21 August 2018

Censorship and its targets

Recently, in response to Alex Jones being kicked off of Facebook, YouTube, etc., another blogger wrote a post which advocated going beyond such measures to the use of actual government censorship -- "hate-speech" laws like those in Europe and Canada -- to silence people like Jones.  (I'm not linking to or identifying the blog because the blogger seemed a bit shell-shocked by the resulting comment-thread firestorm and might not wish to be dragged back into the argument.  This is about ideas, not persons.)  I've seen calls for censorship in such cases before, though it's rare for those doing so to admit that what they're advocating is censorship.  In the face of such calls, I want to remind readers of some essential realities.

Before doing so, I want to emphasize that none of this is a defense of Alex Jones, an absolute slime-bucket.  The accusation against him is spreading false and defamatory statements, not stating unpopular opinions -- most notoriously in the case of the Sandy Hook massacre, in which he has tormented and incited harassment of grieving parents, recently doubling down in the face of a lawsuit from them.  You'll never read a positive word about Jones from me.

However, hate-speech laws -- such as those in Canada and Europe, which prohibit expression of opinions deemed "hateful" -- are not necessary to deal with someone like Jones, nor do they even actually target what he does.  We already have laws against harassment and defamation, and he's already being sued under those laws.  Such laws could be made stronger, but laws criminalizing opinions wouldn't even do much against him, because his opinions, as such, aren't the problem.

Hate-speech laws are essentially the same as blasphemy laws -- indeed, the latter are a subset of the former.  Either way it's criminalizing criticism (or mockery, or artistic satire, or whatever) of some concepts or persons deemed either metaphorically or literally sacred.  The same First Amendment that protects our right to post Muhammad cartoons or denounce the homophobia and sexism of the Bible is what also protects the right of Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh to express views others find shocking.

And in practice, hate-speech laws in Europe are used largely to try to suppress criticism of Islam.  For example, Dutch politician Geert Wilders was actually put on trial in 2010 for his statements of hostility to Islam and Muslim immigration and comparing the Qur'ân to Mein Kampf.  These are certainly views one can legitimately disagree with, and Wilders was acquitted in the end -- but the fact that he could be put on trial for them, for saying things not much more radical than things I've said on this very blog, is nightmarishly Orwellian and should terrify any blogger with unpopular views about religion.  Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was ordered to stand trial in 2005 for insulting Muslims in her books, though apparently the trial never happened due to illness (she died shortly thereafter).  What she had said was genuinely insulting -- but again, if you blog about politics or religion, it's very likely you too have said things that could plausibly be judged insulting as well.

This raises another point.  If you support hate-speech laws, you probably assume that it would be you and people like you who get to define what constitutes "hate speech".  But it might not be.  What if such laws banned telling the truth about Christianity or Republicans, the way they ban telling the truth about Islam in the Middle East and some European countries?  That would actually be very plausible in our current situation, if the First Amendment didn't exist.  Trump and his supporters constantly attack the media and call for restrictions on expressing opinions they don't like.  If hate-speech laws were possible here, Colbert and Maher would have a lot more to worry about than Limbaugh (or Jones).

Censorship is seldom imposed to stop people from telling lies.  Lies can be exposed and thus present little threat to the powerful.  It's those who tell uncomfortable truths that must be silenced, for they do pose a threat.

Wilders and Fallaci are not unique, just especially well-known cases because they were already prominent people.  There have been several such trials or threatened trials in various European countries, of people who said things the people in power disliked almost as much as the people in power here would dislike things you and I have said.  Hate-speech laws would not target Alex Jones.  They'd target me.

Wilders, by the way, cannot himself be called a free-speech advocate, having called for the Qur'ân to be banned.  In that, he too is unequivocally wrong.  Whether you condemn the Qur'ân or condemn Wilders's own views, the proper answer to bad speech is good speech, not silencing the bad speech.  When all views can be openly expressed, the truth will eventually win out.  The side that wants to ban people from saying things is the side that knows it can't win an honest argument.  Censorship is the tool of the priest and the dictator.  It has no place in the arsenal of the liberal.


Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Great post, Infidel.

There's also something to consider--Facebook and Twitter are essentially private companies and as such they can exercise their right to remove material by someone like Jones. It's not the same thing as if the government ordered all material by Jones to be removed--that would be a violation of the First Amendment, which explicitly states that the government cannot infringe upon a person's right to freedom of speech.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies are not bound by that.

And yes, Jones is being sued via libel and defamation laws, because that's essentially what he's done to the families of the Sandy Hook victims. The fact that he still doubles down on this craziness and that several families have been harassed because of Jones' madness shows that these families are well within their rights to sue this slimebag.

Just my 2-cents, of course.

21 August, 2018 06:49  
Anonymous Scottie said...

I agree this is a great post. I also agree with the post. Jerry Coyne often writes that you should let people speak and then counter them with better ideas, information, and fact. As for hate crimes I think they are discriminatory. If a person slugs me does it make a difference why he did it, it is still assault. If someone slugs a straight person just because and then slugs me for being gay does it make it much worse for me to be slugged than the straight person? What about not recognized categories, you would have to list every thing a person could hate and then act on that hate in order to have everyone be equal under the laws. Just some of my thoughts on it. Hugs

21 August, 2018 08:07  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

What one person deems to be hate-speech another might not. I think some laws that are there to help people with hate speech type targeting are a good thing. People can say whatever they want but some actions will have consequences and that's not always a bad thing.

21 August, 2018 08:31  
Anonymous Professor Taboo said...

"This is about ideas, not persons."

BINGO! Exactly!

That is what I try to remind myself (it's about the CONTENT, not the person) when I begin to get irritated or enraged by WHAT is being stated or written. I try to remind others of that too when I see/hear retaliation bubbling up. However, sometimes I do faulter, especially when the offender knows nothing about me. Grrrrrrr. :( It's difficult sometimes, but with age and broad experience comes maturity and wisdom. I promise. ;)

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
-- Noam Chomsky

An excellent post Infidel and a wise, apropos reminder to all of us who deeply understand Freedom of Expression AND the responsibility that comes with it for BOTH/all parties in contention.

21 August, 2018 10:09  
Anonymous NickM said...


PS. my comment on your previous post seems to have disappeared (thank you Sky Broadband!) so... (a) the Go Go's - a bit before my time but I saw Belinda Carlisle last year. Great gig and (b) of course, Happy Blogoversary!!! Many Happy Returns!

21 August, 2018 10:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: Thanks -- and that's an important point. Refusing to provide a forum is not the same thing as censorship -- something I've been at pains to point out when people accuse me of "censoring" their comments if I reject them in moderation. Nothing's stopping them from starting their own blog and saying whatever they want, just as nothing's stopping Alex Jones or anyone else from talking. But after all this time, those platforms have finally decided they don't want to help him torment bereaved parents any more.

Scottie: Thanks. I do kind of understand the point about hate crimes in the sense of violence -- if somebody attacks you because you're gay, then besides the violence against you personally, there's an element of implied threat against an entire group, which isn't present in the case of a simple attack by one individual against another. But it's a grey area. And a physical assault is unambiguously a crime either way, unlike expression of opinion.

Mary: It depends what you mean by "consequences". I know that if I say something that offends some people, they might stop reading my blog, and I'm OK with that. If they react instead by threatening me with violence or if the government can charge me with a crime for expressing an opinion, that's definitely wrong.

Professor: Yes, it aggravates me when debates turn personal on the net. Yes, criticize public figures, but I don't have much interest in getting into personal fights with other bloggers. I strongly disagreed with what the pro-censorship blogger said. I don't want to hassle them about it or facilitate other people doing so. I just want to get my own viewpoint out there.

Nick: They were a fun group. And I'm afraid Sky Broadband will indeed have to take the rap here -- I certainly didn't reject a comment from you.

21 August, 2018 18:59  
Blogger Adam said...

I do think all speech (as in terms of opinions) should be protected under the 1st amend, though Republicans made it possible for private companies to censor anyone for anything.

I shed no tears for Alex Jones, they tolerated his garbage for way too long.

21 August, 2018 19:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A false assumption is that truth will always win out, or good will always defeat evil.

Free speech is a founding principle and should always be protected and defended.

The Russians are accused of planting false propaganda on national social media and causing a slant in the election that allowed Trump to win. Different than having evidence of actual tampering with voting machines and changing the actual vote. If voters believe speech (that others claim is false) and vote accordingly, should we ban that political propaganda from public accessibility? The accusation being that those false statements unfairly gave Trump an advantage by changing the thinking of voters. That's what advertising, the huge money raised to run a campaign, political propaganda is all about. Let it flow free, if Americans are duped into believing falsehoods, that is their fault/mistake.

Jefferson had a newspaper friend of his publish that Adams was keeping a whore. Totally untrue, but how many voters were mislead and believed that story? Should Jefferson been legally stopped to publish such a lie? Should the paper have been legally stopped to publish such a lie, or just sued if proven they published a lie?

With free speech comes a responsibility for citizens to educate themselves about the truth. A free press should help in finding facts and the truth. Maybe our weak press is partly to blame for people believing lies. Why do people believe there is no such thing as climate change? Why do people believe the lies of a politician? Gullibility is a huge factor.

Try Jay Leno's "Jay Walking" test. Ask an average American (many with college degrees) the simplest questions about politics, or any other subject and watch the hilarious reactions as the stupidity comes out of the mouths of Americans.

I have no tears for those who believe falsehoods. Prove an actually crime and I will call for criminal charges to be filed. Tell me Americans believed a lie and I will say, of course they did. The fact that believing that lie is dangerous to America and I will say, of course it is.

Most Americans believed Bush's lie about "mushroom clouds" coming from Iraq. That caused the death of thousands of American soldiers, probably 100 thousand deaths of innocent Iraqi citizens, Americans calling fellow Americans traitors if they did not believe the lie, and the demise of world wide respect for America.

How about the lie that Republicans have been spewing for decades, that cutting taxes will create jobs and cut the debt? As we sit at 21 trillion dollar debt and just passed the largest Republican tax cut in history.

Americans being swayed by lies and political propaganda? What a surprise! NOT!

23 August, 2018 02:09  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Adam: private companies can't really censor, though. They can't punish someone for saying something. At most they can refuse to help convey it.

23 August, 2018 19:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: Fair warning -- I've no time for the "I'm part of the aware elite and ordinary people are just a herd of ignorant gullible sheep" thing. Been there, done that.

A false assumption is that truth will always win out

But in the long run it usually does. Religion is the toughest nut to crack, but aside from that, the trend over generations is toward abandonment of old errors. Not many people believe in slavery, faith healing, or the inferiority of women any more, for example. Not compared with a century or two ago.

Why do people believe there is no such thing as climate change?

But the number who believe that is shrinking, even in the US. Clear majorities now accept scientific reality on that issue.

The Russians are accused of planting false propaganda on national social media and causing a slant in the election that allowed Trump to win. Different than having evidence of actual tampering with voting machines and changing the actual vote

We know they tried to hack into voter registration databases and delete people from the voting rolls -- quite different from just spreading fake news. We don't yet know whether they succeeded.

Jefferson had a newspaper friend of his publish that Adams was keeping a whore. Totally untrue

That would have been libel and he could be sued under current law. Defamation isn't protected speech.

and watch the hilarious reactions as the stupidity comes out of the mouths of Americans.

20% or so of any population lives in a fog of nonsense. But 20% isn't enough to run things.

the lie that Republicans have been spewing for decades, that cutting taxes will create jobs and cut the debt?

It's the Democratic party's responsibility to convince people that that isn't reality. There's plenty of evidence available.

You seem to have a thing for bashing Americans. Europeans and Japanese are probably less susceptible to nonsense because they're better educated, but large numbers of people in Africa, India, etc., believe in far more dangerous nonsense than significant numbers of Americans do. No nation has a monopoly on stupidity.

23 August, 2018 19:36  
Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

There is no such thing as absolute Free Speech. For instance you can not call your local fire department and claim your neighbor's house is on fire when there is no fire. Likewise a person can not use so-called 'Fighting Words', for instance telling someone you ass-raped their mother in her hospital bed and then complain you did nothing wrong when the other person slugs you, i.e. you were just exercising free speech. And these would be Criminal Complaints not civil ones.

I think the whole canard of counter hate speech with more and better speech is a battle of 19th Century Liberalism vs. 20th century Fascism all over again. Education was believed by those enlighten thinkers of the 1800's to be the Panacea for all the world's ills. Once men knew better they would behave better.

This was blown apart by the educated men of the 20th century who used their learning for unspeakable evil.

Today we see the pushback against Experts, the learned, and education as Reactionary beliefs are strengthen in spite of and often because of conflicting evidence. Does this mean climate change denial should be criminalized? No, of course not. But, it does mean that more & better speech has not stopped climate change denial. Similarly should anti-vaxxers be criminalized for spreading lies? Not for their speech but, for endangering society, as measles makes a roaring comeback, yes...

As the US has seen with the rise of the Alt-Right, fascist-curious ideologues will always use a free societies speech to push agendas whose end result are pogroms and gas chambers. Right now the NRA, Oathkeepers, III Percenters are just waiting for the go-ahead to kill millions of Americans.

26 August, 2018 04:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Grung: You don't even understand the question. Filing a false report with the police or fire department is already illegal, even without European-style hate-speech laws and censorship of the kind the blogger I was addressing was advocating.

the whole canard of counter hate speech with more and better speech is a battle of 19th Century Liberalism vs. 20th century Fascism all over again

So you support laws banning hate speech, with hate speech being defined by Donald Trump and his allies? Because it would be they, not you, who gets to define it.

more & better speech has not stopped climate change denial

But far fewer people are climate-change denialists over time. The truth is coming out. You can't expect the effect to be instantaneous with every single person.

Similarly should anti-vaxxers be criminalized for spreading lies? Not for their speech but, for endangering society

By that standard any claim that somebody thinks is harmful to society could be criminalized. The kind of people who actually are in a position to make such decisions could decide that promoting atheism should be criminalized because it will cause people to go to Hell. It's possible that allowing anti-vaccine views to be legally expressed does do some harm (although criminalizing it probably wouldn't reduce that harm), but not one-millionth of the harm that accepting the principle of criminalizing such speech would do.

ideologues will always use a free societies speech to push agendas whose end result are pogroms and gas chambers.

And ideologies like that always support criminalizing speech they don't like. You and the Anon above support laws giving people like Trump the power to criminalize me for expressing opinions they don't like (remember it's the people actually in power, not you, who get to define what's "hate speech" and which opinions can't be expressed). That puts you in the same camp with those ideologues.

Hate-speech laws in Europe have not led to less anti-Islam feeling (the main kind of feeling they're used to try and suppress) -- if anything, there's probably more of it there than here. Such laws have made people like Wilders and Fallaci into popular heroes who dared to speak truth to power, and convinced people that the forbidden viewpoints must have some merit or there would be no need to silence them by law.

26 August, 2018 06:26  
Anonymous A Lady of Reason said...

I agree! Even though I'm not a liberal, censorship hurts BOTH sides, as anyone free to censor can censor your views just as easily as mine! Ideas should be free to be expressed in a democratic society, and you're right bad ideas are better countered with good refutations. Censorship really tells people your argument was so weak, you can do nothing but silence the opposition lest they rip it apart intellectually! https://aladyofreason.wordpress.com/

29 August, 2018 06:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Lady: Thanks. In the long run censorship even harms the side for whose benefit it is perpetrated, since it suggests fear of challenge, and weakens their ability to defend their views against real opposition since they never have to face any.

31 August, 2018 03:36  

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