Whose Power? Which Rationality?

In “Deliberation Down and Dirty,” David Estlund seeks a deeper understanding of that most American of political paradoxes: regulated free speech. To that end, he sketches a normative basis for an intuitively appealing idea. The idea is: the boundaries of civility in political expression are proportional to power’s interference with reason. That is, the more that power undermines the conditions of free and orderly political expression, the wider the scope of what should count as “civil” expression, including perhaps even violence. Estlund explicates his account with three important claims. First, democratic deliberation fosters what he calls the “social discovery of truth.” The epistemic value of such deliberation is the primary rationale for narrow norms of civility, since sharp political expression would be counter-productive in circumstances of ideal deliberation. Second, when the conditions of democratic deliberation are undermined in specific ways, the scope of civility widens. Estlund calls this a “breakdown” account of civility: when open deliberation breaks down (though this is, Estlund realizes, a matter of degree), formerly uncivil measures become civil. Third, permissible sharp expression should aim to restore the conditions of narrow civility. Sharp expression when civil is thus remedial, since it must aim to recreate the circumstances of free and open deliberation. These three claims form the heart of Estlund’s account of civil expression, and I would like to explore each of them in turn
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