Giving the Devil His Due by Michael Shermer – a defence of free speech

The Guardian
The Guardian
The book’s essays on gun violence grapple with some peculiarly American presumptions.

Pick up a book, any book. Is it dedicated to “my friends Christopher Hitchens and Steven Pinker, peerless champions of liberty”? Does it have cover puffs by Jordan Peterson and Pinker? Do the chapter headings refer to many alpha men and “controversial intellectuals” (Richard Dawkins, David Hume, David Irving, Hitchens, and Peterson again) but not a single female?

Is the text peppered with fond reminiscences of boozing with Hitch et al on the global conference circuit? By now you will be getting a strong whiff of a distinctive, testosterone-filled musk. Yes, you’ve wandered into the habitat of that fearless, self-assured celebrity creature: the ageing, raging, white, male, “scientific” truthteller. He’s here to cut through the bullshit for you, whether you like it or not.

This particular specimen, Michael Shermer, is the author of many previous works, including The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice and Freedom (2015), and the more fun-sounding Why People Believe Weird Things (1997). A onetime evangelical Christian, libertarian and professional bicycle racer turned historian, he’s best known as an enthusiastic, atheistical debunker of pseudo-science.

His latest volume is a collection of almost 30 “reflections” published over the past 15 years, repackaged and organised around five themes: freedom of speech, religion, politics, “scientific humanism” and examples of “transcendent thinkers”. Your opinion of the book will almost certainly depend on your fondness for quick, super-brief journalistic takes on large, complicated issues. Reading it is a bit like being stuck next to a well-meaning but opinionated guy on a (safe, boring, post-coronavirus) transatlantic flight – you’re unlikely to learn anything very profound, and you probably won’t want to stay in touch, but if you’re in the mood, it passes the time to have a chatty stranger mansplain the meaning of the cosmos, the genius of the Founding Fathers, and how he got rid of his beloved .357 Magnum during an unfortunate period of marital strife. (Or you could just turn away, pop in your earplugs, and binge on the free movies.)

Shermer’s project is to open our eyes to supposedly rational, scientific ways of analysing and mastering knotty, controversial subjects, from gun control in America, through the “natural” foundations of economic prosperity, to the prospects for a global advance of civilisation. Try to be reasonable, he patiently explains. It’s good to keep an open mind and listen to what others have to say. Look out for confirmation bias. We should accept or reject ideas only “according to their evidentiary standing”.

Unfortunately the brevity of Shermer’s chapters means that his application of these unobjectionable principles often results only in banal truisms. You might not need to read his essays on God and religion to appreciate that Scientology is a money-making cult; that both atheists and people of faith deserve to be treated as intelligent and worthy of respect; that many Americans these days define themselves as agnostic; or that “the universe per se cannot have a purpose” in an anthropomorphic sense because, well, it isn’t a human being.
Michael Shermer

Of course, one person’s platitude can be another’s revelation. The book’s essays on gun violence grapple with some peculiarly American presumptions, such as the notion that guns prevent violence, or that their private ownership provides an essential bulwark against governmental tyranny. What is remarkable is not so much the fairly basic evidence and arguments that Shermer marshals to oppose such views, but the poignantly recent evolution of his own stance. He starts off as a lifelong gun-loving libertarian, and even less than a decade ago, while acknowledging the “staggering” toll of other gun-related deaths in the US, he dismissed mass shootings as “highly improbable” events, largely impossible to prevent unless we “vote to change our government into a Chinese-like communist regime”. By 2017 he was suggesting that the media should stop naming and publicising mass murderers, to prevent their gaining fame and inspiring others. And the longer he debated with gun-rights advocates, the more he came to realise that their minds were never going to be changed by all the data and PowerPoint slides he could muster: their disagreements went much deeper than that.

More satisfying is Shermer’s thought-experiment on a more off-beat topic, the governance of any future human settlement on Mars. Elon Musk, the busy, self-regarding Californian tech-billionaire, wants to establish a base there as soon as possible. He also seriously thinks that a such a community of over a million settlers could and should be run as a direct democracy. On Musk’s Mars, any law that 40% of the people came to oppose would automatically become invalid, “to overcome inertia”. All Martian laws, he’s prescribed, “must be short, as there is trickery in length”, and would be also time-limited, “to prevent death by bureaucracy”. Everyone would constantly vote on every issue, and laws would be continually expiring and need to be re-established: apparently, that’s the best route to personal “freedom” (which is naturally the ultimate goal of Musk’s political utopia).

As well as pointing out the inherent flaws in this libertarian fantasy, Shermer seeks out the views of scientists, science fiction writers, Martian enthusiasts and students of different kinds of “unintentional” Earth-bound communities, such as the survivors of shipwrecks, to come up with an alternative model. Why do some groups of thrown-together people end up murdering and eating each other, while others co-operate and flourish? The answers aren’t so startling (it helps to start with a balanced sex ratio, emphasise teamwork, and avoid racism), but it’s certainly fun to consider the mutiny on the Bounty as a test-case for how (not) to go about colonising other planets.
A lesson to colonists ... the mutiny on the Bounty. Photograph: Alamy

Though this book is billed as “a timely and full-throated defence of free speech”, that is sadly a field in which it makes no substantive contribution. The basic problem is that, like any polemicist masquerading as an impartial observer, Shermer proceeds from so many questionable premises that he raises far more questions than he answers. All human communication requires rules, merely to be intelligible. And it’s at least arguable that the freedom to debate any subject, however contentious, might legitimately co-exist with, or even depend on, rules of civility or evidence. But that’s too nuanced an approach for Shermer; or perhaps it smacks of the “identity politics” and “far-left dogma on college campuses” that are among his pet peeves.

Instead, he starts with the blunt (though conventional American) presumption that communicative laws and norms always reek of “tyranny” and “dictatorship”, and approvingly cites the claim that the Holocaust denier “must be given extra protection because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with”. In this abstract, dehumanised vision of speech, utterances never harm anybody. All regulation is presumed “censorship”, “silencing”, and intrinsically contradictory – for, bizarrely, one of his overarching free speech “commandments” is that all “Arguments in favour of censorship and against free speech are gainsaid the moment the speaker speaks – otherwise we would be unaware of their arguments if they were censored.” Ironically, given its commitment to clear thinking and fearless iconoclasm, Giving the Devil His Due is at its sloppiest and most lazily conventional on the subject of free speech.

For many years now, as the Washington Post and other reputable media outlets have reported, women have been coming forward with claims of sexual harassment and assault by Shermer. He has never been charged with any offences and he denies the allegation. Recently, some of his public speaking engagements have been cancelled as a result. A few months ago, Scientific American discontinued his longstanding column for the magazine. Perhaps all this helps to clarify why, though Giving the Devil His Due is a deeply American work, it is not (unlike all his previous books) being published by any US firm, but only by Cambridge – though it certainly doesn’t explain why that reputable scholarly institution, the world’s oldest publishing house, was keen to do so. In any case, as Shermer himself would doubtless agree, even if objectionable and muddle-headed people are given a platform to speak, no one is obliged to listen to them.

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