Playing the Indian Card

Monday, December 11, 2017

Why Freedom of Speech is Such a Bad Idea

A violent criminal is executed by the state.

My chum Xerxes has recently put the current left-wing case for ending freedom of speech. It is instructive to examine.

He starts out, naturally, enough, with the case of Lindsay Shepherd at WLU. First, he introduces Jordan Peterson to his audience. Just as Shepherd did—isn't he guilty already of a thought crime? He writes:

Over the last 50 years, the revolt against “he” as the proper generic term for any unidentified person, and against the assumption that “man” includes women and “mankind” describes all humanity, has grown into an irresistible tide. But as always, there are holdouts – people who consider themselves immoveable objects stemming that tide. 
One of those holdouts, University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, told the CBC’s Carol Off, "I don't recognize another person's right to decide what words I'm going to use, especially when the words they want me to use…are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people."

He probably gets away with admitting Jordan Peterson exists by misrepresenting him. Peterson is not opposed to using “him” or “her,” as he suggests, when specifying men or women. He is opposed to being legally required to use invented new pronouns like “ze,” “hem,” and so forth, at the discretion of some listener.

That is one good reason, perhaps, why Shepherd's professors went so unreasonably ballistic over showing him actually speaking in class. When you let him talk, you are no longer able to misrepresent his ideas.

Xerxes then also at least slightly misrepresents Lindsay Shepherd. He writes:

Wilfred Laurier University master’s student Lindsay Shepherd wanted her undergraduate class to think about the use of gender-neutral pronouns. So she showed them a short video clip of Peterson.

More exactly, what she showed was not a clip of Peterson; it was a clip of a debate in which Peterson participated. Xerxes makes it sound less even-handed than it was.

Then Xerxes comes down strongly against Shepherd and Peterson. He writes:

The issue is not about censoring someone’s freedom of speech. It’s about banishing speech that does harm.

That would be true, if he and the left had not redefined the word “harm.” In the dictionary (Oxford) it means “physical injury,” and that is how it has always been used in discussions of freedom of speech. As soon as you include as “harm” any speech someone does not like, there is no freedom of speech. None. If speech did not offend anyone, nobody would want to silence it in the first place. “Freedom of speech” defends offensive speech, or it defends no speech at all.

He compares Peterson's words to a poison or a disease, and writes:

Diseases, poisons, and toxins are not optional. One can’t justify them as personal choices.

Surely this is a hysterical claim. As must be obvious to anyone, words are not poisons or diseases, other than as a metaphor. Yes, words can hurt feelings; and in an ideal world, nobody's feelings would ever be hurt. But it is both impossible and pernicious to legislate against hurt feelings. For one thing, there is no objective test or evidence: anyone can claim that their feelings have been hurt, and, unlike a broken nose, it is impossible to adjudicate the matter. Do you, then, need to demonstrate an intent to hurt feelings? Almost as impossible. We cannot read one another's minds. Ban a specific selection of words? Inevitably arbitrary.

Almost as surely as an apple that falls from a tree will hit the ground, unless you strictly favour one group over another, that is, systematically discriminate, everything you might say would then become illegal. Anyone could, in principle, be declared a criminal at any time, because absolutely anything might offend someone. In the real world, of course, those in power would use this only against their enemies; or against some popularly despised scapegoat group.

At the same time, the speech that is most likely to offend someone is the speech that most needs to be heard: speech to express some new or unpopular idea or viewpoint. All new ideas are by definition unpopular—you are not popular if nobody has heard of you; and you are not going to be popular if you contradict what everyone believes to be true. Moreover, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, if any ideas are excluded a priori from the discussion, we no longer know—ever—what truth is. You see here the end of all human progress.

Consider, for example, that by criminalizing unpopular speech, and calling it violence, people like Xerxes are endorsing the crucifixion: they have declared Jesus a rightfully convicted violent criminal. They have condemned Socrates, Joseph Howe, Thomas Jefferson, Gandhi, Galileo, Darwin, Churchill, and Martin Luther King. All of them are now violent criminals. They have condemned those who spoke against slavery in the antebellum US South, or against Jim Crow in the 50s. They all offended with their words.

So, you might imagine, no problem. we will of course only make it illegal to hurt the feelings of socially oppressed groups.

Does not work. To begin with, you cannot count on always being in power yourself. Moreover, in principle, a truly oppressed group is never going to have the government on their side. More or less by definition, if the government is on your side, you are not oppressed. You hold the ultimate social power. Such discrimination will therefore always, necessarily, be in favour of those who already hold political and social power, and against those who do not. If there is even the slightest discrimination in a society, this will exaggerate and intensify it.

An instructive current example: in France, it is illegal to deny the Armenian holocaust. In Turkey it is illegal to say the Armenian holocaust happened.

John Stuart Mill also rightly pointed out that democracy is not possible without free speech. This is why even libel laws do not apply in Parliament. We must be able to freely discuss all ideas in order to come to an informed decision. Denying the general public the right to hear all views effectively excludes them from power. Smart move, for a totalitarian.

As Mill also pointed out, nobody has the moral authority to decide for anyone else what speech they ought or ought not to hear. That idea is intrinsically totalitarian and discriminatory. It presupposes that some people—those in power—are, in effect, omniscient.

Xerxes writes:

Similarly, we do not let our children play with, say, cyanide. Or plutonium. We don’t let them balance on the railing of a 27th floor balcony. We don’t let them run out into traffic. Because we know those things are dangerous.

This is telling. Aside from claiming, wrongly, that words by themselves have physical effects, he is also here seeing his fellow citizens as children. That is the totalitarian instinct. He is demanding the right to think for them. He is assuming his own absolute superiority to his fellow man. Not tenable. Xerxes is a fine chap, but he is not a divine being.

There are, it is true, proper limits to free speech. Libel and slander, most obviously; copyright infringement; perjury; divulging secrets counter to contract; and incitements to violence. The test is clear and simple: does the speech cause material harm?

Pornography, too, might be legislated against, at least without seriously infringing on free speech. Best not to; but not a vital issue. It does not cause material harm; but then too, it does not tend to express any important ideas. Excluding, as the old US Supreme Court formula had it, works “with redeeming social importance.”

Xerxes writes, in support of a limit on free speech:

I doubt if Professor Peterson would pepper his lectures with words like nigger, gook, chink, jap, or kraut. Or for that matter, with broad, floozy, or nympho. Let alone fairy, faggot, or – well, no, let’s not go there. Because we know how derogatory words can legitimize prejudice.

I am sure Peterson would not. But Xerxes is missing the point. It is one thing to say that using such words is bad manners—it is. Good manners are good; bad manners are bad. Yep. It is a very different thing to make what Michael Coren calls “social rudeness” illegal. Such things do not even rise to the level of immorality, let alone criminality, which requires a higher bar.

The law is a blunt and damaged instrument, subject to inevitable injustice, great expense, and to bullying by those with greater financial power. And any law is necessarily a limit on everyone's freedom, and so must be justified. We want to use the law sparingly. It is a last resort.

I think there is a current strong push on the left to end freedom of speech precisely because the governing bureaucracy—let's call it that, not “elite,” as the latter introduces too many ambiguities—feels endangered. People are thinking for themselves more and more. They are no longer dutifully listening to their betters. The gloves now come off. I think the attempt to clamp down is bound to fail; and the collapse may be sudden. But it may also get much nastier before it gets better.

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