WHEREIN I Discuss Free Speech

...as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it.

Free speech is one of those things that everyone loves when they want to use it, and hates when the other guy tries to use it too. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but when you stand back and look at all the churn surrounding the argument over whether or not Neo-Nazis and Klansmen should be allowed to march around, armed to the teeth, shouting “blood and soil” while protesting people who don’t like Civil War monuments, it does seem that when you simplify the arguments, you get “yes, I should be allowed to proudly proclaim that it’s good to be a racist prick and threaten to kill people” vs “no, you shouldn’t be allowed to proudly proclaim that it’s good to be a racist prick and threaten to kill people.”

Normally, I would find this argument pretty simple, though unpleasant, to respond to. My standard response would be “it’s not okay to be a racist prick. Racist pricks should be opposed. However, it should be done in a way that doesn’t break one of the few American principles that actually works rather well, in fact works better than people in power generally like, in fact so well that people in power are constantly looking for ways to make it go away without actually admitting they’re doing that.”

In other words, opposing a racist prick must be done in a way that doesn’t take away the racist prick’s right to proclaim his racist prickness to the world.

That is the stance I would normally take. It would be a reflexive, habitual stance, and as recent as a few years ago it would have been one I would have taken while sighing inwardly as I watched every single person from every single place in the ideological spectrum argue why in this case it’s different and why they are morally justified in demanding that the government “do something” about something someone is saying.

In this, I would nominally find myself standing with the other Free Speech types, who come from all across the political spectrum and generally agree only on this one thing, and would find myself squared off against most of the people I actually agree with when it comes to assessing the moral character and social danger that racist shitbags pose.

It may or may not cause the other Free Speech types discomfort and irritation to know that lately I’ve found myself trying, and not quite succeeding, to reconcile this position with a few other things that need addressing.

In the abstract, I still want to be on that side of the argument. I don’t know how to make free speech work when we decide that “only the good speech is allowed.” My basic opinion is that governments aren’t good at value judgments, especially when it comes to specifics. Governments are invested in preserving the status quo, since that’s what they are at any given time, and speech that challenges the status quo can very reasonably be interpreted as dangerous. Screw the slippery slope, governments are often quite willing to cheerfully just jump over the edge and admire the crater when they hit rock bottom.

I’ve always felt that free speech laws are the way they are, are as permissive as they are, because a government will never be enlightened enough to know the difference between a bold new idea that will make us better people vs. a hate-filled ideology that will usher in suffering for those who can’t protect themselves. They can’t tell the difference because the ultimate effect is usually the same for them: they get kicked out and replaced by the people who agree with whatever new idea wins. On a practical, resume-driven level, the politician loses power, prestige, and possibly a job. New ideas represent social upheval, and politicians (and let’s be honest, a lot of people) don’t like that.

History bears me out here. People who don’t like what the government is doing more often than not wind up going to jail when they speak out about it, or at the very least wind up getting put on a watchlist. Or a list that prevents you from flying on a plane, “for reasons.” The government reflexively tries to get people who want it to change to shut the fuck up in the most direct and efficient way possible—it suffers the idea that citizens have a right to speak up against its policies with all the grace of a spoiled rich kid who never had to work for anything in his life being told he wasn’t allowed to do something or get something he randomly decided he wanted to do or get—essentially, like the 45th President of the United States.

Because the government is really bad at recognizing when citizens are speaking up and saying good and useful things, the most effective way at ensuring they can is to deliberately protect citizens who are saying bad and awful things. That at least in theory includes the racist shitmongers who descended on Charlottesville with their tiki torches (because they love the South but can’t handle mosquitos, bless their hearts) in order to proclaim that Robert E. Lee was a misunderstood hero who was both a) heroic and 2) misunderstood. Oh, and also that Jews and other minorities are destroying America and making it impossible for white dudes to be white dudes so white dudes must rise up as one in order to make sure white dudes can be both white and dudes without having to deal with basic moral concepts like “not killing people just because they are not white or dudes.”

The things they say aren’t things I agree with, or approve of, but I feel that in order to protect a principle that allows people who say things I do agree with to say them without going to jail, their right to say morally empty, hate-filled venemous things should be protected. They should be the ablative shielding that allows the rest of us to have impassioned but mostly-sane conversations.

But.

A few years ago I would not have said “but” – a few years ago that would have been the end of the story for me. It would have been the point where I crossed my arms and prepared for the liberals to accuse me of being a hate-filled conservative, and for the conservatives to call me a moonbat libtard, and for my extended family to awkwardly try to find safe, neutral things to talk about over holiday meals.

But. But a few years ago it didn’t occur to me that people on the verge of losing an argument would freak out and throw the biggest, most dangerous tantrum in the world, and hide behind “free speech” any time someone called them out on it, and discover that it worked. Call me naive, and you probably should, but it didn’t occur to me that people would figure out how to game free speech.

But they have. And now we have a problem.

The problem is that a bunch of Hitler-loving Neo-Nazi’s have managed to find the line between “free speech” and “you’re probably going to jail” and gathered, en masse, just barely on the “safe” side. And they’re standing there, chanting “we are going to kill you” to any melanin-favored individual they can find, as well as race traitors like me who think they’re full of shit, and they’re doing it very convincingly. At the same time, groups of them are deliberately crossing that line and trying their damnedest to follow through on those threats. And while you can point at any single incident that they’re doing and think “well, yeah, I can see how this is protected speech, and this is protected speech, and this is protected speech, so it ought to be protected,” when I step back and look at all of it it’s very hard to make an argument that it’s not a prelude to them all working themselves into a lather, going nuts, and shooting everyone in sight.

Someone I respect on Twitter once told me that I might rethink my “precious ideas about free speech” if the people talking were threatening to murder me, and I have to admit he has a point: yes, I don’t like racists and I oppose what they stand for, but let’s all acknowledge that I don’t exactly have much skin in the game.1 I can tut-tut and look disapprovingly and hell, even get into arguments with Nazis from time to time and still have fair to even odds of being mostly left alone, because at the end of the day I’m still a White Dude and have White Dude powers endowed to me at birth.2 For the most part I’m allowed to feel safe in this world. I don’t need to worry about safe spaces, if I’m having a bad day I can go into my room, start playing Fallout 4, and just forget everything for a while. I don’t immediately wonder if maybe, just maybe, the people who threatened they knew my address and were coming to kill me actually were.

I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit. I still think my initial argument in favor of Free Speech is a legitimate one—that the Government is incapable of getting it right, so the safest course is for it to protect speech that is obviously wrong—but it occurs to me that the social pressure of upholding this principle doesn’t fall on me. In order uphold that principle, I’m requiring every black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and Native American man, woman, and child to bear the brunt of all the speech I think is terrible but should be protected. I am essentially saying “thanks for taking one for the team, women and minorities! Sorry I don’t have a folded up flag to give you, and there won’t be any parades, and you’ll be criticized for doing it wrong anyway, but good on ya!”

But free speech is for everyone, right? In theory, defending the rights of the Neo-Nazi’s to shout “Jew will not replace us” while defending the Confederacy’s right to secede from the Union should also, at the same time, be successfully defending a black man’s right to protest his significantly statistically higher chance to be shot by a cop even when he isn’t doing anything wrong. That would be super great if it were true, but when you look how it seems to shake out, it looks more like “one side gets their rights defended before the fact, the other gets it defended after.” Try to imagine if a Black Lives Matter demonstration had descended upon Charlottesville, and if those activists had been armed to the teeth the way the Neo-Nazi and Klansman “demonstrators” were. Would the police have maintained their, um, let’s call it discipline, simply stood by, and allowed them to march? Would they have decided they were “outgunned,” as at least one government official has claimed, and been afraid to act?

I’m gonna go with “probably not.” The sad truth is the minute a BLM activist showed up with a gun—open carry laws or not—the National Guard would be activated, Charlottesville would be locked down, and it wouldn’t have been called a protest. It would have been called a “riot.”

When one side consistently goes to jail first, and only then do the courts decide “well, they were within their rights,” you’re looking at a society that is trying very hard to weight the argument. The prevalence of well both sides do it in this current argument over the violence in Charlottesville is pretty solid supporting evidence for this. Yes: there are violent people on the political left. There always have been. Antifa is a thing. The stories about them jumping the gun and beating the crap out of people they misidentify as Nazis are troubling (though it seems some of those stories are turning out to be flat-out lies). But this is not the same as running over a woman in a car because you don’t like what she stands for, and bragging about it on your website afterwards. It’s not the same as beating the shit out of a black guy with the weapons you brought with you, because he was black and for no other reason, and bragging about it on your Facebook site later. It’s not the same as pulling out a pistol and trying to fire into a crowd of counter protesters.3

It’s not the same. It’s not the same. It’s not the same. Treating it like it is the same makes it pretty clear that one side is being allowed to use the booster seat.

I’m starting to find myself in a place where if I’m going to believe in free speech at all, I have to acknowledge that the reality of it is that there is an inherent tension between what we want it to be, and what it actually is. I want it to be something that is fairly and universally applied, because a rational application makes it more likely that my cause is not irrationally left unprotected, simply because I hurt an important stuffed shirt’s fee-fees. But where we are is that the Nazi’s get to threaten to murder Jews, black people, and anyone else, and when people try to come together to oppose it our 45th President starts running around in his best Oprah interpretation, shouting “you get a bad apple, and you get a bad apple, and YOU get a bad apple,” and a lot of people start nodding sympathetically, even when they don’t particularly agree with him on pretty much anything else he does or says.

Even me. I did that. It was an instinctive, knee-jerk nod, based on my inherent assumption that free speech is an ideal worth holding up in all cases, at all times, without exception.

Tension. There’s tension between wanting to uphold an ideal—a good and noble and useful and necessary ideal, even—and the reality of having to survive in a world that isn’t particularly invested in it, and having to decide what you’ll do in the face of that ambivalence. There’s a part of me that wants the purity of the conviction, but at least for the moment I have the advantage of also being able to step out of the spotlight if it gets too bright. There are people who, right now, are being targeted by Neo-Nazi’s and the Klan, and I use the word targeted deliberately. Saying “just ignore them, it’s only words” does not sufficiently acknowledge what’s happening.

Tension. There is a point where I can tolerate an argument made by a Nazi or a Klansman, a point where I can engage in a back-and-forth between someone making that argument—a point where the discussion is abstract enough that I don’t believe the words spoken will translate to action. There is no reason to expect someone who is part of a group being targeted by them to accept that same back-and-forth as abstract. Things are considerably less abstract when you are the subject of the conversation. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of Brandenburg v. Ohio isn’t wrong, but it seems like the test really only works in hindsight, and that’s problematic for people actively in the fucking crosshairs.

Tension. On the other hand, there is a danger to tacking hard in the opposite direction. I know it doesn’t look like it now, but history is full of examples where people with legitimate grievances try to fix society’s problems so fucking hard that there isn’t enough room to bury the goddamn bodies. It doesn’t start that way, it becomes that way. The people who fight the Nazi’s today aren’t, by and large, trying to set up the next totalitarian state, but there always seem to be a second or third wave of people who use the same language but are mostly operating the principle of I can make bank off this, and suddenly one day Marx is gone and Stalin is there and people are being edited out of photos and the boss who is killing you now looks a lot like the boss who was killing you before, only he’s using your slang while he does it.

But.

But it seems stupid to worry about theoreticals when a real, honest-to-God problem is actively cornering the Tiki Torch market (even though, it should be noted, the Tiki Torch makers really don’t want them to), and it seems especially stupid to worry about theoreticals when a lot of their supporters are deliberately using those theoreticals against you, to discredit you. Anyone who doesn’t support 45 is a communist who ultimately wants to start shoveling bodies into holes in the ground, right? Eventually it always comes around to “The Left are all Stalin.” It’s the corollary to Godwin’s Law: eventually a right winger will point at you and shout “BUT STALIN!”

Tension. The thing is, though, but Stalin. That stuff actually happened. Bad people corrupt good things. Opportunists take legitimate injustices and spin them into new despotic empires. Evil people can speak all the right words and still do evil things and turn generally well-meaning neighbors into monsters. And right now it’s easy to think specifically of Hitler when we talk about that, but he’s neither the first nor the last of history’s monsters.4

Tension. Bad people corrupt good things, which is why “pure ideals” are useful. We don’t want to believe that the people we work with, the people whose language we speak, the people whose references we get, might actually be the next Mussolini or Hitler or Lenin or Stalin, and when they look us in the eyes and patiently explain how this time is different, it’s easy to take their word for it. Sometimes it is different, but it’s good to have guideposts that allow us to judge exactly how far we’ve strayed from True North. Orwell wrote Animal Farm and 1984, and of the two, Animal Farm is more useful when it comes to showing how ideals can drift from nobility to a window-dressing put over the gallows. Which is why ideals like free speech are fucking important and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as if they were Last Year’s Trendy Thing That Isn’t Cool Any More.

But.

But it comes back to where we are today. Today there are a lot of people who genuinely believe that now is their time, and the thing they think it is their time for is genuinely terrifying. They’re surging online, not just in their private websites, but on fucking Twitter. And they’re targeting the people they hate. They’re threatening to kill them (but it’s just words), they’re doxxing them (but it’s not illegal), and even if we assume for the sake of argument that every single thing the white power bastards are doing is 100% legal why should we expect anyone targeted that way to feel safe? Why should we expect a migrant worker to laugh off or ignore a spoken threat from a group of four armed white men? Why should a black woman who just made a political comment online ignore an email from someone saying “I found your picture, I found your address, and me and my friends are going to kill you this weekend”? And how can I, in good conscience, cluck my tongue in disappointment when people being targeted like that feel “hey, maybe this free speech isn’t actually going to do me any good because it really seems like they’re getting that much closer to murdering me instead”?

I don’t want to be someone who compromises his ideals, but today I feel like the alternative is sacrificing people. That alone makes it hard to justify, but to add to that I would be sacrificing them in favor of people who have no interest in free speech at all—they use it because it’s there, but would never respect the principle. That makes the exercise not just meaningless, but actively cruel. I haven’t seen a plan for fighting off the Nazi hordes and protecting the pure, untrammeled experience of free speech, especially given that our current experience is very definitely trammeled, and I’m coming around to the idea that insisting on a solution that preserves the purity of my ideals sounds a little too much, in the abstract, like the kinds of things the assholes on the other side are saying.

Footnotes

  1. See what I did there.
  2. Not by my parents, who did their level best to raise a son who rejected racism and sexism, but by a society that recognizes White Dudeness as a special gift handed down from White Heaven that apparently anointed me with Benefit Of The Doubt.
  3. And failing, because you forgot that the safety was on. Thank God for that.
  4. He is unique in that he was the first monster to be truly exposed to the world at large—the ones who came before him benefited from the fact that most people in the world had their own concerns and were mostly willing to ignore what was going on everywhere else. Technology made it easier for everyone to look at the people fighting this war, and made it easier for the things they did to come to light afterward.

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