These days we seem to see a proliferation of hate speech, the tone being set by the petulant man-child who is currently president of the US, who lashes out at everyone he doesn’t like or who opposes him on anything, using the most incendiary rhetoric. This has given encouragement to all the bigots who see his words and actions as giving them a license to let loose too. The ghastly video below, seemingly cribbed from a scene in the film Kingsman: The Secret Service that shows Trump murdering various journalists, media organizations, and political rivals, was shown at a conference of Trump’s supporters at the Trump National Doral Miami resort and is an example of what is being supported and promoted by those at the very top. (Violence advisory.)
The White House has now distanced itself from this video (though Trump himself has not personally condemned it even though he has found time to tweet about all manner of other things) but the very fact that Trump supporters showed it at a conference held at a Trump resort is evidence of this sense of liberation now felt some for this kind of speech. This has raised troubling questions about whether there should be more limits to speech than those currently in existence. There are always limits on speech. The key questions are what those limits should be and who has the right to set them.
The radio program On the Media had a fascinating in-depth look at the history of the free speech movement and how far we can go with free speech absolutism. Host Brooke Gladstone’s guest on the show, New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz, argues that there is an inherent conflict between the protections of the First Amendment that protects the rights of the speaker, with the 14th Amendment that protects the rights of everyone to full participation in society and for whom certain types of speech restricts that participation.
The full show lasts for 52 minutes. If you do not want to commit to the whole thing, there are three different segments that can be listened to separately.
Back in the 1980s, analytic philosopher Richard Rorty described the concept of “contingency,” which argues that there’s no predetermined arc to our systems and processes: the arc, Rorty said, is made by people. So the idea that our society will move ever more towards enlightenment and rationality? According to Rorty, that idea is flawed, because it’s people who ultimately determine what will become of our ideas and our institutions.
So what does all this mean for one of our most hallowed rights, the first amendment? In his new book Antisocial, New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz argues that the first amendment — and, by extension, the American conversation — has been hijacked. In this segment, Marantz and Brooke lay out the contours of the problem, and how contingency has led to a discourse gone haywire.
Our understanding of “free speech,” as UC Berkeley law professor john powell sees it, is akin to our understanding of gravity. “We all think we know what it is,” he tells us. “but if you talk to a serious astrophysicist, they would say we have no idea what gravity is, why it works, how it works.” It turns out, what comes up doesn’t always come down, and what seems clear in the Constitution is often anything but.
In this second part of our hour this week on free speech, guest host Andrew Marantz — author of the new book, Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation — guides us through the history of this particular freedom, from the post–Civil War Constitution, to Schenck, to Brandenburg, to Skokie, to Citizens United and, finally, to Charlottesville.
At the beginning of this hour, guest host Andrew Marantz, author of Antisocial, talked about the late analytic philosopher Richard Rorty, who argued that the future won’t be determined by a set of predetermined factors, but by a set of unpredictable contingencies. In the conclusion to our hour on free speech, Andrew and Brooke talk about the limits of legal solutions to free speech run amok, and look to a 1996 speculative essay by Rorty for inspiration about how we might get out of the current morass. In his essay, “Looking Backwards From the Year 2096,” Rorty wrote about a Dark Age spanning from 2014 to 2044, from which his fictional America recovers by foregrounding principles of fraternity and unselfishness rather than rights. Might our American civilization do the same?