Does this title annoy you? Do you have a visceral gag reflex at the very notion that freedom of speech isn’t real? Do you politely disagree with me and decide that I am just a shitposter? Regardless of your reasoning on this subject I feel that this entry is for you and especially for folks living in the United States. I am writing this especially for the free speech absolutionists. Those folks who believe quite literally that even the worst people deserve to have their freedom to speak hateful bile that adds nothing to actual discourse. Yes it is for those of you who believe that the KKK deserves to march down a Jewish street trumpeting their hate and that shutting them down is not conducive to a healthy culture and discourse.
First of all, what do we mean by speech? One of the biggest foibles about freedom of speech jurisprudence in the United States, (1st Amendment cases) is the separation between speech and action. This idea is fairly simple, when does speech become more than just words and actually have the ability to provoke actions or suppressing other speech. After all speech isn’t just talking and making noises is it? Speech is useless if nobody can hear it. Normally the speech we are trying to protect are about ideas and ways we relate to one another in society. The right tends to hate the idea that their ideas are fairly unpopular so they concentrate on the right of them to discuss them and say whatever they please. Of course, they cannot be free from consequences for their behavior and speech as that would curtail the speech of those folks responding to them. But in reality they simply would like to speak and trumpet their ideas without feeling bad about them or getting any sort of push back.
But is all speech really the same? Do hateful ideas add to the discourse? The moment I mention this I can already hear the worrying about the very notion that anyone could make that sort of judgement over what is appropriate in terms of discourse. I share that concern and believe that unaccountable corporations and powerful government officials shouldn’t be given that sort of power. However, I do believe that we can objectively figure out whether or not certain ideas are acceptable and really add anything noteworthy to a discussion. Honestly, bad ideas survive because they are given many platforms and the right to have an opinion is prized above pretty much anything else. If you try to commodify ideas into a marketplace, the quality isn’t what matters, it matters if those ideas are picked up. Therefore repetition will ALWAYS triumph over validity or practicality. Everyone has an opinion and everyone had values. However, not all values and opinions are good for a healthy society. I know that it can feel very awful and authoritarian to even consider these things but I would like to present a few examples.
Jerry Falwell is an evangelical pastor and popular figure on the far right. He is a piece of garbage and I hate him very much. However, a case was brought up to the Supreme Court over whether Hustler magazine could legally write an article claiming that he had incestuous relations with his mother. The Free speech of the magazine was the defense but can anyone really say that this added anything really important to the discussion of Falwell? I understand that Hustler is not a prestigious journal and I don’t expect it to be. Also as I said I would prefer Falwell to be forgotten to history. However, did this really add anything useful to discussions of Falwell and his hypocrisy regarding religion and values? I mean it could be true and if so it is disgusting but so what? Why should this be something to be protected? Does being an asshole really need this much protection? I return to the example of the KKK marching through a Jewish community and how the ACLU protected their right to do so. I would remind you that the effect this has on that community is not mere discomfort. This is a show of power and dominance. The ACLU is protecting that right under the auspices of protecting the fable that the only way to move forward and discard harmful ideas, is if they are out in the open. I am a fan of discussing ideas in the open and subjecting them to scrutiny. I am also for platforming awful ideas responsibly. However, I think at a certain point, we must make a choice. Nazi ideas do not need more scrutiny for us to recognize that they are awful. White Supremacist ideas are being reinvigorated recently and we know that these ideas are awful. The media and society at large, protects certain value sets and liberal notions of free speech but they still set boundaries in terms of what is on the table. Certain ideas are seen as radical and we pick and choose what is possible. What is seen as a threat to freedom of speech to one group is seen differently by another. Furthermore certain ideas foment hatred and poisons discourse. Everyone has ideas and values we dislike and think are unhealthy to have. Not everyone has the ability to reach large audiences via youtube or other social media platforms.
If you say on air for weeks and weeks that someone is a baby killer on live TV, you are encouraging some people who hate the idea of babies being killed to kill the supposed baby killer. This is what Bill O’Reilly did on air to Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was shot down by a crazed man. Alex Jones of InfoWars called the Sandy Hook school shooting a false flag and was sued for defamation. Every show on InfoWars was a hate filled fever dream. This man had nothing useful to add to anyone and is frankly unhinged. People were angry when he was deplatformed. They were concerned it would happen to the left and that corporations had too much power over what could be on their platforms. I understand and sympathize with that, but I also will not feel bad for a person who purposefully lies and causes folks to be violent. The recent terrorist attacks on Muslims from right wingers who mention popular right wing figures such as Ben Shapiro and Stefan Moleneux is not a surprise to me. These folks encourage these folks to hate other people. They play up the other side as subhuman and evil monsters. At a certain point, a moral person will try to kill someone who they see as immoral. I don’t see the right wing right now as simply the opposition. I see them as enemies to humanity. Call that hyperbolic if you want but for my entire adult life they have been the party of bullies, psychos, religious extremists, warmongers, bigots and racists. Fox News isn’t even the worst of them and they are pretty damn bad. Nobody lies as much as the right. The supposed left wing outlets like CNN and MSNBC still are awful but they don’t foment hate nearly as much and as often. They lie by omission and drum up war when it suits the powerful and this is awful.
Finally, I would like to say this. Many folks who are free speech absolutists are white dudes and even on the left this is true. We, as white men are not the targets of the hate that the right and the reactionaries foment. It is super easy for us to try to be uber rational about this but our colored friends and families do not have that luxury. They are the victims of this hatred. The LGBT community is also under fire to ridiculous extremes. You also don’t help with your stupid mentioning of the SJW issue. I refuse to believe that you are as effected by it as you claim to be. Also I am very disappointed in folks who are immersed in the geeky subcultures like video games/comics/anime and the like. I love these things and they are a part of my identity too. But you all seem to be going to far to the right I wonder why you like the things that I like. I understand we can have similar interests and have different values but I had hoped that coming from an insular community that hasn’t always been mainstream or socially popular, you would be less elitist and more compassionate. It hurts me to know that ideas of heroism, empathy, hope, friendship and love are lost on you. If you are an anime Nazi, you have become the villains in the shows you love so much. This is not a compliment.
I would recommend reading the book:
There is no such thing as free speech and thats a good thing by Stanley Fish.
It is a collection of excellent essays and will talk more about the issue in a better way than I have.