I’ve been thinking a lot about free speech lately. Free speech is always an interesting idea because it’s essentially universally agreed upon that our right to freedom of expression is foundational to democracy and transcends even the constitution and Bill of Rights that it’s written on. Most people, however, agree that speech can occasionally be dangerous, whether they realize it or not. The challenge lies in how different our concepts of where that line should be drawn can often be.
I generally describe myself as a free-speech liberal. Not to be confused with a free-speech absolutist. I probably have a broader idea of what rises to the level of a genuine threat than does the Supreme Court. I have little democratic use for hyperbolic threats, extreme invasions of privacy, and impractical or outlandish encouragement of violence in unusual situations that the Supreme Court may not consider consider realistic incitement of imminent lawless action. But it’s when we start to move away from truly virulent and aggressive hate speech that I start to scratch my head a bit.
There is a tendency amongst liberal and moderate people in general to shy away from difficult or unpleasant arguments. In the case of moderate people, I notice this most often manifest as a wariness of confrontation. We can never convince anyone so why make the situation unpleasant?
In the case of liberals, however, it tends to be a little more dangerous. I notice a lot of liberal people shy away, not from the confrontation, but from the argument itself. I’ve seen people say, at various times, that “they’re not trying to have a productive conversation right now,” and that they won’t justify a lot of positions with a response. They react to and label an idea, but then back away from the minutia of argument.
I recognize that extreme ideas may not deserve a response. Engaging rationally with a neo-nazi could lend legitimacy to that person’s ideas that they wouldn’t have otherwise. But we live in a time when extremely uncomfortable ideas are edging closer and closer to the mainstream. The difference between meaningfully securing a border and protecting a “culture” or “heritage” has grown fuzzier in recent years. The former is a basic tenet of a reasonable conservative conception of nationhood whereas the latter serves regularly as a foundation for ethnic cleansing. One of those ideas can be the subject of legitimate disagreement and the other deserves no quarter in a pluralistic society.
The problem is that there is a critical mass. When the latter idea comes close enough to the mainstream and receives enough shrugs or lip-service or political legitimacy or even apathy, then it exists on its own. It exists in the wild. Ignoring it doesn’t force everyone else to ignore it as well. Ignoring it just leaves it to fester unexamined and to spread unchecked.
We think of ideas as isolated in the minds of those who harbor them, but they most certainly are not. Ideas are isolated in the minds of those who harbor them, only so long as those people remain silent. Those with the most misguided or damaging ideas generally don’t consider them to be so, even when they are fully aware of the damage they can do to others. They consider them controversial but vital. And so they spread them.
Angrily confronting these ideas without taking them intellectually seriously or shouting down those who confront them lends to them a legitimacy that comes from the impression that there is no argument against them. If no argument is present, then perhaps there is none.
We frequently argue about whether or not we want to lend an idea legitimacy by giving it attention or by engaging with it directly. What we rarely consider, however, is that there is a second set of choices: whether or not we want to lend an idea legitimacy by martyring it.
Challenging an idea publicly does not lend it legitimacy. It opposes it in a concrete way; offers an alternative. The goal is not to change the mind of the person who harbors a hateful or destructive idea but to follow it around. To never let it enter the mind of another without holes punched clear through it, screws removed, tires slashed, axles broken, windows cracked.
The challenge, however, is that confronting hateful and negative ideas really does exact a toll. That’s particularly true when the ideas in question are rooted in bigotry and the dehumanization of others – and that is where I get the impulse to deny certain ideas a platform.
My wife should not have to explain to people why the president offends her or why being shouted at on the street is demeaning. Female writers should not have to wade through online objectification, dehumanization, or threats of violence just to express their opinion. It is not the responsibility of a black man to explain why racial dog-whistles are racial dog-whistles. Muslims have no more duty to explain their relationship to God than anyone else.
I was recently listening to a podcast where an advocate for restrictions on certain protected speech, in response to a story from a white male audience member about abandoning his prejudices after conversations with people who disagreed with him, stated that “it’s ridiculous for you to assume that we should have the burden of educating you.”
The interesting thing, however, is that he never actually said that the young man was wrong. He never said that dialogue wasn’t useful in bringing him around and snuffing out his prejudice. He never said that free speech, in that instance, didn’t work. That’s because it did work. He only said that it’s not his responsibility to be that for a white bigot, or the duty of a woman to be that for a casual sexist. I agree completely. People who are subjected to bigotry are those who can speak to it with the most authority and their voices are inestimably valuable, but it's not their responsibility to argue their own humanity.
It is the responsibility of people who move about unthreatened by prejudice and bigotry to bear the weight of combatting it. It is the responsibility of those with relative privilege to create space for others.
I sympathize with the impulse to shut down or ignore or isolate bigotry and vile speech, even if I don't agree, only because I’m not sure how many people in my situation have any interest whatsoever in doing battle with it. I’m not sure how prepared people are generally to engage with racism and engage with sexism and unravel the complex webs of self-interest, anxiety, ignorance, anger, and obstinance that often undergird them. In short, I think that more speech is the answer, but I understand the assumption on the part of women and people of color and others that white men will likely leave them to do the dirty work. That’s generally what we do.
So the choice with which we're left is whether we want a government to control hate speech and leave that government the latitude to decide what hate speech is and the tools to snuff it out; or a government that allows more speech in an environment where people often choose not to speak in the face of hate. I have a hard time thinking that empowering the government to label and criminalize hate speech is the right choice (that we find ourselves with this government is case in point). I just hope that individuals with power and with relative privilege are willing to fill the void. Without those people willing to exercise it, then free speech might be little better than a lesser of two evils. Free speech is monumentally important and it deserves much better than that.