Sunday, April 12, 2015

Free Speech for the Dumb

This article has been making the rounds on Facebook lately, and I haven't been able to properly respond to it there. It's not that I lack the time or inclination for shortish political rants. Mostly it's just that it's two-thousand-goddamned-fifteen and Facebook still can't show animated gifs.

So, on that note:

It's important to me that we all treat this subject with all the seriousness it deserves.

The argument can be summarized thus:
  1. Free speech is under assault all over the world, from the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris to the disappearing journalists in Russia to the murders of Bangladeshi bloggers.
  2. These incidents are very similar to the culture war fetish-scandals that the American right has been flogging since Reconstruction, in that pundits often use the same metaphors to describe them.
  3. In some ways, the fetish-scandals are even more dangerous than actual, literal terrorism, and we are bold and masculine for standing against it.
I don't think this exactly needs an essay in response: not from me, anyway. Garry Trudeau covered much of the same ground from a much more knowledgeable viewpoint than my own. I don't think it's consistently funny enough to fisk, either, but it does deserve a highlight reel of sorts:
The value of intellectual freedom is far from self-evident.
If this is true, then it's so ubiquitously proclaimed that it certainly appears self-evident to most of us. Given that the most oppressive regimes are often the most vocal about the value of intellectual freedom, perhaps we should consider that the problem isn't ignorance of its value. The people who'll be killed if they say the wrong thing understand that intellectual freedom is a fine, fine thing. They are aware of its value on a deeply personal level.
It’s hardly natural to defend the rights of one person over the feelings of a group; to put up with all the trouble that comes with free minds and free expression; to stand beside the very people who repel you.
It could also be argued that it's hardly natural to dig metal out of the ground and built suspension bridges with it. Perhaps we should be surprised that bridges exist at all, but we should not be surprised that bridges continue to exist tomorrow when we were entirely away that they exist today.
We learn culture by seeing it performed by those around us, not by inferring them from thought experiments and first principles.
After the massacre at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in January, even defenders of free speech couldn’t help wondering why the cartoonists hadn’t just avoided Islam and the Prophet, given the sensitivities involved. Why be provocative? 
I can only speak for me, but my concern with Charlie Hebdo wasn't that they shouldn't have drawn those cartoons because it might have been dangerous to do so. My concern was that they shouldn't have been drawn at all. Racist cartoons don't develop a raison d'etre by virtue of being dangerous to draw. I would vociferously oppose the suggestion that hacking people to death with machetes should be legally or morally ok, But if the ISIS leadership were to be hacked to death with machetes in an extrajudicial execution, I will not be posting on #IamISIS to express my commitment to the right to due process.
And when freethinkers are a tiny minority in a terribly poor and overwhelmingly religious country on the other side of the world, with no First Amendment or republican tradition of laïcité, it’s easy to feel that they’re admirable eccentrics who speak for nothing and no one beyond themselves—which may explain why they’ve received so much less attention than their brethren in Paris.
Honestly? I hadn't heard of Rahman and Roy until I read it in this editorial. Thanks for telling their story, I guess, but do you kinda think there might be some other reasons why terrorist attacks in Paris might get more ink than terrorist attacks in Bangladesh? Something pervasive, and central to any meaningful discussion of free speech and terror?

Do you think structural racism might be a bigger issue here than how we feel about bloggers?

Even in this country,

the loathsomeness of an incident
in which University of Oklahoma students were caught on video singing a racist song
made it seem churlish to argue that their expulsion from a public institution might be unconstitutional.
I don't really know how I feel about the specifics of this, actually. I strongly believe in protecting the rights of racists. But I don't believe in exclusively protecting the rights of racists, which is what the right is actually proposing when they rally around these horseshit memes. Free speech issues on college campuses, especially public universities, are both important and complicated. It's a collision of culture, politics, and law, and I don't for a minute want to suggest that it doesn't matter. I don't know the best way for society to punish racists or care for their victims. I don't know what's too much. I don't know what's not enough. It's just fucking awful.

But, y'know, no one every wrote songs that cheerfully joked about murdering people like me. Nobody sang joyfully about a kind of ritualized murder of people who looked like me. A kind of ritualized murder that likely continues as recently as last month.

Threats of violence are themselves a form of violence.

Public safety is part of free speech.
Creating a “hostile environment” is what the Bangladeshi bloggers stood accused of.
Hate-speech regulations put actual feelings, often honorable ones, ahead of abstract rights—which seems like common sense. It takes an active effort to resist the impulse to silence the jerks who have wounded you.
Abstract rights are not respected equally.

Y'all have an exceedingly wide definition of "silence." The status quo puts the feelings of racists--rarely honorable ones, I assume?--over the abstract rights of others. There is not a secret constitution for white people guaranteeing them not only free speech, but legal protection against the entirely predictable consequences of their actions.
But, in some ways, an even greater danger than violence or jail is the internal mute button known as self-censorship.

It isn't.
Once it’s activated, governments and armed groups don’t have to bother with threats.
I don't think you understand how threats work.
Here self-censorship is on the rise out of people’s fear of being pilloried on social media.
Or, y'know. Maybe they're exercising some editorial discretion because they don't want to obscure their message, discredit their ideas, or needlessly hurt anybody.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been masterful at creating an atmosphere in which there are no clear rules, so that intellectuals and artists stifle themselves in order not to run afoul of vague laws and even vaguer social pressure.
Which--Putin has put a lot of work into explain this to everybody--might then followed up with very specific social pressure in the form of physical violence.

Threats of violence are themselves a form of violence.

Public safety is part of free speech.

Trudeau's piece writes about the peculiar nature of satire with what I can only assume is some insight--I certainly don't know very much about it, at a historical or literary level--but I am curious every time I read this neat, symmetrical model of punching up, not down. As cultural practice, humor is an adaptation and a technology. Like a lot of our adaptations and technologies, it might well have survived precisely because it helps us hurt and kill people.

Threats against free speech, by professionals or amateurs, are a serious issue. Likewise, our ongoing conversation concerning what is or isn't acceptable within a social discourse, currently playing out on campus and on Twitter, is also an important issue. They both deserve attention and discussion.

But they are not the same issue, and it's insulting to claim that they are. They are not two different points on a continuum. They are two radically different things, and equating the two harms our understanding of both of them.