With a master’s degree in experimental psychology and a doctorate in the history of science, Michael Shermer heads the pro-critical thinking, nonprofit Skeptics Society, and is the editor-in-chief of its magazine, simply titled Skeptic. Shermer has authored several books including The Science of Good and Evil, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, and his latest, Giving the Devil his Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist, which mostly functions as an extended take on his February 2006 Los Angeles Times article, “Free Speech, Even if it Hurts.”
In Giving the Devil his Due, Shermer muses on a number of topics ranging from religion and scientific humanism to United States gun legislation, but a large portion of the book is devoted to free speech, perceived notions of cancel culture, and the controversial academic pundits that make up what economist Eric Weinstein dubbed the “intellectual dark web.” Shermer and his dark web compatriots argue for what I’ll term laissez-faire free speech, at virtually any cost.
An ever-growing talking point among the American political right and moderate left is free speech and the perceived rise of “cancel culture” allegedly growing within factions of the far left. If you’ve ever heard Ben Shapiro gripe about a university protesting one of his campus lectures, or Jordan Peterson’s concern regarding a bookshop not carrying his latest self-help publication, or Alex Jones ranting over his removal from YouTube, then you’re likely familiar with the debate.
While the above examples are more right wing in their rallying cry against social deplatforming, a slew of liberal personalities, or self-styled “traditional Democrats,” also condemn this notion often associated with Millennials, third wave feminists, and what Peterson would call “post-modernists” (see the recent Harper Magazine’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate”). Within the rank and file of these traditional Dems are political commentators like Bill Maher, his comedian cohort Joe Rogan, children’s novelist J.K. Rowling, and Shermer.
Clearly no stranger to taking contrarian positions, Shermer identifies his speech-deserving devils as creationists, Holocaust deniers, scientists who study racial group differences in IQ, and the like. This uphill battle to defend the profane voices of society’s most contentious personalities has left Shermer with some seemingly odd bedfellows (e.g. Peterson, Shapiro, and controversial author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray). It also puts him in the ever-queasy position of defending David Irving, a man who often and repeatedly downplays the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
Shermer posits that were we a society where the majority of the populace denied the Holocaust, we’d want the right to free expression for the rationally-minded minority who espouse its real horrors, holding to the belief that the truth will eventually win out within a free marketplace of ideas. While Shermer posits that he too would derive pleasure from punching alt-right anti-Semite Richard Spencer in the face, hate ultimately begets hate, and a strong defense of Irving and Spencer’s extreme speech is a means of defending all speech.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution exists largely for the purpose of protecting speech that’s specifically controversial, but is Shermer really saying that colleges and social media outlets ought to be required to provide every kook with an optically out-of-fashion viewpoint a soapbox? Universities charged with instilling actual science in our students really shouldn’t feel pressured to allow Young Earth Creationists like Ken Ham an outlet to spread misinformation.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube (all of which are privately owned and not extensions of the government), ought not feel obligated to allow InfoWars founder Alex Jones a venue to vent his latest crackpot conspiracy regarding the deep state, the globalists, Clinton cabals, and chemically-altered gay frogs. These allegedly deplatformed “devils” for whom Shermer encourages protection already have amplified voices and online public squares all their own. In no way has their ability to speak been truly silenced.
And sadly, the cream of intellectual discourse does not always rise to the top. Formal debates don’t always have a clear “winner.” The acolytes of each debater often leave feeling their preferred champion won, based more on an emotional plea than a thoughtful argument rooted in facts and statistics.
There’s also something to be said regarding the stock we place in entirely toxic ideologies. Can anyone justifiably argue that Nazism still deserves a pedestal? It had its time in the marketplace of ideas and it was justifiably stamped out (well … almost). How many opportunities does hate, bias, and bigotry get at the altar of free speech before we deem these ideas devoid of value?
In select cases, even Shermer (who believes free speech to be “inviable and sacrosanct”) pulls back from laissez-faire speech politics and reluctantly admits that:
Given their disastrous history of being too lenient with fringe political ideologues, it is perhaps understandable that countries such as Germany and Austria have sought to crack down on rabble-rousers whose ‘hate speech’ can and has led to violence and pogroms. In some cases, the slippery slope has only a few paces between calling the Holocaust a ‘Zionist lie’ and the neo-Nazi desecration of Jewish property.
Shermer lists several more examples where he thinks exceptions to free speech are “legally and morally necessary,” like “leaking the nuclear codes to an enemy nation, libeling someone that damages their reputation and income, extorting others to give up money or freedom,” and “fraudulently stealing from others what isn’t rightfully yours through persuasion.”
Shermer makes additional valid points with regard to provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, suggesting it’s better to let them speak and ignore them, than to give them the controversy they so desperately crave. Still, Giving the Devil His Due largely comes off as diet Steven Pinker or Christopher Hitchens light, and Shermer doesn’t hide it (the book is dedicated to both men). Much of the book regurgitates talking points made over and over again by his peers, and often made better. Even the title lacks a degree of originality, as invoking the Devil in the hopes of giving your sociocultural ideas a little edge is hardly new (see Howard Bloom’s The Lucifer Principle, or even Philip Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect).
But if he’s gonna go with that title, it sure would be nice if Shermer would play devil’s advocate more with regard to his own ideas, and offer a little more gradation on what should and shouldn’t be “canceled.”