Friday, February 18, 2005

the marketplace of ideas--the twisting of a metaphor

In The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, (2000), the Supreme Court decided that student activity fees could be used to fund groups that some students might disagree with. In this specific case, a student group argued that they shouldn’t be compelled to financially support messages that they disagreed with, but the Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, said that this compelled funding was necessary to precipitate the free exchange of ideas.

This logic stems from the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor which is a common justification for free speech. It says that the only way to determine the value of ideas is to not restrict any of them and see which ones naturally raise to the top—to use a “market” mechanism to separate the wheat from the chaff in the arena of ideas, rather than to use the top-down mechanism of censorship, which presumes to know the value of all ideas. To use a marketplace is to let each individual decide for themselves.

In this case the “marketplace of ideas” is being twisted to justify the forcing of students to fund messages they don’t agree with through their student activities fees. This is a subsidy of ideas, quite opposite the concept of a marketplace. In a true marketplace of ideas, those that thought an idea was good would contribute to it or otherwise assist in spreading it. By forcing people to fund all ideas, no matter how bizarre, unpopular, or even offensive they are, the marketplace is explicitly being rejected in favor of some sort of socialist mechanism.

Being a marketplace doesn’t mean that all ideas should get equal airing. A marketplace specifically rejects that notion, and says that ideas will gain funding according to how many people support that idea. In a marketplace of ideas, anyone is free to believe in any idea they want, but no one is free to force others to contribute to an idea with which they don’t agree.

Basically, a socialist-type subsidizing of all ideas is being justified under the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, despite the fact that they are polar opposites. The free exchange of ideas is being assumed synonymous with forcing others to fund ideas with which they disagree. Orwell wrote in his essay Politics and the English Language, that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Here is just such a case. Be leery anytime that a metaphor is used as part of an argument—they are often used to gloss over holes in an argument, or put a sugar coating around what can be a very bitter pill.

*cough* diversity *cough*.

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