Article Image

Two of the main tenets of liberal intellectual freedom are that IF-protections are in place so that minority views are able to be expressed, and that the only way to challenge incorrect views is to subject them to debate and argument in order for the truth to emerge. These two views are clearly interrelated: in order for an incorrect view to be challenged and refuted, it has to be publicly expressible.. In Mill’s On Liberty (1859), which provides the blueprint for all this, he argues that the reason we need to protect the ability of minority views is because we can never be 100% sure of the truth - for Mill, this isn’t a question of protecting whatever theory someone has come up with, but that their perspective may end up being true, and repressing the truth is by definition wrong. Mill’s System of Logic (1843) was extremely influential on much of the scientific thinking that ended up dominating the social sciences in the 20th century, and Mill is here thinking purely of empirical, scientific truth. However, There is another kind of truth which we might call political truth - which I think Gadamer gets at in his Truth and Method - which is very different from empirical truth. The truth status of, say, Nazism is beside the point, indeed it is for many people beyond the pale even to look into its truth status; we reject Nazism not because it is false but because it is heinous.

In Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship I argued that liberalism leads to two assumptions which, especially in times of crisis, are not tenable: the first is that because the right kind of people may not be dying, no-one is dying (this is the issue of lives) and the second is that there is no limit on the time we should take (deliberation, argument) to arrive at the truth. Especially in times of crisis, however, the adherence to this view ends up costing more lives and wasting more time. While this was a question of the lives of trans people and the time limit imposed by climate change, liberal defenders of IF-absolutism did not need to think very much about this problem. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all that. Now, in a very real sense, the people who are dying are not only the people bourgeois society thinks it is OK to sacrifice; the virus draws no such distinctions. And as we know from experts in epidemiology and emergency response, the speed with which a society reacts to an epidemic is critical; time, quite literally, is of the essence.

Enter Richard Epstein, a legal scholar who objected to an epidemiological model used in a New York Times Study because he had a sense it was wrong. This sense, it will surprise no-one to learn, is in fact Epstein’s libertarian ideology. The New Yorker challenged Epstein on his views, because his own epidemiological model (remember, he is a legal scholar and law professor) conformed with the ideological preferences of the White House and has gained some currency there. The New Yorker had two actual epidemiologists fact-check Epstein’s claim - doctors whose time could have been better spent doing almost anything else.

What is important for the discussion of intellectual freedom is that in the New Yorker interview, Epstein clearly makes the “lives and time” case, both in terms of “minority views” and in terms of “time to argue”:

Q: Are the stakes too high to publish articles with basic errors? A: This is not a mistake. It’s an open challenge. I’ve spent my entire life as a lawyer taking on established wisdom. My view about it is what you’re asking me to do is, when I think everybody is wrong, to remain silent, and the stakes are too high.

after you start declaring emergencies you have time for reflection and adaptation and modification, which you don’t have in a fire case. So the political point is one which essentially says, when you see governors of three major states putting out statements that their experts have said this, that, and the other thing is a result, and you don’t see the studies and you can’t question the assumption, I regard that as a serious breakdown in the political process.

Now, Epstein doesn’t necessarily believe that the wrong people are going to be dying while his minority views get aired, but he does think that - according to his minority view - fewer people are going to die in any event, and those people dying is no reason not to go through the rules of “political process” by which claims are deliberated in due time, rebuttals formulated, and challenges addressed. Epstein holds to Mill’s view that what we are all looking for here is the truth. However, the truth is not at issue, saving lives is at issue. Dr Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization, said much the same thing in a video clip that recently went viral: “Speed trumps perfection… If you need to be right before you move, you will never win.”

This appears to put the abstract and deliberative foundations of liberal intellectual freedom in jeopardy. James Turk asks, “Why would any marginalized minority trust representatives of the majority to determine whose expression is to be allowed and whose is to be censored?” In this case, I would argue that marginalized minorities like disabled people and immunocompromised people would need - perhaps “trust” is too strong a word - would need to expect the majority (epidemiologists and emergency response doctors) to determine that spurious theories which are going to get more people killed should be suppressed. Reading through Epstein’s article, and this is a point the New Yorker journalist makes, it is clear even to those of us who know very little about medicine that Epstein is talking complete nonsense, hiding behind a defense of minority views and the “political process” of argument and debate. Intellectual freedom cannot be absolute, unless we are prepared to accept an unconscionable death rate. What this points out, of course, is that there is no position which does not determine suppression, which liberal IF consistently maintains: there is suppression of opinion and there is real harm up to and including death.

The liberal idealism of Epstein and Turk cannot make the connection between opinion and real harm. In many ways this is because liberal philosophy inherited the mind-body dualism of the “bourgeois ideologue” Descartes. This mind-body dualism, in which neither can affect the other, lies perhaps right at the heart of the lives and time problem: if questions of the mind, of intellectual freedom and free speech, can never have a material effect on the world, if climate change does not worsen and people do not die due to the expression of some “minority views”, then there is nothing to worry about. One only hopes that IF-absolutists see the error of their ways before many more people have to die.

Now, there are very real political concerns around the coronavirus response. On the right, these have to do with government spending and the social Darwinism that argues that the weakest deserve to die. On the left, these concerns have to do with social isolation and state-authoritarianism simply furthering the alienation and totalitarianism of capitalism. I agree completely with the left-wing concerns expressed here. However, and here is where recent criticism of Giorgio Agamben’s “COVID trutherism” comes into play, the issue is saving lives. Process and procedure that may be justifiable in “normal” times are unconscionable in times of crisis. Will social-distancing and isolation exacerbate the problem of alienation and impede the left’s ability to organize? Almost certainly. Will this set left-organization back? Again, almost certainly. But we cannot sacrifice potentially thousands or millions of people on that basis. In Canada, the government recently implemented an employee support fund in response to the crisis, but the bureaucratic channels are slow and inefficient (process!). Critics of this method have argued that rather than going through proper channels and following the usual procedure, the government should simply mail cheques to every Canadian, and at income tax time next year, tax the money back from anyone who didn’t need it. An analogy, of this, I think, is the correct political response to the crisis: let the government and experts do what they need to do to save lives now; the left will “tax it back” in the future when the current crisis has passed.

Of course, we will continue to have to use our political judgement to determine how much is too much. This, for example, out of Hungary, looks less like coronavirus response than the implementation of dictatorship:


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview