Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition

By John Durham Peters.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 316 pp. ISBN 0226662748.

Courting the Abyss is an intellectual history of public communication in the Anglo-American world. More specifically, John Durham Peters traces a variety of conceptions of free expression and liberal thought as frameworks for understanding public communication. He demonstrates, through a series of examples from Paul of Tarsus to Martin Luther King, that commitments to free expression are upheld by the belief that "exposure to evil can be good for public health" (p. 1). The purpose of this work is to "defend liberal ideas in a fresh way" (p. 22) by clarifying the messy and tangled notion of liberalism and free speech that we have inherited from generations of intellectual debates about public communication.

As with his previous book Speaking into the Air, Peters re-reads major texts by canonical figures in an attempt to "illuminate the choices and dilemmas that bother us in public and private today." In other words, he wants "to understand current problems in the firelight of past arguments" (p. 27). He certainly achieves this goal. To read Courting the Abyss is to gain a fresh and illuminating perspective on the meaning of liberalism and free speech, as well as a new and compelling explanation of why these concepts continue to haunt democratic politics. This form of "intellectual history as cultural criticism" relies heavily on philosophical texts instead of material artifacts, but these texts help Peters comment on larger moral and political problems. He reads Paul's epistles, Milton's Areopagitica, Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Mill's On Liberty, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions to help understand public life today, because "they offer the strongest possible version" (p. 28) of key arguments, grounding and conditioning much of what we think about communication. In the field of communication studies, Peters' method is rarer than it should be, perhaps because of the daunting combination of breadth and depth that attends the task of interpreting such texts. Regardless, this book is highly original, subtle, erudite, and carefully worded. It is a treasure trove of insights and ideas, all eloquently rendered.

Courting the Abyss seems to turn on one difficult question that persists in democratic politics: just how free should free expression be? To advocate for complete and unfettered freedom of expression is to believe that truth will always prove persuasive. This has been, and continues to be, one of the central assumptions of liberal thought. More importantly, though, such a position leads to some complex problems concerning the value of tolerance, ethical conduct, and the results of cultural transgression. When, in 1978, the American Civil Liberties Union defended the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, where there was a substantial Jewish community (which included survivors of the Holocaust), the liberal celebration of and commitment to free speech made for some very strange bedfellows. The political determination to consort openly and civilly with the enemy is intended to show the superiority of liberal values. Peters calls this "homeopathic machismo" or "the daily imbibing of poisons in small doses so that large draughts will not hurt" (p. 6). The idea is that exposing oneself to evil will help maintain the health of the moral and social order. Exposure to Nazis is just the price one pays for the basic goods of free expression. If one follows this strange logic, one must conclude that liberty is best maintained by defending those who would destroy it. This "homeopathic machismo" requires a display of self-discipline. To be a good liberal is to remain calm and smile when cultural taboos are flagrantly broken and to be strong and righteous when extremist views are aired. Liberals like to be exposed to the temptations of sin. Without sin, we cannot know virtue. Without obscenity, we cannot know civility. The lesson of John Milton's Areopagitica, as interpreted by Peters, is that we all need our season in hell if our knowledge of the world is to be fully informed and our path through life freely chosen.

In exploring these notions further, Peters argues that pain and suffering inform the liberal ethos. He focuses on Stoicism as a form of public character that continues to animate our conceptions of collective life and public communication: "The Stoic tradition teaches a hard heart as a price of public life." From such a perspective, free speech is "an offense designed to bring about some greater end" (p. 22). The defence of free speech consistently refers to the ability to suspend personal interests. A refusal to judge is an ethical stance, and it is clearly linked to the moral abstemiousness in the social sciences. Notions of impartial inquiry and detached knowledge continue to provide a model for sceptical citizens capable of diverse sympathies. What Peters is most after, with his reading of the Stoic strand in liberal thought, is an ethic of receptivity, openness, and other-mindedness as a vital element of public life in a democratic society. This position nicely echoes the arguments at the end of Speaking into the Air. Such a position also leads to serious questions about how we regard the suffering of others, especially in the endless stream of media images of pain, disaster, and misery. The final chapter brings this into specific relief around the question of witnessing. Here Peters considers passive resistance, civil disobedience, and exaggerated civility in a characteristically rich and provocative manner.

At the heart of the book, and underpinning all of the many historical examples of liberal thinkers, democratic actors, and Stoics, is the relationship between "abyss-artists" and "abyss-redeemers." "Abyss-artists" practice the art of provocation - they want to cause discomfort in their audiences. "Abyss-redeemers" construct a critical purpose out of the offences of the "abyss-artists." The relationship between acts of transgression and the explanation of those acts becomes a central feature of public life: "The whole strategy of liberal public space, from Mill through the ACLU, depends on a collaboration between offensive social dramas and explanation by reasonable bystanders of their higher purpose, the translation of act into word" (p. 92). From Milton we learn that the rude speech and sins of Satan are a catalyst for redemption and lessons for a moral life. The relationship between "abyss-artists" and "abyss-redeemers" supports the liberal belief that it is a civic duty to risk the discomfort of exposure to offensive doctrines. As citizens and participants in a democratic, multicultural public life, we are expected to increase our sensitivity to other people's feelings and decrease our sensitivity to our own feelings. This is a complicated and difficult task. The rich history of liberal thought testifies to the many ways people have attempted to do it.

In the end, Peters argues for the following formula: "stoicism for the self, cynicism for institutions, and sentimentality for others" (p. 292). Combined with a kind of centrist politics, the assumption is that this formula will help us find our way out of the tangled confusions precipitated by questions over the role of free expression in the contemporary world. Whether or not one agrees with Peters' politics should not matter. What is important is that reading this book will help everyone to think through the assumptions of their own politics and to understand more clearly the moral and political dilemmas that we face today. This is the purpose of intellectual history, for communication studies and for scholars from all fields. To read Courting the Abyss is to be reminded of this fact and to be challenged and rewarded by the insights of such a method. Based on the evidence of this work and Speaking into the Air, it seems clear that John Peters' method, style, and erudition make him one of the most interesting and best writers on communication that we have.

Reviewed by Robert Danisch, Concordia University



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