Which speech do you choose to defend, and which do you choose to shut down?


This is a fantastically good video by ContraPoints on free speech. It’s basically a dissection of what “free speech” actually means, showing how absurd the free speech absolutists are, and how appreciating the complexity of the issue is mangled by the right wing into claims that “the left hates free speech!”

The left doesn’t hate free speech. We kinda hate the cartoon version of free speech touted by right-wingers, but as ContraPoints explains, we do understand the concept very well, and probably better than they do: it protects the right of the speaker to express a controversial position as well as of the audience to hear it, and it’s actually strengthens defensible positions by exercising their defense. Minority positions need special protection because they are marginal, we have a duty to protect them from the tyranny of the majority.

ContraPoints agrees with all that. So do I. But we also recognize that a cacophony of loudly shouted views is not practical, and that giving everyone bullhorns does not protect anyone’s right to be heard. It’s a difficult balancing act. You need moderation for free speech to work. There are inherent contradictions and incompatibilities that make it impossible to be truly neutral on speech.

For example, social norms can have a silencing effect. The right-wingers are fond of complaining that calling them “racist” or “misogynist” hurts them terribly, is unfair and unkind, etc., etc., etc. But then what about expressions of racism and misogyny on the internet? Don’t you have to agree that those must also have a silencing effect?

Well, the reply goes, that’s just the hurly-burly nature of the internet. Just deal with it. You can’t change it (translation: we don’t want to change that part of it, we just want to change the part that lets you call us racists). It says a lot about these free speech absolutists in whose speech they rush to defend and promote and who they tell to take the abuse and get over it. Somehow, saying that “it is the nature of universities to promote more tolerant exploration of ideas than the shit-raging of Milo Yiannopoulos” is not accepted as an excuse by these same people.

We see a great deal of hypocrisy on this matter from the right. This video skewers Christopher Hitchens rather effectively, I think, and is maybe a little too generous to Dave Rubin, who is one of the louder proponents of alt-right bullshit while cloaking himself under the mantle of rationalism and free speech. Somehow that rationalism always expresses itself in cheerleading for racism and misogyny, but hey, that’s the hurly-burly nature of the internet.

I can think of other examples of this double standard, too: Bill Maher comes to mind. Sam Harris. Another recent instance is Carl Benjamin, proud defender of liberty, who gets called a “garbage human” by Anita Sarkeesian and is so crushed by an insult that he immediately whips around and petitions a conference to kick her off a panel. FREEDOM! Freedom for me, just not for you.

An even more cogent example: this video was temporarily taken down by a flood of complaints to YouTube by those same people who are so vocal about their inviolable right to express themselves however they want (or possibly by Hitchens idolators, who infest both atheism and YouTube, oblivious to the contradiction in that). I guess they just wanted to prove ContraPoints‘ point.

Comments

  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    ~45 is still trying to convict (not just sue) protesters at his “campaign rallies” (post election) as violating his right to free speech.
    !!! huh?!?!?!?!
    people cannot “violate the right to free speech (aka 1st amendment)”, that is a law directed at the government itself, that the government cannot outlaw forms of speech nor shutdown newspapers (or TV, etc) for presenting contradictory viewpoints to the government. People shouting at each other in an open meeting place is the act of free speech; one side is not violating the other’s free speech. In a hired auditorium, the owner may set rules for the activities withing, including type of speech, duration, time window, etc. If (if!) ~45 is hired to speak at a private venue, the owner of the venue can charge protesters with disruption. Only the owner of the venue, when protesters have violated his well published “rules of behavior”, can charge the protestors with violating his rules. The speaker cannot claim violation of his rights (as none were violated).

    to quote Twain’s meme [however fabricated] “The way to combat bad speech is MORE speech (opposing it, not forbid the bad speech)”

  2. says

    Nice video from ContraPoints, thanks for bringing this content to my attention.

    This is sort of on topic but as a Brit something has always puzzled me about the first amendment, free speech and the hard liners who think this means you can say anything.

    But the first amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech”

    I take this to mean congress will not make any laws which prevent/curtail (abridge) citizens using “free speech”. But where is the definition of “free speech”? It could mean anything unless referring to a previously defined meaning for “free speech”.

    It is certainly a stretch to think it means let anyone say anything wherever they want.

  3. cero says

    Could you please elaborate on the case of Bret Weinstein? I can’t see how what is happening there is not a direct attack on free speech. And Weinstein is by all means no nazi (not even a right-winger).

  4. LanceR, JSG says

    Bret Weinstein? Who was challenged by students at the college? And who was not prevented at all from talking? Not sure how any of that involves free speech at all.

    Freedom of speech can only be violated by a government entity. Protestors exercising their freedom of speech is not a violation of his freedom of speech. This is one of the classic blunders… right after “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”

  5. Aaron Baker says

    It would be nice indeed if “political correctness” were just a figment of the right wing imagination, but, to give one example, Laura Kipnis at Northwestern was subjected to a Title IX disciplinary procedure for expressing an opinion. This is a particularly grotesque thing to have happened at a university. From what I’ve been to glean about the article (it’s behind a paywall), it may be entirely too glib and dismissive about allegations of sexual abuse by professors. If so, it was and is open to anyone to critique the article. Calling for the author to be disciplined feeds entirely too well the “precious snowflake” stereotype that rightwingers are always using to characterize college students.

    For another disturbing incident, not at a university: http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2016/01/25/creating_change_protest_of_a_wider_bridge_was_anti_semitic.html

  6. erichoug says

    UGH! Yet another dumb right wing idea. Freedom of speech ONLY means that the government cannot restrict what you say or punish you for saying it, within the bounds of certain time and place restrictions.

    It doesn’t mean I have to listen to you, it doesn’t mean I can’t exercise my free speech to call you a bigoted, right wing asshole. It doesn’t mean I have to keep quiet while you go on and on about what a great guy lither was and how we should all take a lesson.

    But, at the same time, it doesn’t mean you get to shout racist epithets on a news broadcast and the station can’t cut you off. Or that you can interrupt a session of congress shouting about how meat is murder, or that you can interrupt Julius Caesar because you don’t like them using your favored teams guy in the title role, but kept quiet when it was the other teams guy.

    Yeah, most rational, intelligent people can sort this out for themselves. Leave it to Republicans to make it complicated.

  7. Aaron Baker says

    “Freedom of speech can only be violated by a government entity.” Not so. It’s true the First Amendment protects speech (and expression more generally) only from governmental violations, but I would think it’s obvious that private actors can infringe on free speech, too (e.g. the violence visited on protestors at Trump’s rallies). It’s not a private infringement of free speech to criticize another person’s speech (even with a maximum of verbal abuse thrown in), but drowning someone out, mobbing them, et al., would be and should be condemned every bit as much as governmental interference.

  8. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    A lot of those who complain about free speech want to be able to speak without considering the consequences of said speech. If their speech is offensive to you, it is your problem, not theirs. Which is why they rail against “political correctness”, where the consequences of speech on the recipients is considered.

    But they are also hypocritical, because it means they can be called racists and bigots without consequences too. Either it goes both ways and they should fully understand it, or they should acknowledge they need to tone down their speech so the people they are talking to are not offended. I suspect there is something of an authoritarian/narcissist streak in their make-up which makes them think they are always right, and can’t ever be wrong. A prime example is our hair furor.

  9. Jeremy Shaffer says

    cero at 3- As far as I can tell, Weinstein may have had a point about his problems with flipping the script- so to speak- of the Day of Absence on campus. While the language used was “invited”, from what I can tell (see below), anyone not doing so might have ran the risk of being unfairly labeled as a racist. That can happen.

    That said, this is a story that seems to have been quickly picked up by conservative and the right-leaning people who have ran with it since it fits a narrative they want to push. The articles and videos I can find on it are pretty scant on details except where they’re sympathetic to Weinstien, and I get a strong sense things are being skipped over or left out that might be important to get a fuller picture of what happened, so it’s hard to tell where he or others might be in the right and where he and others might be in the wrong. One thing not helping him- in my mind, at least- is a glance at his Twitter account shows he’s eagerly accepting the support of- naturally beleaguered- people like Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Gad Saad; I get any it- port in a storm, and all- but that doesn’t excuse a lack of discretion.

    In the end, Weinstein’s case might have been a good place to have a productive conversation, but now that it’s been picked up and carried off by people looking to push a very particular right-wing narrative of lone and stalwart conservative defenders of free speech- one that Weinstein, for all his vaunted progressive bona fides, seems eager and willing to go with- the real details and the real facts are going to be just that harder, maybe even impossible, to separate from the exaggerations and distortions.

  10. kantalope says

    If the response stayed speech, then no problem. But they usually turned into real assault. The real problem.

  11. says

    If ever I’m in a position where I’m being cheered on by the likes of Harris, Shermer, Sommers, and Saad I’m not going to be happy about it, and I’m certainly not going to decide that they are my brand-new shiny wonderful friends.

    But OK, I’ve posted my position on Evergreen, even though most of the people asking about it are looking for a gotcha comment.

  12. Kevin Henderson says

    “cacophony of loudly shouted views is not practical, and that giving everyone bullhorns does not protect anyone’s right to be heard.”

    Most speech, loud or soft, is not of any utility. Typically it is irrelevant and only what the speaker wishes to hear. And anyone who demands freedom of speech is, by definition, only demanding freedom of speech and not protecting anyone else’s right to be heard.

    Speech that is hateful, provocative, or contrarian is so often boring and unenlightening. I think the silver lining is that there’s so much caustic speech it drains it’s own effect. As a consequence of promoting action, any type of speech retains little effect to demean race or gender or culture. It becomes noise. It places the listener in a position to ask, “Is this interesting or relevant? Because I’ve got other places for my eyeballs and ears to be.”

  13. cero says

    @LanceR #4:
    I’ve got the impression, that you didn’t really dive into what happened there. He was shouted down while trying to start an open discussion, they occupied the bureau of the president calling for Weinstein to get fired, they threatened him and his family. Is this “getting challenged” for you?

    @Jeremy Shaffer #9:
    Yes, this story got picked up quickly by the right, but why? Bret Weinstein explained it in his interview with Dave Rubin. Not one of the liberal channels wanted to talk to him. So he talked on Fox. And this is what I find so frustrating.
    To your point that it is not the whole story: That’s awkward. Wouldn’t you think, that the left media would be shouting out the facts if they would prove the right wrong? And there is a lot of undistorted information out there. That is, the videos, the mail, the open letter of the students and faculty.
    What I find a bit disturbing is your position that as soon as there is the slightest chance of supporting the opponents narrative, you say it can’t be discussed anymore. I hope you didn’t mean it this way. One should always be searching for a challenge of one’s own beliefs, not for confirmation.

    @PZ Myers: Thank you for posting your position on Evergreen! And I am a bit relieved, that you criticised both sides. So would you agree, that in this one case (even if it is not representative for “the left” – whatever that is) the students suppressed a rational discussion?

  14. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    cero,

    See here for another perspective.

    [meta]This is the problem with having two threads on the same topic. Can we all agree to keep the conversation in one thread?[/meta]

  15. LanceR, JSG says

    @Cero #13 I’m still not seeing a challenge to his free speech. Heckler’s veto, yes. A possible threat to his job, perhaps. Still not threatening his free speech. Threats to his family would be criminal, and treated separately. These things are still not violations of his free speech. Freeze Peach, possibly.

  16. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Threats to his family would be criminal, and treated separately.

    Which means they aren’t part of “free speech”. This is why no speech is without consequences, and anything with consequences isn’t total and absolute “free speech”.
    This isn’t a hard concept, except to those who think they can bully others and then fallaciously hide behind “free speech”.

  17. says

    I sometimes think political correctness should have been called something like “the things you shouldn’t say if you want to be a vaguely decent person”. Think of PC as a set of rules you can follow if you are too stupid to work out what is racist/sexist/transphobic/xenophobic etc.

  18. says

    Lance R:

    I don’t understand your argument. Threatening to get someone fired as a consequence of their speech, or threatening some other harsh punishment in consequence of their speech, is an effort to injure them because of their speech, to constrain their future speech by fear, and to intimidate others from expressing similar opinions. If an arm of the state did this, most of us I think would easily conclude that these were violations of the immediate victim’s freedom of speech and others’ freedom of speech, too, insofar as their inclination to state their opinion was “chilled” by witnessing someone else”s ordeal.

    Nerd:

    as for absolute, consequence-free freedom of speech, of course there’s no such thing. But that doesn’t license us to ignore the differences between, say, even the harshest criticism and drowning out a speaker so no one can hear them at all, or threatening their livelihood.. Some consequences imposed on speech are unacceptable–especially on a university campus.

  19. Jeremy Shaffer says

    Yes, this story got picked up quickly by the right, but why?

    Because this is almost a perfectly packaged example of the narrative they’ve been pushing for decades, with seeming very little effort on their part to sell it so long as only one side is getting their version of events out there. At least, for all we know. Once we start getting more than just Weinstein’s story, we may find his account is 100% accurate, or 100% false. Personally, I think it’ll be a lot closer to the middle, but I guess we’ll see.

    Not one of the liberal channels wanted to talk to him.

    So far as we know, but it’s hardly like this is the only thing going on in the world. It’s possible he was asked to come on a more left-leaning show but he declined; or accepted and his segment was bumped by breaking news and they were never able to work out a reschedule.

    That said, maybe some are talking about it, but the right has had such a clamp on the narrative that anything from a differing source will be hard to find. On the other post, someone linked to an op-ed in the New York Times from a student giving context from the other side to the situation. It was published 10 days ago, yet it didn’t appear on the Google search I did earlier today even though I went several pages into the results. The same writer also wrote a longer article on Medium, but again, that didn’t show up in the search results either.

    On that note, why haven’t the right talked the students and other faculty? Another part of their narrative is that they’re the only ones willing to give their audience the truth, and getting the story from all sides is part of that. The same I noted above applies there too, but I think it’s odd he’s been able to get his story out so easily, but theirs seems to be coming out in trickles.

    To your point that it is not the whole story: That’s awkward. Wouldn’t you think, that the left media would be shouting out the facts if they would prove the right wrong?

    Again, I as say above, it’s hardly like there’s nothing else going on in the world right now. However, it seems that some information is starting to get past the right-wing narrative, so maybe the conversation over it can begin to get productive instead of one-sided.

    What I find a bit disturbing is your position that as soon as there is the slightest chance of supporting the opponents narrative, you say it can’t be discussed anymore. I hope you didn’t mean it this way.

    I’m glad you find that disturbing, though I’m not sure who you’re talking to here. You seem to be addressing this to me, but nowhere in my post did I say anything remotely like that. What I did say was that once information from more than just one-side is made available maybe we can get a clearer picture of events- and frankly I doubt anyone is going to come out of this looking that great based on what is known- but I also suggested that it may be difficult or impossible to separate the facts from fiction. That’s how things like this can be sometimes: the truth is so splattered with bullshit that it can’t be completely cleaned.

    Since that can obviously go both ways, I find it very hard to see how you could get that I think it couldn’t be discussed further in light of more information being made available out of my post. I will say, however, I’m not sure if that conversation can be as productive as it could have been.

  20. lotharloo says

    Very interesting video but it really misunderstands one of the few reasonable claims that Hitchens makes (at around minute 10).
    Regarding the “fag, the slaves, wretched women”, etc, if you listen to the original Hitchen’s speech (and the context) where this was taken from, it is very obvious that Hitchens is talking about religion and holy books, that is, if anyone wants to ban sexist, homophobic, or racist speech then holybooks should be banned first. It is probably his most reasonable argument in his free speech video (his points about protecting the right of the holocaust denial is non-sense; freedom of speech is not absolute and it cannot be absolute, it is always balanced against other freedoms).

  21. Dunc says

    That said, maybe some are talking about it, but the right has had such a clamp on the narrative that anything from a differing source will be hard to find. On the other post, someone linked to an op-ed in the New York Times from a student giving context from the other side to the situation. It was published 10 days ago, yet it didn’t appear on the Google search I did earlier today even though I went several pages into the results. The same writer also wrote a longer article on Medium, but again, that didn’t show up in the search results either.

    This is a very important point: the right-wing noise machine has really got its SEO down cold. Through a combination of repeat posting and cross-linking, they’re able to drown out other sources almost completely.

  22. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    his points about protecting the right of the holocaust denial is non-sense; freedom of speech is not absolute and it cannot be absolute, it is always balanced against other freedoms

    Note: What you say is true for many parts of Europe, but it’s also mostly false for the United States, as the law currently stands. In the United States, freedom of speech covers holocaust denial.

  23. secondtofirstworld says

    Well Mr. Myers, I’m in a tight spot here for several reasons, but I should begin with the harder one. Europe is filled with labor and death camps which resulted from speech that went unchecked for far too long. Those, who deny why they were established obviously don’t do so because they’re interested in a debate, they have affiliations to the far right or the far left. Many might recall, that an unqualified technician broke into Auschwitz with the pure intent to exonerate a hatemonger. When said hatemonger was transferred to Germany, his like minded lawyer started his argument by demanding to know if the judge is Jewish. Let’s not be children here, there are types of ideas only espoused by people who have criminal records for robbery and/or physical assault. This is why genocide denial is a criminal offense.

    On the other hand, there’s a different, somewhat lighter issue, that isn’t much covered by the American press, despite the target of attacks is an American university. The CEU is currently headed by Michael Ignatieff, the former Canadian Liberal Party politician, who actually defends the right of free speech, regardless who the orator or what the subject is, he even named the February incident of the libertarian conservative political author who was heckled out of the auditorium. Given the person is an American conservative, I have an educated guess for the disdain. So, here’s a dean, who represents the American view on free speech, while being implicated to be a George Soros shill. The government views the gender studies of the CEU as an attack on the character of the nation, and they’ve also mistranslated the liberal arts of a Maryland University, which has a campus there as a liberal school, which it isn’t, that’s of course not what liberal arts are.

    Yet, beneath the surface of “George Soros is leading a concerted attack on us”, the real agenda is different. What the government actually wants is to force the federal government to deal with them on a high level, in other words, they leverage the freedom of education to extort a meeting in the White House. Miraculously enough, this is one of the few issues, where this administration showed decency, and followed the law by directing them to the states instead with whom they made the contract in the first place.

    Last, but not least, an important caveat: while during the 1930’s fascist, Nazi and communist ideas couldn’t gain a foothold in America because WASP people had absolute power, thanks to the Civil Rights Act, this power dynamic got extended with people who aren’t WASP, which made them susceptible to foreign ideas, that has gained mainstream traction these last years. A collusion with a socially secluded nation like Russia does not need to be online or political, it’s enough if Western ideals are denounced on a social level, fueled by conspiracy theories. This is a gift Romans warned about because it looks like your idea but it’s actually designed to make a fool out of you, and the institution of free speech keeps that fire alive. The solution isn’t blocking it, it’s education on what not to say before it comes back to bite you in the ass. For example, Trump campaigned for extreme vetting using the Boston bombers as an example, except they bombed Boston exactly because their mother introduced them to 9/11 truther theories and they became convinced, that it was a false flag to blame Muslims. It’s beyond ironic that Alex Jones went on record demanding a new investigation into both as if both had been false flags.

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