This is the article referred to in David’s previous post which was agreed for publication in DCP Forum (March 2020) but spiked by BPS office. We would also point you to a post also addressing issues of freedom of expression which did ‘not make the cut’, in that case, for The Psychologist.
GIVING AND TAKING OFFENCE
Recently clinical psychologists have reported their views on giving and receiving offence and how they might be managed within the profession. This topic reflects a wider historical ethical debate about freedom of expression in speech and writing. The traditional liberal guidance of J.S. Mill is outlined, followed by a discussion of fresh norms about diversity within identity politics, since the ‘postmodern turn’ in the 1980s. It is argued that the wisdom of the first position is being undermined by the latter and that newer well-meant libertarian intentions have culminated at times in authoritarian outcomes.
Over the past year, two seemingly unrelated controversies within British clinical psychology have emerged. The first I was part of (about transgender) and the second I was not (the slavery presentation in Liverpool at the group of trainers’ conference). Both encouraged substantial and illuminating correspondence in these pages. The topics were seemingly unrelated but what linked them was the matter of personal offence and how it could, or should, be managed in the profession.
In my original piece on sex and gender (Clinical Psychology Forum 319) I was not only pleased that the editor published the piece but also that he then welcomed correspondence, whether it was supportive or critical. I was less pleased by efforts on the part of some to explore the threat of litigation in an effort to constrain serious debate about an important public policy matter and the BPS played its role in this regard. For example, material was deliberately delayed for publication and the editor was instructed to print a letter of complaint sent to the BPS and he was found lacking for not making clear that my view in the original piece was not that of either the Society or the DCP. (Please take the same clichéd disclaimer into account for this piece as well.)
Arguably this was a storm in a teacup: eventually people said what they wanted to say. For now freedom of expression was preserved. It was though under threat, raising the question of why we are bothered about it at all. After all, in the era of social media everyone is free to say anything they want apparently. However, the counter to the latter view is that de facto censorship in a new guise has emerged with the ‘post-truth’ society, where asserted personal opinion, fantasy and jettisoned cautions surrounding academic knowledge all mix in the same social media porridge. Now, more than ever, the matter of freedom of expression is important for the sake of both academic integrity and social justice in any society claiming to be democratic.
Liberalism and democracy
John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty (Mill, 1859/1974) argued that we must be free to express ourselves and we must be tolerant of views and those expressing them, even if we find both disagreeable. His advice was not absolute though; he offered two caveats. First, with freedom comes responsibility. This means that we might do our best to be considerate about the impact of our expressed views. If we are reckless, then it might be gratuitously hurtful and so this should be weighed in the balance by any responsible speaker or writer.
That weighing up process is context-bound and so neat strictures to guide its success are hard to come by, but it does bring into play the question of intention. On the one hand there might be the regrettable mistake and the complexities of its conscious and unconscious elements; hence the discussion of the need to consider ‘whiteness’ by well-meaning white people in the contention I noted above at the trainers’ meeting. On the other hand there can be the deliberate expression of hateful or disparaging spite for others. The Nazis cast the Jews at every opportunity as being ‘vermin’ and we now know that if people are depicted as being sub-human, then that readily warrants their physical violation (Vicki et al. 2013). This large gap between an error of judgment and knowing hatred and all stops in between is what makes the definition of ‘hate speech’ so difficult. It might be defined as anything that causes offence and so the criterion of ‘hurt’ is relevant but not definitive. For those in the Abrahamic traditions any expressed contempt for God is blasphemy (and so is experienced as hurtful and might evoke reactive anger) but for the convinced atheist it is just fair comment, whether or not it is intended to offend others.
Mill’s second caveat about restraint is therefore more certain: freedom of expression may encourage or legitimises actual violence against others. He was alluding to the difference between hard and soft power. The rhyme learned in childhood that, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is flawed because Mill in his first caution conceded that words can be indeed be hurtful. The question today is whether that outcome is the necessary and sufficient condition for suppressing or punishing freedom of expression. A much stronger claim for restraint applies under his second caveat about the encouragement of violence. When violence actually occurs, his point is proven.
Well over a hundred years after Mill’s defence of freedom of expression with its caveats, we are in the midst of a paradox: newer currents of political philosophy have emphasised a form of libertarianism, which is somewhat different from his classic liberalism. Below I argue that this has culminated not in protected freedom but dogmatic intolerance. Like the well-meaning white person not reflecting on their whiteness, the well-meaning new libertarian defending diversity may end up failing in their good intentions to such a degree that an opposite or different outcome accrues.
Distinctions and dilemmas
When we come to reflect on the tension between Mill’s liberalism and more recent arguments, we can start with two distinctions. These may mingle confusingly at times in both serious academic debates and in daily puerile social media exchanges. When this blurring occurs, more heat than light might be generated, as protagonists on all sides are caught up in the common experience of swelling righteous indignation, despite holding completely opposing views. For clarity then we can note:
1 the distinction between an offensive view and the person expressing it: the challenge of ad hominem logic and;
2 the distinction between identifying offensive views and identifying effective ways of reducing or eliminating those views: the challenge of the pragmatics of the social control of offence to others.
The first of these once was very clear cut and it guided all academic discourse; we learned that we should always ‘play the ball and not the man’ (apologies for the legacy of sexism here). The adage seems to have now been abandoned, with the rise of a different ethical orientation since the ‘postmodern turn’ of the 1980s. That emerged from, and was underpinned by, the cross-currents of post-structuralism, Third Wave feminism and Queer Theory, as well as their direct political expression in our now taken for granted identity politics. This constellation reflected the ‘perspectivism’ of the idealist philosophical tradition, traceable in modern times to Nietzsche, and the rejection of a realist stance on ontology, with its focus on truths and facts.
Today the distinction between a view (offensive or otherwise) and the speaker or writer holding that view no longer exists in the minds of many. More than that, it is one’s social group membership or social position that might be taken to singularly determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of one’s view. It is not the virtue, cogency or empirical validity of what is being expressed. If a speaker or writer is deemed to be in a state of privilege, then this may then warrant dismissing anything they are saying. The postmodern turn has installed a new version of political and ethical legitimacy, epistemological privilege, which emerges from the ‘lived experience’ of some people and not others.
For example, in the contention about transgender, a ‘cis person’ arguing that sex is not socially constructed, or that the obligation to affirm a child’s self-definition of their gender could expose them to iatrogenic risk, might be dismissed immediately as being transphobic and illegitimate, not because of the quality of their arguments and the evidence offered but because they are not themselves transgender. The neologism of ‘cis’ was only made possible because of this new postmodern logic (Sigush, 1998) and in turn this has led in academic research to a confusing conflation of sex and gender, when describing subjects or participants (Haig, 2004). ‘Cis’ is only meaningful to those who invented it (and those who are now accepting of its validity). This may cause offence to those (natal women in particular) who resent being cast as less worthy in their view about being a woman than the view of a transwoman. For now the NHS has retained an ambivalent policy, with both biological sex and self-identified gender being noted, making record keeping challenging (Dahlen, 2020; https://medium.com/@anneharperwright/sex-gender). Some forms of pathology are unambiguously sex-linked (e.g. cervical and prostate cancer) and so this is important to recognise as a material reality informing decisions about prevention, diagnosis and disease management in health services.
Turning to attempts to socially control offensive views, this has included appeals to legalism and codes of practice to ensure the prevention of hurt, not just violence, rendering Mill’s views on liberty precarious. There has been a ‘cancel culture’ in which those in the public eye expressing unpopular views are attacked and their reputation discarded. There has been direct action from protesters on our campuses (‘no platforming’). There have been acts of violence or potential violence from trans activists, such as bomb threats to women’s meetings discussing sex and gender. There have been gender critical views on social media being deemed as hate speech, warranting police investigation. There has been professional guidance issued that implies that gender critical arguments, or those respecting traditional scientific assumptions about mammalian sexual dimorphism, reflect a form of ethical deficit on the part of any psychologist holding such views.
If this point is in doubt then the reader can consult the relevant guidance issued last year on ‘gender, sexuality and relationship diversity’ (BPS, 2019). The guilt or fear from a psychologist about their views on sex and gender, which to date have been ‘off message’, according to the guidance, invite new forms of compliance or anxious restraint in speaking out about their concerns. The document focuses on the habitual obligation to affirm gender self-identification, in accordance with the ideological roots of the postmodern turn I noted above. Counter-views or scepticism from those not under its sway, whether they are philosophical realists, concerned clinicians working with children or gender critical feminists, are rendered ethically suspect and, not surprisingly, their views are absent from the document.
The effective social control of experienced offence is not easy to achieve. In this case, the core stricture in the document, is about the intersubjective subtleties of respect for and belief in what others say about themselves. But why in social interactions should we always uncritically trust the self-statements of others? For example, we might consider the person to be mistaken, lying or even deluded. These options are the bread and butter of our daily social contract with others.
Even when less ambiguous blanket moralisations have been raised to well-intentioned legal powers, their effectiveness has been in doubt. For example, the expression of Nazi ideology is proscribed in Germany. Holocaust deniers have been imprisoned and Nazi symbols are banned but the far right has not only survived with a swagger, it once again is on the rise. Thus legal measures do not eliminate prejudice and the hatred of others, even if they may have a contributory role in raising awareness about them. Even the latter is difficult to determine empirically in open social systems, with so many other processes at play.
The use of the law is not only a blunt instrument for the social control of offence, it can also lead to precarious outcomes. For example, Deborah Lipstadt accused the ultra-right wing historian, David Irving, of holocaust denial in her widely read book (Lipstadt, 1994). Irving then sued her for libel but he was unsuccessful. However, as Warburton (2009) notes, Lipstadt needed the principled support and substantial financing of her international publisher, Penguin, to rebut Irving, whereas others may have been less fortuitous in having such resources. What secured the truth about the holocaust was not the law (in this case of libel) but freedom of expression (n.b Lipstadt’s, not Irving’s). For Lipstadt, the systematic murder of six million European Jews was not just another ‘perspective’ but simply the truth (n.b. no speech marks) that deserved a clear verification. That truth had to be (re)established by the free pursuit of unfettered intellectual inquiry, including viewpoints being expressed along the way from Lipstadt.
If legal means of social control of hateful bigotry are not failsafe, then non-legalistic forms of influence may have some impact, without compromising the principle of freedom of expression. Satire and other forms of humour against bigotry actively use that principle in order to make the point. Also, the primary socialisation that encourages sensitivity about respect for all human beings and their diverse viewpoints might be altered within families and schools. All this being said, at all times freedom of expression will still be at risk. It is a fragile principle, no more so than when one party in a field of contention seeks to enforce their own particular version of expression and to suppress others.
My own view is that the BPS Guidance document I note above has been captured by that newly emergent tendency to enforce a principle of singularity of viewpoint. This trend has deliberately discarded older traditions, about the rehearsal of competing viewpoints, which eschewed ad hominem reasoning. Now to simply discuss a sceptical position about trans-affirmative ideology and more importantly to defend the right to discuss it renders the dissenter ethically inferior (which is possible but is not a given) and their view as requiring no logical or empirical rebuttal (which is absurd because it is required). Within this new norm, open-ended diversity is liberally encouraged and celebrated as being virtuous except in cases where views are disapproved of by those promoting that diversity (Benn Michaels, 2006).
These new libertarians have thereby become authoritarians at the blink of an eye. Their lack of ethical plausibility is not just that they are authoritarian wolves in libertarian sheep’s clothing but also they expose the ultimate failure of identity politics to provide us with clear guidance on the meaning of social justice. Once diversity displaces or trumps equality it becomes a zero sum game, when the experientially-derived rights of transgender people are asserted against those of natal women who are their gender critical opponents, objecting to the second class citizen connotation of the term ‘cis’. How does anyone decide which epistemological privilege is superior to the other in this stand off?
For those less familiar with academic discussions of healthcare ethics, other relevant case studies can be noted. Some topics have been actively and freely debated (e.g. abortion and the de-pathologisation of homosexuality), whereas others temporarily have taken on a taboo status. One was the consideration on medical grounds for infanticide by Giubilini and Minerva (2013). This led to some ethicists defending not the arguments made by these authors but their right to make those arguments, returning us to Mill’s axiom (Shackel, 2013).
I think we are now at a cross-roads. The ethical questions about transgender and healthcare may be suppressed because for now the topic has been afforded a taboo status by the new libertarians I have discussed. Alternatively, we can insist on our right to explore those questions fully and responsibly and without fear of recriminations. That would mean permitting freely expressed views that do not disparage individuals, whatever their perspective and whether they are ‘trans’ or ‘cis, but which instead attends carefully to logic and the evidence available about the topic in contention. Ultimately blanket moralisations in human affairs, whether or not they are codified in laws or ethical strictures will fail to work in practice, so we may as well concede this point and agree instead on the defence of a frank, respectful and, of most importance, non-violent exchange.
Finally, we can note that the conflation of views and those holding them has a double and limiting significance, because it restricts the topic under discussion to the personal alone. The person giving the offence and those receiving it are certainly part of the socio-ethical picture here, but they are not the whole picture. The content of their claims should also be open to respectful democratic scrutiny and debate. That can only happen if first we all understand why freedom of expression must be defended in principle, provided its caveats and their impact fully considered. We may then be moved to uphold that defence in practice, in the face of likely criticism and censorious pressures.
Benn Michaels, W. (2006) The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality New York: Holt.
BPS (2019) Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity Leicester: British Psychological Society.
Dahlen, S. (2020): De-sexing the medical record? An examination of sex versus gender identity in the General Medical Council’s trans healthcare ethical advice, The New Bioethics DOI: 10.1080/20502877.2020.1720429
Giubilini, A. and Minerva, F. (2013) After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? Journal of Medical Ethics 39:261–3
Haig, D. (2004) The inexorable rise of gender and the decline of sex: social change in academic titles, 1945–2001. Archives of Sexual Behavior 33:87-96.
Lipstadt, D. (1994) Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory Harmondsworth: Penguin
Mill, J.S. (1859) On Liberty (Published in Penguin edition, 1974) Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Vicki, G.T., Osgood, D. and Phillips, S. (2013) Dehumanization and self-reported proclivity to torture prisoners of war. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49, 3, 325-332.
Shackel, N. (2013) The fragility of freedom of speech. Journal of Medical Ethics 39: 5.
Sigush, V. (1998). The neosexual revolution. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 27, 4, 331-359
Warburton, N. (2009) Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction Oxford: Oxford University Press.