Thursday, February 26, 2015

Revisiting Freedom of Speech

I have discovered podcasts!  (I'm REALLY late to this party, I know...)  Among other things I have been devouring while I work my fingers to the bone on a craft project (that promises to bring in actual money this summer), I found this little retrospective on a 2006 IQ2US debate on the freedom of speech.  IQ2US  (Intelligence Squared US) resurrected the 9-year-old debate in order to address the Charlie Hebdo debacle of January 2015. 

The motion put before the debate panel was "Freedom of expression must include the license to offend."  The "arguments for" panel featured, among others, the late celebrity atheist Christopher Hitchens. (Listening to Hitchens act out, merely within the context of this debate, it became obvious why he would lead the charge in favor of a "license to offend."  It seems giving offense was his personal crusade.)

Among the "arguments against" panelists was  Mari Matsuda, currently professor of law at the William S. Richardson School of Law in Hawaii, who, back in 2006, was a teacher and "activist scholar" at the Georgetown University Law Center. 

After consistently rudely interrupting and disrespecting the panelists on the opposing side, Hitchens was given his opportunity to summarize his argument:

 "It is wrong and always has been for churches--powerful secular human institutions--to claim exemption from criticism, which is what's really being asked here.  If there's gonna be respect, it has to be mutual  Does Islam respect my right to my belief?  Of course it doesn't.  Does it respect the right of a Muslim to "apostasize" and change belief?  Of course it doesn't.  I can name now four or five friends...who have to live their lives under police protection for commenting on Islam...  Here is an enormous religion with gigantic power that claims that an archangel spoke to an illiterate peasant and brought him a final revelation that supersedes all others.  It's a plagiarism by an epileptic of the first bits of Judaism and Christianity!  How long do you think I'm gonna be able to say that anywhere I like?  It would already be quite a risky thing to say in quite a lot of places.  I did not come the United States of America 25 years ago to learn how to keep my mouth shut.  I'm here to reject all offers that I change that policy...however simperingly they are put." 

Given her turn to summarize, Matsuda argued thus:

"The "n-word" is hollered out from a passing car, to let a black man know that he is not walking in a neighborhood where he is welcome, or safe.  The speaker knows the effect of that word, and uses it precisely because it terrorizes.  Why is it that we recognize, in American law, that if someone spits on your shoe, that's an attack on your personhood; but we won't recognize words that we know--socially, historically, from the reality of the human lives that we live--have exactly the same effect on your personhood and your ability to move freely?   I am talking about liberty and it's fascinating that we are all coming from the "enlightenment" tradition.  As much as we disagree, I feel affinity with people on the opposing side because we are ALL concerned with losing our democracy, and losing our freedom.  I think there are forms of speech that make us less free because we stop talking to each other and we don't have the conversations we need to survive... 

"There IS hatred of Islam in this country, and it's not a healthy thing.  There is also ignorance, and we need to open a space where we can talk to each other, disagree, criticize and learn; and that space closes when people are allowed to assault." (Emphasis mine...)

Listening to these snippets, I had a couple of off-the-bat impressions.  Hitchens struck me as an egotistical ideologue hell bent on winning converts to his philosophy through shaming and offending anyone who had the audacity to disagree with him.  Matsuda seemed to take a more reasoned approach, appealing to the listeners' sense of humanity and fairness to make her point.  And, for the record, I agree wholeheartedly with Matsuda's argument that there are, in fact, forms of speech that make us less free, because they inhibit our ability to talk civilly to each other and "have the conversations we need to survive."   If I had to choose whose kool-aid I would drink, it would definitely be Matsuda's.  But I'm pretty sure that's because Matsuda's argument appealed to my feminine sense of what constitutes effective persuasion, more than Hitchens' in-your-face, derisive, distinctly male style of argument. 

But neither of these panelists really addresses the issue.  In fact, the issue doesn't address the issue.  Because the issue is not that freedom of speech doesn't exist, or that it exists in some modified form that allows you to say anything you want as long as you don't hurt anyone's feelings.  Charlie Hebdo would not have been able to draw itself into hot water with Muslim extremists if there was not freedom of speech in France.  Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses  would not have been published if Great Britain didn't have free speech.  Christopher Hitchens would not have been allowed to be so publicly offensive to any and all institutions to which he was opposed if freedom of speech did not exist in America.

 In all these instances, the governments in question did not step in to prevent anyone from saying, writing or drawing whatever they damned well pleased.  What they did not do--at least, not to the satisfaction of all the folks crying "The sky is falling!  Free society as we know it is in danger!  Rights are being violated here!" -- was protect the speakers/writers/artists from the consequences of their speech.  The question is not, should government have the right to deny free speech.  Freedom of speech was not denied here.  The real issue is, how far does government need to go to protect free citizens from the consequences of the choices they make?

Is it the responsibility of government to expend resources to protect those who would use their "rights" ill-advisedly?  Is that what we're calling for?  People should be able to spout whatever nasty, untrue, racist, hate-filled, antagonistic or inflammatory crap that enters their minds, and the state then bears the responsibility to protect them from whomever they decided they needed to piss off?  How exactly do we reasonably put that assumption into practice?  It's relatively easy (though not free)to call out the cops or the National Guard when a hate group applies for a permit to assemble or march on public property.  But what are the logistics of, say, protecting the writers/artists at a publication like Charlie Hebdo, who insisted they had the right to publish cartoons they knew were inflammatory and objectionable to a dangerous subset of humanity?  Does the state take on the cost of 24-hour-protection for folks who intentionally choose to become terrorist targets?

In my opinion, we're all missing the point here.  Those of us who have enjoyed the concept of "inalienable" human rights for a couple of centuries seem to have tired of merely resting secure in the knowledge that we are guaranteed certain freedoms, should we need to call upon them. we're casting about for what kind of mischief we can get into with them.  Like two-year-olds, we're testing our boundaries.  We're actively engaging in more and more outrageous, dangerous and  aggressive behaviors, just because there's not only no law against them, but they enjoy the legal protections of "rights."  We'll walk up to a bear and slap it on the nose because we can; we'll stick our foot out and walk  off a cliff into thin air because we can;  we'll strap ourselves to a ballistic missile because we can;  we'll hoard the crumbs that would feed a starving neighbor because we can.  And then we'll wail about  "our rights" when the government has to swoop in and bandage our boo-boos, catch us before we hit bottom, scrape up the pieces and try to put them back together, or find food to keep our starving neighbor alive.

We utterly reject the concept that "rights" come with "responsibilities;" that freedom is downright dangerous when it is not accompanied by self-restraint.  The moment freedom causes harm or anguish to another person is the moment the alarm bells should start to go off.  We should know when to hit the brakes...we used to know, I think.   But in our "freedom"-obsessed twenty-first century society, we've forgotten the meanings of the really  important words:  Empathy.  Conscience.  Self-restraint.   

To my mind, there's one rule--one very simple rule--that should come to mind every time one considers exercising the rights we enjoy as a free society in America today. 

Just because you can do something...

...doesn't mean you should.                 

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