Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Ruism and free speech


I’ve been giving some thought to this topic quite a bit, most recently spurred on by a response to an article by Daniel Bell that I’m writing for a Chinese journal. I won’t go into Bell’s argument in any detail, but I find significantly greater restrictions on speech accepted and even advocated by classical Ruists than in liberalism. On certain topics (criticizing the ruler/government) certain people (Ruists, or maybe the elite more generally) should speak out, though even here historically Ruists have generally accepted that they might be punished for doing so. On other topics, particularly those that might threaten social harmony and stability, they seem quite willing to ban certain kinds of expression.

Here are the clearest examples I can think of, in my off-the-cuff translations.

In Analects 15.11 as part of a discussion about governing, Kongzi says, “Get rid of the music of Zheng…the music of Zheng is licentious.”

In Mengzi 3B9 Mengzi is accused of being fond of disputation 好辯. His response is that he disputes because he has no choice, not because he wants to. He says, “The doctrines of Yang Zhu and Mozi fill the world. If the ways of Yang Zhu and Mozi are not stopped and the way of Kongzi is not proclaimed, then the people will be deceived by heterodoxy and benevolence and rightness will be obstructed. If benevolence and rightness are obstructed, this is to lead beasts to devour people and people to devour each other. Fearing this, I defend the way of the former kings and oppose Yang Zhu and Mozi to get rid of excessive words and make it so that heterodox teachings cannot arise. If they arise in the heart, they will harm one’s undertakings; if they arise in one’s undertakings, they will harm governing. When a sage arises again, he would not change what I have said.”

Now, Mengzi is a little more ambiguous. He refers to himself as opposing Yang and Mo with doctrines, not laws. But is that because this is how one should oppose them, or simply because he’s not in a position to ban them? He does use the same word 放 as Kongzi, which I have translated in both as “to get rid of,” and talks of making it so that heterodoxy cannot arise. That suggests legal prohibitions to me, though I’ll grant it’s not a slam dunk.

Interestingly, some contemporary mainland Ruists have a very similar view, distinguishing political expression from non-political expression, and being quite willing to restrict the latter if it is harmful. I’m not sure what neo-Confucians had to say. I have a vague recollection of Wang Yangming saying something that implied restricting expression, but I can’t recall where. If anyone can help me out with neo-Confucian views, that would be great.

It seems to me that a Ruist argument for free speech is going to be hard to make, unless one is willing just to reject outright some of the claims of classical Ruists. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts about this.


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