No, we don’t need to ‘debate’ racism, sexism, or anti-LGBT bigotry…. (More)
We offer our deepest condolences to the survivors, familes, and friends of the victims in last night’s terrorist attack on a London mosque, and to the family and friends of 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen, who was abducted outside a Northern Virginia mosque and murdered last night. Our thoughts and prayers are with you all.
Now, about free speech. If you haven’t yet, please read this brilliant essay by Thomas Healy at The Atlantic:
Middlebury College’s decision to discipline 67 students who participated in a raucous and violent demonstration against conservative author Charles Murray brings closure to one of several disturbing incidents that took place on college campuses this semester. But larger disputes about the state of free speech on campus – and in public life – remain unresolved.
Many critics have used the incident at Middlebury, as well as violent protests at the University of California Berkeley, to argue that free speech is under assault. To these critics, liberal activists who respond aggressively to ideas they dislike are hypocrites who care little about the liberal values of tolerance and free speech.
The violence at Middlebury and Berkeley was troubling and should be condemned by both liberals and conservatives. But the truth is that violent demonstrations on campus are rare, and are not what the critics have primarily been railing against. Instead, they have been complaining about an atmosphere of intense pushback and protest that has made some speakers hesitant to express their views and has subjected others to a range of social pressure and backlash, from shaming and ostracism to boycotts and economic reprisal.
Are these forms of social pressure inconsistent with the values of free speech?
That is a more complicated question than many observers seem willing to acknowledge.
Healy proceeds with a clear and compelling argument in favor of “counter-speech” – speech in protest of other speech:
Counter-speech can take many forms. It can be an assertion of fact designed to rebut a speaker’s claim. It can be an expression of opinion that the speaker’s view is misguided, ignorant, offensive, or insulting. It can even be an accusation that the speaker is racist or sexist, or that the speaker’s expression constitutes an act of harassment, discrimination, or aggression.
In other words, much of the social pushback that critics complain about on campus and in public life – indeed, the entire phenomenon of political correctness – can plausibly be described as counter-speech. And because counter-speech is one of the mechanisms Americans rely on as an alternative to government censorship, such pushback is not only a legitimate part of our free speech system; it is indispensable.
That is, counter-speech is how we squash dangerous ideas without government action. And yes, the objective of counter-speech is to squash those ideas:
[All] counter-speech has a potential chilling effect. Any time people refute an assertion of fact by pointing to evidence that contradicts it, speakers may be hesitant to repeat that assertion. Whenever opponents challenge an opinion by showing that it is poorly reasoned, leads to undesirable results, or is motivated by bigotry or ignorance, speakers may feel less comfortable expressing that opinion in the future.
Put bluntly, the implicit goal of all argument is, ultimately, to quash the opposing view. We don’t dispute a proposition in the hope that others will continue to hold and express that belief. Unless we are playing devil’s advocate, we dispute it to establish that we are right and the other side is wrong. If we are successful enough, the opposing view will become so discredited that it is effectively, although not officially, silenced.
Such has been the fate of many ideas over the centuries, from claims that the earth is flat to declarations that slavery is God’s will to assertions that women should not be allowed to vote or own property. Each of these positions can still be asserted without fear of government punishment. But those who make them in earnest are deemed so discreditable that the claims themselves have mostly been removed from public debate.
A simple example:
- Assume I had five macadamias and gave you two of them. How many macadamias would I have left?
“Eleven,” you say.
I would shake my head and get some nuts out of my bowl. Here are the five macadamias I started with. Here are two pushed to the side, for you. Let’s count the macadamias left for me: one, two, three. So I don’t have eleven macadamias left. I have three.
“Enough with the mathematical correctness!” you object. “You’re trying to silence me!”
Well, yes, as does any teacher who uses this with a class of first-graders. The teacher’s goal is not to ‘debate’ counting, addition, or subtraction of whole numbers. If those concepts were ever up for debate, the debate was settled long ago … and the proponents of “Five minus two equals eleven” lost the argument.
We also had debates over whether the earth is flat, whether slavery is God’s will, and whether women should not be allowed to vote or own property … and the proponents of those ideas lost the argument.
And we had debates over whether people of color are fundamentally inferior to whites, whether women are fundamentally inferior to men, and whether LGBTs are fundamentally inferior to cisgendered heterosexuals. We debated those ideas when the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Civil Rights Act were proposed. We debated those ideas – in the context of specific facts – in case after case. Again and again, the proponents of those ideas lost the argument.
They haven’t simply lost the argument as a matter of law. They’ve also lost the argument as a matter of societal norms. If you declare that people of color are fundamentally inferior to white people, a small subset of Americans will agree with you … and most Americans will call that racist. If you declare that women are fundamentally inferior to men, a small subset of Americans will agree … and most Americans will call that sexist. If you declare that LGBTs are fundamentally inferior to cisgendered heterosexuals, a small subset of Americans will agree … and most Americans will call that homophobic and/or transphobic.
And the majority of Americans who dismiss those ideas as racist, sexist, or homo/transphobic do not want a ‘debate.’ We already had those debates, with others and often within ourselves. We wrestled with the implications and consequences. We looked at the damage wrought by racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. And we decided – first individually and then, increasingly, as a society – that people of color, women, and LGBTs are not fundamentally inferior.
If you still believe otherwise, you’ve lost the argument – in the view of most Americans – and we have no duty to endlessly rehash those debates with you. You’re just not that special.
Sure, you have freedom of speech. You can believe, and say, pretty much whatever you want. But we have freedom of speech too, and that includes refusing to ‘debate’ your bigotry. Our free speech includes calling your bigotry what it is. Our free speech includes protesting when you try to promote that bigotry in public. Our free speech includes boycotting when you practice that bigotry in your business.
It’s not that we don’t tolerate debate. It’s that we already had the debate … and you lost the argument.
Image Credit: Shayne Gryn
Good day and good nuts