Some Arguments for Insensitive Speech
Insensitive speech is productive if by “productive” we mean conducive to individual liberty, economic prosperity, and human flourishing. I take “insensitive” in Merriam-Webster’s definition of “lacking feeling or tact.”
There are at least three arguments in defense of insensitive speech. First, insensitivity is largely in the eye of the listener. This is demonstrated by the wide variation of what was considered insensitive in different societies and historical periods, and by what is now considered insensitive among different groups of people in the same society, especially in advanced societies. Some insensitivity is thus an unavoidable consequence of free speech. And free speech is an essential condition for the search of truth and thus for the intellectual and material progress of mankind. (See John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859.)
A corollary argument is that exposure to insensitive speech can lead people to question their prior beliefs and biases. Depending on the beliefs questioned, this can be judged good or bad, but it is certain that the capacity to question one’s biases is a necessary condition for distinguishing what may need to be changed and what should be conserved in society. Comedy was long a favorite way to challenge popular beliefs, perhaps starting with Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata,” which imagined a women’s sex strike to stop wars. Responding to the leader of the chorus of old men, the chorus of women is pretty insensitive (Catherine Lecomte Lapp, The Essential Classics: An Anthology of Greco-Roman Literature [Les Belles Lettres, 2005]):
Now just you dare to measure strength with me, old grey-beard, and I warrant you you’ll never eat garlic or black beans any more.
Nowadays, stand-up comedian Dave Chapelle “shows how hollow—and marginal—the arguments of the woke left are” (“Dave Chapelle for Gender Realism,” The Economist, October 16, 2021):
Even many of his critics concede that the lead-in to Mr Chappelle’s long transgender riff is pretty funny. Because of his past jibes at the community, Mr Chappelle claims, in mock fear, a conspiratorial well-wisher warned him, “they after you”. “One ‘they’ or many ‘theys’?” he hissed back. But whatever the critics thought of his craft, they adjudged his act “transphobic” and to be condemned. As evidence, many cited his defence of J.K. Rowling’s insistence on the biological reality that trans identity and sex are different. (No wonder, he deadpans, that women are annoyed that Caitlyn Jenner won “woman of the year her first year as a woman, never even had a period…”) “The phobic jokes keep coming,” sighed the Guardian. …
Group politics, zero-sum and exclusionary, is dehumanising; his profane, moral comedy is a corrective.
In the production of ordinary market goods, innovation depends on the capacity to question traditional ways. Entrepreneurs are insensitive to most people except for their potential customers.
Another argument: the proper exposure to insensitive speech helps distinguish between children and adults. A child must be protected from the conscience of certain realities. As Marcel Pagnol wrote at the end of his 1958 biographical novel Le château de ma mère,
Such is life for mankind. A few instances of joy, soon erased by unforgettable sorrows. No need to tell children about that. (My translation)
Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins. Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.
An adult, on the other hand, must have gradually learned to face life squarely if he is to enjoy it and have any success in what he wants to do. He must be able to hear and see things he does not like or approve of.
We can think of a demand curve for sensitivity from the sensitive or oversensitive and an offer of sensitivity by what we may call the “sensitivity industry,” made of both private parties and governments. Supply and demand establish an equilibrium price, which represents what demanders must sacrifice in terms of other goods, services, and opportunities (opportunities they would have in a society of “insensitive” people), and what the professional sellers of sensitivity gain from promoting it.
Politically, it is possible that sensitivity feeds on itself, just as a one-time supply problem becomes ongoing inflation when the central bank accommodates it with more money. The more sensitive and childish people are, the more they want to be protected by the state, through restrictions on free speech for example. The state responds by happily providing more protection because politicians and bureaucrats benefit from it. The more protected the subjects are, the more childish and sensitive they become and the more protection they demand. We may borrow Alexis de Tocqueville’s immortal words:
[The sovereign power] hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
One caveat: However politically useful insensitive speech can be, it may, together with hairy sensitivity demands, poison personal interactions. We could hope that traditional rules of etiquette would dampen this danger. But along with other moral constraints, etiquette (as it had developed in Western countries) has been declining, with the result that personal interactions have become less predictable and often harsher.