…and the fascists, communists, socialists, anarchists, sexists, feminists, libertarians, statists, theocrats etc.
There seems to be an ongoing confusion of what free speech is, and what it is for. Most obviously I have been noting the recent calls for climate denialists to be jailed, or the ongoing attempts by Michael Mann to use legal intimidation against Mark Steyn and anyone who disagrees with him, and bully the ones he can’t sue. . Then there is the recent case of the firing of Brendan Eich (ably covered by my colleague) for once making a donation to an anti-gay marriage group. Then there are those who just try to howl down and exclude anyone who breaks a certain party line – whether it is the conscious exclusion of political rightists from US Universities or the hammering of anyone who isn’t deemed pious enough in the US political system.
I am going to ignore the first category here, the people who want legal restrictions on freedom of speech, and instead concentrate on the other two categories. This is because the arguments for freedom of speech apply most strongly to these, and further that these are the most easily confused. The first argument here is the one from reciprocity; the second is what free speech is really about.
Ethical reciprocity: Do unto others and all that
In the comments section, our fearless leader opines:
“What has anything about Eich’s story to do with laws or the constitution? Either Eich chose to resign because of negative PR, or was fired. Both are private actions made freely by people or entities who have the right to do that. What happened was an expression of freedom, not a curtailment.
Oh, no. Nononononononono. You’re doing it wrong.
Imagine the counter-case. You’re broadly supportive of gay marriage and you make a minor donation to a pro-gay marriage cause. Next week, you are hauled up in front of your boss, a conservative Christian, and told, “Sorry, we can’t have chaps who promote degeneracy around here” and promptly sacked.
Sound good? Would you say “Oh, that’s just an expression of his freedom”? Would you even say that if it happened to a friend of yours? Or someone who just shared your political opinions?
Bear in mind, things like that did actually happen. I recall one story from the Reagan years, when AIDS was beginning to show up on everyone’s radar. To combat this trouble, people were looking for blood that wasn’t just AIDS free, but generally free from pathogens. The two groups with purest blood by this standard are firstly nuns, and secondly lesbians.
There was a lesbian group called Blood Sister who were engaged in exactly that kind of blood drive to help their male gay brethren. A quite senior member of the Reagan administration simply talked with them about ways to address AIDS and was promptly sacked.
Does that sound like free speech to you? Was the administration just exercising its freedom?
Or let’s get completely away from gay rights issues. Let’s try something that affects all of us far more: the financial market. In the early 2000s, a man by the name of Paul Moore was a risk manager of Halifax. He noticed that huge amounts of sub-prime mortgages were being extended and warned his bosses that this was very risky, both for the company, their shareholders, their customers and the country in general.
You can guess what happened next. He was promptly sacked and, despite being one of the best risk managers in the world, hasn’t held another risk manager’s job since then.
Sound like an exercise in freedom to you? No one’s business except the company’s? Remember: we all got to take a hit on that one.
Some will argue that, oh, the golden rule is all very well, but we’re dealing with horrible, intolerant people, and we know this because we are the nice, tolerant ones – so it doesn’t matter how nice we are, they will never return the favour.
Hooh, boy. Let me grant that this is true for a certain number of cases. However, if it were true overall, Nelson Mandela would have died in jail and certainly never won the majority of the white vote.
Please read this. No, don’t wait around – do it now. I’ll be here when you get back.
Done? Good, because there is a flip side to this. This kind of intolerance might be a viable strategy if you were sure you were always going to be in power, if you were sure you were in power now.
Neither proposition is even slightly true. There are many more people who think that homosexuality is wrong, or worse, that gays themselves are subhuman, than there are either gays or those accepting of them. By keeping this kind of intolerance in play, you are teaching your enemies a lesson. Specifically, you are teaching them a lesson in how to do the same to you.
My colleague mentions the US Christian evangelical support for the most murderous anti-gay stances in places like Uganda. Now put yourself in this situation: imagine you make a modest donation to help the cause of gays in Uganda and your conservative Christian boss sacks you saying: “Sorry, we can’t have racists in this firm.”
Imagine that. Just try dealing with that accusation – imagine having to explain: “I’m not a racist but…”, “I wasn’t trying to be racist…” Go on, imagine how easily you’d find another job after that.
An exercise of freedom?
In case you think I’m exaggerating, I’ve seen it happen. The neoconservative Douglas Murray, who is gay himself, was on a British talk show program arguing against the mistreatment of gays in Africa. Ranged against him were an Imam, a Ugandan Christian and a representative of the C of E. That last one did indeed try to imply, none too subtly, that Murray was only concerned about gay rights because… you know.
So I’d be very, very careful about the whole “Oh, it’s okay to sack someone for his opinions” thing. After all, John Stewart Mill wasn’t particularly concerned about government censorship. What worried him was:
Our merely social intolerance, kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. […] And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by sentiments afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.
To return to the subject of gay marriage for the moment, a lot of Christians in my experience tend to be okay with the idea of gay unions having the same legal protections as marriage as long as the government does not call it marriage. A larger portion thinks homosexuality is sinful but thinks it can cure the sinners, and so is willing to go along with the kind of reciprocal scheme I have here outline.
Freedom of speech: Why I should listen to you even though you are obviously gravely inferior
This gets to the meat of a number of comments that you can hear around the place: “Oh, we are in favour of free speech, but there must be some restrictions”, “Oh, we are in favour of free speech, but not in favour of hate speech”, “Oh, we are in favour of free speech, but not in favour of yelling fire in a crowded theatre”…. And so on.
So let me ask you to imagine something that’s actually quite easy to imagine: Imagine that I am a wise and well educated human being of superior intelligence, character and judgement, heir to the best in human culture and history, and that you are a miserable dunce and dullard, full of pitiful superstitions and bigotries, stupidities and follies, a left-over from some darker age. Why should I bother to listen to you? For that matter, why should I permit you
to speak, when your follies may only serve to mislead others less godlike than I?
The answer is simple: you tending your little pigsty may have come across some basic truths that I from my Olympian height have overlooked.
Okay, that’s enough of that. I assure you, though, the foregoing is barely even a parody of the attitude I hear from certain types. What this gets at is that free speech is not about defending your right to speak, but my right to listen. It isn’t your freedom to instruct, but mine to learn that I care about.
I’m going to lift this straight from the Hitch’s wonderful speech on the subject, but if the whole world has to swallow an official line about the Holocaust – about which little was done when it was actually happening – and it is constantly invoked as the great moral example, despite the fact that nothing is ever done about its modern day sequels, and we have to listen to this all the time, and someone has the guts to stand up and say: “You know what? This Holocaust – I’m not sure it really happened. In fact, I really don’t think it did. I’m pretty certain that all that happened was a little bit of violence fell on the Jews, completely in keeping with the norms of the time.” –
Now that person doesn’t just have a right to his opinion, he has an extra right to be heard, a right above and beyond that accorded to other people, because what he has to say must have taken some thought, might contain some basic truths which we don’t yet have, and would, in any case, force us to reconsider what we think we know.
I learned more about the Third Reich and the Final Solution from reading the great argument with David Irving in his court case against Deborah Lipstadt than I did from any tedious, moralizing presentation, and I learned more about evolution reading the Scopes trial transcript than I did as four years as an undergraduate, and I learned more about racism and the history of slavery and segregation writing my huge post on the subject than I ever did from any plonking, self-congratulatory presentation.
I wrote that post because, as I say at the start, so much of the ‘anti-racist’ writing out there is completely useless. People who strike these positions don’t have a single good argument, and they are promptly cut to pieces by racialists who, whatever else is true about them, actually bother to think about these issues.
You can only ever defeat an idea when you challenge it at its best. How can you possibly feel secure in your own convictions if you haven’t subjected them to the most rigorous testing? What are you so afraid of? Do you, oh man of liberal views and temperament, have such little confidence in your own case that you fear to read the views of the white supremacist, the fascist, or reactionary?
I think this failure explains the timidity and parochialism of so much public commentary. I remember a clip where Bill Maher described Newt Gingrich as “the far, far, far right of kooky-town”. I wonder just what sort of sheltered life you must lead to think that a mainstream politician of a mainstream party is “far right”. And worse, I fear what happens when such hot-house plants must face the real thing.
So, here is what you should do: you should specifically seek out those whose views contradict yours. If you are a feminist, you should read the MRAs, the Red Pillers, and the anti-suffragettes. And if you are a Red Piller, you should read the very best feminism has to offer; you should watch A Secret War, and read A Vindication of the Rights of Women. If you are a dedicated anti-racist, you should read all the arguments of the modern day racialists, of those who think that the racial struggle is over, or the out and out racial supremacists. And if you are someone who thinks political correctness is all completely overblown when it comes to the subject of race, you should be reading Black Like Me, Nelson Mandela, W.E. DuBois and Dr King. If you are a socialist, you should read Ayn Rand, von Mises and Hayek, and if you are a libertarian, you should read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci. And we wouldn’t have people talking unrestrained bullshit about what the jihadis motivations are, if they would just read what the jihadis write and listen to what the jihadis say.
I’m a committed Objectivist, but most political literature on my shelves doesn’t come from Objectivists. It is written by communists, fascists, socialists, anarchists… People from every stripe. From all of them I have learned something new and deepened my understanding of my own positions. If someone else can refute any portion of any part of a view I hold, I regard it as a valued lesson and am grateful.
One particular rethink I had was on the subject of global warming. After reading State of Fear I took a pretty much denialist view on the subject; it wasn’t all the yells of “denalist!” that caused me to change my mind, much less the threats or the hysteria. All they did was entrench me in my views. It was only reading the work of genuine scientists and going over it for myself that caused me to rethink my views.
And that is why you should defend freedom of expression to the hilt.
UPDATE: Mark Steyn is terribly sweet to keep sending me links this way. I do have to differ with him about this though, re:this piece.
I don’t think analogies like that work with the left any more. As they see it, the difference between firing an anti-gay guy and firing a pro-gay guy is that the anti-gay guy is bad and deserves to be fired whereas the pro-gay guy isn’t and doesn’t. You could complicate it for them – the pro-gay guy is fired by a Muslim.
I have to say that, whatever is true about the U.S. left, I don’t think that is just with respect to my colleagues here. I certainly don’t think you can accuse them of being islamophile or dhimmi. Also, as regards some of the international left, I’d instance Nick Cohen’s wonderful You Can’t Read This Book.
I’ll add that the U.S. right can be that censorious; vide the case about Blood Sister.
UPDATEX2: XKCD – You’re doing it wrong! [EDIT: Just noticed that my colleague has done a really good rebuttal to that]
Meanwhile, I’m quite glad of Outside In driving some traffic this way. Not that I’m bitter about there being more comments on his post about my post than on my post itself – no, not at all – but I feel the need to address at least some of these. Most of them pertain to my ‘Racialist Q & A’. Commentor E. Antony Gray asks:
The first essay is okay, I get his idea of “respect for free speech is enshrined in the constitution, but the constitution cannot defend free speech if we use social pressure to destroy it.” I also agree generally interpreting free speech as ‘my right to hear interesting, useful and unusual opinions and words’. However, he is downright promiscuous here, showing no particular discernment, as though you just read all of these people without it causing problems. Does the fact that some authors tried to structure their work to actively *hurt* the reader mean anything? Do we actively seek out stuff that tries to deceptively undermine our rational axioms?
You are saying that you should not read things that might undermine your positions? Isn’t that what the *significant pause* Cathedral does? *drum fill*
Come on, don’t be a bunch of intellectual girlymen. If you are unable to climb into the intellectual arena with your opposites, what are you doing in this game to begin with? If you are afraid your position will be undermined, doesn’t that say a lot about your position? Aren’t you supposed to be the tough guys, not afraid to take on anything, not afraid to speak harsh truths?
I sought you out and took your positions on – the same way I climb back into the ring with Marx, Gramsci, Trotsky, Evola, Faye. Test by fire – it’s the only way to learn anything. And I won’t say that I haven’t learned anything from such men, but my main gain has been deepening and strengthening my own convictions. It’s the same way that I learned far more about evolution from arguing with creationists than I did from four years as an undergraduate.
So come on, boys! How about a bout?
Oh, and “steelmanning” isn’t a new thing. It’s the ancient technique of dialects as practiced by the philosophers of ancient Greece.