or, Why I am not a Free Speech Absolutist
I know I’m late to this party, but I didn’t want to simply post a big rant back in January. Rather, I wanted time to process the facts and arguments I read regarding the limits of free speech, particularly in light of the killings almost five months ago. Then, a few weeks ago, came the Garland, Texas attack (basically a much smaller scale Charlie Hebdo, Act II), which happened less than a 30 minute drive from my place. At the end of the day, I do hold the gunmen responsible for the shooting. They had a choice – either vociferously object to the art exhibit through civilized and human means or take up firearms. They chose the latter.
All this said, there are some things that need to be said about freedom of speech, free will, personal responsibility, and our responsibilities to our fellow human being. Note well I am not going to address the letter of the Constitution, nor go into Constitutional Law, for this goes beyond and deeper than such things. If Constitutional Law is what you are looking for, then you will be disappointed. This post will focus on what ought to be the proper bounds of speech regardless of what the First Amendment says.
The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. ..”. To free speech absolutists, “no law” means just that, no restrictions on the expression of truthful ideas; meaning they still support band on slander, libel, defamation of character, or even violation of privacy. Most would also, to a certain degree, support the government classifying information of vital interest to the nation that a foreign nation can use to attack its security. Other than that, freedom of speech they consider an absolute right.
Regardless of what Founding Father’s meant by “no law” and “free of speech”, the ultimate purpose of speech is to allow free and constructive communication of meaningful, needed ideas of vital interest to the broader society’s or individual’s well-being; or at the very least information that does not harm societal well-being. For example, exposing government corruption or presenting information that holds government officials accountable for their actions. This also includes information about deep philosophical, scientific, or social issues – such as whether or not God (or any other deity) exists, how much economic freedom is needed to maintain a society’s prosperity, the proper distribution of wealth, how our nation should conduct foreign relations, and so forth.
Mockery, belittlement and other forms of abusing others essential personhood (i.e. dignity), whether in content or tone, does not meaningfully contribute to the overall well-being of either society or the individual. In fact, such tones (totally aside from the bedrock basic substance of the information communicated) can easily lead to civil disorder, hate crimes, and – if carried far enough – outright armed conflict. At the very least, it closes the minds of others to what you have to say. It certain doesn’t inspire a spirit off problem-solving among the disputants. This itself is a precursor to the terrible consequences listed above.
Consider a Serbian born in the late 60s/early 70s – of prime combat age for the Bosnian War of the 90s. Do you really think those Serbs spent their childhood thinking “When I grow up, I want to massacre, rape, and ethnically cleanse a lot of Bosnians and Kosovars”? The same thing goes for Germans born in the early 20th century. “When I grow up, I want to build a big camp so I can gas all the Jews in the world”.
No, this hatred didn’t just pop up out of a vacuum. It has its precedents. I have little reason to doubt that those hatreds came in MANY cases from repeated bad personal experiences with the group they hate, or hearing tales (true or not) of bad personal experiences their friends and family had. Hate speech, and even mockeries and belittlements most people within social acceptability, does nothing to illuminate the larger public as to the substance of the issues at hand, let alone provide real, sustainable answers to the issues at hand. It only adds the proverbial fuel to the fire. The only use I can see for such tones or messages is to either release frustration or to encourage the audience to marginalize or ostracize “the other” on a deeply personal level.
Being denied a frustration release of this sort is not a substantive threat to anybody’s psychological health or otherwise well-being – especially in the long run. Nor, as I said earlier, is this kind of frustration release going to encourage the moderate faction of “others” to take a chance to talk it out with the moderate faction of their opponents (in the recent cases, Muslims, but any “other” throughout history also works).
Because of all this, mockery or degradation of others is so ineffectual at providing real, sustainable solutions to the social problem; any pleasure or relief gained from that mockery so short-lived, and thus any good secured or bad prevented through deriding/degrading your opponent so trivial — that any benefit gained or harm prevented through such belittlement of another’s personhood is clearly outweighed by the greater need to NOT degrade the dignity and humanity of those you oppose. Actually, this explains why Washington is so much of a food-fight these days, not to mention gridlocked; but that’s another topic.
That’s also why I refuse to watch or listen to the likes of The Daily Show, right-wing talk radio, etc.: that form of “entertainment” I find immoral on its face. No matter how blatantly erroneous a person’s beliefs, there are other ways to combat those views that do NOT involve degradation of their personhood. Such forms of expression only make people more resistant to opposing views and – worse yet – poisons the image of the civilized, decent people who agree with the sarcastic person’s essential views, even if not that person’s tone. This further hampers communication between people with different points of view. When people stop communicating and start shouting and screaming at each other, that can easily be the beginning of political gridlock at best, civil disorder at middling, and if taken far enough outright warfare.
Thus, politeness and respect for your opponent is not only the civilized and humane thing to do (so long as such a thing is possible or reasonable), but it’s also a damned cheap form of political stability insurance (not to mention both medical and property insurance as well). Yes, in this age in which Freedom of Speech has a level of devotion scarcely less intense than what religion often generates, this is not going to be a popular position. Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that too much of anything good is a bad thing, and often there is indeed too much “free speech” when that speech is used even in part to denigrate or belittle the dignity of others.