Heckling Baby Hitler (Notes on a Twitter Discussion)

Writing after an extended exchange of views on Twitter, Justin Tiehan (@jttiehan) – professor of philosophy and notorious curator of the Tweet-list of (ca. 80?) explanations for the rise of Donald Trump – summarized his position as follows (Twitter handles removed):

To clarify my version of the argument, 1. Most agree it’s morally permissible to kill baby Hitler.

2. Heckling raises fewer moral concerns than baby killing.

3. Most should agree heckling is morally justified in some cases.

4. Most should agree that liberalism, in issuing blanket prohibition against heckling, is in error.

The discussion between Professor Tiehan and myself had begun in relation to a blog post entitled “There’s no good argument for the liberal prohibition of heckling,” by Carl Bejier. My initial question to Tiehan, who had referred to “more than a grain of truth” in one of Bejier’s explanations for that “liberal prohibition,” was to ask for a definition of “heckling.” I then also requested a definition of “liberalism” or “modern liberalism” as we were to understand Bejier was using the terms.

On the first question, Tiehan provided as “paradigmatic” the actions of Chicago protesters breaking up a Donald Trump rally and of Black Lives Matter protesters “shutting down” a Bernie Sanders event. I think from these two examples it is already clear that we are either focused on relatively extreme cases of anything to be termed “heckling,” or are dealing with the question at a fairly high (paradigmatic) level of abstraction: We are concerned not just and not mainly with the matter of someone rising to shout at a speaker before being silenced or ejected from whatever event, but with matters of “the heckler’s veto” or “no-platforming,” and at some point with not just the momentary interruption but the achieved prevention of the delivery of unwanted speech.

As for definitions of “liberalism” or “modern liberalism,” we had to leave aside the question of whether Bejier for his own part is referring to a theory among theories or set of law-like principles that may share some of the same terms, or a body of thought among bodies of thought, or a label whose applicability may be contestable in different ways, or some mixture of any or all of these.  However, over the course of the subsequent 50 or so tweets back and forth, we did make some progress, I think: “Liberalism” for purposes of our discussion, if not necessarily for Bejier, refers to a body of thought that places primacy on free exchange of ideas, as an end in itself as well as a means to the promotion of other good things.

So, although particular self-styled liberals may often embrace tenets of this type, and may deem doing so crucially distinctive for liberalism and obligatory for any liberal worthy of the name, we are addressing a theory and ideology of “liberalism,” not simply the political interests of anyone who happens to take on the liberal label. We are concerned with a proper, productive relationship of theory and practice, not theory alone nor practice alone: We are concerned, in a word, with liberal praxis.

On this note, Tiehan was also willing to accept that “heckling” could be treated as intrinsically “illiberal”: Heckling immediately interrupts the free exchange of ideas, so can always be considered a violation of liberal principles and an evil to anyone who agrees with them, whether or not heckling may also be considered a justifiable or necessary or merely trivial evil.1

***

Tiehan’s point #1 relies on “counterfactual certitude fallacy,” and a problem of a similar type affects the more “real world” aspects of his points 2 and 3: Heckling represents a known evil, experienced as such, especially from the liberal perspective. The evil may be small compared to the notional stakes of political conflict or the murder of infants, but the idea that stopping a Trump rally or a number of Trump rallies might actually stop Trump or Trumpism is, to say the least, unproven. One may, for instance, doubt that heckling will have any lasting impact at all on Donald Trump’s political career, or one might argue that the short-term impact appears to have been positive.

When Tiehan goes on to describe the prohibition as being issued in error, he emphasizes and rests on”utility” alone. He seems to be imagining a merely practical political error, the kind of error that would stand as an error exclusively because it costs votes or directly imperils some particular political project or a greater good. In other words, if issuing a blanket prohibition on heckling happens also to mark a theoretical inconsistency or ethical error, it would matter, finally, for liberals themselves only because a political movement whose rhetoric rests on weak, or inconsistent, or hypocritical arguments may be less effective than it might otherwise be. In this regard, a proponent of liberalism might note that conflict between illiberal extremes constricting and finally extinguishing space for a recognizably liberal politics is a danger quite well known to history. Since Tiehan directs our attention to the history of Germany between the world wars, we can note that grown-up Hitler’s movement was rather relentlessly heckled, and that it happily counter-escalated, receiving the frequently violent opposition of its declared enemies as objective cooperation. Evidence for roughly similar dynamics in contemporary political affairs will not be difficult to turn up.2 Whether in view of the immediate effects of heckling or of the historical examples of a resort to illiberal politics, the problem is that the “consequences” or failures to maximize utility to which Tiehan refers – in short, a missed chance to strangle Adolf Hitler in the cradle, from failure to heckle Donald Trump – are comparatively, indeed entirely, speculative.

**

One way to view Tiehan’s position might be to say that he is insisting that we address his consequentialist or utilitarian judgments by responsibly taking cognizance of “The Exception,” that moment known to us all – from white lie to extenuation of murder to declaration of State of Emergency or State of War – when concrete necessity defeats abstract principles, and does so justifiably or at worst “not unjustifiably”; that moment when not to commit a crime may itself be criminal.

As readers at this site will be aware, I am happy to take cognizance of the Exception. It is one of my favorite topics, but not because I take a position in favor of exceptions (or mean to do so, or mean to mean to do so…): As I have had occasion to note many times, in posts and comment discussion, the danger of seeking the exception, or of turning the extreme against the norm, or the reasonable observation of the movement from reasonable observation to unreasonable promotion, was the subject of Strauss’s effectively unheeded warning to Schmitt3, reprised in Strauss’s arguments with Kojève4, as to the difference between recognizing the inevitability of the exceptional case and embracing it as a worthy end. The failure to observe this distinction belongs to the naive and, incidentally, to my mind highly illiberal and finally anti-intellectual and anti-philosophical assumption that the attempt to understand a manner of thinking must betray a culpable affection for it.

Moving along parallel lines but back to everyday political life in 2016 America, I think it is worth at least noting that, whether or not loudly interrupting a politician giving air to noxious notions might conceivably be justifiable in some way, or at some particular time and place, the act of loudly interrupting anyone in a social setting, of drawing attention to oneself in defiance of conventions, may be thrilling in itself, even prior to whatever support one receives from the like-minded, and is therefore subject to repetition and imitation with uncertain regard or relationship to whatever original pretext. At least for some transtemporal would-be exterminators of bad seeds, for instance, it may be a natural thought upon the successful annihilation of the infant tyrant to wonder if there might not be another baby or two or two million out there in need of a good killing.

The same may go for more everyday experiences of the delivery of political vigilante justice: Enjoyment tends to produce the desire for its repetition, and, if need be, the manufacture of its pre-conditions. Eventually, following the pattern of all coherent alternative-historical fictions (according to the theory of the the certitude fallacy), one might find oneself having grown into the role of the very grown-up whose growing up one had originally set out to prevent.

***

I hope that that my extensive preface will make understanding my rejection of Tiehan’s #4 easier. In short, the liberal prohibition against heckling cannot be in error, for the simple reason that “liberalism” is itself nothing other than the prohibition of “heckling” – at least as we are here using the terms.

Liberalism for us stands for the ideology of the primacy of open discussion properly understood, of the good in itself of the exercise of public reason and free or free-as-practicable exchange of ideas. Heckling does not merely stand for but immediately constitutes and realizes the opposite of the liberal idea. In this sense, any would-be proponents of a liberal society would cease being liberals at all at the moment they ceased their opposition to heckling, and to the precise extent they did so.

At this point, to make any further sense of this discussion, I believe we need to consider more closely what we mean by “prohibition,” another obviously crucial term whose vagueness or uncertainty also prompted some side-tweeting between Professor Tiehan and myself.

When we say that “liberalism” (whatever that means) responds to “heckling” (whatever that means) with “prohibition,” we could be saying anything from “liberalism absolutely excludes any form of interruption of free inquiry and public reason” to “liberalism represents a general tendency in favor of free exchange of ideas, against any hindrance of same” to “all good liberals will seek to shame hecklers into silence” to “placement of ‘no heckling’ stickers at political events would be appropriate” to “liberal politicians should call the police when things are in danger of falling apart,” to “for the sake of the liberal democratic order all hecklers should be shot on sight,” and so on.

We might, in other words, by “prohibition” have in mind some version of “prior legal restraint” or we might have in mind some version of “last practical resort” or we might merely be submitting a recommendation. One may oppose heckling in principle, and even favor a declaration of blanket prohibition, without prejudice to mode of enforcement if any, without expectation of perfect and uniform obedience, and with the further expectation that whatever particular determinations will be besieged with gray areas and paradoxes:  Must the audience listen in complete silence? If not, at what point does vocal expression of disagreement rise to the level of that which is to be “prohibited”? On what basis does a self-consistent liberalism distinguish sincere disagreement from perverse sabotage? How does it know it has distinguished correctly until it has given a full hearing to the argument it has chosen not to afford a full hearing?

More abstractly, we might ask at what point not the interruption of a speech, but the speech itself may qualify as a form of “heckling” (under our expansive definition). If a speaker intends to call for violent overthrow of the liberal democratic order, or to incite people to heckle someone else, or in other ways to practice or promote the violation of central precepts of that order – as some strongly believe Donald Trump has done – then “heckling” that speaker might qualify as a kind of “anti-heckling heckling.” Preventing or otherwise countering such illiberal speech, or speech inciting disruption of the liberal order or the liberal possibility, or pointing to its endangerment or extinction, would become – if exceptionally – an essential and primary liberal task.

Yet if liberalism or a type of liberal practice encounters contradictions, so do its alternatives, since the no-platforming radical who disdains the bourgeois pundit and his or her affection for a polite conversation5 can be found sooner or later to be doing so in the interest of the same ideal – in short, of liberation – if under a set of different beliefs about its requirements or prospects .

***

As may perhaps be clear to the attentive reader, the question of the Exception re-appears in the end as in the beginning, and pervades the discussion or discussion of the discussion all along, as its sub-stratum: Law itself implies or implicitly recognizes the motivation to violate the law. The existence of any law, including a simple rule of conduct, codified or not, always implicitly raises the question of a new and justifiable violation, or of the next supervening law, sometimes attributed to moral law, or natural law, or higher law, or even divine law; sometimes placed at the origins of law in the categories of the “jurisgenic” and “jurispathic.”

In the Hall of Theoretical Mirrors, the same questions replicate themselves up to and one suspects beyond the limits of all conceivable perception and all perceivable conception. On this side of the ends of worlds and ideas, however, we can reject Professor Tiehan’s conclusion simple because its contradiction is sensible and tenable: Of course, liberalism would be correct to issue a “blanket” prohibition against acts destructive to liberalism, under the natural presumption of enforcement only in a manner in keeping with liberal values, as understood in a liberal way, and for the sake of continuing the liberal discussion or preserving the liberal order, not for the sake of some impossibly rigorous consistency. Anything else would be illiberal, or at best non-liberal, by definition.

Notes:

  1. I argued specifically that heckling must be understood as a type of violence foreclosing the liberal possibility or liberal aims, whether for only a brief moment in time – the moment while I’m shouting an obscenity rather than listening to someone say something I happen to find obscene – or whether in some more lasting form, for instance if my comrades and I managed actually to “shut down” an event or series of events featuring the evil Trump or the evil Sanders or the evil Hitler (or the evil Tiehan or evil MacLeod). []
  2. Jonathan Chait, “How the Trumpian Right and the Illiberal Left Feed Off Each Other”:

    What makes both Sarlin’s and Lind’s reporting so valuable is that, read side by side, they describe a perfectly symbiotic relationship between the Trumpian right and the illiberal left. Activists on both sides are candid about their belief that extremists on the other side benefit their own cause. The energy they draw by organizing against the radical target on the opposite end allows them to rally people who would ordinarily be hesitant to endorse them. One doesn’t need to draw a moral parallel between their goals to grasp the strategic parallel in their methods. The two reports demonstrate a real-time, ground-level insight into a dynamic political activists understand and are able to exploit: Fear and repression feed upon themselves.

    []

  3. …in Strauss’s “Notes,” included in the American edition of The Concept of the Political []
  4. …in On Tyranny []
  5. Re-assembled tweets:

    Justin Tiehen ‏@jttiehen: Ok, what I dislike in their work (and much other discussion) is that it begs all the interesting questions, ignores conflicts of /
    values inherent to liberalism itself, and elevates matters of personal preference (e.g., politeness) to core moral principles.

    CK MacLeod ‏@CK_MacLeod: yet “politeness” is at least related to, potentially expression of, core moral as well as “political” principles, /
    you could refer to Kant here, though the principle is an ancient one (as ancient as “polity” at least) /
    maybe you and I are polite to each other because we think it might help get us something we want… but maybe what we want… /
    includes social life in which mutual recognition and free inquiry are possible – and maybe that belongs in the “core”

    []


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