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Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Beyond the Pale?

Adam Shpeen over at the Agenda Gap (good stuff guys keep up the good work) made a very interesting remark today concerning a debate at Dartmouth on torture. First he quoted from the Dartmouth's summary of the event:

Attendees at a Monday discussion about whether torturing wartime prisoners is
justified ran into protesters at the door of Filene Auditorium who argued that
the subject should not be up for debate. History professor Ronald Edsforth
organized the protests and distributed handouts at the door detailing his
position. "Should we Americans be debating whether our government should be
civilized or barbarian? Some issues have been settled. Some issues should not be
debated," Edsforth's handout read. "Torture and extra-judicial killing are not
legitimate policy options. They should be condemned by all as barbaric, illegal
and immoral."

After which Shpeen wrote:

Edsforth's protest baffles me. I agree with Edsforth that torture is
categorically wrong and that no government, in wartime or in peace, should
permit itself to employ such measures. However, does that mean that individuals
ought not to even broach the topic? Does a well-informed, healthy debate on the
merits of torture really threaten society so much that it must be censored or
banned? Of course not! There are powerful arguments in favor of the use of
torture - arguments I happen to disagree with but arguments I acknowledge
nonetheless. Quite frankly, the censorship of a debate on any immoral topic, be
it torture, Nazism, racism, etc., is in fact a serious danger to the civil
liberties we enjoy in our country. Edsforth's radicalism hurts his reputation
and his country.

Adam frames the debate over Edsforth's remark to concern "a well-informed, healthy debate on the merits of torture" the censorship of which would be "a serious danger to the civil liberties we enjoy." He juxtaposes this to the claim that the debate itself would surely not threaten society. Edsforth, on the hand, seems to be defending a very different kind of ideal. In his mind liberal democracies ought to consider some issues settled for the purposes of debate; some practices are so morally indefensible to merit only condemnation as "barbaric, illegal, and immoral." Shpeen and Edsforth aren't actually talking to one another. Whereas Adam sees a political and civil issue, Edsforth has staked a normative-moral position.

Are there some topics that democracies oughtn't talk about due to lack of moral justification and defensibility? Should we debate rights that are moral indefeasiable, or, alternatively should we view this only as a civil-political issue. What if there was debate on "Should slavery be legal in the United States?", should persons attend? How about "Should women have the right to vote?" Edsforth's logic seems intuitively true here. There are some questions that ought to be so settled in a liberal democracy that are beyond the pale of free speech protection. Amy Gutmann's thoughts on the issue, now president of the University of Pennsylvania, will help frame my next few comments.

Let me be clear here: universities and communities dedicated to intellectual inquiry should aim to give the broadest possible protection to speech-acts and discourse. However, these same communities need a shared moral vocabulary larger and richer than our right to free speech. Guttmann writes in Multiculturalism that views which should earn our respect as political liberals are those positions we can understand as "reflecting a moral point of view." Can a defense of torture and extra-judicial killings, the specific policies Edsforth doesn't want us to debate, be seen as reflecting a moral point of view? Perhaps Adam cannot not so quickly answer that question. Even though Gutmann's next quote was meant to deal particularly with racist and sexist speech, I believe that it applicable to the moral logic behind Edsforth's protest: "[Certain] incidents [of speech] challenge members of liberal democratic communities to articulate the most fundamental moral presuppostions that unite us. We fail ourselves, and more importantly, [potential victims] if we do not respond the often unthinking, some drunken disregard for the most elementary standards of human decency."

I welcome discussion and deliberations on this point.