Thursday, September 22, 2022
Here is the last of our summer conference pieces on "Liberalism's Limits," this one by Professor Steven Smith. Steve's reflections on the shifting role of individual identity in liberal polities suggest that while there has always been a strong case against regulating hate speech in such regimes, there is now a strong case for it. A bit:
In a different way, though, liberalism may strengthen the case for regulating hate speech. To see how, let us notice the importance of something that is typically taken for granted but that modernity and liberalism, in particular, can render fragile–namely, personal identity.
Think of it this way: public policy decisions are typically debated by reference to people’s “interests”–in health, prosperity, etc. But “interests” presuppose persons who are the bearers of those interests: no persons, no interests. And to be a person, one must be biologically alive and possessed of the DNA of homo sapiens, of course, but one must also have an identity: otherwise, we would be only a blob of tissue and psychic activity, not a person. Hence, a threat to persons’ identity is more fundamental than a threat merely to their “interests.”
In most situations, identity may seem to be simply given. But identity can become problematic. Individuals may become perplexed and paralyzed by the question: “Who am I?” And such identity crises can proliferate to become a societal problem. Indeed, “the question Who am I? is now one of the most fraught of our time,” Mary Eberstadt reports.
Moreover, liberalism seems to aggravate this problem, in at least two interconnected ways. First, liberalism can subvert the grounds or sources of identity. Simplifying, we can say that in most times and places in Western history, people’s identity has typically been grounded in two main sources: their religion, and their family or social relations. You were James, Roman Catholic, son of Geoffrey and Alice–or Bonnie, Protestant, daughter of William and Anne. But the liberal project has been, if not exactly to undermine church and social structures, at least to liberate the sovereign individual from dependency on these institutions so that she can “be herself,” or “be who she really is.”
That is because a core commitment of liberalism is to the individual as the locus of “dignity” and meaning, and hence to individual autonomy as the central normative value. This individualist commitment pervades liberalism–in its conception of liberty and rights, in its emphasis on equality (equality of individuals), and in its commitment to authenticity and the individual conscience. And on these individualistic assumptions, it is demeaning to suggest that someone’s identity depends on a relation to a church or parent or spouse. You are “your own person,” not just someone’s son or daughter or spouse.
But if a person can no longer define who he is by reference to church or family or social position, how is he supposed to understand his identity?...
In these ways, liberalism contributes to the fragility of personal identity that is widely perceived in the Western world. The desperate quest for and obsession with identity–with questions of Who am I really? and How can I be who I really am?–is discernible in various contemporary phenomena: in the proliferating tribalism and identity politics, in the transgender movement, in the effort by millions of people to discover their biological parents or ancestors...
In this context, the question of hate speech takes on a different character. It may now seem misguided and insensitive to describe the injury caused by hate speech as mere “hurt feelings.” Something more basic may seem to be at stake. Thus, suppose that having been freed from the traditional dependence on church or family as the moorings for my identity, I have come to answer the Who am I? question by reference to my race, or my sex, or my sexual orientation. I am standardly classified–and so I come to conceive of myself, perhaps–as a “heterosexual white male.” Now, if someone seems to be denigrating my race, or my sex, or my sexual orientation, they are not merely injuring my interests or hurting my feelings. Rather they are attacking the very bases of my identity.
True, the utterer of hate speech may not inflict any bodily injury on me. And yet, in undermining my identity, he is nonetheless threatening me–is threatening my very existence as the person I am–just as surely as if he were physically assaulting me. Or at least so I might perceive the matter, and so many people today seemingly do perceive the matter.
In this respect, by undermining the bases of identity, a liberal society may be indirectly creating a case for regulation of hate speech that is more urgent than would be true in a non-liberal society in which the traditional bases of identity remain intact and unthreatened, so that the injury caused by hate speech could be passed off as mere offense.