Having lived all my life in a country swarming with messiahs, I have been mistaken, perhaps quite naturally, for one myself, especially by the others. It would be hard to imagine anything more preposterous. I am, in fact, the complete anti-Messiah, and detest converts almost as much as I detest missionaries. My writings, such as they are, have had only one purpose: to attain for H. L. Mencken that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk. Further than that, I have had no interest in the matter whatsoever. It has never given me any satisfaction to encounter one who said my notions had pleased him. My preference has always been for people with notions of their own. I have believed all my life in free thought and free speech — up to and including the utmost limits of the endurable.
H.L. Mencken, “For the Defense Written for the Associated Press, for use in my obituary”, 1940-11-20.
July 27, 2016
June 3, 2016
I don’t make statements like this a lot, and I don’t really feel like engaging in a huge debate. But there’s something I need to say regarding Charlie Hebdo.
God knows I have little in common with the folks who died. I doubt we’d have agreed on very much. Looking over some of their work, I find myself rolling my eyes a lot.
But I do agree on at least one matter with them — they should be free to speak their minds without fear.
I saw this tweet attached to one of the cartoons responding to the massacre:
“Still mortified about our fallen cartoonist colleagues, but free speech will always win.”
No it won’t.
The history of the human race demonstrates /very/ convincingly that free speech is the /exception/ to the human condition, not the rule. For millennia, those who spoke out were imprisoned or killed. Hell, you could say something that wasn’t even subversive, just inept and stupid, and be destroyed for committing the crime of lese majeste.
Make no mistake. What we have today is a level of freedom and self-determination on a scale unparalleled in the history of our species. We live in what is, in many ways, a golden age. So much so that we give tremendous credit to the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
But everyone always forgets the first half of that quote:
“Under the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.”
I’m not sure I know of anyplace that’s ruled by anyone “entirely great.” That adage wasn’t a statement of philosophy, as it was originally used: it was a statement of irony.
Don’t believe me? Look around. Notice that everywhere you go in the world, whoever happens to be ruling seems to have a great many swords.
Still, the idea contained within the quote is a powerful one — that intangible ideas, thoughts, and beliefs can have tremendous power. And that’s why we should be paying close attention.
After all, intangible fear can be mightier than the sword, too. Hell, it has been for quite a while now. Don’t believe me? Try getting on an airplane without taking your shoes off in the security line. While you’re doing that, try cracking a joke about having a knife.
That’s the power of fear, guys.
We. Are. In. Danger.
Jim Butcher, “Freedom v Fear”, jimbutcher, 2015-01-07.
May 30, 2016
As Orwell noted in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” He was speaking, of course, about control of written history, of what we know to have happened — and thereby how we allocate our political support. It is not a small matter if the company that is coming to be the nation’s most significant source of news skews that news toward its own political preferences. In fact, it’s just a tiny bit chilling. Government censorship is, of course, terrible. But censorship by a small group of unelected young people is not all that much more appealing.
This problem existed already on another scale. The socioeconomic, racial and political homogeneity of the media is a problem, one that I have written about before. That said, those media were operating in a competitive landscape, and no one outlet really had all that much market power. In each medium there were outlets of different sorts of political leanings, and more of them with the rise of the Internet.
Facebook, on the other hand, dominates all other social media outlets for news to an extent that no print outlet ever dominated the American landscape. The only arguable parallel is the big television networks from the 1950s to the 1980s, and at least there were three of them, rather than one. Besides, for most of that time they operated under the Fairness Doctrine — in other words, under heavy-handed government interference to limit their power to shape the national debate.
The greater danger is that liberals will end up falling back on an argument that is gaining more and more currency on the left: that this biasing of information is not merely an unfortunately insoluble problem, or so minor that it doesn’t make much difference in our politics, but that it is actually an affirmative good. These are the people who embrace Orwell’s dictum and say: “Yes, absolutely, the left should have control over what people are allowed to hear and know, because that’s how we’re going to build a better future.” The first argument may be unsatisfying. But the second is … downright Orwellian.
Megan McArdle, “Facebook Dislikes Conservatives, and That’s OK”, Bloomberg View, 2016-05-11.
May 16, 2016
I rarely agree with much that Barack Obama says, but I can’t disagree with this part of his speech to the graduating class at Rutgers University this weekend:
President Obama strongly condemned the rising anti-intellectual streak on the right — but also on the left — in his remarks at Rutgers University’s spring commencement on Sunday.
He harshly attacked the policies and rhetoric of Donald Trump (without mentioning him by name), asserting that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s deliberate ignorance is destructive.
“That’s not challenging political correctness,” said Obama. “That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”
But he reserved some time at the end of his speech to also criticize students who are too “fragile” to listen to people whose opinions offend them. He said it was a mistake for students to seek to disinvite speakers with whom they disagree.
“I know a couple years ago some folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement,” said Obama. “I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration. But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former secretary of state or shutting out what she had to say, I believe that is misguided.”
The answer to bad speech is more speech, Obama continued.
February 27, 2016
In Spiked, Kevin Rooney tells the tale of a young soccer fan who faces jail time for joining hundreds of other fans in singing a song:
Imagine the scene: a young man is led away in handcuffs to begin a prison sentence as his mother is left crying in the courtroom. He is 19 years old, has a good job, has no previous convictions, and has never been in trouble before. These facts cut no ice with the judge, however, as the crime is judged so heinous that only a custodial sentence is deemed appropriate. The young man in question was found guilty of singing a song that mocked and ridiculed a religious leader and his followers.
So where might this shocking story originate? Was it Iran? Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan? Perhaps it was Russia, a variation of the Pussy Riot saga, without the worldwide publicity? No, the country in question is Scotland and the young man is a Rangers fan. He joined in with hundreds of his fellow football fans in singing ‘offensive songs’ which referred to the pope and the Vatican and called Celtic fans ‘Fenian bastards’.
Such songs are part and parcel of the time-honoured tradition of Rangers supporters. And I have yet to meet a Celtic fan who has been caused any harm or suffering by such colourful lyrics. Yet in sentencing Connor McGhie to three months in a young offenders’ institution, the judge stated that ‘the extent of the hatred [McGhie] showed took my breath away’. He went on: ‘Anybody who participates in this disgusting language must be stopped.’
Several things strike me about this court case. For a start, if Rangers fans singing rude songs about their arch rivals Celtic shocks this judge to the core, I can only assume he does not get out very much or knows little of life in Scotland. Not that his ignorance of football culture is a surprise — the chattering classes have always viewed football-related banter with contempt. But what is new about the current climate is that in Scotland, the middle-class distaste for the behaviour of football fans has become enshrined in law.
H/T to Natalie Solent for the link.
February 9, 2016
From a short interview in The Economist:
I probably wouldn’t have imitated the grandiloquent style of a notorious former slave holder. And I would have been a bit more humble about the “Citizens of Cyberspace” creating social contracts to deal with bad behavior online. The fact remains there is not much one can do about bad behavior online except to take faith that the vast majority of what goes on there is not bad behavior. Yeah, I hate spam, and viruses, and worms, and surveillance [by America’s National Security Agency], but the fact remains that if you can censor one of these bad behaviors, you’ve endowed yourself with the ability to censor almost anything you don’t like online. This is not an ability I wish to extend to any existing government in the physical world. If we assert it, what’s to prevent Saudi Arabia from doing the same.
And I would make it more obviously clear that I knew that cyberspace was not sublimely removed from the physical world, with which it has exactly the same relationship that the mind has with the body: deeply interdependent but qualitatively different. I think that point often got lost.
Over the decades, it has been continuously fashionable to make a straw man of my declaration, to hoist it up as the sort of woolly-headed hippie nonsense you’d expect from techno-utopians like me. This is done largely by people who have never read it, or take a strong interest in believing that government is about to come stomping into town, there to “civilize cyberspace.
November 28, 2015
Brendan O’Neill reminds us that being a supporter of free speech requires you to support those who don’t always agree with you or express themselves in ways you’re comfortable with:
It’s the 21st century and Europe is meant to be an open, enlightened continent, and yet a man has just been sentenced to jail — actual jail — for something that he said. Will there be uproar? It’s unlikely. For the man is Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the French comedian, and what he says — that Jews are scoundrels and the Holocaust is a fiction — is deeply unpleasant. Yet if we’re serious about freedom of speech, if we are truly committed to ensuring everyone has the liberty to think and say whatever they please, then the jailing of Dieudonné should outrage us as much as the attempts to shut down Charlie Hebdo or the jailing of a Saudi blogger for ridiculing religious belief. We should be saying ‘Je Suis Dieudonné’.
Due to the regimen of hate-speech laws in 21st-century Europe — which police and punish everything from Holocaust denial to Christian denunciations of homosexuality — Dieudonné has been having run-ins with the law for years. In 2009, a French court fined him €10,000 for inviting a Holocaust denier on stage during a gig. In March this year, a French court gave him a two-month suspended prison sentence for saying he sympathised with the attack on Charlie Hebdo and with the anti-Semite who murdered Jews at a Parisian supermarket a few days later. Now, this week, a Belgian court has given him an actual prison sentence: a court in Liège found him guilty of incitement to hatred for making anti-Semitic comments during a recent show and condemned him to two months in jail.
In all these cases, Dieudonné has been punished simply for thinking and saying certain things. This is thought-policing. It’s a PC, spat-and-polished version of the Inquisition, which was likewise in the business of raining punishment upon those who said things the authorities considered wicked. To fine or imprison people for expressing their beliefs is always a scandal, regardless of whether we like or hate their beliefs. Dieudonné really believes the Holocaust is a myth, as much as a Christian fundamentalist believes that people who have gay sex will go to hell or American liberals believe Hillary Clinton will make a good president. He is wrong, massively, poisonously so; but then, so are those Christians about gays and those liberals about Hillary. If every person who says wrong, malicious or stupid things were carted off to jail, Europe’s streets would be emptied overnight.
It is incredibly illiberal for the state to police hatred. Hatred might not be big or clever, but it’s only an emotion. And officialdom has no business telling us what we may feel — or think, or say, or write. Allowing the state to monitor belief represents a brutal reversal of the Enlightenment itself. John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), set the tone for the Enlightenment as an attempt to ‘settle the bounds’ between the business of government and the business of morality. ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of every particular man’s goods and person’, he wrote. That ideal is now turned on its head. Across Europe, governments ‘provide for the truth of opinions’, and in the process they silence those they don’t like and patronise the rest of us, reducing us to imbeciles incapable of working out what is right and wrong, and of speaking out against the wrong.
All hate-speech laws should be scrapped. Dieudonné should be freed. And a continent whose governments argue against the imprisonment of bloggers in Saudi Arabia while jailing comedians at home needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
November 25, 2015
At least, she’s not planning on apologizing for making a few (not-even-PG-rated) jokes about Star Wars. Her critics, in addition to pouring scorn and hatred on her for daring to joke about such a holy topic, also threaten her life:
Now, I received a few death threats right after I posted the aforementioned tweet — which, by the way, was why I was saying Star Wars fans were “crazy” in the first place. Overall, though, it wasn’t a big deal, and I kind of forgot about it.
Then, this week, one Star Wars super-super-super fan who calls himself “AlphaOmegaSin” made a ten-minute (!) video brutally ripping me apart.
The YouTube comments on his manifesto were even better. You know, stuff like:
justin 12 hours ago
Maybe a SW nerd needs to sneak into her dark room, dressed like her bf, rape her, but she doesn’t know it’s rape because she thinks it’s her BF.
needmypunk 16 hours ago
I hope she gets acid thrown in her pretty little face.
sdgaara2 1 day ago
Wouldn’t it be great if she was beaten to death with “space nerd sticks”
Guardian978 22 hours ago
I want to cut that blonde c***’s face off and stick it to a thermal detonator. What a network full of c***s.
dethklok21 1 day ago
Wow what a f***ing thunder c***. I hope this b**** gets hit by a f***ing car.
Mikki Yeong 1 day ago
those death treaths are approved by me look at that b**** it’s a typical i wear big glasses to look smart but in fact i’m stupid as f*** btwthose glasses used to be only weared by nerds stupid h**
TheValefor1984 1 day ago
We should get her address then bury her a** in Star Wars memorabilia lol
TheGreenStreak452 1 day ago
I just want to burn Fox News to the ground and all their stupid employees.
[Asterisks not in the original.]
To be fair, AlphaOmegaSin did say that he denounced threats on my life because “Just because you’re a f***ing idiot doesn’t mean that you should have to die.”
A problem with being a free speech absolutist is that you have to accept that some members of the community are going to use it to be as grotesquely offensive as they possibly can. Way to live down to expectations, Star Wars fans.
November 12, 2015
Reaction isn’t a conspiracy theory; it’s not suggesting there’s a secret campaign for organized repression. To steal an example from the other side of the aisle, it’s positing something more like patriarchy. Patriarchy doesn’t have an actual Patriarch coordinating men in their efforts to keep down women. It’s just that when lots of people share some really strong cultural norms, they manage to self-organize into a kind of immune system for rejecting new ideas. And Western society just happens to have a really strong progressivist immune system ready to gobble you up if you say anything insufficiently progressive.
And so the main difference between modern liberal democracy and older repressive societies is that older societies repressed things you liked, but modern liberal democracies only repress things you don’t like. Having only things you don’t like repressed looks from the inside a lot like there being no repression at all.
The good Catholic in medieval Spain doesn’t feel repressed, even when the Inquisition drags away her neighbor. She feels like decent people have total freedom to worship whichever saint they want, total freedom to go to whatever cathedral they choose, total freedom to debate who the next bishop should be – oh, and thank goodness someone’s around to deal with those crazy people who are trying to damn the rest of us to Hell. We medieval Spaniards are way too smart to fall for the balance fallacy!
Wait, You Mean The Invisible Multi-Tentacled Monster That Has Taken Over All Our Information Sources Might Be Trying To Mislead Us?
Since you are a citizen of a repressive society, you should be extremely skeptical of all the information you get from schools, the media, and popular books on any topic related to the areas where active repression is occurring. That means at least politics, history, economics, race, and gender. You should be especially skeptical of any book that’s praised as “a breath of fresh air” or “a good counter to the prevailing bias”, as books that garner praise in the media are probably of the “We need fifty Stalins!” variety.
Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.
November 9, 2015
These are the chocolate sipping onesie boys of the world, who emote without thought and cringe at perceived aggressions by people who challenge their certainties. Brutality, bullying, rape, they cry. And in a polite society, their approach tends to shut down any talk.
Its the flip side of the Online Forum Effect where there is a tourettes-like tendency of some to bring up in any conversation and any occasion their pet political viewpoints. They do it loudly and angrily, and become so unpleasant that everyone around them learns to just shut up about some topics in the hopes that they won’t provoke another episode that ruins everything for everyone. And in the process, they win by silencing any dissent or alternate viewpoint. By not allowing anyone to gainsay or question their absolute certainty on a topic, all that everyone is left with is their regular outbursts on every subject.
And in time, that wears down all but the most strong of wills by the Big Lie. After all, I don’t hear anyone disagreeing with them or showing how they are wrong, and they wouldn’t be so very strong and insistent about this if it wasn’t at least somewhat true. They aren’t crazy or lying all the time, nobody would do that…
And until this changes, until this atmosphere at institutions of higher learning changes, until this approach toward academia and culture is different, then the entire exercise of education is pointless. How can you expect anyone to get an honest, valuable education in this kind of atmosphere? What kind of worldview and what sort of behavior is being inculcated by this kind of attitude? Nothing healthy.
Christopher Taylor, “SOCIAL JUSTICE KITTENS”, Word Around the Net, 2014-10-22.
November 6, 2015
This slow erosion of freedom of expression has come about in ways both social and legal. Before the 1960s, arguments for censorship tended to focus on sexual morality, pornography and obscenity. The censors themselves were usually depicted as benighted moral conservatives — priggish maiden aunts. Freedom of political speech, however, was regarded as sacrosanct by all. As legal restraints on obscenity fell away, however, freedom of political speech began to come under attack from a different kind of censor — college administrators, ethnic-grievance groups, gay and feminist advocates.
The new censors advanced such arguments as that “free speech can never be an excuse for racism.” These arguments are essentially exercises both in begging the question and in confusing it. While the principle of free speech cannot justify racism any more than it can disprove racism, it is the only principle that can allow us to judge whether or not particular speech is racist. Thus the censor’s argument should be reversed: “Accusations of racism can never be an excuse for prohibiting free speech.”
Meanwhile, the narrowly legal grounds for restricting speech changed, too. Since the 18th century, the basic legal justifications for restricting political speech and publication were direct incitement to harm, national security, maintaining public order, libel, etc. Content wasn’t supposed to be considered (though it was sometimes smuggled in under other headings).
Today, content is increasingly the explicit justification for restricting speech. The argument used, especially in colleges, is that “words hurt.” Thus, universities, parliaments, courts and various international bodies intervene promiscuously to restrict hurtful or offensive speech — with the results described above. In the new climate, hurtful speech is much more likely to be political speech than obscene speech.
John O’Sullivan, “No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech”, Wall Street Journal, 2014-10-31.
October 27, 2015
Governments began to treat those threatened for their opinions almost as harshly as those attacking them. Dutch legal authorities tried repeatedly, if unsuccessfully, to prosecute Mr. Wilders for “inciting hatred” with his film. He was briefly prohibited from entering Britain. In 2006, Tony Blair’s government passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act — a kind of “blasphemy lite” law — ostensibly designed to protect all religions against threatening expression but generally understood as intended to limit hostile criticism of Islam. Both the U.S. and the European Union have entered into a dialogue in recent years with the 56 states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is seeking an international law prohibiting blasphemy. In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the OIC that, while the First Amendment prevented the U.S. from prohibiting speech, the administration might still “use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming so that people don’t feel they have the support to do what we abhor.”
Admittedly, it is difficult to draw a clear line between criticism of an Islamic belief and an attack on Muslims who believe it. If you denounce a belief as absurd, you are implicitly criticizing the believers as credulous fools. Christians have to endure explicit denunciations of their faith all the time from such writers as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. And so they should. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t listen to hellfire sermons from atheists.
Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in a multifaith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it.
It isn’t just some Muslims who want the false comfort of censoring disagreeable opinions. Far from it. Gays, Christians, feminists, patriots, foreign despots, ethnic activists — or organizations claiming to speak for them — are among the many groups seeking relief from the criticism of others through the courts, the legislatures and the public square.
John O’Sullivan, “No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech”, Wall Street Journal, 2014-10-31.
October 17, 2015
Published on 13 Oct 2015
Ken White, founder of the influential group blog Popehat, tells FIRE how he got interested in the First Amendment and discusses anonymous speech on the Internet.
White, who writes for Popehat on a variety of issues, including the First Amendment, criminal justice, and the legal system, said a college project at Stanford University “during … one of the upsurges of controversy on campus about speech codes and speech issues,” opened his eyes to the nuances of the First Amendment.
“I wound up doing my senior honors thesis in college with a law school professor on the subject of legal restrictions on hate speech,” White said. “I thought it was very much emblematic of a very American problem, and that is: How do we express our disapproval — our moral disapproval — for bad things like bigotry, while not restricting liberties?”
Popehat seems to be a space created to do exactly that. The forum has evolved into a blog the contributors describe as a “group complaint” about “whatever its authors want.”
That freedom hasn’t always come so easily for White, who blogged anonymously for more than five years due to concerns his honest blogging might harm his career. He still thinks anonymous speech provides both benefits and drawbacks.
“I think the right to anonymous speech is very central in the First Amendment and in American life,” said White. “Throughout American history, people have said unpopular things, incendiary things, politically dangerous things behind the shield of anonymity. A lot of bad things come with that. There’s some really terrible, immoral, anonymous behavior on the Internet.”
White said there’s also a risk to writing anonymously, and that even while he benefitted from posting behind the security of an online persona, he supports the rights of others to try and discover his true identity. Eventually, White said he gave up the pretext and started blogging under his own name.
For more from White, including why free speech “catchphrases” harm First Amendment discourse, watch the above video.
October 12, 2015
Ginni Thomas discusses free speech under attack with FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff.
“The battle over free speech is not partisan,” says a proud liberal whose organization helps a wide variety of clients facing free speech threats. He has spent fifteen years in the field as a fearless advocate who worked at the ACLU before coming to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Greg Lukianoff, the President and CEO of FIRE, starts this 20 minute video interview for The Daily Caller by assessing global issues. “The international situation for freedom of speech is dire,” says Lukianoff, focusing on the emergence of blasphemy laws to not offend Islam.
This harks back to a previous Daily Caller interview with Steve Coughlin, author of “Catastrophic Failure,” who discussed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Ten Year Program of Action to make Islamic speech codes the global speech standard. In America, this would entail making free speech conditional on not defaming Islam, a religion of less than 1 percent of the US population.
H/T to David Thompson for the link.
September 5, 2015
Network effects are wonderful for a technology firm when it’s growing. Early movers can gain an advantage that is very hard to displace, because once everyone else is using Microsoft Word or a Playstation, there’s a cost to switching away. On the other hand, investors (and antitrust lawyers) often assume that network effects are more durable than they actually are. In fact, they can be quite fickle. Once your network starts shrinking, the collapse can be sudden, because every node that gets subtracted from your network makes it less valuable to the people who remain. Networks that start growing often start shrinking — and a modest decline can quickly prompt a stampede for the exits. Anyone remember MySpace?
And so the problem that Reddit has is this: Having attracted a bunch of people on the promise that they could say anything they wanted, the company risks alienating those people, shrinking the network and shrinking itself right out of existence. Reddit would probably be a better place if the fat-shaming hobbyists and racist trolls were surgically excised. But they won’t be; they’ll be forced out bluntly, along with others, and that will drive away many of the users Reddit would like to keep.
Deciding what is offensive is inherently a political act, because one man’s deep truth is often another person’s deep offense. To take one obvious example, do you treat conservative Christians who say terrible things about gay rights activists the same as gay rights activists who say terrible things about conservative Christians? Men’s rights activists the same as feminists?
We are all more attuned to the offenses against our own beliefs than we are to what may seem terribly offensive to others. And with the culture war raging hot, it is going to be very hard to make choices that don’t look as if you’re taking sides. Even if you try to be scrupulously fair, chances are that you will miss something, causing one side to understandably point out: “See, they crack down on us, but not on those equally offensive other people!”
Reddit is trying to avoid this by splitting the baby in half: designating much of the worst content as questionable, and then segregating it, but not banning it. It’s far from clear, however, that this compromise will work. I don’t think a lot of people are going to mourn when the racist subreddits are segregated. But those are among the most notorious cases precisely because most people can agree that racist epithets are not okay. The border cases are likely to be more numerous, and the decisions will convince some users that Reddit is not for them.
Megan McArdle, “Policing Reddit Could Kill Reddit”, Bloomberg View, 2015-07-17.