The acid test for whether you support free speech is whether you still support it when someone is tipping over your sacred cow. This, if anything, is the point. If you don’t support free speech in contradiction to you, you don’t support free speech. It is exactly that simple. And using this exact test is a way of looking at whether free speech is being eroded, socially. I strongly suspect it is being eroded, by people hiding under a title that is supposed to support it: the liberals.
If you scroll back through social commentary on YouTube you find a progression of ideas that don’t sit well with free speech. The starting point was that always-underlying question of whether “offense” should be the barrier to free speech, but the idea snowballed. The side that claimed that being offensive was the barrier to free speech started to gain traction, and the language shifted. The term “microaggressions” was formed and slowly spread. It is the idea that the way you word something, although not actually offensive, can be taken offensively. The offence is often predicated on the idea that one could read into your words an assumption based on race or gender or other group line, and that unspoken assumption can be reacted to.
There are interviews conducted in American colleges where students try to intellectualise the idea that “God bless you” and “where were you born?” are microaggressions. I could spell out the intellectualising they did, or you can make up the reasoning yourself; it’s equally valid. The point here is not that they have some morally insightful or accurate point, but that people in large groups actually believe that this kind of talk should be banned.
I have the complete opposite view on free speech. I am against incitements to violence, and I am critically aware that violates the concept of free speech. But, I certainly seem to put fewer restrictions on free speech that the self-proclaimed liberals with regressive ideas. Donald Drumpf, for example, should be allowed to say that Muslims should be banned from America. Politicians should be allowed to suggest that disabled people get paid less than the minimum wage. In fact, I think everyone should take at-least-as-long-as-a-heart-beat to defend views they hear but disagree with.
The reason I think people should be allowed to say these stupid things is because they are stupid. If they are stupid and we are sensible, then the utterer of the stupid thing will immediately pay a price. If they don’t pay a price, either what they said isn’t that stupid, or we aren’t that sensible. That’s been one of the realisations one has of Donald Trump and the USA. People are voting for him; you can no longer hide behind the idea he’s a fringe joke that the media fell in love with. People really are voting for him. So, you have to engage with the idea that a large number of people are ill-educated and/or racist; bought in to this story of Drumpf’s success, despite repeated seeming failure (Trump University?).
But an idea should be floated on an intellectual market. I think permitting an employer to pay disabled people less than minimum wage (and having the difference made up by the state) is a good thing: it gives disabled people more opportunities for employment and stops the government paying 100% of the disability allowance. But, I also think that the HR department of a company should be able to demonstrate the person is less productive, and once the disabled person has learned the work-arounds to meet equal productivity to everyone else, the company should pay them the fair wage. But that idea never gets floated on the market, because the assertion of bigotry has been allowed to become powerful enough to essentially quash open and free enquiry.
#AllLivesMatter has been an interesting one to watch, as apparently claiming all lives matter is racist, whereas belittling the egalitarian phrase and promoting the racially charged #BlackLivesMatter, that’s the just way around. And this seems to be the perfect case study for where free speech is headed. The egalitarian hashtag is the racist, because the oppressed group deserves some sort of redressing for history; the oppressed should be able to become the oppressors. But not directly. There is a bizarre ‘White Knight’ effect, where the privileged, wealthy, often white, people stand up for the poor oppressed. They’re not always white, as the Missouri University student protest showed, but they are nearly always the wealthy.
The narrative demonises the “privileged”, but it is perpetuated almost entirely by people who fit the narrative’s definition of privileged. And often it is done out of bigotry; the bigotry of low expectations; the belief that the perceived ‘protected class’ can and will be offended by innocuous statements and are too meek to defend themselves, so the Privileged Knight will do it on their behalf. They will censor the free speech, as it is utilised by the privileged to oppress.
The bigotry of low expectations seems to demand we censor our speech. I first heard the term from Richard Dawkins, who was asking whether it is bigotry to assume religious people lack the emotional strength to have their God challenged and, perhaps, face the godless world the atheists face. This was in response to being told he shouldn’t take away people’s comforting stories and simply let them be. In that respect, I am on Dawkins’ side: that’s a very condescending position to take.
Shadow to Light wrote some tripe on this exact issue, which prompted this reply. Just because the article is tripe, doesn’t mean it didn’t have a nugget or two of truth in it (which is very much why Michael, the author, should be free to write his generalising, inaccurate, derivative “prose”). His argument was basically that the non-Muslim, often white and privileged (“privileged” enough to throw the word “racist” around like it’s a mediocre thing, with no regard for the fact it’s a fully heinous societal ill) regressive “liberals” defend Muslims from Sam Harris’ criticisms of the ideas of Islam and Islamism, yet are nowhere to be heard when Harris attacks Christianity. The nugget of truth is that very few non-Christians are publicly afforded the media spotlight for their vitriolic criticism of Harris, in response to his criticisms of Christianity, but this group does manage to find a voice to protect Muslims from the same level of attack on Islam.
I have my doubts that this is the bigotry of low expectations, but something very different indeed. The regressives have been working to redefine offense and bigotry. Offensive and bigotry only exist one way: down the ‘privilege’ hierarchy (as the regressives see it). The people at the bottom of this privilege hierarchy (women, blacks and Muslims, or so I’m lead to believe) can exclude and deride white men, and there’s no bigotry involved in that, because it runs up the privilege hierarchy, not down. If you let yourself ignore the privilege that affords those without privilege, I’m sure you can make sense of it. But only if you really need to. And I think it is this redefining of bigotry in relation to the regressive’s asserted hierarchical system that is in play when the regressive imagine the Muslims are hypersensitive crybabies. I don’t know many Muslims, but the ones I do know don’t care about Sam Harris.
(Funnily enough, the regressives get to be the Privileged Knight and the Cry Baby if they are feminists or Black Rights activists on a college campus in America. They get to be hypersensitive and insanely protective.)
It’s always interesting to ‘check one’s privilege’. And that’s something I can do here. The nearly-pure interpretation free speech I have allows for racial slurs. If you want to call me a “cracker”, be my guest. I will laugh at you. If you want to call a black person a “nigger”, I think you should be allowed, but I don’t think you should expect it to be consequence free: the person you were talking to may feel the urge to mock you for your small minded and idiotic views, which they would be entitled to do. (And that’s an attack on the content of your person; if you call someone a “nigger”, you’re the one in the vulnerable position.) But my experience of racism is odd, and certainly not on par with or even analogous to the racism black people suffer in some part of America and Europe, let alone the developing parts of the world. I was uncomfortable being adored in the cities and quietly resented in the countryside of Thailand, for being white. And that is pretty much the extent of the racism I experienced. So, it is from the same privileged position that regressives yell “racist” at trivial turns of phrase that I say racist language should be allowed in a free society: I can’t pretend to fully grasp what it is like to live with racism. I’m happy to ‘check’ that privilege.
Short of violence, pure free speech has a way of regulating itself. Bad ideas compete fairly on the free marketplace of intellectual enquiry, and die. But, by making a taboo of them they form echo chambers and seedy underground groups, or lie dormant, without seeing the light of criticism. Then, suddenly they erupt when a weird enough right wing idea is espoused. The benefit of free speech is that bad ideas can see free enquiry and die off slow, their impact being dissipated. Making a taboo out of an idea means it’s boiling away, under pressure, just waiting to come out. Free speech moderates extreme ideas by blending views, introducing perspectives and narrative that otherwise wouldn’t be there. And, on the rare occasion, a novel good idea comes out. Suppression of speech doesn’t kill an idea, it protects it in an echo chamber.
But, the regressives have no such interest in free speech, or the power of criticism to improve ideas. Regressives are interested in turning the intellectual free market into their personal safe space, where they get to play tyrant over what is a ‘trigger’ or a ‘microaggression’; to censor things that don’t form to their superficial aesthetic. Regressives want to play superhero to save the unoppressed and privileged members of Western society that conform to whatever victim narrative they can concoct. (Their obliviousness to developing countries in their attempt for justice is infuriating.) The rest of us will have to feign outrage or make amends for something that didn’t happen.