Category Archives: Free Speech

John McWhorter – Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)

John McWhorter – Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)

I listened to the audio version, which McWhorter narrated himself. It is at once casual, funny, factual, and led me to a number of useful and fun intellectual tangents. We all know language changes over time. To people my age (born early 1980s), it sounds odd when older people pronounce “diabetes” as “diabeetus” or “horrible” as “hahr-ibble.” At the same time, many younger people pronounce words like “bit” and “bet” and “dawn” and “Don” in rhyme. Even well-defined regional accents change over time—the classic, often-mocked Brooklyn accent of pronouncing “work” as “woik” is mostly gone now.

Text messages and Twitter are part of a whole other linguistic evolution. McWhorter argues that their innovations have a common purpose of conveying ease and informality. To describe it more fully, he uses the acronym FACE for Factuality, Acknowledgment, Counterexpectation, and Easing. Language doesn’t just communicate information, it communicates social dynamics. All the “LOLs” and emojis in text messages closely imitate in-person spoken language—listen to the cadence, not the words, of any normal spoken conversation and the amount of laughter you will hear is absurd. This is important for texting—you can’t see or hear your correspondent, so verbalizing nonverbal language with LOLs and emojis is a way of compensating for it.

McWhorter doesn’t make this connection, but the overall trend of this evolution ties into Steven Pinker’s point in Better Angels of Our Nature about decreasing violence over time. A reason people today are less formal and more at ease with each other than previous generations is because the threat of violence is low; unlike in, say, medieval times or even the mid-20th century, a social gaffe or lack of proper deference is unlikely to result in bodily harm. People today are more relaxed in dress, speech, and culture because they an be.

Finally, today’s use of “like” as a near-constant verbal tic and “literally” to mean “figuratively” can be annoying, but they also have precedents going back a long way. Teddy Roosevelt’s use of the word “bully,” for example, was that era’s equivalent of having a president who says “dude” a lot. Language changes over time. It happens, and it cannot be stopped.

Linguistic change is also an example of spontaneous order in action—a Hayekian angle that also ties into Adam Smith’s famous essay on the origins of language, which could have been another useful avenue for McWhorter to stroll down.

One can infer from the length of this ewview that McWhorter provides a lot of fodder for thought beyond language, ranging from culture to evolution to psychology. I also recommend the audio version over the print edition.

Deirdre McCloskey on Free Speech

As with everything Deirdre does, this short video about free speech will make you see the world a little differently. Well worth three minutes of your time. Click here if the embed below doesn’t work.

Kudos to Cato

The best way to rebut speech you disagree is with speech of your own. In Washington, a more common tactic is simple intimidation. Cato president John Allison’s response when faced with just that is a thing of beauty. Quoted in full, here is his letter to a man seemingly incapable of disagreeing agreeably:

Dear Senator Durbin:

Your letter of August 6, 2013 is an obvious effort to intimidate those organizations and individuals who may have been involved in any way with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

While Cato is not intimidated because we are a think tank—whose express mission is to speak publicly to influence the climate of ideas—from my experience as a private-sector CEO, I know that business leaders will now hesitate to exercise their constitutional rights for fear of regulatory retribution.

Your letter thus represents a blatant violation of our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. It is a continuation of the trend of the current administration and congressional leaders, such as yourself, to menace those who do not share your political beliefs—as evidenced by the multiple IRS abuses that have recently been exposed.

Your actions are a subtle but powerful form of government coercion.

We would be glad to provide a Cato scholar to testify at your hearing to discuss the unconstitutional abuse of power that your letter symbolizes.


John Allison

Cato scholar Ilya Shapiro, who has tussled with Sen. Durbin on free speech issues before, has more.

Well Done, Minnesota

Looks like Minnesotans can learn online, after all. A little bad publicity really can go a long way.

(via Katherine Mangu-Ward)

Regulation of the Day 229: Educating Yourself

We live in a golden age of information. These days, anybody who wants to can get a college-level education without ever setting foot on a college campus. An outfit called the Teaching Company doesn’t confer degrees, but it does sell undergraduate-level lecture courses in history, philosophy, literature, the arts, the sciences, and more.

Of course, they charge money. Other outfits don’t. Coursera is a new company that has already attracted nearly 1.7 million customers. You can take online courses for free in almost any subject from medicine to economics to electrical engineering. The lectures are taped at top universities such as Columbia, Vanderbilt, Stanford, and more. You can even take an introductory class in guitar from the Berklee College of Music. Now you don’t need to rack up intimidating levels of debt to learn from the best professors at the world’s best universities.

Minnesota’s Solons would prefer that their state’s residents miss out on this golden age. State law bans unauthorized college courses from the state. Of course, this can’t really be done in the Internet age. Coursera should have pointed out how absurd this law is. Protecting people from free and abundant knowledge is not exactly doing them a service. There’s no force or fraud here, and Coursera does not even confer degrees. Despite all this, Coursera decided to take the appeasement route by posting the following notice:

Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

Fortunately, not everyone is a regulatory Neville Chamberlain. George Mason University’s Alex Tabarrok, along with his colleague Tyler Cowen, have just started up their own online university, MRUniversity. The name comes from their blog, Marginal Revolution (though I do sometimes pronounce it “Mr. University” in my head). Tabarrok, channeling his inner Churchill, posted this:

Tyler and I wish to be perfectly clear: unlike Coursera, we will not shut down MRU to the residents of Minnesota. We are prepared to defend our rights under the First Amendment to teach the good people of Minnesota all about the Solow Model, water policy in Africa, and the economics of garlic–even if we have to do so from a Minnesota jail!

Should it come to that, it would take mere seconds to decide the court case on the merits. Maybe the Institute for Justice, with its long track record of free speech litigation, can weigh in. With all the bad publicity this story is getting, maybe the mere threat of a lawsuit would cause Minnesota’s resident Savonarolas to back down.

At the risk of making this post illegal to read in Minnesota, I close by encouraging readers interested in free speech to read John Milton’s essay “Areopagitica.” It is one of the most stirring, passionate and eloquent defenses of free expression ever put to paper. The full text is even online for free, courtesy of Dartmouth University.

CEI Podcast for October 18, 2012: The Limits of Free Speech

Have a listen here.

Free speech is a core value in any free society. But what are its limits? Senior Attorney Hans Bader discusses a UN resolution to ban anti-religious speech and a court case involving a professor who sent anti-immigration emails. The best remedy for hateful speech, he argues, is not to silence it with laws and courts. It is to rebut it with speech of one’s own.

Should the Government Track Your Political Activity?

Former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith asks an important question in this short video. Click here if the embed doesn’t work.

CEI Podcast for June 21, 2012: Free Speech for Me, and for Thee

Have a listen here.

Labor Policy Counsel Vinnie Vernuccio explains why today’s 7-2 Supreme Court decision in the Knox v. SEIU case is an important victory for free speech. The heart of the ruling is that people should not be compelled to pay for political speech with which they disagree. Just as people may not be forcibly silenced, nor can they be forced to speak.

Ideas Are More Powerful than Censorship

Another Benjamin Constant quotation; he is quite possibly the most underrated political philosopher of the 19th century. He deserves at least as much acclaim as Mill, Cobden, Bagehot, Bentham, Ricardo, and other better-known liberal giants of that era.

Now that I’m a bit further along in the book, expect to see a few more of these in the coming weeks. Constant can be dense at times, but he is surprisingly quotable. Ideas are more powerful than censorship. He explains why in a single sentence:

“Averting ideas you think dangerous by scorning them or suppressing them violently, is to suspend their present consequences only briefly, and to double their influence to come.”

-Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics, p.14.

The best response to speech you don’t agree with isn’t to scream, “shut up!” It’s to rebut it with speech of your own — on the merits. That’s what the marketplace of ideas is all about. May the best ideas win.

CEI Podcast for April 19, 2012: Right to Work Laws and Compelled Speech

Have a listen here.

Indiana is becoming a right to work state, which means unions will no longer be able to force workers who don’t want their representation to pay dues. Labor unions argue that this violates their right to free speech. Labor Policy Counsel Vinnie Vernuccio argues that taking away the power to collect mandatory dues is actually good for workers and unions alike. Workers will no longer be forced to pay for representation they don’t want, or political agendas they don’t support. Unions will also have to pay more attention to representing their members’ interests so workers will want to pay dues.