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Agnes Callard, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, lectured on Socratic politics and freedom of speech at Harvard’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics Thursday.
Callard, recently the subject of a viral profile in the New Yorker, delivered the third annual Mala and Solomon Kamm lecture in a hybrid format Thursday, attracting an in-person audience of more than 70. Callard was introduced by the ethics center’s director, University professor Danielle S. Allen.
“Plato and Aristotle both, in a variety of places, always noted that wonder is the origin of philosophy,” Allen said. “Agnes exemplifies a commitment to wonder, and to pursuing wonder wherever it may be.”
Throughout the lecture, Callard discussed her conception of politicization — the situation of language against the backdrop of social conflict — and its impact on free speech.
Callard referenced a 2022 New York Times op-ed on campus speech by then-college senior at the University of Virginia Emma Camp.
“Camp’s op-ed describes the experience of being silenced and bullied,” Callard said. “But when I read these words, I feel kind of bullied by them.”
“My problem is the language that Camp uses to describe the things universities ‘must do,’ what they ‘should refuse,’” Callard said. “I feel like someone is shouting, ordering you around.”
Callard said politicization has limited free speech, continuing to use the metaphor of bullying to represent political conversations.
“If you’re a friend of free speech, your advice to me is so often going to be, ‘Chill out, step back,’” Callard said. “You’re afraid I’m going to use my pain to shut you up.”
“Notice what is happening,” Callard added. “You’re starting to see me as your enemy. You need to make sure I don’t win any of these battles over language because if you give me an inch, I’ll take a mile. You can’t really listen to me because you have to guard yourself against me.”
Callard said politicization is the root cause of “polarized politics” in the U.S., adding that it is not properly recognized as a limitation of free speech.
“When we speak of ‘office politics,’ we’re using ‘politics,’ in the way that I’m using ‘politicized’ — we mean office infighting,” Callard said. “Even career politicians will say ‘let’s keep politics out of this,’ using ‘politics’ as a shorthand for what’s politicized.”
“They mean, ‘let’s temporarily suspend the usual practice of mapping every interaction onto a symbolic battlefield,’” Callard added.
Callard said Socratic principles can be used to illustrate problems with the liberal understanding of free speech, of which she identified five major tenets: government non-interference, a marketplace of ideas, tolerance, persuasion, and debate.
The coercive tendencies of persuasion and debate can serve to detract from open conversation, according to Callard, transforming the “exchange of words” into “an arena” for battle.
“That’s what Socrates calls eagerness to win — when each party escalates to ever more coercive language in a preemptive defense against being on the receiving end of the same, the conversation becomes politicized,” Callard said.
Callard added politicization hinders the ability to “hear the literal meaning” of words, undermining “the pinnacle of free speech.”
“Any time a scenario is structured in such a way as for there to be a winner and a loser, that reflects the presence of a symbolic layer on top of the facts,” Callard said.
Callard pointed to Socrates as a model for effective dialogue, commending his ability to “peel away the symbolism” to reach the truth. She added the “depoliticization of argument” is crucial to Socratic politics.
“There’s something tragic about people who are in a context where they don’t have freedom to inquire,” Callard said of contemporary discourse. “They’re not able to do anything but shout.”
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