In fact, I can imagine circumstances under which an alien could say women are inferior to men without arousing offense in me. Suppose this alien had no gender on their planet, and drew the conclusion of female inferiority from time spent observing ours. As long as the alien spoke to me respectfully, I would not only be willing to hear them out but even interested to learn their argument.
I read Aristotle as such an “alien.” His approach to ethics was empirical — that is, it was based on observation — and when he looked around him he saw a world of slavery and of the subjugation of women and manual laborers, a situation he then inscribed into his ethical theory.
When I read him, I see that view of the world — and that’s all. I do not read an evil intent or ulterior motive behind his words; I do not interpret them as a mark of his bad character, or as attempting to convey a dangerous message that I might need to combat or silence in order to protect the vulnerable. Of course in one sense it is hard to imagine a more dangerous idea than the one that he articulated and argued for — but dangerousness, I have been arguing, is less a matter of literal content than messaging context.
What makes speech truly free is the possibility of disagreement without enmity, and this is less a matter of what we can say, than how we can say it. “Cancel culture” is merely the logical extension of what we might call “messaging culture,” in which every speech act is classified as friend or foe, in which literal content can barely be communicated, and in which very little faith exists as to the rational faculties of those being spoken to. In such a context, even the cry for “free speech” invites a nonliteral interpretation, as being nothing but the most efficient way for its advocates to acquire or consolidate power.
I will admit that Aristotle’s vast temporal distance from us makes it artificially easy to treat him as an “alien.” One of the reasons I gravitate to the study of ancient ethics is precisely that it is difficult to entangle those authors in contemporary power struggles. When we turn to disagreement on highly charged contemporary ethical questions, such as debates about gender identity, we find suspicion, second-guessing of motives, petitioning — the hallmarks of messaging culture — even among philosophers.
I do not claim that the possibility of friendly disagreement with Aristotle offers any direct guidance on how to improve our much more difficult disagreements with our contemporaries, but I do think considering the case of Aristotle reveals something about what the target of such improvements would be. What we want, when we want free speech, is the freedom to speak literally.