Freedom Involves Rights And Obligations

Tom Vinci, Chronicle Herald (Halifax, Nova Scotia), Jan. 24, 2007

The Chronicle Herald reported that Jared Taylor was forced to abandon a talk he planned to give, on a sensitive subject, by the strong-arm tactics of a group of protesters. If you look up the speech-that-was-not-to-be on the web, the central proposition he seems to be advancing is that if there are racial fault lines in a community, then that community cannot function effectively to produce the good life for its citizens.

A visitor to Halifax from the United States, Taylor hired a hall in the Lord Nelson at his own expense, as a private individual, to give a speech. He did this after his original plans for a debate were cancelled by Dalhousie University. He was physically pushed from the stage and his lecture materials were destroyed. I find these actions outrageous, and the equanimity with which citizens have generally reacted to them equally so. And where were the police?

But perhaps there are those who disagree. After all, they will object, we know that the contention Taylor wished to advance is false. Moreover, it is offensive to a significant portion of our community, so why should he have a right to present these ideas? Here are three reasons why he should.

First, there is a difference between knowledge and belief. To know that something is false, we not only have to believe that it is false but to show that it is. Doing this involves hearing the case and looking at the arguments—there is simply no other way to show something. So the objection is self-defeating.

Second, Taylor’s position seems to be false to me and to rest on various errors. Yet he doesn’t seem to be a hatemonger, mentally unbalanced or stupid. So why does he think these things? One would like to ask him—to see where he is coming from. But unless he is allowed to enter the conversation, one can’t do this, and he was not allowed to enter the conversation. “Philosophy,” says Spinoza, “is neither to laugh nor cry: just to understand.” We need more philosophers in this town.

Third, it is part of our general nature as humans to reflect on the world around us: how it is and how it ought to be. It is part of our nature as individuals to do this in specific ways, and these ways will differ from person to person, as our experiences and abilities differ, leading to different outcomes. As long as a person reflectively and sincerely arrives at these outcomes, giving expression to them in a public forum should be protected. That is what the right to free speech ultimately comes down to. Taylor met those conditions when he booked a room to give a speech. It follows that he had a right to give that speech, and we an obligation to see that he was able to do so. In this we failed. Shame on us.

Tom Vinci is a professor in the philosophy department, Dalhousie University.

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