“How would you arrange the deportation of my father?” On responsible (free) speech. A response to Silvia Mazzini

Could you tell me, face to face or in writing, how you would go about having my father deported? – Why, you ask? – Well, maybe you think he is a burden for society. After all, he is quite old by now. So how do you do get it arranged? Should some people be sent to fetch him? Perhaps at night? Go on, then! –

You, gentle reader, probably don’t have such desires. But if I follow the political discussions in the Netherlands and other countries, many people want that. Only they don’t tell me personally; they talk about certain groups, not to me.

Ah, it’s not old people, you say, just Muslims? So they don’t want to come for my father? Well, lucky me then… Should it make a difference whether people want to deport my or someone else’s father? Well, it makes a difference, but does it matter? Not much. –– The point I would like to suggest is that we can imagine that certain opinions concern us directly, even if they don’t. In a controversial discussion between two opponents, such imaginations can help both interlocutors to make the conversation more personal, concrete, emotional and thus responsible. Following up on my last post, I would like to develop some ideas, then, how we can turn free speech into responsible speech.

In my last post, I tried to show that our disagreements about the limits of free speech are owing to two different ways of understanding how language works. Ultimately, I suggested that the crucial limit of free speech should be determined by the responsibilities we have as speakers. But I didn’t say much about these responsibilities themselves. Commenting on the post, my colleague Silvia Mazzini suggested that responsibility could be seen as offering the other the ability to respond:

Maybe we could then interpret [responsible freedom of speech] like Levinas did: responsibility is the “ability to respond”. In this sense, freedom of speech would mean that all the people involved in a dialogue are able to respond – that they have the intention to consider the different positions of the others.

This strikes me as the way to go. What I like about this idea in particular is that it doesn’t require us to provide a complicated catalogue of virtues or rules. Rather, the responsibility is imposed through the very fact that the opinion is not voiced as a statement about others but to others.

What’s the big deal, you might ask, does it really make such a difference whether I offer my opinion about a policy regarding a group of people to someone in particular? David Livingstone Smith’s work on dehumanisation made me see one point in particular recurring again and again: Although it might be simple to imagine doing harm to a certain group in the abstract, it is really hard to do something harmful to someone directly in front of you. (That is why dehumanising tactics are employed: it is easier to harm someone if you think of them as not really human.) Arguably, this carries over to speech acts. My hunch is that it is much harder to direct hate speech at someone in particular (rather than speak abstractly about members of a group).

My idea is, then, that it is easier to act as a responsible speaker, if you are addressing someone in particular directly. There are a number of reasons for this. Interacting with a concrete person, we are more likely to respond with adequate emotions and empathy, and we have to face the response. Although a face-to-face encounter will be best, I think this will even work in online communication. It makes a difference for me as a writer whether I imagine you, whoever you are, as a concrete person who might frown or agree. Or whether I simply toss out statements about abstract ideas, however much they might affect you. The point is, thus, that we shouldn’t always try to amend online debates by being as rational as possible or by cancelling out emotions. Rather, the task would be to facilitate adequate social emotions necessary for responsible interaction. Addressing others directly should have two consequences: (a) it should be more difficult to objectify and thus to harm the interlocutor; (b) it should invite the other to respond and make me anticipate some response. Thus, if we get people who utter opinions to address people directly in this way, they will speak more responsibly, rendering free speech not a battleground but a possibility for genuine and considerate exchange.

So far, so good. Of course you might have objections, but my worry at this point is not how to justify my idea. Rather, I see the main challenge in implementing it. I think we should give it a try and then see how well it works. So how can we change our conventions? How can we get from talking about people to taking to them? This is an open question, but at this moment I can think of four steps in the relevant contexts:

  • Change speech acts from third-person to second-person sentences: Saying that you should leave this country is much harder than saying that blog readers should leave this country. I’d think twice about what’s going to happen if i did so.
  • People can stand in for targeted people: If you hear someone going on about a religious group, you can respond as if you were targeted. The point is not to lie, but to offer yourself as a possible interlocutor (which might be more effective than just saying that the speaker is a bad person).
  • As a possible interlocutor you can demand the other to (empathetically) imagine your situation: It might make a difference to ask your opponent how she thinks the deportation of your father should be arranged. Rather than discussing the rights and wrongs in the abstract.
  • Dehumanising language must be rejected. Of course, there are limits. It is vital to state that, if your interlocutor crosses a red line.

Now you might think that all of this is too difficult. I doubt that. In the face of what we often call political correctness, we have acquired a lot of vocabulary and changed some of our speaking habits. Now we can adjust our imagination and syntax a bit. Of course, this will take time. But I really hope that you and I as well as (other) people in education, in companies, in the press, moderators in the media, citizens in online or analogue discussions gradually train and learn to adjust their language and address people directly. Yes, it will be harder to offer your opinion, but it will also be more fruitful. – At this point, I’m suggesting this and hope for more ideas about means and ways of implementing it. Ideally, we’ll find that this or something like it turns out to be a viable way of amending political discourse.

By the way, this should cut across the entire political spectrum. It has, for instance, become fashionable to engange in what is sometimes called leftist populism or target the group of “old white males”. Whatever your contention might be, if you want to tell someone like my father that inverse racism isn’t a thing, you won’t get him to respond sensibly if you target him as a member of that group. We act through language. And the way we act in our words is palpable, it affects individuals, and individual people are likely to respond in kind. Verbal attacks affect us, irrespective of the side we think we are on. Thus, whenever we want to make a point that affects others, we should try and address them directly. Conversely, if we encounter problematic opinions, we don’t need to shut them down. To respond on behalf of a targeted addressee, as if you were addressed directly, might be more fruitful in maintaing adequate standards and emotions.

Finally, it goes without saying that I am worst at following my own advice. So please don’t call me out too harshly.

2 thoughts on ““How would you arrange the deportation of my father?” On responsible (free) speech. A response to Silvia Mazzini

  1. Another very interesting topic. How do we dehumanize people? Basically, I think your main claim is that by not treating them in concreto, as this person (me) or that man of woman (you) but in abstracto, like numbers, or by attaching certain properties to them. In this way the speaker is not inclined to feel any empathy or sympathy.
    I think this is basically correct. But let me suggest some possible objections, or maybe refinements.

    1. Things can also get too personal. That is, when a certain person carries a grudge against another person, he or she may amplify certain character traits and be inclined to start a vendetta. In this case, of antipathy, both persons would benefit if the one with a certain aversion against the other were able to separate the person from her traits (think more abstractly). The all-too-personal point of view is historically speaking one of the main causes of the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th century.

    2. A remarkable step forward in society we owe to the canonization of Roman Law. There the personal element was more or less eradicated from the whole process. It became a formal, abstract procedure; of course, the prosecutor was bound to seek revenge on the prosecuted person, but it was a formal revenge in the name of all the people of Rome. Thus abstract thinking may benefit moral progress.

    3. I will close with a remarkable and uncanny personal experience on what numbers can achieve. Normally we associate numbers with abstract thinking, but I think that may not always be the case. Last week, I was cycling in the North of Drenthe (under Groningen), and in a certain place with approximately 15.000 inhabitants I encountered the local ‘sjoel’ (I think Yiddish for synagogue). There was a plaquette mentioning all the names of the Jews that were deported to Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, etc. I could read the names; I recognised the Jewish names (Levi, Eli, etc.), the Dutch names, that some were families with little children, etc. Of course I could feel a bit the tragedy and the personal element, but I could not picture the whole extent of the suffering. Until I decided to count the names of the persons that died in the camps. And the number was 60. And at that moment, strangely, all these people became living persons; I could almost see them entering the little sjoel, that probably was way too little for such a large gathering. And I could in a way sense the extent of the suffering.

    So, I guess, the number (or maybe even the more abstract percentage) of an eradicated community may evoke more emotions and images than just names or pictures, or even some personal stories. If I try to imagine the extent of suffering that people went through during the Belgian occupation of Congo, a picture of a slave with his hand cut of may be very disturbing and arouse empathy and indignation. But it doesn’t really cover the whole picture. If I later learn that during the reign of Leopold II around 10 million people in Congo died I am just completely blown away; moreover, the disturbing image of the slave may fade away, but the number of victims keeps haunting me.

    The implication of this last observation may be this. When a certain liberal politician has decided that Yezidi-refugees have to return to Iraq, despite having been victims of the terrorists of IS, the best way to win the sympathy of the Dutch population is probably not getting too personal, but remind them of the crimes commited: x percent of these refugees were the victim of IS, x thousand Yezidi-women were slaves or died in Syria, etc.

    The numbers and percentages may speak directly and convincingly. The aid-organisations also have to cope with this problem; if you use some specific examples (‘Charlie, aged 11, is hungry’) as a way to win the sympathy of the public you’ll get in the long run a certain fatigue; sometimes it is more covincing to use numbers (at least, when the number of people threatened is high).


    1. Many thanks for you rich reply! Let me hasten to point out that dehumanisation is not something done by using more abstract language: David L. Smith shows that it’s rather done by demeaning language that picks out the target group by means of vocabulary used for non-human animals etc. (e.g. “vermin”). Thus, he decidedly denies the idea of a bureaucratic banality. So emotional restraint is not automatically dehumanising. (See his “Less than human”, 2011, p. 104: “Eichmann and his colleagues weren’t moved by pale abstractions. Contrary to popular myth, genocide is never inspired by the thought that human beings are numbers … They were stories of salvation and destruction, of bloodsucking Jews defiling Aryan purity … More concretely still, there were stories of rats and lice … These are the images that strike a deep chord in the human psyche …”)

      But like Sabine Döring I think that there are emotions that we consider situationally *adequate*. Arguably, face-to-face interaction and second-person speech is connected to (the triggering of) such adequate emotions, sentiments and inclinations. That means there are situations in which our (second) nature triggers disgust or outrage. Such responses are part of and guide our moral code.

      That said, I think your refinememts are important. I just think that we need quite a number of possible paths of interaction: And (simulating) direct dialogues is a crucial path that I am often missing. The infamous discussion in De Balie, for instance, is one where right-wingers and left-wingers talk for and against deportation. (Here is a fair summary: https://www.trouw.nl/samenleving/afschuw-over-debat-waar-werd-gesproken-over-uitzetten-van-moslims-~a5c637f8/ ) But both sides talk *about* the target group. Watching this, I wondered: How much difference would it have made, for the discussants and the onlookers, if someone had stood up and said: “Right, how would you like to arrange my daughter’s deportation?” I would hope that such a move would restore at least the onset of sentiments that guide responsible agency. – At the same time, other ways of interaction should certainly remain in place.


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