31 August 2021

Effective free speech

To defend effective freedom of speech, it is necessary to address certain rhetorical gimmicks which are regularly used to attack and undermine it.  Here are a couple of examples.

(To fend off time-wasting digressions, remember that freedom of expression refers to expression of opinion or artistic expression.  Things like threats, libel, doxing, and harassment are not freedom of expression and have never been protected as such.  Obfuscating the distinction is just another tactic the enemy uses to confuse the issue and undermine real free speech.  "Blasphemy" and so-called "hate speech" absolutely are free speech -- they are expression of opinion, however extreme.)

In cases where a corporation or other non-state actor tries to shut down the expression of an opinion, the enemy likes to claim that "that isn't a free-speech issue -- the First Amendment only prevents the government from silencing people, and this isn't the government".  The immediate issue, of course, is that freedom of expression is a general principle, whereas the First Amendment is a law relevant to only one country.  The two are not at all the same.  Freedom of expression is a value worth defending no matter where in the world it is under attack; no one claims the First Amendment applies in Afghanistan or China, but I still feel just as concerned about censorship of ideas there.

Beyond that, the claim repeats the classic libertarian error of believing that the only attacks on freedom that matter are governmental ones.  Libertarians ignore the power of corporations, religions, criminal gangs, and other non-state actors which in many situations pose a greater de facto threat to individual freedom of action than government does.  The same applies to freedom of speech.  Imagine you've been invited to deliver a lecture, to an audience which signed up to hear it, on a topic of importance to you.  As soon as you start speaking, some guy with a bullhorn stands up and starts bellowing hateful nonsense so that the audience can't hear you.  Your First Amendment rights have not been violated -- that guy isn't from the government -- but your freedom of expression certainly has been.

This point does, of course, raise the issue of the conflicting right of owners of platforms to refuse to provide a forum for views they find abhorrent.  The line must be drawn at the point where limitation of content becomes de facto prevention of that content being effectively made available at all.  At one extreme, the fact that I don't allow (for example) pro-censorship or anti-Brexit comments on my blog is not censorship -- a blog is clearly an online soapbox for the views of one person, no one else has any claim to any "rights" on it, and I am not preventing such views from being expressed more generally, since it's very easy for the person who wants to express those views to do so on their own blog or in some other context over which I have no control.  At the other extreme, it would clearly be wrong to allow internet service providers to censor viewpoints, since that would effectively block those views from being expressed at all.  The case of major platforms like, say, Wordpress or Tumblr is very close to this -- whenever they try to ban certain types of content, it generally results in strong pushback from users, and rightly so.

Another popular anti-free-speech gimmick is to frame the issue in terms of "consequences".  The enemy says, "you have the right to free speech -- you just don't have the right to avoid consequences for it".  In practice, this is defending "cancel culture", the practice of hounding and harassing people for expressing ideas that somebody doesn't like, getting them fired from their jobs, etc.  Of course, this is just the guy with the bullhorn shifting to pre-emption.  Somebody threatening you with harm if you say things they don't like is clearly trying to frighten you out of saying those things, in whatever forum, so it is an attempt at suppression of free speech.

In any case, we all know whose language this is.  It's the language of the gang of over-muscled pea-brains with baseball bats lying in wait for you in a dimly-lit parking lot.  "Yeah, the law doesn't stop you from being a flaming faggot any more, but if you act like one in public, there are gonna be --" slaps baseball bat against opposite palm with a loud thwack "-- consequences."  Even when the baseball bat is replaced by doxing and nasty letters to your boss and neighbors, the functional effect and moral status of the action remain the same.

If you're a typical reader of this blog, you really don't want silencing people by intimidation to become an accepted tactic.  Remember, a lot of the people who'd like to shut you up have guns, and you probably don't.  The proper response to speech you don't like is contrary speech, not threats or bullying.

o o o o o

Eye update:  The visual disturbances have definitely subsided to some extent.  It's almost two weeks now since the original diagnosis, so I'm starting to feel less anxious about the risk of this proceeding to retinal detachment.  The disturbances remain annoying, though.  I can see OK, it's more a problem of constant aggravation and distraction.  I have a follow-up appointment with the ophthalmologist in a couple of weeks, so I should know then what the final outcome is.


Blogger Mike said...

I had a gun (.22 rifle) at one time but never used it so I sold it. I still have a pellet gun. Sort of like a musket. One shot, reload.

I had laser surgery for my glaucoma. Went back shortly after but then 'come back in six weeks'.

31 August, 2021 01:20  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Glad to hear the eyes are doing better! My one friend went through some inconveniences, too (floaties, blurred vision for a second) but it never got to be too radical and now his prescription has been updated and he's much better!


31 August, 2021 03:06  
Blogger SickoRicko said...

Very good essay. I wish I could "see" things in the world as clearly as you do.

And yes, that was a bit of a segue to tell you that I'm glad your vision isn't worsening.

31 August, 2021 10:04  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooof. Sorry about the eye. Hope it doesn't get too bad.

In another matter, here's why I'm scared. (Also, Talmudic practice includes coming up with hypothetical situations to help clarify a point or rectify opposing "absolutes". There are discussions about how large a crack in a wall can be before the wall ceases to be a wall.)

[Furthermore, if you don't want to get involved, could you let others respond to me?]

- - - -

Another popular anti-free-speech gimmick is to frame the issue in terms of "consequences". The enemy says, "you have the right to free speech -- you just don't have the right to avoid consequences for it". In practice, this is defending "cancel culture", the practice of hounding and harassing people for expressing ideas that somebody doesn't like, getting them fired from their jobs, etc.

In any case, we all know whose language this is. It's the language of the gang of over-hypersensitive pea-brains with pink slips lying in wait for you in a dimly-lit human resources office. "Yeah, the law doesn't stop you from being a flaming Nazi any more, but if you act like one in the office, there are gonna be --" slaps tablet of pink paper against opposite palm with a loud thwack "-- consequences."

AND: Here's how it happens in the real world:

There are four antisemites in the office. One of them is a Nazi; the other three aren't. While those three are scared of pink slips, the Nazi starts talking about exterminating Jews. There's no threats against actual people, no doxxing, no direct harassment. Just rhetoric about how much better the world would be if there were death camps for Jews.

We can't have the Nazi facing consequences, since that would infringe on his freedom of speech. So human resources does nothing. Suddenly, the other three antisemites feel free to speak up, too. (On the other hand, if HR fires the open Nazi, the trio will be afraid of spreading their beliefs in the office.)

Now, if I'm the only Jew in the office, there's no way I can outspeak the four of them. They can keep telling people story after story about Jewish criminals, and the effect will be the spread of antisemitism. If bigots have freedom of speech, their victims will not. Also, it's much easier to stop one outspoken Nazi, rather than hold back until there are four of them.

There are several ways to resolve this. I can think of two.

1) We can claim that eliminationist talk is, by definition, threats or harassment. David Neiwert defines it here .

2) Your definition of "consequence" is limited to extremes. Being told, "that opinion will result in people getting killed" meets the dictionary definition of consequence. In fact, I'd like anti-vaxxers to face that consequence. A bookstore refusing to sell an anti-vaxxer diatribe: that's a consequence. We can admit that some consequences, but not all, are acceptable.

Could you please clarify on these points?

31 August, 2021 22:25  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mike: I know some liberals have guns too, but the wingnuts have a lot more of them, and more of a tendency to make threats of using them to get their way politically.

Sixpence: Thanks. Things are improving little by little.....

Ricko: Thanks. To be honest, I can see the quality of my writing is being impacted by the distraction and irritation of the visual effects, but I think I still get my points across.

02 September, 2021 01:26  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: The scenario you describe is, in fact, vanishingly rare in the real world. Workplaces routinely limit behavior, including provocative talk, which would be disruptive to the work environment. That doesn't prevent people, including Nazis, from expressing their opinions on their own time. It does mean that the limitations routinely encountered in work environments are not a good model for what should be done in society at large. Even in society at large, what you describe doesn't happen in reality (except momentarily, in gatherings of particular groups, which are a rare situation), even though Nazi speech is not banned.

Anti-Semitism used to be a widespread and entirely respectable stance. Now it's almost universally despised, even taboo. That didn't happen by forbidding people to express it. It did happen by others using their own freedom of speech to oppose it.

We can claim that eliminationist talk is, by definition, threats or harassment

I reject this because it would have the effect of reducing the range of what is considered permissible speech rather than expanding it.

On the "consequences" issue, as I made clear, threats and harassment consist of things like trying to get people fired, clear-cut suggestions of harm to an individual, etc. Merely saying something like "that opinion will get people killed" isn't a threat, just responding to speech you dislike with your own speech, as I said in the post. Whether what you term "eliminationist talk" constitutes a threat or is just expressing a (repulsive) opinion has to be judged by those criteria. A bookstore refusing to carry a book, again, isn't threatening and is more in line with refusing to provide a platform for speech you dislike. In most cases it doesn't mean the views in the book in question are really being silenced more generally. Nevertheless, such a tactic should be used sparingly. A bookstore that refused to carry too many books just because the owner didn't like them wouldn't be much of a bookstore.

I have never claimed that robust protections for freedom of speech never have any bad effects whatsoever -- just that such protections are of such fundamental importance that those bad effects are not a valid reason for gnawing holes in them.

if you don't want to get involved, could you let others respond to me?

This is a blog, not a debating forum. If you want to debate issues, there are plenty of places on the internet which would welcome your doing so.

02 September, 2021 01:55  

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