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Drowning in noise: How accommodating nonsense poisons our discourse

I’m at the World Humanist Congress, and just finished up an hour and a half tag-teaming David Silverman on the topic in the title. He played the bad cop, while I was the good cop, which is an interesting switch. Here’s the text of what I planned to say, but of course I tended to drift from the script in the actuality.

Whoever said that the answer to bad speech is more speech never had to run a modern website. I used to run my own web server for my blog, before I realized that I had better things to do than nursemaid a swarm of technical details and decided instead to pay a professional to do it well, and one of the things I had to do was maintain all this code that was there specifically to limit access. It was vitally important. I could be down deep in the bowels of the beast, monitoring all the incoming data, and the instant I would plug that ethernet cable into my server to connect it to the internet, literally within milliseconds it would be getting hit with pings — almost all spammers, and also lots of automated hacking code, looking for loopholes in my implementations of communications protocols so that bad messages could be uploaded into my machine to do them harm.

Every website, even the ones that assert the most devout dedication to the principles of free speech, are extensively filtered. From my personal experience, I’d have to say that less than 1% of the attempts to communicate via the internet are legitimate, or are sincere, honest attempts by a human being to talk to other human beings, and the bulk of the attempted discussions are spam and dedicated efforts to corrupt communication.

You don’t have to run a server to know this. Just about all of you use email; every modern email server has built-in traps to block spam. Gmail, for instance, uses some smart algorithms to detect and dispose of spam and you don’t even see most of the garbage that is trying to come through. You really would be drowning in noise without those filters.

It’s also the case in every instance of non-technological discourse in which you engage. Look at this room; I’m talking, and you’re all being so polite and not interrupting; no one is yelling at me, and none of you are suddenly standing up and announcing that you’d like to sell me penis enlarging pills. And then when the Q&A rolls around, you’ll all take turns. Of course we limit speech all the time by common courtesy and by formal rules of order. We could not have a civilized conversation without these rules.

The tricky part is establishing those rules. The naive free speech absolutist is neglecting the fact that the privilege of free speech has to come with the responsibilities of free speech. Every right has to come with a recognition of limits on those rights.

Some of those limitations are easy. For instance, you may have a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to an audience. Here’s David Silverman, who just gave a ferocious talk advocating the importance of atheism, and I might think everyone ought to hear that…but that doesn’t mean Dave gets to show up at someone’s house at dinner time and harangue everyone with it. It doesn’t mean he has the right to show up at an Anglican church on Sunday and override the religious sermon with his far superior atheist sermon. He should have the right to set up an Atheist TV channel, so people can voluntarily tune in and listen to what he has to say, if they want to.

I think we can all agree that we don’t have a right to impose our views on others, but that it is a violation of the principles of free speech when others, governments or religious organizations or corporations, try to dictate what we may read or hear — that on the one hand, forcing people to read a message is wrong, but on the other hand, limiting voluntary access to media is also wrong. So when governments arrest individuals who express their rejection of religion, or when they shut down access to Twitter by all of their citizens because the state is being criticized, or when the press is corrupted and no longer questions the actions of the state, we can all agree that that is a violation of a principle that we consider important for the welfare and happiness of free people.

Except…

Not even that idea is without exceptions.

Here’s one big problem I have. Words have power. I shouldn’t even have to say this to people in an organization which believes strongly in the power of communication and persuasion and reason: we’re not promoting the cause of humanism with soldiers and tanks, but solely by telling people about the virtues of humanist thought, and encouraging open-mindedness and critical thinking and the questioning of dogma. And we all think that working within the framework of law and media is an effective and appropriate way to do that. At least I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that the world humanists need to start up a military arm.

But there’s often a curious asymmetry in how we think about this. Words have power, but we think everyone ought to be able to use this power freely? Really? There ought to be no restrictions on how words can be expressed? I don’t think we really believe that. We ought to recognize that, because it’s the only way we can properly develop rules and protocols for restricting speech.

Let me give you some specific examples where free speech absolutism fails.

Should creationism be taught in science classes? Many creationists literally argue that their freedom of speech is abridged when they are not allowed to teach their views in public school classrooms, to children. One of the most popular slogans of the intelligent design creationism movement is “Teach the Controversy” — they are arguing that the issues ought to be resolved by giving equal time to all sides, and letting the kids decide which is right. That really is a free speech argument.

I’m a teacher, and I have no illusions. If you give kids a choice between an easy answer that says all you have to do is believe, and that god did it is an acceptable alternative, vs. the complex answer that requires math and data and a rejection of the dogma their parents promote, most will happily accept the one that makes studying for the exam easiest. I also know that if we open the door to anything goes, then education becomes a matter of opening a firehose of noise on the classroom, and drowning the kids in chaos.

The answer is that we have to have criteria for determining what core ideas must be taught, and that we humanists and atheists have a pretty clear idea on that: we advocate for a secular and universal education, where the content is dictated by reality : if an idea is supported by the evidence and there is a clear reasonable path by which any reasonable person can arrive at a consensus, then we should teach that, and not the idea that is contradicted by the evidence. But even that answer is fraught: how do you teach poetry? And the creationists will reply that what must be taught is socialization and the proper place of the student in society, and only religion can give that. We could argue for hours over this issue, and we do.

Here’s another example:

Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? This is a hot issue on the internets nowadays, and yes, people are actually arguing that using online media to harass, stalk, and threaten people is a free speech issue. And it is! If you’re a purist who believes that everyone ought to be free to create multiple pseudonymous accounts and deluge their enemies with racist, sexist, or abusive slime, then of course you’re going to demand that your right to do so may not be infringed. You’ll also make the same playground excuses we all heard as kids.

“Toughen up.” “Only crybabies can’t take it if they’re called a mean name”. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

These excuses are all wrong. Remember, words have power, and only abusers of that power will deny it. The victims of these abusers are already tough — it takes a thick skin to persist on the internet anymore — and they’re not complaining about one insult. They are drowning in the noise: technology has given bullies the power to deliver a torrent of abuse online with great ease, and unfortunately, most of the media are enablers of that bullying. Getting told once that you ought to be raped is annoying and infuriating; being told dozens of times every day is discouraging and repressive. I know way too many people who have been driven completely off the internet by free speech fanatics who flood all of their communications with hatred and abuse.

Just because I’m trying to be difficult today, keep in mind as well that some people find messages that their cherished religious beliefs are false to be discouraging and repressive. These are concerns that must be recognized; it is important that we don’t fall into the trap of glibly announcing that free speech is simply wonderful, all we have to do is talk to each other in the sunlight and reason with one another, and everyone will be won over by the side of goodness and logic and mutual respect. Because that won’t happen.

Should lies be protected as free speech? How do we deal with, for instance, faith healers? Their promises don’t work. They are so tempting to the weak and sick, though: when the choices are to undertake an agonizing regime of chemotherapy, against simply praying harder, there are many people who will understandably choose the latter course, because someone is lying to them about the effectiveness. How do we deal with advertising? It’s easy when the lies are obvious, such as the old campaigns in which doctors were recruited to endorse cigarettes, but what about ads that say beautiful women will find you irresistible if you swamp your body odor with Axe body spray and drink the right kind of watery beer? Don’t pretend that it’s all just caveat emptor and the weak have only themselves to blame — we’re all susceptible to psychological games, says the guy using an Apple iPad, because they’re really cool.

I think, and I suspect that most of you agree, that truth ought to be an ultimate arbiter — that what we ought to prize most is honesty and accuracy in our communication, and that it ought to be a human value to demand evidential support for any claim. It is important that we state our expectations up front and clearly, and that that value is a significant component in how we evaluate speech. But we also have to appreciate that that is not a significant component to others: that they may define truth by how well a statement can be reconciled to their holy book, rather than to reality.

To sum up my concerns about free speech:

You don’t have a right to an audience. This is a critical limitation of free speech right now, in a day when technology has made it trivially easy for abusers to circumvent the limitations of courtesy and protocol.

Words have power. Guns also have power; is unregulated access to guns the best path to a free society? We’re engaged in that experiment in the US right now, and I can tell you…no. Similarly, we have to recognize that words must be used responsibly.

Speech can do great harm. Words can enlighten and educate, but they can also oppress and mislead. As humanists, we must appreciate the importance of truth, and do what we can to stop the promulgation of lies.

There are no easy answers. A commitment to free speech is hard — and the easy answers are so attractive. On the one side we have the contingent arguing “You can’t say that!”, and on the other we have people saying, “I can say anything I damn well please, anywhere, anytime!”, and neither is right. We must be aware that the task is one of navigating between the two extremes.

Comments

  1. anteprepro says

    An excellent argument against Absolut Freeze Peach. And yet somehow I can hear the shrieking and handwringing already.

  2. Christian Giliberto says

    Great post, I’ve also always found free speech absolutism strange. We routinely accept that other valuable freedoms have restrictions and need to be balanced with one another in some way, but often not speech.

    As is well-known, many European jurisdictions have tighter speech regulations, such as those of Nazi speech, “right to be forgotten” laws and the like. I think we should have something similar.

  3. says

    From my personal experience, I’d have to say that less than 1% of the attempts to communicate via the internet are legitimate, or are sincere, honest attempts by a human being to talk to other human beings, and the bulk of the attempted discussions are spam and dedicated efforts to corrupt communication.

    I guess you don’t have a telephone. Otherwise, you might have noticed that it is the same story with phone calls — they are almost all scams or marketers violating DO-NOT-CALL.

  4. says

    One of the many things I don’t understand from the Freeze Peach absolutists is the idea that words don’t have power.
    They forget that fictional stories, when written to the standards of a particular individual, can transport that individual into a fictional world where they can (for an indeterminate period of time) find their worries lessened.
    We can find inspiration in words. Look at speeches by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
    We find trepidation, even fear in everyday words, such as “Honey, we need to talk.”
    When dining out, some people get angry when they hear the words “You’re out of my favorite beer?!”
    In politics, words can bring us joy; an emotion progressives often feel when they learn that another state has declared the ban on same sex marriage to be unconstitutional.
    These are just a few ways in which words affect our emotional state and our very moods. To deny that words affect us…have power over us…is very much denying how reality works.

  5. shadow says

    @3: Our phone goes to a FAX. Anyone who know us and has business with us (spouse, kid, and self) know to call the appropriate cell number and the times they won’t get their head bit off.

    @2: I recently had a ‘discussion’ with a friend who is very pro-gun. I pointed out that all the amendments had limitations and were not absolute — Yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowd for the lulz is the usual example. I asked what were acceptable limits on firearms — were we to allow anyone to have an Atomic Annie? I got no response (yet) to that.

  6. wesuilmo says

    I’ll leave this quote:
    Harlan Ellison — ‘You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.’

    Too many opinions (creationism) are ignorant.

  7. says

    I live on the very edge of this issue.

    I’m can be an aggressive person by nature and that comes along with a set of flaws that I have to take seriously. It’s why it takes me some time to figure out how to properly insert myself into various parts of society so I tend to be an outsider more than I wish. It’s not a simple issue and people have to take the affects of their actions into account, as well as learn when it is appropriate to act in certain ways.

    It’s actually a very important thing to have different types of communities with different codes of conduct because frankly that is one way we learn how to have a diversity of possible responses in social situations.

  8. David Chapman says

    Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? This is a hot issue on the internets nowadays, and yes, people are actually arguing that using online media to harass, stalk, and threaten people is a free speech issue. And it is! If you’re a purist who believes that everyone ought to be free to create multiple pseudonymous accounts and deluge their enemies with racist, sexist, or abusive slime, then of course you’re going to demand that your right to do so may not be infringed.

    Yes, but as the above makes clear, for obvious reasons most of the people who want to indulge in such ugly behaviour want to do it anonymously — which is another freedom in addition to, or not obviously contained within the concept of free speech. By being able to say whatever you want, and not having to identify yourself as the author of what you want said, you are relieved of the burden of the consequences of what you have said. And this is a highly significant factor, which can be considered separately, and perhaps restricted separately, from freedom of expression itself.

    Not that anonymity is not a significant freedom in its own right in some cases, for example when it comes to voting in general elections. I’d just note that elections are a vital part of our relationship with government, and we potentially need all the rights we can get when it comes to our interactions with government. So if there’s any time when we should have the right to anonymity it’s when we’re voting. In the case of someone threatening or abusing another individual, the legitimacy of such a right seems less obvious.
    As also implied in the above quote, anonymity per se can be employed to be actively harmful. For once some scumbag has attained anonymity, they are in a position where they can pretend to be a multitude of scumbags, all threatening and abusing one victim. This can cause both more distress, and real alarm, if they manage to convince the victim of their attentions that they are indeed hated by large numbers of people, instead of one sad little wanker with multiple accounts.
    A useful and important argument seems to arise from that, namely that the right to free speech of the individual should not be available to anyone trying to pretend that they’re not an individual, but a multitude of people.
    ( Of course these days in the U.S., companies can be legally declared to be people……..But that bizarre situation is the current state of the law, not of logic. )

  9. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Ah yes, a concerned citizen protesting the use of pseudonyms. Never mind some of us work for small companies in “at will” states, and could be fired if certain people find out we are atheists, gay, anti-gun, pro-choice, etc. There are legitimate reasons for using pseudonyms.

  10. unclefrogy says

    I am simply afraid to try and calculate what the ratio call regardless of don’t call lists loopholes marketing calls to real personal calls from people I know I get is, it must be 20 to 1 on a good week, e-mail is a blessed by filters but still shit gets through.

    There is a difference between what people will say in person, face to face in the open and what they will say undercover of the anonymity of a pseudonym. People will shout out all kinds of crap from the protection of a mob they might not say face to face within arms reach.
    Anonymity is an important protection for all but it adds another level of complication to the discussion of free speech rights.

    The defense of what can only be called a variety of hate speech that it is only words they do not have any power is just a lie. If anyone who used that argument really believed it they would not say anything at all. They do use words to hurt and to terrorize those they hate and fear because they do hurt and frighten their “enemies” and the words of their “enemies” threaten and frighten them.
    The truth is ideas are threatening to belief and true ideas, ideas that have withstood testing against objective reality are even more dangerous to beliefs, illusions and willful delusions.
    Thinking and questioning is a difficult and a dangerous activity, too frightening for many to do themselves or to tolerate others to engage in freely.
    uncle frogy

  11. David Chapman says

    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Ah yes, a concerned citizen protesting the use of pseudonyms. Never mind some of us work for small companies in “at will” states, and could be fired if certain people find out we are atheists, gay, anti-gun, pro-choice, etc. There are legitimate reasons for using pseudonyms.

    Which would have been highly apposite, if I had condemned the use of psuedonyms. My exact words:

    Not that anonymity is not a significant freedom in its own right in some cases,

  12. says

    You concerns are good in general Nerd of Redhead, but a problem is that you offer no functional solutions (or even a general acknowledgement) of the very real damage done by the problems that they mention. It’s hard to take that seriously when you remain an end to the spectrum of the issue and don’t do much to work towards solutions in the middle. Since I don’t believe that you are supporting people that want to use anonymous rape threats and such, what would you suggest?

  13. leftwingfox says

    They are drowning in the noise: technology has given bullies the power to deliver a torrent of abuse online with great ease, and unfortunately, most of the media are enablers of that bullying.

    DDoH: Distributed Denial of Humanity.

  14. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    It’s hard to take that seriously when you remain an end to the spectrum of the issue and don’t do much to work towards solutions in the middle. Since I don’t believe that you are supporting people that want to use anonymous rape threats and such, what would you suggest?

    Let’s turn the question around. What is to prevent me from signing in as Max Maximillion. It is a real sounding name. Now, how does one know if it is real, or a pseudonym? How does anybody go about tracing it back to the e-mail I used to register/log in with? And how does that e-mail address get tracked back to a real person? And who should be able to follow that trail? All legitimate questions that may not have an answer, say if someone used an e-mail randomizer. I’m not savvy enough with such things to have a technical answer, but I do think law enforcement should able to follow such trails. If they could do so, then one should be able to flag or forward a message as harassment, which notifies law enforcement.
    Using “real” names is meaningless on the internet.

  15. says

    You have clearly thought about the risks of breaking anonymity on the internet so your voice would be valuable to solving the problem. I too like there to be avenues for anonymous activity meant to reduce and expose suffering, incompetence, and illegality (though there will be areas where technically illegal things should also be anonymous).

    I am not a technical person in area either, but that does not prevent us from thinking about what a solution might look like from the outside. Naturally people with such knowledge can talk about the details and what would have to be done.

    What is to prevent me from signing in as Max Maximillion. It is a real sounding name. Now, how does one know if it is real, or a pseudonym?

    PZ has discussed similar situations here with determined trolls and abusive posters. User friendly software that makes use of the tools that functionally allow him to identify a person posting under different names. As for the use of multiple IP addresses, the community normally functionally helps to identify when such people return to start trouble. Respected community members get ban powers and such. Hopefully there can one day be software solutions and legal solutions here as well. Internet culture is evolving and just like forcing wall-street execs to serve hard time for their actions, when the consequences for random rape and death threats are no longer worth it we will have a tool for deterrence. I don’t automatically trust the government, but I don’t really see a lot of internet hackers treating people people that make such anon threats like the threat to their anonymity that they are.

    How does anybody go about tracing it back to the e-mail I used to register/log in with? And how does that e-mail address get tracked back to a real person?

    A more stream-lined legal process for recognizing and serving warrants for particularized sets of social behavior. Rape and death threats should have the same consequences on the internet as they do in meat space. When we finally give up the drug war that would be an excellent place for those resources. There are a lot of people out there with computer skills that could get jobs there.

    And who should be able to follow that trail?

    Competent elected officials or people appointed and hired by such in the establishment of legal responses to such crimes like rape or death threats. Don’t think that I don’t know the problems that we have with finding competent elected officials. I want to fix that too. But people who want solutions to rape and death threats want solutions to their real problems. You should see people making death and rape threats as a threat to your anonymity because the collective response to fear, pain, and outrage is a force that you are not likely to be able to overcome.

    All legitimate questions that may not have an answer, say if someone used an e-mail randomizer.

    Meaningless to the person in pain. They want answers and solutions and if you want to make sure that these solutions are not problems themselves a voice such as your should be involved in the process.

  16. thelifeofbrine says

    Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? … “Yes” -David Chapman

    Want to back up why this is a justifiable position? Threats of violence are violence why should you expect that to be a protected freedom?

    If I missed a detail in your post explaining why that was not your position I apologize. I am re-reading it now to make sure I didn’t miss something.

  17. thelifeofbrine says

    Still for David Chapman. Is your point that as long as posts are anonymous then there is no point in forcing anything? Or is it that I can threaten to kill you and that is ok as long as you know who I am?

  18. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Rape and death threats should have the same consequences on the internet as they do in meat space.

    Here I disagree with you, since such threats in meat space aren’t taken seriously by authorities. Typically, “we can’t do anything until you are hurt” seems to be the attitude. Threats both on the internet and in meatspace need to be taken seriously, especially with repeated aggression toward an individual. Which requires a change in attitude and/or laws, and in law enforcement.

  19. says

    @ Nerd of Redhead 19
    I can agree with that. It’s another place where the problem has elements that are more global, but are harder to deal with on the internet.

  20. OldEd says

    I have a comment…. for the technical side of this site:

    I went to print off PZ’s intended speech – what, 2, maybe 3 pages? – and it printed the WHOLE THING, comments and allllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll….

    Paper is expensive: it costs TREES!!!!

    Okay, I just counted: 7 – S E V E N – pages for PZ’s speech, argument, whatever. That is because the Print button caused the printing of the left side stuff (UNwanted), as well as the right side stuff (wanted), and in 12/22nds of the pages… the left side is…. blank…..

    Can’t something be done to eliminate the UNwanted stuff? After all, IF I want the whole schmeer, I can always use the File-Print function of my browser.

  21. says

    I should also say that a “tool for deterrence” would also be only part of the solution (referring to my comment). Criminal justice does not do rehabilitation nearly as well as they do punishment and that can just create worse people. I see nothing wrong with social norms that say such threats used as tools of harassment and essentially social terrorism are unacceptable.

  22. Maureen Brian says

    Dear OldEd,

    Copy and paste what you do want into a word-processing document and print that. I have the same trouble with knitting patterns.

  23. OldEd says

    Okay…. Now as to the meat of my comments…
    LIES: we hold that teaching creationism in class to be a no-no. In fact, a NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO…
    Yet…. In The Beginning….. Darwin’s ideas were rejected by the vast majority of the population. Should his heretical ideas have been banned? Remember, he had no controlled experiments to point to: yes, pigeon breeders had some ideas, but to consider HUMANS, God’s supreme handiwork, to be on the same plane as pigeons…
    Ditto a lot of other things.
    Claiming the parish priest is a pedophile… (In too many cases it happens to be true, but don’t say it out loud, especially in a Catholic country.)

    My wife is calling: she isn’t tall enough and the step-stool is on the other side of the room, so….
    END OF THIS POST>

  24. says

    Old Ed

    Not knowing your printer/computer set up, I can’t say for sure, but there should be some sort of preview/edit process available, wherein you can delete some pages from the print-job.

    Alternatively, paste into a word-processor (which should preserve any text-formatting if that’s important) and print from there.

    Alternatively, get an addon which allows you to download the page with all media, style-sheets, and so on, and edit the source of the downloaded version to remove unwanted content.

  25. says

    thelifeofbrine:

    Want to back up why this is a justifiable position? Threats of violence are violence why should you expect that to be a protected freedom?
    If I missed a detail in your post explaining why that was not your position I apologize. I am re-reading it now to make sure I didn’t miss something.

    You missed the part where that ‘yes’ wasn’t in response to that question.
    His ‘yes’ was in response to :

    Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? This is a hot issue on the internets nowadays, and yes, people are actually arguing that using online media to harass, stalk, and threaten people is a free speech issue. And it is! If you’re a purist who believes that everyone ought to be free to create multiple pseudonymous accounts and deluge their enemies with racist, sexist, or abusive slime, then of course you’re going to demand that your right to do so may not be infringed.

    Also, it wasn’t just “yes”. There was a lot of qualifying statements to accompany it.

  26. Nick Gotts says

    LIES: we hold that teaching creationism in class to be a no-no. In fact, a NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO…
    Yet…. In The Beginning….. Darwin’s ideas were rejected by the vast majority of the population. Should his heretical ideas have been banned? – Old Ed@24

    Of course not. Nor is anyone suggesting the propagation of creationist ideas should be banned. Creationists are, and should be, free to repeat their nonsense and lies orally, in print, online… If you think Darwin’s ideas were taught in schools at any time before they were well-established consensus science, you’re just wrong. FFS, it’s difficult anough to get them taught properly now – even in countries without a creationist lobby as strong as that in the USA.

  27. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Creationists are free to see their ideas are presented in school, but they should be in in the appropriate class. Like comparative religion, philosophy, or mythology. But not in a science class, where they want it to be.

  28. David Chapman says

    thelifeofbrine @16
    Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? … “Yes” -David Chapman
    Want to back up why this is a justifiable position? Threats of violence are violence why should you expect that to be a protected freedom?
    If I missed a detail in your post explaining why that was not your position I apologize. I am re-reading it now to make sure I didn’t miss something.

    Thanks for the apology, but I’m a bit surprised by your initial interpretation. There wouldn’t have been much point in saying something as contentious and deplorable as that without arguing for it, especially on this blog. The claim that such vile behaviour is protected by free speech is ridiculous: if it were allowed, what legitimate means could prevent governments from occasionally threatening people as well?
    That wouldn’t do much for the cause of freedom.

    Another thought experiment for these guys: If death-threats are to be protected in the interests of free speech, what about the statement:
    “Stop speaking that blasphemy against ( Yahweh/ Muhammud/ the Pope ), or I’ll kill you.”

    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    Don’t be an arse. David’s “yes, but” quite is clearly in response to the point PZ went on to make after posing that question.

    Thanks your for spirited defense.

    thelifeofbrine @17
    Still for David Chapman. Is your point that as long as posts are anonymous then there is no point in forcing anything? Or is it that I can threaten to kill you and that is ok as long as you know who I am?

    The point was that PZ, and apparently the libertarian loonies he was attacking, were both compounding two different issues into one: the right to free speech and the right to anonymous free speech. If person A threatens person B with death or violence, and they do it anonymously, they get away with it. ( Which they do, sickeningly. ) If person A threatens person B in public, non-anonymously, and the next day person B is knocked down and killed by a hit and run driver, person A may swiftly find themselves arrested on suspicion of murder. That is, there are consequences of making death-threats etc when your identity is exposed in the process — and this is just one of them. Therefore, if all threats of death, etc, had to be made by people who were prepared to identify themselves, there would be a hell of a lot less of them for a start.
    I believe this is an important part of the proper answer to the civil liberties fanatics that Professor Myers describes above. They sound like they’re arguing for freedom of speech, whereas I would reply to them that no, in fact they’re demanding freedom of speech and anonymity as well, which is a great deal more than freedom of speech on its own.
    They don’t of course have a moral right to threaten death, violence etc, but my whole argument was that even if some people ( for example the next Republican administration ) think they do, the current horrendous situation with the internet involves anonymity as well, so their appeals to free speech don’t cover their arses anyway.

  29. OldEd says

    In answer to 28: Maureen Brian: your suggestion is excellent, but a wee bit difficult to implement if one is limited to three fingers on one hand – the formerly non-dominant one.

    In answer to 28, Nick Gotts: I am not saying that evolution was taught in classrooms before they were established science: I am pointing out that evolution wasn’t even a fit subject for discussion in the Ivory Towers of Academia people lost positions or didn’t get them if they were Darwinists. (I, personally, was “kicked out” of Sunday School at age eight for having in my possession a book on evolution (in my book bag – not on the table) in Sunday School.)

    Neither was the Copernican Theory of a Heliocentric Solar System: people died horrible deaths for advocating it: Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for doing just that, after being hunted for years, and Galileo Galilei was sentenced to a life-time of house arrest for advocating it – and in symposia and books – not in class-rooms.

    The problem is…. that we can’t reject ideas simply because they go against the grain of popular or accepted belief. I point to Cold Fusion: exciting idea – until it couldn’t be duplicated in other labs. Now the advocates are the laughing stock of Physics. Plate tectonics was a standing joke until lots of data poured after The Second Great Unpleasantness (aka WW II), and it took a long time to be accepted.

    Faith healing should be rejected – no, REJECTED, CONDEMNED, THROWN IN THE GARBAGE CAN, DENIED PUBLICATION, SENTENCED TO LIFE-TIME INCARCERATION – until……

    I guess what I’m really trying to say is that it is ALL very COMPLICATED, and not to be solved in the comments to a blog post discussing an hour-and-a-half session at a conference, and that for every position you take, I can find at least one legitimate counter. We should all be adults and act accordingly, except that there seem to be damn few adults in the world these days.

    AND JUST WHERE ELSE ARE THESE IDEAS TO BE TAUGHT???

  30. photoreceptor says

    This may be a bit off subject, but although I agree wholeheartedly with PZs list of criteria for believing something (ie. expecting evidential support for claims), how can this work on a daily face-to-face basis? It seems that for society to work we have to take people at casual face value, one doesn’t have time to fact-check everything somebody says. Nearly all the time that tacit trust system works, but sometimes it doesn’t – which is where confidence tricksters thrive. I had a terrifying personal experience – I actually knew a guy that turned out to be a psychopath, but he had escaped detection for 20 years by his charming low profile demeanour. Once the truth came out I really thought about this issue of fact-checking every claim made by people I spoke with, but soon came to the conclusion one would become totally incapable of social interaction. So there has to be a good deal of assumption someone is speaking the truth, especially on subjects outside one’s particular field of knowledge. Dangerously thin ice…

  31. Maureen Brian says

    OldEd,

    Sorry – didn’t realise that. Do you want me to copy and paste into an email for you? Need address.

  32. David Chapman says

    thelifeofbrine
    Thanks for the response and clarification David.

    You’re welcome, glad we got it sorted out.

  33. says

    I though Free Speech was pretty clear. I like how Matt Dillahunty put it once. “My right to swing my fist ends at the other persons nose.” As long as your actions of free speech don’t harm anyone they are legal. We’re free to criticize government without punishment. Look at all the stuff that has been said about Obama? How many countries would this mean imprisonment or death?

    Guns also have power; is unregulated access to guns the best path to a free society? We’re engaged in that experiment in the US right now, and I can tell you…no. Similarly, we have to recognize that words must be used responsibly.

    I will disagree with PZ here, because people aren’t free to own a firearm, if they are a felon this is automatic jail/ prison time in all fifty states. And states like Minnesota don’t recognize the second amendment and therefore citizens must get permits to own guns. Other states have a seven day waiting time and application. You can’t take a gun into a government building or court. And just like the first amendment if I threaten someone with a gun or use it to harm someone that is a crime and I can be locked up or if I kill someone I will serve time may receive capital punishment. If this is unregulated, then what the hell is? Better regulations needed… yes, but in no way is the U.S. unregulated in regard to firearms.

    And before you start digging up the exceptions to the written law, understand that it is written as illegal. Just because our court system makes mistakes, doesn’t mean the written laws aren’t there.

    Should creationism be taught in science classes? It’s not a science, therefore, doesn’t belong in a science class. They’re free to teach it in philosophy or religion classes, but that’s where it belongs. So yes they can teach it in school but only in the appropriate classes.

  34. Ichthyic says

    . Darwin’s ideas were rejected by the vast majority of the population.

    they were in fact banned in many schools for many years. You should focus on what changed that. The history is actually very interesting. It also has nothing to do with free speech. your argument is a nonsequitor in this case.

    I know there was a book that came out a few years back that traced this in some detail, but i can’t recall the name now.

    someone here will know it.

  35. Ichthyic says

    . They’re free to teach it in philosophy or religion classes

    Some have made a good argument that creationism is really little more than advertising. It surely isn’t a coherent philosophy, nor is it properly defined as a religion in and of itself.

    ergo, most philosophy and religion classes ALSO reject teaching it.

    at best, it is used as an example in critical thinking classes of how poor critical thinking skills end up supporting such advertising memes.

    It really doesn’t belong anywhere as a positive example of anything. At some point, like Snake Oil, it could belong in a chapter in a history class.

  36. Ichthyic says

    . “My right to swing my fist ends at the other persons nose.”

    if you think that is simple, you have little imagination.

    this is the problem with cliches; they sound good, but really fail to hold up well under scrutiny.

  37. Ichthyic says

    Neither was the Copernican Theory of a Heliocentric Solar System: people died horrible deaths for advocating it: Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for doing just that,

    Bruno was burned for being a religious heretic, not for promoting heliocentrism. Perhaps a fine distinction to your mind, but that was the way it was, nonetheless. I still think de Grasse Tyson might have made this distinction a bit clearer in his version of Cosmos, though I thought he did a good job of explaining why he used Bruno as an example of early scientific thinking and how expansiveness, and new ways of thinking were what were needed instead of authoritarianism and rigidity.

    Galileo is still a better example of someone discriminated and penalized for promoting scientific ideas that clashed with the religious establishment.

  38. Ichthyic says

    The problem is…. that we can’t reject ideas simply because they go against the grain of popular or accepted belief.

    we don’t. You seem to, or are entirely unaware of, how we vet modern ideas.

    If the idea claims to be a scientific hypothesis, we have a long established and effective set of methods for treating them.

    Creationism, as a perfect example, is an idea that simply REFUSES to vet itself using this process, and those who have indeed attempted to expose various parts of it to the scientific process have readily proven those parts unsupportable by evidence and testing, and so can be easily rejected.

    are you getting now why this is NOT an issue of free speech, why this is NOT an issue of ideas rejected out of hand based on personal beliefs?

    your argument is an argument from ignorance, sorry to say.

  39. mnb0 says

    “One of the most popular slogans of the intelligent design creationism movement is “Teach the Controversy””
    I’m all for Teaching the Controversy. I want Evolution Theory be taught in all fundie Sunday Classes. Plus pro-choice arguments and the case for same-sex marriages. No doubt there are a few more subjects.

  40. john says

    Dumbledore: No spell can reawaken the dead, Harry. I trust you know that. Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.

    just as good as any bible in my book;)

    all credit to J.K Rowling!

  41. knowknot says

    As an aside: In my experience it has been interesting to note that many (most?) people who deny the power of words and vociferously point to their easy passage down the sticks-and-stones rabbit hole simsultaneously and passionately base the conception of their lives and those of others on a book, full of words, of Cuisinart composition (the literal/figurative nature of which must be contorted into a vague appearance of sensibility by many more words).

  42. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    “I can say anything I damn well please, anywhere, anytime!”,

    This may be confusing, or may be easily confused by a reader. It may conflate legal principles and moral principles. As a desired legal principle, that’s much closer to the truth. As a moral principle, not so much. A proper free speech defender (like myself IMAO) argues that the government should have absolutely no place in preventing mere offensive speech. Harassment and stalking are legitimate things for the government to censor, but not mere offensive speech.

    Of course, as a decent human being, you don’t have a moral excuse to be as offensive as you want. Generally, you shouldn’t try to annoy people or make people angry just for that purpose alone. That’s called trolling.

    Recognizing the difference here is important.

    I’ll end with one of my favorite anecdotes on the subject. While Dan Dennett was writing his book Breaking the Spell, he had his religious students read it and give him feedback. They would say that they found certain parts offensive, and Dennett would rewrite it, and try it on them again. After several rewrites, he found that no matter how he phrased it, his religious students found it to be offensive. And even though it’s offensive, he should be allowed legally to publish that book, and I would say morally he should be allowed to publish that book. What do I mean? I mean that there should not be condemnations of the person for writing the book. Condemnations of the ideas are ok. This is all because Dennett is working in good faith, addressing an important topic, and tried his best to not annoy and anger. However, the only way he could communicate about this very important issue is by making people angry and annoyed, and at that point, the angry and annoyed people do need to just suck it up. Further, I would argue that he has a moral duty to publish because it’s such important information, and so even though it’s offensive, the moral duty to publish overrides the moral duty to not needlessly offend.

    Again, compare to a troll, who is not working in good faith, whose entire purpose is to annoy and anger. Here, condemnation on the person is fine, and there should be social consequences, such as shunning and banning. But even here, there should be no legal consequences (except for the harassment, stalking, etc., exceptions), because any law and enforcement which catches trolls can too easily be misused to censor people working in good faith. (Of course, private website maintainers are held to a different standard, and they can and should ban such people.)

    For an extended discussion, and other defenses of my position here, see On Liberty by JS Mill.

  43. says

    Free speech absolutists, like free gun absolutists, seem to be in the position of simultaneously arguing “it’s an immensely powerful tool” and “it doesn’t actually affect anything.”

  44. says

    Hershele:
    Most definitely. They pull the “it doesn’t actually affect anything” card when they want to minimize the impact of gendered or bigoted slurs, but pull the “its an immensely powerful tool” when they talk about how important it is that no one ban them from a blog.

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