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The Nature of Free Speech: An Interview with Dr. Onkar Ghate

With a little over a year having passed since the Danish cartoon controversy, free speech remains a central issue on college and university campuses. University administrations seem increasingly unable to respond to the popular slogan that “hate speech is not free speech.”

What does the term “hate speech” mean? How does it relate to free speech? Is it even a valid idea? In order to judge, we need to examine the deeper philosophical roots of the right to intellectual freedom. What is the nature, source, and justification of free speech?

This is not an esoteric matter, nor is it a matter only for philosophers to ponder. It is a central issue facing college campuses today, and the decision will help determine the future course of the world in which we all live. There are few things more urgently needed in a university setting than a discussion and proper defense of the principle of free speech.

To this end, The Undercurrent has conducted an interview with Dr. Onkar Ghate, Dean at the Ayn Rand Institute. He has studied Ayn Rand’s epistemology in detail, and is an expert on her conception of the right to free speech.

TU: Hello Dr. Ghate, and thank you for your time.
OG: My pleasure. I’m always eager to discuss free speech.

TU: What is the principle of freedom of speech?
OG: Freedom of speech is an individual’s right to express his ideas without governmental interference, that is, without governmental suppression or censorship.

Freedom of speech is an aspect of the right to liberty. Just as an individual has a right to think for himself and use his mind as he chooses, so he has a right to express the thoughts he has reached in material form, whether orally (in conversation, discussions, lectures, speeches, classes, etc.) or in writing (in books, magazine stories, newspaper articles, web postings, etc.). Freedom of thought is the spiritual aspect of the right to liberty, freedom of speech the material aspect; one represents the mind, the other the body.

The right to free speech, however, is not a right to the material means by which to express one’s ideas. These means must be earned. It is not censorship, for example, if a book publisher refuses to publish my book. The owner of a publishing house has the right to decide which views his property will be used to express. If the government were to force him to publish my book (because I have failed to find another publisher or create my own publishing company), the government would be violating the publisher’s freedom of speech. The publisher would be forced to express not his own ideas or ideas he thinks should gain a hearing, but ideas with which he disagrees.

Similarly, the right to free speech is not a guarantee of an audience. This too must be earned. Just as I have the right to speak and write what I choose, so other individuals have the right not to listen to or read my views if they so decide. A reader of this paper, for instance, is free to stop reading anytime he chooses.In essence, freedom of speech is the right to use, without governmental interference, one’s own body and property to express ideas to anyone who chooses to listen.

Obviously, an important function of this right is to protect dissenting individuals. Even if everyone else in society regards an individual’s ideas as wrong, obnoxious or evil, the government cannot silence him. He remains free to hold and express his views.

TU: Why is the right to freedom of speech such a crucial value?
OG: The right to freedom of speech is a crucial value because knowledge is a crucial value. Knowledge is power: it gives one the ability to achieve the goals which further one’s life. Think of any profession, from auto mechanic to computer programmer to heart surgeon. What enables members of these professions to rebuild defective engines, to write software to help manage a company’s inventory, and to perform open heart surgery? The root of any individual’s productive actions is the knowledge he has acquired. But knowledge requires a free mind. A mind can attain knowledge only if it is free to ask questions, free to follow the evidence wherever it leads, free to weigh logically the facts it has discovered. A mind cannot be forced. Knowledge cannot be produced by the barrel of a gun.

A government can suppress an idea, but that does not convince anyone that the idea is false. A government can threaten an individual with fines, imprisonment, even death unless he professes some other idea, but that does not convert the idea into a truth in his mind. Imagine, for a moment, that I was made President of the United States and then tried to spread Ayn Rand’s philosophy of reason by physical force (a contradictory pursuit, if ever there was one). Imagine that I threatened citizens with imprisonment unless they professed that rational selfishness is a virtue. Even though I regard this idea as true, my attempt to spread its truth is worse than futile. My threats would create no thought process in the mind of an individual citizen. Indeed, I would paralyze his rational faculty: he would be afraid to think openly about or voice ideas in ethics and would simply parrot slogans he does not understand or accept. This is the nightmare of totalitarian dictatorships, where the minds of millions of starving individuals are destroyed as they are forced to chant, say, that Kim Jong Il is great and communism is the salvation of the masses.

Knowledge–rational understanding–requires a free mind. Such, in essence, is the foundation of an individual’s right to freedom of thought and speech.Now notice an important implication of the freedoms of thought and speech. They necessarily protect a mind that reaches falsehoods, even evil, irrational falsehoods. The right to exercise one’s mind necessarily includes the right to choose not to exercise it. Thus in a free society, Nazis, communists and racists, for instance, would have the right to express their vicious irrationalities. If the government were to use the coercive machinery of the state to stop them from voicing their views, the government would become the legislator of “truth.” Anyone familiar with the history of the Dark or Middle Ages in Europe or with Galileo’s persecution by the Church knows where that leads: to the cessation of thought.Notice too that an individual uttering the most vicious falsehoods does not infringe on anyone’s rights. If someone declared that Asians are morally corrupt (I’m half Indian), he neither “picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words. Such an individual does not interfere with my liberty: I remain free to think, to express my thoughts in material form, and to ignore his falsehoods or oppose them with better ideas if I so choose.

Any actual champion of free speech must therefore possess Voltaire’s famous attitude: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

TU: During the Mohammad cartoon controversy, many people argued that banning the cartoons was not a violation of free speech because the cartoons represented hate speech. What is hate speech? Is it an exception to freedom of speech?
OG: Freedom of speech is a rational principle. Like any rational principle, it is an absolute; which means: within its context it admits of no exceptions.

Apparent exceptions like a man yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater represent a misunderstanding of the principle. As I’ve said, the principle of freedom of speech states that you can use your own property to express whatever ideas you choose–not that you can use someone else’s property. When on another’s property, you must abide by the conditions he sets. When you pay to enter a movie theater, for instance, there is an implicit agreement to respect the theater owner’s terms of use, which include that you cannot disturb the other customers enjoying the movie by, say, talking on your cell phone during the movie. And you certainly cannot act to recklessly endanger the lives of other customers by, say, pretending there is a fire and creating a riot. An owner of a movie theater could, of course, announce in advance that he allows his customers to say anything they like during the screening of a movie, but likely he wouldn’t retain many patrons.

Because freedom of speech is a principle, any “exception” to it actually means its destruction–which brings us to laws against “hate speech.”

Such laws seek to ban speech that “offends” or “incites hatred” toward members of a group (the group is usually defined by physiological characteristics like race or gender). Since any idea may “offend” someone or may lead someone to feel hatred toward third parties, what does this amount to in practice? It means that whenever a member of some group finds an idea “offensive” or feels that it will produce hatred against his collective, the government has the power to ban the idea.

This is the death of free speech. By the non-objective standard of “hate speech,” any idea can be banned. For instance, to call for the end of the welfare state–as I do–may “offend” a “poverty activist” or may lead people to hate the parasites who choose to live off of productive citizens. So this idea is a candidate for censorship. Or: to claim that the life-giving ideas of the Enlightenment are being subverted and destroyed by many of today’s leading intellectuals in the humanities–as I do–may “offend” some university professor or may lead some people to hate these academics. So this idea is a candidate for censorship. Or: the latest breakthrough of a research scientist in genetic engineering may offend an environmentalist or may lead some people to hate those environmentalists who blow up university research laboratories. So the scientist’s new idea is a candidate for censorship. Or: an atheist who argues that we should discard belief in God may “offend” a religionist or may cause some people to hate fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. So the atheist’s views are candidates for censorship.

The entire sphere of thought, in other words, becomes politicized. What governs now is not the principle of individual liberty but the arbitrary whims of any collective. Under the principle enacted by “hate speech” laws, the individual is no longer free to think and express his thoughts. Instead, he must seek every collective’s permission before speaking, making sure that no one is offended by his ideas and that no one takes his ideas as reason to hate anyone or anything.

TU: Why do you think that many people believe that there is some legitimacy to hate speech laws? Are there deeper philosophical errors that explain the increasing existence and application of such laws?
OG: One reason is that whenever an individual right begins to be undermined, the attack usually starts with the least attractive exercisers of the right. In the case of the attack on free speech, and especially in the West, among the first victims are individuals who express loathsome ideas, such as support for Nazism and denial of the Holocaust. Many people uncritically think: Would we not be better off without such individuals expressing their evil views? Since, at least sometimes, the immediate result of “hate speech” laws is to ban the views of such individuals, people support the laws without really considering the fundamental principle involved. If they recognized that the cost of silencing such individuals is the destruction of the right to free speech–and that the Government might next censor their ideas–they would think twice. What people must grasp is that the only way to combat irrational ideas is to advocate rational ones–not to reach for the gun of the government.

“Hate speech” laws, however, are not the creation of the public but of academics and intellectuals. The reason such laws are becoming more and more widespread is that Western culture is losing its knowledge of why free speech is a value. As I’ve indicated, free speech rests on the idea that knowledge is a value and that to be reached, it requires a sovereign, independent mind choosing to exercise its powers of reason. The value of free speech, in other words, rests on a specific view of the human mind.

The dominant voices in the humanities today uphold an opposing view. The human mind, on the modern, anti-Enlightenment approach, is impotent to reach truth; objective human knowledge is a contradiction in terms. On this view, an individual happens to embrace certain ideas because he happens to belong to the white, the black or the Indian race or to the tribe of males, of females, of those born in the West or of those born in the East. Every idea is a prejudice; all that is possible to a human mind is collective subjectivism. The power of reason, on this approach, is a myth.

The end result, logically enough, is to abandon the principle of individual rights. The rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness protect the rational mind. They protect the individual’s freedom to pursue truth and then to use his newfound knowledge to create the material values that his life and happiness require. But why protect the rational mind, if it cannot reach truth? Throw out reason, in other words, and individual rights lose their meaning.

If reason is discarded, what is left to guide man? His feelings. And so the world becomes a clash of (irreconcilable) prejudices–and every issue is politicized. Why? Because the basic issue in human life now becomes whose whims rule. No dispute has a right and wrong answer. Every dispute is simply a contest to see which group can impose its prejudices by the power of (governmental) force. One group, for instance, wants to express its ideas about terrorism and religion, another group feels that those ideas are “offensive” and “hateful” and should be banned. On the modern approach, there is no objective principle of freedom or individual rights to settle the matter. On the modern approach, the question is simply: whose “feelings” get to rule? And the answer is: the feelings of the collective that is able to seize control of the coercive power of the state. In the present day, this means multiculturalist, feminist, religious and other leaders, who are beginning to succeed in seizing the power of the state, passing “hate speech” laws, and becoming the new thought police.

So I think at a fundamental level, the growing rejection of free speech is caused by the growing rejection of reason. Where there is respect for the power of the individual’s rational mind, there is respect for the freedoms of thought and speech; where there is contempt for the power of the individual’s rational mind, there is contempt for the freedoms of thought and speech.

TU: What is hate? Is it ever proper to feel hate towards another individual or group? If so, on what grounds?
OG: Hatred is an emotion. Broadly speaking, one experiences hatred when one judges that something embodies the antithesis of one’s values. Hatred is the opposite of love. As Ayn Rand observed, love is a response to values. One experiences the emotion of love when one judges that something embodies one’s values. For instance, one feels love for one’s husband or wife, for one’s child, for one’s friends, for the successful small business one has worked to build up from a fledgling enterprise, and for one’s favorite novels and cherished pieces of music which refuel one’s spirit. By contrast, one feels hatred for the killer who threatens the life of one’s child, for the employee who steals money from one’s company, and for the creators of modern “symphonies” of noise, who help destroy the art of music. (Since hatred, like love or any other emotion, is caused by an individual’s ideas and judgment, the attempt to ban “hatred” is obviously an attempt to ban ideas.)

Morally, it certainly is appropriate to experience both love and hatred. If one feels love for the good, one will feel hatred for the evil. If one feels love for man’s life and the things which further it, one will feel hatred toward that which undermines them. I experience love or hatred toward many things–and regard both of these emotions as appropriate. Just as I love creators like Thomas Edison, so I hate destroyers like Hitler. Just as I love freedom-fighters like Thomas Jefferson, so I hate the religionists who flew planes into the World Trade Center. Just as I love Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, so I hate the ideologies of communism and socialism. I regard these experiences of hatred as appropriate because the emotions flow from what I think are correct ideas and evaluations: the things I hate are, in one form or another, inimical to man’s life. (Though evil must be opposed and combated, it and the emotions it engenders should never be granted the importance one grants to the good. One should never become consumed by hatred.)

Of course in a moral context hatred is appropriate only in regard to that which is open to an individual’s choice. It is appropriate to feel hatred toward Osama Bin Laden for the murderous actions he chose to perform. It is inappropriate to feel hatred toward a black for the color of his skin or a male for the gender of his body. It can be appropriate to feel hatred toward a group of individuals, but only when membership in the group is a product of choice. It is appropriate to feel hatred toward the Nazi leadership taken as a whole, because the various individuals chose to join the party and give their support to Hitler. It is inappropriate to feel hatred towards blacks or males as a group.So one judges an emotion by the rationality or irrationality of the ideas which generate it. This is why one judges the emotions of hatred of a racist as morally monstrous. To believe that the content of a person’s mind and character is determined by his unchosen “membership” in a physiological group–as racists do believe–is irrational. But to legally punish a racist for feeling hatred is precisely to punish him for the ideas he holds. To do so is to violate his freedom of thought. (It is of course a radically different issue if a racist takes physical action to violate another individual’s rights; but even here, the racist should be punished for his action, not for his hatred.)

TU: What, if anything, can students do to promote freedom of speech on university campuses? What role does Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism play in the struggle to maintain free speech in America?
OG: To promote freedom of speech, students must understand its nature. In my estimation, this requires studying the works of Ayn Rand. She is the most penetrating and principled defender of individual rights.Observe that mysticism and blind faith lead, politically, to authoritarianism-as the West witnessed for centuries after the fall of Rome. In that kind of culture, liberty is non-existent. Observe also that skepticism and the rule of whim lead, politically, to gang warfare-as the West is now witnessing as group after group seeks the political power to ban that which it considers “offensive.” In this kind of culture too, liberty disappears. Only a defense of reason can provide the foundation for a defense of the rights to freedom of thought and speech.

And this makes Ayn Rand’s philosophy indispensable in the battle for free speech. Taking a historical perspective, Ayn Rand’s accomplishment in my view is that she completed the defense of reason that Aristotle began. Aristotle defended the power of the rational mind against both the mysticism of Plato and the skepticism of the Sophists. Ayn Rand’s philosophic achievement is to defend the power of the rational mind against today’s hordes of Kantian-inspired mystics and skeptics. (For the details, one must of course study her works.)

Equipped with the knowledge that Ayn Rand uniquely provides, students would be able to argue effectively for free speech and against the imposition of public university speech codes, the banning of speakers from campuses, “hate speech” laws, etc. Faced with a principled opposition–one able to articulate the connection between reason and freedom of speech-university administrations, and more widely, the culture, may reconsider the issue. (Remember, however, that a private university has the right to impose speech codes and ban speakers, no matter how irrational its grounds for doing so.) The battle for liberty is an intellectual battle. It can be won only with the proper intellectual ammunition.

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