Saturday, October 20, 2018

Free Speech Revisited

The infamous Antifa--bane of the existence of New York Times opinion writers everywhere (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Last year, I published a post on free speech that I recently reread. Not surprisingly, I found that certain parts of it seem less convincing to me than they did back then, because over the course of the last year or so my thinking about freedom of speech has honestly shifted a lot. In my post last year, I took a pretty strong stance in favor of freedom of speech, and made a lot of arguments that are pretty typical in terms of what you'll hear from people who oppose restrictions on speech--some of them I still think hold up, some not so much. So I wanted to reexamine the issue here and talk about how my thinking has changed, and how it hasn't.

Let's start with how it's changed. In my original post I wrote the following:
There is...a moral question to address: is responding to words with force really justified? The rhyme we always use on children, "sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me," is an oversimplification, of course, but it isn't without a great deal of truth. Fining or imprisoning a person damages them in a tangible way; words do not. Again, I am fully aware of the emotional distress words can cause, but trying to create a world in which no one is ever upset by anything anyone else says is neither practical nor desirable.
This is definitely one of the points I was least impressed with when I recently reread the post. Being exposed to hate speech does, indeed, lead to harms as tangible as any. In fact, earlier in the same piece I even quoted this from an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:
Racist hate speech has been linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires complex coping strategies. Exposure to racial slurs also diminishes academic performance. Women subjected to sexualized speech may develop a phenomenon of “self-objectification,” which is associated with eating disorders. 
These negative physical and mental health outcomes — which embody the historical roots of race and gender oppression — mean that hate speech is not “just speech.” Hate speech is doing something. It results in tangible harms that are serious in and of themselves and that collectively amount to the harm of subordination. The harm of perpetuating discrimination. The harm of creating inequality.
The idea that hate speech causes no "tangible harm" is absurd and I was obviously trying to overlook evidence that contradicted what I wanted to believe, relying on the dumb and weak argument that because being exposed to hateful speech doesn't leave a bruise or reduce the amount of money in your bank account, that means the harm it causes doesn't really count. Even though I made an attempt to be sensitive, I ultimately ended up reducing the real negative effects on mental and even physical health that hate speech has to "hurt feelings," which is particularly indefensible. It's the same argument that far-right shitheads like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos make, fundamentally.

It also overlooks the very real role of propaganda in helping extremely destructive movements gain political power. Certainly the right to freedom of speech--and the closely related right to freedom of assembly--are important for fascist and other far-right parties and organizations to build support and work their way up to the highest levels of government. These political factions can end up killing large numbers of people when they attain power, and the role of propaganda, rallies, marches etc. in that rise to power is far from negligible. Even if the connection between cause and effect isn't as readily obvious or immediate as, say, the connection between someone punching another person in the face and the second person getting a black eye, it's still very real. So, like a lot of stuff we tell kids, "sticks and stones..." is just another nugget of bullshit that should be disregarded by anyone over the age of sixteen or so.

The next paragraph has not held up much better in my view:
Facing offensive speech head-on offers a clarity that censorship cannot: it allows us to figure out why these utterances are so repulsive to us, rather than simply attacking those who make them. Further, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example." If the government punishes people for their speech, does it not encourage intolerance and force over rational debate?
Nobody needs to hear racial slurs or Nazi propaganda to know they're opposed to it and understand why they're opposed to it, and the idea that banning genuine hate speech would push us toward some point where we're unable to have a discussion that doesn't break out into a fistfight is beyond stupid--not to mention disproven by the countries that actually have hate speech laws and still manage to have intelligent discussions free of violence or irrational intolerance.

In general, a lot of my argument in favor of free speech is premised on the idea that Saner Heads Will Prevail--that the most intelligent and rational arguments will win out when all perspectives are given a fair hearing. History has shown over and over again that this is not how things work, and it's delusional to cling to that idea when Donald Trump managed to get elected president. And rational arguments do nothing to alleviate the real damage done to people who are exposed to hate speech.

As the first paragraph I quoted indicates, I also clung to the idea that people have a moral right to say what they want--that it is inherently Wrong and Bad to try to shut down any speech, regardless of how reprehensible it is. I no longer stand by this at all. Speech that is designed to dehumanize other people is in no way deserving of tolerance of any sort, and political propaganda that furthers the goals of destructive movements isn't either. We are not morally obligated to allow people to utter or publish speech that falls into these categories, and there's nothing inherently immoral, in my opinion, in preventing them from doing so or punishing them for doing so (depending on how these things are done, of course).

I also fell into the trap of seeing free speech as a good in and of itself--an approach that's pushed heavily in the United States. We are told that it is taking the moral high ground to let Nazis march in a Jewish neighborhood and allow the Klan to hold rallies (and even provide police protection for such assemblies, lest anyone try to disrupt them with violence). That's how I used to think, for sure, but not anymore. The idea that giving fascists and racists the right to spread their propaganda and organize to further their cause is somehow noble or good is widely held, but I can't see any reason we should continue to believe it. Are we supposed to think that we're not entitled to express our own views unless we give that same right to people whose goal is to terrorize racial and ethnic minorities? I'm pretty comfortable with the principle that people who want to commit genocides, and hope to use speech to further that cause, are no longer entitled to freedom of speech.

So, that's how my opinion has changed: I no longer believe that we have any moral imperative to respect others' right to free speech, when those others are racists, Nazis, Klansmen, etc., who are using that right to further their evil causes or insult and dehumanize vulnerable groups--and I no longer think that allowing these voices to be heard is in and of itself a valuable thing. No--when bigots are prevented from making their bigotry heard, that is a good thing, in my opinion. And, to the extent that hate speech laws actually discourage real hate speech (i.e. speech designed to dehumanize and attack vulnerable groups) and political propaganda for destructive ideologies such as Nazism and racism, hate speech laws are good. Obviously, these views are a radical departure from the ones I expressed in July of last year, which is the result of a lot of contemplation and internal debate on my part.

So, how have my views stayed the same? Well, obviously on a moral and theoretical level they have changed completely--but when it comes to the practical arguments my old blog post makes, I think they largely hold up. For instance:
If nothing else, pure self-interest should be a motivating factor for the support of freedom of speech...Some leftists may be thrilled with France's anti-hate speech laws, but they may be less thrilled with France's crackdown on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement under the pretense that it is hate speech. Not surprisingly, giving those in power permission to censor certain viewpoints means they are likely to use that power to censor the viewpoints they dislike...As a leftist, I have to note that it is stunningly shortsighted of my fellow leftists to support giving the government the power of censorship while expecting it not to be used against us.
This I still wholeheartedly believe. Indeed, any leftist wanting to give the US government greater power to punish speech it doesn't like must be insane, if not downright suicidal. The example I cited about BDS in France is just one illustration of how hate speech laws are likely to backfire against the left. And, as I noted earlier in the post, "in point of fact, hate speech restrictions do not seem to have been especially effective at squelching out fascism and racism, given the rise of far-right parties across Europe." For this reason, hate speech laws still strike me as a bad idea--while they surely have some positive effects, the potential for abuse is high, and ultimately they don't seem to be all that effective in actually eliminating hate. Or even keeping it from becoming a major political force, for that matter. The cons seem to outweigh the pros, in my opinion, particularly in a country like the US where the government has a long history of attacking left-wing movements. None of the rebuttals to this argument that I've heard or seen have come close to being convincing.

It also still strikes me as generally a bad idea to try to chase objectionable speakers off of college campuses or prevent them from speaking. It always seems to fuel the anti-PC hysteria and result in more tedious articles from Jonathan Chait and Bari Weiss about the dangers of the illiberal left--and, given the media attention it draws, it's hardly effective in actually denying the speaker themselves a platform. Of course, there are considerations that should come into account when deciding whether someone should be allowed to speak on campus--if they're likely to use their platform to make students less safe, for instance by targeting and harassing a transgender students like Milo Yiannopoulos did; or if they're likely attract dangerous and violent people to the campus and the area around it, like Richard Spencer did. But when it comes to a more "academically" racist old coot like Charles Murray, or some idiot troll like Christina Hoff Sommers, it's probably best to just ignore them, or to show up and protest but keep it "civil." It's not that they deserve it, it's just a matter of optics.

So, what about antifa, and black bloc-style tactics against far-right marches and rallies? I spoke out against them in my previous post. I guess you could say my feelings are pretty mixed. I absolutely value antifa, and I don't think it's fair to reduce their movement to just punching Nazis. It's important to show up and confront racists and fascists--and given that their ideologies are based on violence, it's important to be ready to respond in kind if violence breaks out. And I think that being an active Nazi, or a white nationalist, or whatever, absolutely means you deserve to get beaten up. But, yeah, black-masked anarchists crashing through police barricades and beating people with clubs or whatever probably is not great optics for the left. And while it might make those on the far right less likely to hold assemblies (a good thing), I'm not sure how much it does to actually defeat the far right politically given that we live in the age of the Internet--which makes it pretty easy to spread ideas with no marches or rallies necessary--and that the people who faithfully vote Republican in every election are frankly a much bigger threat to the world than the dorks who show up for alt-right rallies. But I've already changed my mind on a lot of things, and maybe my mind will change about this too.

So I guess from a practical standpoint, my thinking on free speech hasn't changed much. As distasteful as it is to me, even the ACLU's practice of defending Nazis' right to free speech may be valuable in that it helps discourage and prevent any attempts by the government to restrict speech--and it's no secret that if the government got free rein to crack down on speech they don't like, they'd be using that power against the left and not just the far right. But a lot of the more theoretical or moral arguments in favor of free speech ring completely hollow to me--including the ones I made just last year. It was a lot easier, to be frank, when I could wholeheartedly embrace the cause of free speech--and it would probably be easier now if I could believe that hate speech laws and beating up Nazis were completely productive approaches. But I can at least know that my beliefs now are the result of a more honest examination than the ones I held when I wrote my blog post last year, and for that reason I wanted to put them out there.

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