Saturday, February 19, 2011

Re-situating origins ...

... Handing Out Knives to Madmen.

The charge brought against Socrates, by a team of voluntary prosecutors, was impiety—they accused him of impropriety in respect to the gods and corruption of the youth. I would suggest that Socrates was convicted not because the jurors were religious fanatics, not because they had lost their democratic tolerance, but because he seemed to them unreasonably unwilling to take responsibility for what he said in public. Today we allow pundits to say what they please, even if their speech has pernicious or even fatal effects. I think we are right to do so, and I think that 280 (out of 501) Athenian jurymen were wrong when they voted to condemn Socrates. But I think they were right to believe that when prominent public figures refuse to take personal responsibility for the consequences of their speech, democracy is in grave danger.


  1. So, clarify, then: Are people responsible for what they say in public, or not? Are pundits responsible for what their words instigate, or not? Do hate speech laws exist for a reason, or not? Do we in fact believe in responsible democracy, or not?

  2. Well, in this country, it was decided years ago and explained in a decision by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. You do not have the right to cry "Fire!" in a crowded theater. As for people using metaphors, such as "battleground states," "targeting districts," etc. -- well if we start curbing that sort of thing, we may as well not say anything at all.