April 20, 2015

What Is The Purpose Of Free Speech?

A lot of folks have gotten involved in the whole Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies slate controversy involving the Hugo Awards. Ditto “Gamergate”. For my part, I’ve stayed out of both – in the case of “GamerGate” because I don’t care about gaming and in the case of the Hugos because I’ll read what I like and don’t really care about who gets the awards. If that means I finish reading Sad Puppy Sarah Hoyt and then move on to the latest by SFWA oligarch John Scalzi, so be it – even though I love Sarah’s blog and consider Scalzi’s to be a cesspool of progressive intolerance.

Today I’ve seen a number of my fellow conservative bloggers note Hoyt’s latest post, “Take Your Nose Off My Fist”, and in particular quote one particular observation from it, as amplified by Glenn Reynold.

SARAH HOYT: Take Your Nose Off My Fist. “If your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose, what if I move my nose and rest it on your fist, so you can’t move?” Well, that’s the whole point of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the like.

A good point – since the entire premise of those demanding “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” is to paralyze anyone they don’t agree with by insisting that their opponents injure them by expressing a contrary view, by being present where they might be noticed, or even by just having the temerity to exist.

But frankly, that isn’t the part of Sarah’s post that struck me. No, I’m particularly fond of her explanation of the purpose of protecting freedom of speech, and exactly which speech it is that needs protection.

The right of free speech is meaningless when you only have the right to say that which society approves of.

No one has ever tried to ban speech that lauds mother and apple pie (well, maybe now, but that’s a long story.) No one has ever had a fit over your complimenting their lawn.

The right of free speech is by necessity a protection for unpleasant, unpalatable speech. It is the right to call someone in power a right son of a b*tch. It is the right to say things that are hurtful, whether they’re true or not. It is the right to proclaim that the king goes naked, even if it hurts the self esteem of everyone who has been lying to herself and telling herself he wears clothes of the finest silk.

Sometimes the metaphorical nose of the listener needs to be pounded with the metaphorical fist of mean words. Because it’s the only thing that can stop tyrannical actions or misguided but widely accepted ones.

Absent the right to say what hurts others, a society can careen head first into an abyss. Because it’s always easy to claim you’re offended at something you don’t want to hear, and that therefore the speaker shouldn’t be allowed to say it.
And that speech-stopping power is never evenly distributed. It’s always higher on the part of those who have connections in the press, friends in the bureaucracy, and who can amplify their teary cries and stop what they want stopped.

The right to stop speech you don’t like is ALWAYS an act of punching down, an act of speaking power to truth. (Or lies, but it’s amazing how often it is the truth that those self-selected, connected elites want stopped.)

Which is why the idea that my right to speak is stopped by your right to take offense is an open door to totalitarianism and censorship. If claiming that speech “offends” someone is enough to stop it, you’re giving those who already have the power to defame, destroy and character-assassinate more power and preventing those who would talk against them from speaking.

And there is all too much of that sort of “I’m offended” censorship going on in this country. Consider the recent “American Sniper” controversy on campuses around the country. Look at the controversy at UNC about David Horowitz being invited to speak by the College Republicans. Remember that the Supreme Court just refused to review a California school’s punishment of students for daring to wear American flag shirts on a minor Mexican holiday. Look at the attempts to delegitimize speech favoring traditional marriage. All of it has been justified based upon the “offensiveness” of the sentiments expressed and that it might make others feel “unsafe” that such views are allowed to be expressed.

And we see it in our politics today – opposition to Barack Obama is presumed to be based upon the color of his skin and not the wrongness of his policies. Hillary Clinton’s supporters have already begun to compile a list of words that are putatively “sexist” and therefore not to be used by the media or her opponents on pain of public condemnation.

Indeed, the notion that one can invoke a right to freedom of speech as a defense is under attack. For example, a teacher friend of mine shared that in his school district teachers were informed that if anything they said on social media or a blog provoked a complaint, invoking the right to free speech would be deemed an admission of wrongdoing. Too many, on both the right and the left, have decided that while freedom of speech may be enshrined in the Constitution, the government should be allowed to impose consequences for the exercise of that right

Sorry, folks, but Sarah Hoyt has it right – it is the speech that is unpopular, provocative, and offensive that most needs protection. And if such speech isn’t protected, we are left with bland discourse that never challenges the assumptions of the orthodoxies of the day or the

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