On the Difference Between Parrhesia and Plain Trolling

Bill Maher has always championed liberal values–though not the mooshy kind of people that are afraid to have their feelings hurt–and has always been an outspoken free-speech fundamentalist. True to his values, Maher had troll Milo Yiannopoulos as a guest on his show recently.

This IGD piece criticizes Maher for giving Milo a platform to spew his hatred, and in my view the criticism is fair. It is one thing to argue that Milo has the right or freedom to express himself, and he certainly does have that right, and it’s guaranteed by the constitution. But that is NOT at stake here. On his agenda is the normalization of white supremacist discourse, and by allowing Milo a platform as public as Maher’s show, without really subjecting him to the criticism that we have come to expect from such a liberal space in media, this advances said agenda.

By the way, the page calls Milo a white nationalist, but I’m not sure that applies to him, as he’s an immigrant from Britain and not an American citizen–he’s not a white “nationalist”, he’s just a self-loathing gay, an ultra-conservative troll, and an attention whore who has apparently bought into the near entirety of the paranoid alt-right discourse without qualifying the excesses of religious privilege and the many other incoherent and degrading bits, even those bits that de-legitimize his own life, his own right to exist and to be healthy and happy as a gay man.

At the core of the confusion in values that Milo challenges us to confront, is the question of what we Epicureans know as parrhesia (frank criticism) and its needed role in society. According to Philodemus of Gadara in his On Frank Criticism (Peri Parrhesias), there are two forms of frank criticism: private and public. Here, we are not concerned with the private form. In the public sphere, free speech should be applied to correct the false views and the traditions that are in error.

The philosopher must speak frankly and openly to outside society in order to help emancipate others from ignorance or from tradition, and from the forms of suffering that ignorance and tradition generate.

Confucius, for instance, confronted the ancient Chinese custom of burial of live slaves with their master with great moral stamina before a local ruler, and with his eloquence and intelligence, (he) single-handedly ended the practice. Siddhartha Buddha confronted the caste system and the Vedic practices of animal sacrifice.  Ancient Greek atomists confronted false healers with the theory that germs produce illness and assuaged people’s fears about the gods, prophecy, heavenly bodies, and earthquakes by teaching that natural laws govern the way things are.

Now, while Milo certainly has a constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech, and in spite of how much he wishes to dignify his freedom of speech and make himself out to be a victim of the so-called “free speech police”, he is not applying parrhesia. While refusing to call transgender persons by their gender identity, he argued with insistence that transgender people are “vastly disproportionaly involved in sex crime“, without citing specific statistics or sources. This is false. In fact–just as I suspected before looking for legitimate data–transgender people are FAR more likely to be victimized than to be the aggressors. According to this page that gathers national statistics (which can be acquired via a google search in seconds):

Most studies reveal that approximately 50% of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.

One in ten transgender individuals have been sexually assaulted in a healthcare setting.

My blog is not (usually) about politics, and I’m not (usually) about fact-checking mass media in this post-fact era. That would be too exhausting and would take too much time away from my true passions, but I feel that parrhesia is a fundamental human value and that, when the tendency to hold as sacred our freedom of speech degenerates into the dignification of trolling and lying, it’s time to go back to the basics about why freedom of speech matters. Again: no one may question anyone else’s right to free speech. That is not at issue here: we are not only free to speak. We are also responsible for the content of our words and, when we lie in such a public forum and our words do real damage, we are liable to be exposed to public correction, and perhaps even shame and humiliation. Let’s hope that, in the future, Bill Maher can better discern the difference.

Further Reading:

Reasonings on Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism, Part I, II and III

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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8 Responses to On the Difference Between Parrhesia and Plain Trolling

  1. Parresia no es solo hablar en verdad, es descubrir la verdad en uno a través del aprendizaje común y compartirla con el condiscípulo que es también el amigo. Ese fue uno de los grandes aportes epicúreos. Pero la parresia necesita de la amistad, solo puede darse en ella. No solo requiere contextos comunes, requiere que los hayamos ganado juntos y que nos hayamos descubierto como pares, como iguales en ese aprendizaje.

    Frente al exterior -de la amistad- podemos hablar con franqueza, pero esa franqueza está subordinada a la construcción simultánea de contextos, a la posibilidad de encontrar un terreno donde sea posible un cierto aprendizaje común. Es decir, no hay parresia de ningún tipo, ni siquiera franqueza, si no hay reconocimiento previo como un igual del otro.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hiramcrespo says:

      Esa es la parresia íntima de los amigos epicúreos, y es cierto en ese caso. Originalmente, parresia era simplemente la libre expresión de los ciudadanos libres, que eran los únicos que tenían derecho a participar del todo en la democracia griega y a criticar las estructuras de poder. Supongo que a estos dos tipos de parresia se refería Filodemo cuando hablaba de que habían dos tipos: la privada (entre amigos) y la pública. En este caso, participar de un foro tan público como el show de Bill Maher, constituye en efecto una manera de participar “democráticamente” y públicamente en la vida de la polis.

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      • Si, lo que me pregunto es si puede ser considerada participación democrática franca, honesta, aquella que no considera al otro como un igual, en la medida en que inventarse los datos (que es distinto de malinterpretarlos o equivocarse) supone pensar al que nos escucha no como un igual al que se pretende convencer, sino como un mero objeto a ganar/dominar da igual cómo.

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    • hiramcrespo says:

      Cierto.

      Creo (y espero) que a Milo no le queda una carrera muy larga. La gente se va a cansar rápido de el.

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  2. persedeplume says:

    Spot on Hiram! Thanks for this well written article.
    I really dislike that Milo uses his version of identity politics to abet his twisted need for affirmation from the very people who view him as a useful idiot at best, and who secretly or not so secretly despise him for who he is as a gay person.
    What he does is also not helpful in alleviating the overall weariness on the centrist left of “identity politics” .

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    • hiramcrespo says:

      He’s another way that the right infiltrates minorities to normalize its discourse. He keeps saying: “Look at me, I’m gay, I’m Jewish (is he?), my boyfriend is black, ergo how can my worldview be an aberration and an insult to minorities?” …. well, not only is it degrading and insulting, it’s idiotic. It draws perpetually on false equivalencies. It’s obsessed with so-called “normalcy”–code for heteronormativity, repression of divergence, and bullying others into silent uniformity. And it arises from the same kind of extreme conservatism that only gives one choice to minorities: to NOT exist. I will be writing more on this.

      Liked by 1 person

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