? Indeed, if Farage is "correct" in his characterizations, the EU President represents a criminal organization of a type and magnitude that, traditionally, is associated with starting world wars.

I hope I don't sound shrill here, but Farage's game is somewhat startling.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, thanks for visiting and posting a substantive comment.

If I recall correctly, Farage is a Euro-skeptic, so his game is likely one of attacking the EU.

I'm not a Euro-skeptic, though I do think that the EU suffers a democratic deficit that will need to be overcome.

I'm also not a free speech absolutist, a point that I deal with in the post subsequent to this one, and in a parliament, there need to be rules of order and decorum. In the newspaper article that you linked to, the implication was that Farage could be held in contempt (or somesuch), so I assume that if he broke the rules, he'll be held accountable.

But in the larger society, I maintain that the right to insult has to be defended, and for the reasons given in this post.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:45 AM, Blogger Dario Gomez Escudero said...

Hello Jeffery,

Following the previous comments on Milton and his possible attitude towards insults, I have come across a very interesting reference (at least for me) that I would like to share with you.

I was reading William Hayley´s comments on Lord Byron´s Don Juan: Dedication and came across an enlightening footnote about Milton´s daughters.

Byron described the poet´s daughters as " hearless daughters,worn and pale and poor" and Hayley´s footnote says: "Milton's two elder daughters are said to have robbed him of his books, besides cheating and plaguing him in the economy of his house, etc., etc. His feelings on such an outrage, both as a parent and a scholar, must have been singularly painful."(

If that was the way Milton´s daughters behaved, it would not surprise me that he had used very strong language to indicate how upset he was.


At 3:47 AM, Blogger Dario Gomez Escudero said...

I meant "heartless". Sorry.

At 3:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, thanks for the reference. I didn't know that particular citation, but I did know of the debate over Milton and his daughters. I don't know who's right about this issue.

I don't know if you were on the Milton List during the 300-year anniversary of Milton's birth, but there was a big argument over a New York Times article by Charles McGrath because McGrath referred to Milton's purportedly 'cruel' treatment of his daughters.

Carol defended Milton, as I recall, along with a couple other people.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Heartless? That's even worse than being deaf and blind!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:11 AM, Blogger Dario Gomez Escudero said...

I have found the NYT article you mentioned and also a very interesting post of yours back in 2008. Here it goes:

Thank you and regards.

At 7:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, again, Dario. By the way, you can set up links better by using the code supplied under "Leave your comment."

Jeffery Hodges

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