Right to say

>> Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
1906 (or maybe circa 1758) (but probably not).

This is a line I've been thinking about a good bit lately, because I am a liberal and I was raised on that quote, but now we live in an era when people find themselves having serious discussions about the ethics of Nazi-punching.  On the one hand, there's this primal notion in the Enlightenment-touched consciousness that free speech is the greatest thing; on the other hand, there's a primal notion in the gut that punching a Nazi is simply following time-honored tradition going at least as far back as March, 1941 in the United States.

Nazi-punching, and also a recent spate of protests against conservatives scheduled to give speeches or performances on college campuses, which have brought forth a more recent tradition of liberals and conservatives wringing their hands over the deplorable state of academia, and/or of free speech on campuses, and/or liberal intolerance, and/or the kids these days who demand protection from "disagreeable ideas," and/or all of the above.

I find myself surprised, thinking about the line from Hall or Voltaire (but probably not Voltaire), because I find myself thinking that I may not agree with it as much as I did when I was younger, or maybe I don't agree with it in the same way.  That is, I find it a sound, even a righteous, principle in a certain context, but I find myself thinking it's maybe become a bit obsolete and maybe even irrelevant.  Which shocks me--I'm really keen on freedom of speech.

But here's the thing: at the time Voltaire would have said that (although he probably didn't), the barriers to publication--by which I mean we're talking about spreading one's ideas to an audience in whatever medium or format--were enormous.  And the state's capacity to crush not just an idea, but the person expressing it, were fairly extreme.  (Though it might be noted that the state's ability to crush a thought has always been less effective than the state's power to crush individuals holding or expressing that thought.)

In Voltaire's day, if you wanted to get an idea across to a large audience, your options were essentially confined to giving a public speech or printing it and disseminating the idea that way.

The first option, obviously, is limited to your ability to draw crowds, the capacity of your venues, and how long you might be allowed to go around running your mouth before someone arrests you for heresy or sedition and you find yourself in jail (possibly awaiting execution).  The only benefits of this format would be its economy: you don't have to be literate, you don't need a specialized machine, you don't need a specialized skill set.

As contrasted with the other option.  In 18th Century France, the literacy rates have been estimated at being around 48% for men and 27% for women.  Your first barrier for publishing an idea, then, is whether you're even capable of writing them down, and then your second barrier is that maybe three-eighths of the adult population can even read what you've written.  Assuming, however, that you're even capable of writing something down, you then have to find a publisher; printing presses of the 18th Century are these fairly large and heavy machines (though by no means as large as the gargantuan newspaper presses of our era), and typesetting is something of a skilled trade--not everyone can do it quickly and well.  So there's that.

But those are merely the technical restrictions.  There were also legal issues.  Operating a press wasn't just a skilled trade, it was a regulated trade.  In England, the press was regulated by the Licensing of the Press Act 1662; in Voltaire's France, by the Ordonnance of Moulins and an assortment of royal edicts.  To publish something meant paying licensing fees, being subject to inspection and seizure of "offensive" works, submitting works to bureaucrats for approval.

Of course, you didn't need to do any of that, provided you didn't mind being arrested.  Or sent to prison.  Or, if your publication fell into the often arbitrary categories of "seditious libel" or "treason," being executed.

Also, one more thing on top of all of that: depending on where you were in those days, religious authorities might well have a concurrent jurisdiction over your spiritual welfare.  Meaning that if your work was deemed heretical, you might be looking at excommunication, denial of sacraments, or other religious sanctions; which might be a big deal to you if you believed in such things (as many did).

You could, if you diligently and effectively worked to piss off the right people, hit a perfect trifecta of self-immolation in a perfectly offensive pamphlet.  That is, you could find your manuscript, plates, and printed materials seized and burned, killing your thoughts; your person imprisoned and waiting execution for seditious libel, killing your body; and excommunicated for heresy, effectively killing your soul (or at least barring it entry to God's Kingdom and consigning it to Perdition).  All of which, you know, might be a little bit of a big deal.

In such a context, Voltaire's (probably not Voltaire's) aphorism is more than just a nice bit of rhetoric, an impassioned defense of freedom of speech, enthusiastic hyperbole.  In such a context, that line is actually a moral commitment: you could, indeed, be literally, actually, no metaphor involved, find yourself defending someone's words (your own, the words of another) to the death (intellectual, physical, spiritual).  The government could kill you.  Legally.  Sometimes they did.

There are places that are still like that.  But not so much in the modern West, where the barriers to speech have reached a point that they are actually negative; meaning, thanks to social media, it is sometimes takes more effort not to publish something than it does to put it out there for an audience of your mom, of dozens, of hundreds, of thousands, of millions.  Just ask the people who try to take Donald Trump's phone away from him during the Fox & Friends end credits.

Literacy is nigh-universal.  It's hard to enumerate the media options for someone who has something to say.  This blog costs me nothing except my lunch hour.  (Okay, maybe a little more than my lunch hour.)  There are podcasts and tumblrs, reddit and Amazon Kindle Direct, Twitter and YouTube.  These are the free and automatic options; some people can still go on television, radio, and get pieces published in newspapers and magazines.  Mandatory public education is so widespread that literacy rates are staggering (in France--just to keep a consistent comparison--the 2015 literacy rate was 99% for both genders).  Governments tend to take a hands-off approach in the West, though there's not nearly as much they can do if they wanted to (even modern totalitarian states have struggled to keep out "dangerous" ideas).

I don't mean to say freedom of speech has become unimportant, or that we ought to fall asleep on the collective job of protecting freedom of expression.  But it does seem to me that we've gone from ages when speaking your mind could be physically dangerous to an era when anyone can do it and is surprised if there are social or professional repercussions from it.  Which makes me wonder if the whole thing is on a slider, and if the question before us now isn't about reflexively leaping to the defense of anyone with an opinion, but one of how we deal with the fact that any asshole with a cell phone can publish anything anywhere to anyone, even if what he's saying is wrong, stupid, and causes far more harm than whatever good there is in treating the mere fact he can publish as inherently virtuous.

Maybe there is merit in social policing of speech.  Maybe Voltaire's (not Voltaire's) famous line is dated and obsolete; a manifesto that shouldn't be forgotten because it's relevant in some times and places, but one that should be asterisked and filed away by our time and place.

I think this brings us back around to those college students and their censorious ways.

There may well be philosophical or moral arguments about the role of college campuses or academia as bastions of discourse and debate, or about exposure to uncomfortable ideas being an important part of the expansion of students' minds, or about college students cheating themselves out of a proper education by turning away from intellectual confrontation, and so on.  But the assertion that denying a college venue to someone with a book deal, invitations to appear on television and radio programs, and Internet access is a violation of that person's right to freedom of speech is fatuous.

It's possible that college students attending a Charles Murray lecture, for example, would learn something (even if all they learned from it is that Charles Murray is wrong about a great many things), but denying Murray an audience at Middlebury College (or anywhere else, for that matter) hasn't stripped Murray of his book deal, invitations to appear on television, invitations to lecture elsewhere, his position with the American Enterprise Institute, or his Twitter account.

Milo Yiannopoulos managed to get banned from Twitter, lost a book deal, lost a gig writing for Breitbart, and was uninvited from CPAC.  And yet continues to have Facebook and YouTube accounts, and presumably would have no problem self-publishing through Amazon or (if he has an obsession with Dead Tree Media) a print-on-demand service if he can't secure another publication deal.  His podcast hasn't updated since February, presumably because it was hosted or sponsored by Breitbart, but one imagines he can wind that back up and recoup his subscription numbers.  It's not irrelevant that a part of his downfall arrived with public reaction to a cable television program seen by more than two million viewers.  No one, to this date, has kicked in his door and sent him to prison to await trial for saying shitty things.

None of the people who are being protested or uninvited from college campuses are in serious danger of losing their freedom of speech.  Strike and amend that: none of the people who are being protested or uninvited are in laughably vague danger of losing their freedom of speech.  They are being denied specific venues by people who are exercising their freedom of speech to say that they don't particularly want their student fees and/or the facilities those fees pay for to be utilized by men and women who are or may be or are suspected of being assholes.  Those protests, again, might be unwise (or might not be), or may have some kind of philosophical implication regarding the purposes and functions of the university (or, again, maybe not); but that's an argument about the roles and obligations of students and campuses, not an argument about purported censorship or alleged deprivations of rights.

You do not, I think, have an unfettered right to any venue you want.  I'm not speaking legally, as it's been so damn long since I remember any of the case law surrounding limitations on time and place restrictions in public spaces (which might not apply to a private university anyway, though state schools would clearly be something else).  I mean as a general philosophical point.  The fact that I occasionally (okay, rarely) post to a blog doesn't give me any particular "right" to invite myself to Charles Murray's next conveniently-located lecture, where he can explain why he excludes environmental and historical factors from arguments about the test scores of "blacks" and I can explain why Meddle is a much better Pink Floyd album than The Wall, and we can close with a song-and-dance rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz" complete with canes and tuxedos.  I am not entitled.  Nor is he.

Of course, it's easy to understand why people would want to be.  They do get paid for these appearances, of course.  Besides that, there is prestige to appearing at a place like Wellesley over appearing on The O'Reilly Factor (quick, while he's still employed!).  There's status, and for some folks there's the appeal in thinking one might be molding future leaders and thinkers, while for others there's the appeal in thinking one might be rubbing it in the faces of future leaders and thinkers (and why not both?).  There's respectability in it for someone like Murray, and there's the sense of bearding the beast in his den for someone like Yiannopoulos.  But they're not entitled to any of that.

All of this might be different if we lived in an era in which the university was the last great bastion against government censorship.  (We might note, in passing, the authentic irony that in France, up until a few decades before Voltaire was born, universities were the institution assigned by the state with the responsibility and authority to censor.  How things change.)  If the academy's institutional status, power, and financial endowments provided a kind of sanctuary to politically vulnerable dissidents.  But that absolutely isn't the case; if anything, the academy is itself a vulnerable entity, a target for abuse and derision, their funding challenged, their purpose questioned.

At Popehat, Ken White (who I have a great deal of respect for, often agree with, and who has forgotten more First Amendment law than I've ever managed to be confounded by) recently framed this as a socially dangerous "Nazi exception" to the freedom of speech, making the usual Enlightenment argument that there should be no exceptions to the freedom of speech.  The problem with this completely cromulent argument being that college students saying they don't want particular kinds of speech on the campuses they attend is hardly a great threat to anyone's speech in our era.  Maybe it's ill-advised of students to say they don't want to hear certain arguments or claims at a time in their lives when they should be engaging in dialogues and debates, challenging their preconceptions and practicing their critical thinking skills; but even if that point is conceded (and I'm presently on a fence whether it should be), we're talking about what makes a good college student, not censorship.  The argument being made by those who say this is a form of oppression is that speakers are entitled to a particular audience and venue; that the effect of protests is actually similar to "What if Heather Mac Donald gave a lecture and no one came?" with the main distinction being that students exercised their own rights to speak out about it seems to have slipped past unnoticed somehow.

In the past, an argument over venue and rights was much the same argument, because there were so few venues to choose from.  An argument about someone's right to say something was effectively the same as the argument that they had the right to say it in a pamphlet or on the village green.  This hasn't been true for some time now, and I think we have completely separate arguments as to express something and the right to express something in a particular place or format.  Your right to say that Nazism is awesome and all the right-thinking people should be Nazis is severable from any right you might have to make this claim in your first choice of venue; to some particular audience; and/or to be subsidized, sponsored, or endorsed in any way by a particular group of people or institution.  The bars to publication are so low now, so astonishingly low, that to be turned away from one venue is merely to have a few hundred more to choose from.  In that environment, I find myself thinking that forcing a speaker upon people is the form of abuse that has replaced denying the speaker his voice, the new form of bullying and, yes, oppression.


Warner Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 12:57:00 PM EDT  

Two things, related to your Voltaire perhaps quote.

In 1964 the students at the college I would go to that fall invited George Lincoln Rockwell to speak as part of the Tuesday night Lecture Series. A series the college made open to the public (my mother suggested I go as I would likely be a student there in September). The college was not right wing, for several years running in the 60s they received the John Birch Society, 'Most Subversive School in the US' Award. And were proud of it.

Rockwell ended up in debate with the student body and lost, badly, but was treated politely.

I've been watching a PBS series on The Great War.

The great liberal President Woodrow Wilson was a staunch defender of, and had signed, The Sedition Act of 1918, the one used to jail Debs. Wilson also made George Wallace seem a defender of the NAACP.

I am not a robot, but perhaps you should be beware of stobor.

Eric Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 4:00:00 PM EDT  

One thing to be clear about, because I'm not sure I was: I do think there's a profound difference between students protesting a campus speaker or requesting that he be cancelled, and the government arresting people for so-called "sedition." These days, it seems like some folks don't see a distinction.

I'm not a fan of Wilson, in any event. Though I'm not sure I'm as hostile towards his memory as I was when I was learning about his undeclared war against Mexico.

I fear we live in an age in which students debating a Rockwell would be accused of "political correctness" for challenging him, would be told they were disrespectful simply for not sitting quietly while he lectured them.

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