Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Whistle In the Wind

Poor Jon Chait.

He had the audacity to question whether the right of free speech comes with a responsibility on the part of both the speaker and the listener, and got hammered for it. In other words, he took on "political correctness" and in what may be one of the grandest moments of self-reinforcing demonstration, got spanked by the very movement he sought to critique.

First, let me say this: the First Amendment is the one nearest and dearest to my heart, and in particular, the right to speak my mind freely. It's what allows me to maintain this blog, and allows you to read it. Voltaire was credited* with once saying, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is what the First Amendment should embody. 

Second, Chait's article, the examples he raises within it, and the backlash he's received from the posting have nothing to do with free speech as you and I understand it. Our right to free speech is a contract between ourselves and our government, as it should be. In exchange for freely allowing us to speak our minds, the government is asking us to frame that speech with moderation, respect and tolerance; in other words, to self-govern. Self-government goes directly to the heart of the nation. 

Even John Stuart Mill agreed that free will is fine, in moderation. He deplored the act of imposing your will on someone else. The famous example he raised was doing harm to yourself, which is fine, so long as you harm no one around you -- including harm by omission, such as the case of not saving a drowning child, or failing to pay your taxes. (This is why -- despite the fact that #JeSuisCharlie -- I have a problem with Charlie Hebdo, but I digress.) 

Mill even goes so far as to postulate that a nation of barbarians does not deserve freedom, that despotism may be the only legitimate form of governance for a people like that. 

In short, Mill argues that every freedom comes with a responsibility: the greater the freedom, the greater the responsibility. To speech in particular, Mill points out that it needs to be unfettered, because even in the most objectionable idea lies a kernel of truth. 

It may not be the kernel of truth that the speaker intends, to be sure, but there is a truth in every viewpoint. For instance, if I say "I hate Brussels sprouts," the truth may not be that Brussels sprouts are horrible disgusting vile things that make me retch, but that I've never had them properly prepared. You can extrapolate from there the kinds of free speech that can come up and what truths they may contain.

Note then that this comes under the banner of responsibility. The individual speaking his mind needs to keep in his thoughts that he is addressing people who may not agree with him, and so needs to exercise some self-governance. For instance, instead of saying "I hate Brussels sprouts," I could say, "I dislike..." or "They leave a bad taste in my mouth." The speaker, keeping in mind he may cause damage to someone, needs to be circumspect in his words.

Here's the tricky part: in a "polite society," there is also a responsibility on the part of the listener to something objectionable, and here's where Chait is onto something. 

Since every opinion contains a kernel of truth and therefore has equal right to be spoken, every opinion has to be weighed on its merits and sifted through for the truth it contains. This implies a duty on behalf of the listener to stop, breathe, and think. To ask questions. 

If, after that, there is still a vehement disagreement, then it's a difference of opinion. This doe snot mean that one opinion is better than the other, but that truths have been revealed and it's up to us to decide the truths on their merits. 

Let's beat the dead horse of Brussels sprouts: you make the case that they are nutritious, full of fibre and vitamins, and when properly prepared, can be quite tasty (not in my book, that;s for damned sure). I make the case that all that's fine, but if I can't eat them, how will I benefit?

We may not come to an agreement, but society as a while now has a body of evidence upon which to make judgements for the greater good. Perhaps the majority will influence eating habits by encouraging the sale of Brussels sprouts, thus showing me to be the loser in the argument.

It won't change my opinion. Take it one step further: suppose now society decides that anyone who doesn't like Brussels sprouts is to be made to conform? Or, they exercise what Mill called "the tyranny of the majority"? 

Here's where Mill raises an interesting point: it's one thing for a majority to socially suppress an unpopular opinion, but it becomes a real problem when that majority resorts to the laws and government as a strong-arm tactic to suppress an unpopular opinion. 

We're seeing this more and more in America and that scares me a little. How many states have passed laws banning abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade? Or have tried to codify Creationism into the education curricula? 

It's one thing for university students to petition to ban Bill Maher or Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking on campus, it's quite another for a community to ban hoodies

Chait raises the spectre of this in his article, wight he example of Hannah Rosin:
Two and a half years ago, Hanna Rosin, a liberal journalist and longtime friend, wrote a book called The End of Men, which argued that a confluence of social and economic changes left women in a better position going forward than men, who were struggling to adapt to a new postindustrial order. Rosin, a self-identified feminist, has found herself unexpectedly assailed by feminist critics, who found her message of long-term female empowerment complacent and insufficiently concerned with the continuing reality of sexism. One Twitter hashtag, “#RIPpatriarchy,” became a label for critics to lampoon her thesis. Every new continuing demonstration of gender discrimination — a survey showing Americans still prefer male bosses; a person noticing a man on the subway occupying a seat and a half — would be tweeted out along with a mocking #RIPpatriarchy.
Her response since then has been to avoid committing a provocation, especially on Twitter. “If you tweet something straight­forwardly feminist, you immediately get a wave of love and favorites, but if you tweet something in a cranky feminist mode then the opposite happens,” she told me. “The price is too high; you feel like there might be banishment waiting for you.” Social media, where swarms of jeering critics can materialize in an instant, paradoxically creates this feeling of isolation. “You do immediately get the sense that it’s one against millions, even though it’s not.” Subjects of these massed attacks often describe an impulse to withdraw.
It is kind of brutal that a mass of dissenters descended on Rosin and effectively silenced her. Goodness knows, there have been plenty of times I've risked friendships for my feelings and opinions, no matter how carefully and sensitively I've phrased and expressed them, and I confess a certain clumsiness in both those arenas when faced with ignorance. 

And Amanda Marcotte's article (linked to above) points out that, indeed, there is a need on the left for a vigorous debate on unpopular opinions and not an immediate silencing and, more important, censoring of dissenters. 

It is easy to claim the mantle of victim when you read or hear something that offends you. I say I support Israel, but that Netanyahu is the wrong man for her leader, and suddenly I'm pro-Palestinian. Rather than judge the merits of that statement, people will read what they want to into it (that statement is an accurate reflection of my feelings, I should note), ignoring the fact that Netanyahu may have annoyed me for other reasons, like his attempt to grandstand in Congress this year or his signal disapproval of our President and his encouragement of conservatives' attempts to degrade and debase President Obama. 

All I'm saying is to keep a civil tongue and a civil ear. And to listen, really hard, for the whistle in the wind. 

* it was actually Evelyn Beatrice Hall, which is why you never see this rendered in French.