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There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing Too Paperback – 30 Mar 1995
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Mr Fish deflates anointed truths with joyful abandon, and he is at his best in exposing the often baleful effects wrought by mean-spirited defenders of traditional values (The New York Times Book Review)
About the Author
Stanley Fish is Arts and Sciences Professor of English and Professor of Law at Duke University. A founder of Reader Response Theory, he is the author of many books, including Surprised by Sin, Self-Consuming Artifacts, Is There a Text in this Class?, and Doing What Comes Naturally.
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The idea is that principles like 'fairness,' 'free speech,' 'justice,' and 'equality,' are, in truth, no more than rhetorical abstractions we use to justify things WE like. To be honest, Fish argues well for this and gives us many examples. But, as Fish himself writes, 'general principles' can be taken too far and outlive any semblance of usefulness. It is when he tries to apply this 'principle' to different problems that he gets a little weird and alas, the 'no general principle' thing comes to bite HIM.
The first section is a collection of essays written for campus debates with Dinesh D'Souza in relation to affirmative action and campus diversity - Fish being ademantly for each of these. Fish's argument seems to be this: "Since 'fairness' and 'equality' can mean anything to anyone and they as principles don't exist, Mr. D'souza or anyone else shouldn't appeal to them. We should only ever appeal to historical context - history is everything here." The problem is that subtley, Fish is (a) making argument against him impossible because...what do you say to someone who refuses to acknowledge any principle at all1?; and (b) subtley sneaking general principles back in by saying: "When we take history into account, affirmative action (etc.) turns out to be fair (even though fairness is not a valid principle).
The next set of essays is on freedom of speech. Fish says that that too doesn't really exist and then proceeds to demonstrate by pointing out the obvious: no matter what 'theory' of free-speech one uses, there will always be hard cases where principle can't decide alone. He then proceeds to take principle too far and declare that because of this, the whole of free-speech law is a rhetorical put-on and therefore, things like hate-speech legislation or pornography bans are really justified. After all, if there are hard cases, then we can do whatever we'd like, right? The problem is that just because there are hard cases doesn't mean that we can't try to be as inclusive and libertarian as POSSIBLE. From Fish's recognition that free-speech always has boundaries doesn't follow that therefore we should just censor everything.
His next section is on legal theory and it is here he takes an almost opposite turn. He concludes (with Richard Posner) that general principles in law and legal theory are just as bogus as they are in any other field. BUT, he disagrees with people like the legal crit school (bet you didn't think Fish would do that!) by saying that here, general principles are at least pragmatically necessary so as to maintain the reason d'etre of law: consistency, order, and at least the appearance of trying to be impartial. Whereas in the other two sections, lack of general principles meant we should sort of do whatever is whatever, here - somehow - general principles have a vital role to play.
All of this is to say that while I enjoyed the book and it was very provocative, Fish does as most people who discover a 'general principle' do: he takes it a bit too far, applying it with a gusto to everything he can get his hands on. What he SOMETIMES pays lip-service to in these essays (and most of the time, not) is that while general principles may be hollow on examination, we can't help but use them as they are (a) valuable communicative tools; (b) unavoidable linguistically; and (c) pragmatically useful in things like law, science, philosophy, and even...literary criticism. LIke those Fish criticzes, I just think he is too drunk with his own "no principle" principle.
But get the book anyway. It is a great read and will most certainly make you think. Fish really is not that ultra-post-modern guy the conservatives like to pretend he is and some of the positions he takes in this book - against interdisciplinarianism and New Historicism - will prove it.
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