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The New Censors

Post #1703 • June 12, 2014, 4:36 PM • 1 Comment

You don't support freedom of speech unless you support freedom of hate speech. I've said it before and I'll say it as many times again as necessary.

For a long while I've been trying to interest my friends in the art world to get behind freedom of speech in a bigger way, to recognize that the very health of the marketplace of ideas depends on its openness to entry and its freedom of transaction. That means putting up with crazy talk, but it's worth it because innovative thought sometimes hails from the margins. This usually doesn't persuade anyone who isn't already liberty-minded to begin with.

So next I resort to self-interest. We creative types rely on that openness to function. If we don't stand in defense of hate speech—not the content, just the right to express it—any mechanisms for cutting it off will eventually be used against us. If injured feelings take on the seriousness of injured bodies, we will become a society that pulls art off of walls, cancels performances, and strikes essays from public view.

Sadly, this usually doesn't work either because the targets of accusations of hate speech typically lean right, and the art community leans left. There are exceptions, but they aren't numerous. A typical scenario is the petition against Kevin D. Williamson for discussing Laverne Cox in a manner not comporting with progressive standards. (Hilariously, the petition called for Williamson to be fired from the Chicago Sun-Times, which is not his employer. Williamson was among the first signatories, and his response to the Sun-Times for pulling the post from its website was a kiss-off for the ages.) Another was the recent remarks from Tyler Green about George Will's essay on the confluence of sexual assault and coveted victimhood. Green mischaracterized it as pro-sexual assault, which he repeated on his Facebook wall along with the hopes for a "mass job action" against his column. (I'd link to it, but for challenging the pro-sexual-assault bit—civilly, I'll have you know—I've been blocked from his account. Liberals are much more likely than non-liberals to ban social their media contacts for expressing political disagreement.) That a writer ought not call for such a thing against another writer, that the mass action might be against him one day, seemed to elude him in his fury.

But given the liberal ouroboros noted by the right, the left, and the lefty-left left, it was perhaps inevitable that Dan Savage was going to be accused of hate speech. Students at the University of Chicago

have started a petition calling on the university’s Institute of Politics (IOP) to ban the use of the word “tranny” and other “transphobic slurs” in its events.

The petition was written in response to a recent seminar held by the IOP featuring noted columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage and moderated by Guardian blogger Ana Marie Cox. During the seminar, Savage spoke about the reclamation of slurs and their empowering potential, using the word “tranny” as an example. Speaking of her personal experience with the word, Cox noted that she “used to make jokes about trannies.”

A student in the audience interrupted, apparently not comprehending the point Savage was making, and requested that Savage and Cox use the phrase “T-slur” rather than actually saying “tranny.” Savage balked at the request and debated the student, explaining his objective and inquiring as to whether he could use other particular “slurs” without objection. The student reportedly left the event in tears.

Dan Savage's comments about this incident are worth reading in full, but to summarize,

This student became so incensed by our refusal to say "How high?" when this student said "Jump!" that this student stormed out of the seminar. In tears. As one does when one doesn't get one's way. In college.

Calling this student him or her was out of the question for reasons explained by Savage at the link. A choice bit of said petition:

The IOP proudly asserts its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and civil discourse. In order to stay true to these values, we demand that the IOP publicly apologize for failing to stop the use of the transphobic slur during the seminar and assert a commitment to preventing the use of slurs and hate speech in the future.

Agree with them or not, Savage and Williamson have the right idea. When the Speech Police tell you to jump, you tell them, No. You jump. Off a pier. Freedom of expression is not something that Savage should have but Williamson should not, that Tyler Green should have but George Will should not, that transfolk should have but cisfolk should not, nor vice-versa. Everyone has it, inalienably, right down to the most despicable specimen of the polity you can find. A free society protects speakers, not hearers. You do not have a right to not be offended.

Speaking of despicable specimens, I think the removal of Brendan Eich from Mozilla at the behest of public outcry has emboldened a new kind of censor, someone not enough of an autocrat to long to repeal the First Amendment, but enough of one to wish that they could put up fences and turnstiles around the marketplace of ideas. What happened to Eich's job, or Williamson's post at the Sun-Times, or Savage's panel discussion may have been legal, but anyone who cares about free discourse should find them instinctually disgusting. The legality of such things is beside the point if freedom of expression stops being a cultural norm. Since the creative community is responsible for invigorating the cultural norms, I am imploring it to get twitchy when someone starts talking about curtailing speech. Even hate speech. Mock it, express your hate in turn, or laugh it off, but stand in the way of "mass job actions," trials by social media, and other 21st-century equivalents of torches and pitchforks. Free speech is something you need to care about not just legally, but existentially.

Otherwise we're giving comfort to people who ultimately think of the First Amendment as a necessary evil and have found a clever way around it. Given a chance, they will attempt to set a bar for hate speech somewhere, at first by convention, and then by law. No matter how high they place it, mark my words, it is going to fall on your foot, and it is going to hurt like hell.

(Update June 16: Greetings David Thompson readers.)

(Update June 19: Belated greetings to Mark Steyn readers.)

Comment

1.

A Reader

June 15, 2014, 11:24 PM

In a large crowd I'm not sure of the best course of action but in conversations with small groups a simple defense of the principle of free speech is often effective. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you seems like a good foundational principle and I think most people recognize that intuitively – or at least I'd like to think so. It may not convince the wannabe censor but sometimes his revulsion to the idea of reciprocity and his urge to control people helps to convince everyone else.

...this usually doesn't work either because the targets of accusations of hate speech typically lean right, and the art community leans left.

The tribal identity in the art world does seem to run from "anti-right" to "the left." Keep in mind that not everyone who you convince of the value of free speech will voice their opinion. They blend in with the herd.

There is also: the answer to bad speech is more speech; not less. In particular, pointing out that it is better to allow people to prove themselves as idiots or evil or wrong so that can be shown and explained why they are wrong. Ask : Do you want someone parading around with a Nazi flag or do you want that person to keep it a secret and thereby be electable to high office? I also make sure to pointedly thank the would be censor for outing themselves as a censorious, book-burning totalitarian.

When the standard for censorship is so loosely defined as pointing and yelling "Hate speech!" (visualize Donald Sutherland in "Invasion the Body Snatchers") then it can apply to nearly anything and raises the question of who decides. Ask if they support the free speech of Eugene V. Debs, who was convicted for being opposed to the draft, then ask whether that was an abuse of the Espionage Act and could a political opponent abuse a hate speech law to convict Debs based on hate speech.

I tend to reject the label of "hate speech" in favor of "speech I don't like." Accepting the terminology of "hate speech" lets them set up a dichotomy between Hate Speech and Free Speech where they are opposing categories as opposed to one being a subset of the other. This gives a rhetorical advantage of allowing a book-burning totalitarian to invoke Voltaire and proudly say "I disagree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it... unless I think it doesn't qualify as free speech." The presumption should be that almost everything is free speech unless there is a justification in making it censorable instead of the new fashion where almost everything being censorable and having to justify not censoring something.

Agree with them or not, Savage and Williamson have the right idea. When the Speech Police tell you to jump, you tell them, No. You jump. Off a pier.

I do think politeness counts. Being a dick may be fun but it can also push away people who would otherwise agree with you. Politely point out that their position is silly or endlessly arbitrary or based on a faulty premise or anti-intellectual. I've found that calling a certain type of person anti-intellectual provokes a belligerence that can drive people towards your position if only not to be associated with them. You might be thinking that calling someone a book-burning totalitarian sounds like an impolite attack but I try to use it in a completely descriptive way.

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