Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shut up and play nice: How the Western world is limiting free speech

From the Washington Post op-ed section:

Free speech is dying in the Western world. While most people still enjoy considerable freedom of expression, this right, once a near-absolute, has become less defined and less dependable for those espousing controversial social, political or religious views. The decline of free speech has come not from any single blow but rather from thousands of paper cuts of well-intentioned exceptions designed to maintain social harmony.

In the face of the violence that frequently results from anti-religious expression, some world leaders seem to be losing their patience with free speech. After a video called “Innocence of Muslims” appeared on YouTube and sparked violent protests in several Muslim nations last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that “when some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected.”

 More here.

As the essay goes on to observe, it's not simply the religious stuff, either: Western nations are increasingly willing to go after "hate speech," lying, and individuals "discriminating" against one another in their private communications.  So it's coming from multiple directions, and it's kind of below the radar in that, short of the above linked op-ed piece and the odd right-wing essay defending the right to piss off Muslims, it's not yet become part of the mainstream news narrative in the US, or anywhere else, as far as I can tell.

For the moment, however, I'm not too worried about this state of affairs here at home.  The United States has always been much more progressive on  free speech than Europe has been, and countless court decisions since the 1960s have given the first amendment some pretty sharp teeth.  No anti-blasphemy laws here, no prosecution for telling people you were in 'Nam when, in fact, you weren't, no fines or jail time for using the n-word, unless you couple that with violence or other crimes.  At least, none of that yet.

Because this is, indeed, a disturbing trend.  Important and influential people, so-called "serious" people, are suggesting publicly that there ought to be limits to free speech above and beyond the imminent danger limits we've long accepted for practical reasons.  That's how slippery slopes begin.  And it is frightening that we live in an image dominated era that discourages the kind of thinking needed to understand why limiting speech because some people disagree is so short sighted.  That is, the concept of free speech came out of the Enlightenment era, you know, back when people read and contemplated, instead of watching and feeling the way we do today.  Stupid bullshit that seems reasonable catches on easily in this day and age.

The bottom line is that the freedom of speech must necessarily be about speech people hate because, otherwise, it's not really freedom of speech.  Nobody has a problem with speech that makes us all feel good.  But in order for democracy to function at all, we must have a marketplace of ideas, and that means considering ideas that many find to be offensive.  Opposing slavery, opposing women's rights, free scientific inquiry, Protestant opposition to the Catholic Church, Catholic opposition to Protestants, and on and on, all these concepts used to piss a lot of people off.  Hell, I pissed people off simply for opposing the Iraq invasion, and I was totally right about it!  Yesterday's offensive idea can become today's norm.  Of course, to be fair, yesterday's offensive ideas often continue to be offensive today.  But you've got to give citizens in a democracy the chance to have their views heard, or we're just static as a people.  That's how it works.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I strongly criticize the assholes whose sole aim appears to be pissing off Muslims.  I think it's highly offensive in most situations to use racial epithets, to use sexist or homophobic language.  I think lying is unethical.  But you battle speech you don't like with your own free speech.  You don't use the government to shut people up.

But in the rapid fire television and internet era, even these short lines of thought can be glossed over easily.  So I'm worried.  I'm afraid people don't understand this stuff anymore.