Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Rachel Shabi and the Poor Free Speech Argument

This post is about this opinion article on Al Jazeera written by journalist Rachel Shabi.

I'm mostly writing this to work out my own thought on the article, so bear with me here. I know she's making a very poor argument, but I'm not sure exactly where things fall apart. I also think I might agree with her ultimate point, but I'm not entirely sure right now what her point is.

She says her article is spurred on by (but not actually about) this most recent Milo Yiannopoulos thing. The man of a thousand controversies has finally found a controversy that can't be ignored or explained away. Whatever. I haven't looked into it, so I really don't have an opinion one way or another. Anytime I hear his name in connection with something the only thoughts that go through my mind are, "Oh, Milo's saying stuff people don't like again. And people are getting upset about it again. Just like he wants them to. Guess he'll be a bit more popular now." Then I move on to something else.

According to the headline, Ms. Shabi is discussing "the hypocrisy of free speech." Naturally, I am going to click on that headline, though from what I have heard about editorial writing, Ms. Shabi almost certainly did not write that headline and it may not be the best way to sum up anything that she has to say within her article. So, we move on from the headline and studiously ignore it, like the Victorians ignored pregnancies.

She starts by giving a synopsis of the Milo situation - he had a book deal with Simon and Schuster, and was interviewed by Bill Maher. Essentially, he was being given platforms that have now been taken away since this whole "sex with younger boys" comment that I have yet to look up or care much about. Ms. Shabi says that this is "proof" "that far-right hate speech around Muslims and minorities gets absolved in a way that nobody would dream of doing if the subject were, just by way of stark illustration, child abuse."

For now, I will carefully avoid writing several paragraphs on the phrase "hate speech" and simply substitute what I hope she meant, which is "language that clearly indicates or directly insinuates that the speaker advocates racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination based on religion, age, fitness level, etc." Basically, it encompasses anything that indicates that someone might be inferior based on biology or religion. I will carefully not assume that she meant "hate speech" to have any legal significance until I have a clear indication otherwise.

A simplification of what she seems to be getting at here is that Milo's current seeming-downfall (which is likely another ploy to drum up his own popularity simply by making people unable to stop talking about him) "proves" that people who claim to be or are branded "conservative" (a word which no longer has any meaning whatsoever, along with it's supposed-opposite counterpart "liberal") will be welcomed to voice their opinions on a national stage if those opinions are either mostly non-controversial or the only controversy contained in the opinions are anti-minority, anti-female, or anti-Muslim.

If this is generalized one step further, such an action on the part of the news media and publishers makes absolute sense. "A private organization will often choose to allow a platform for controversial opinions, provided a significant percentage of their audience is likely to agree with those opinions." Let's say "significant percentage" means "over 10%." So, if at least 1 out of every 10 people who buy Simon and Schuster books are likely to think all Muslims should be banned from the US, a book whose most controversial statement is that all Muslims should be banned from the US will most likely be published by Simon and Schuster. Let's take it in the opposite direction politically and say that is at least 1 out of every 10 people who buy books from Simon and Schuster are likely to think that universal basic income is a good idea, then someone whose most controversial opinion is that universal basic income should be implemented immediately will most likely not be left unpublished merely for holding that opinion. The converse of this is that someone with a controversial opinion which less than 10% of an audience holds is likely to find a platform withheld. Anti-minority, anti-female, and anti-Muslim sentiments are unfortunately quite common in the US right now. Pro-child molestation sentiments are fortunately rather uncommon.

So, yes, she's right. But is this hypocrisy? Is it even a problem? I don't think so. It sounds like a prime example of the "marketplace of ideas" at work.

Ms. Shabi then says: "Those who had previously insisted we should debate the hate, not shut it down, seemed to vanish into thin air. It turns out that - who knew? - there are limits to free speech, after all, and even for the far-right."

That is an odd thing to say. 

I think the thing I find most frustrating about her entire argument  is that it is not based on a solid foundation of the definition of "free speech." 

(The thing I find second-most frustrating about her article is that she seems to be allowing her emotions to guide her writing rather than using her writing to guide her reader's emotions. It reads like a hastily put together rough draft written while angry and distracted. Now, mind you, all my blog posts are rough drafts. I read over them once to look for typos, but no more than that. But then, I'm not being published on Al Jazeera.)

There are two legitimate ways to view the concept "free speech." First, is the legal definition. Free speech is any speech that doesn't fall within an historically-recognized category of unprotected speech. (Reminder: "hate speech," which has no legal meaning, does not fall within one of those categories. And we're extremely unlikely to make a new category anytime soon. And you don't want that to happen, anyway.) The second definition, and the one I believe Ms. Shabi is most likely invoking here, is the cultural definition. "Free speech" is a cultural norm wherein our society and the individuals within it collectively put up with people saying things we disagree with so that, in turn, people will put up with us saying things they disagree with. It is a principle underlying our culture that we allow others to speak, choosing to either debate them or ignore them if we disagree. "Allowing others to speak" does not entail providing them a platform. It merely entails refraining from preventing them from speaking. We don't "shout down" others. We reject the "heckler's veto." It has nothing to do with the government, and the only consequence for not following this cultural norm is some sort of social backlash.

There has been a lot of confusion lately about the principle of free speech. Many people have been claiming that free speech requires private entities to provide a platform. Some people even seem to be claiming that free speech requires that an individual listen to and take seriously everyone who asks for their attention. It is far from uncommon to find people on Twitter claiming that their "free speech rights" have been violated when someone refuses to debate them. Obviously, this is complete nonsense. If everyone had to stop what they were doing, pay attention to, and debate everyone who sought their attention, the entire world would come to a grinding halt.

What Ms. Shabi fails to do in her article is distinguish between these various conflicting definitions of "free speech." she fails to establish the baseline definition she is using.

Furthermore, the implications of what Ms. Shabi is saying in the above quote make no sense. Bigotry is quite common in America. To convince the large number of people who subscribe to it in one form or another that they should change requires debate. Not everyone needs to stop and debate every idiot on Twitter, but to change minds, one must discuss why one is right. If the only voices out there are those of the bigots, the bigots win. If the only thing the anti-bigots are saying against them is little more than "bigots are wrong," the anti-bigots appear to have no valid arguments on their side and therefore appear to be themselves wrong. Reasoned debate is necessary in that situation. 

On the other hand, there are two reasons why it makes no sense to debate the merits of child molestation (to start with, read that sentence and hear how preposterous it sounds). First, it is an uncommonly-held opinion that child molestation is acceptable. Even many child molesters believe that it is wrong. I haven't bothered to look up any numbers here, but if a poll were done, even anonymously, I would be surprised if even 1% agreed that child molestation is OK. There is no logical reason to debate a concept that nearly everyone disagrees with. You would look insane - a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Secondly, pedophilia is a mental disorder. You can't debate a mental disorder. You might think depression is a terrible thing and no one should ever be depressed, but arguing that people should stop becoming depressed is just plain silly.


I would continue, but my attention span for this topic has officially run out. I might finish this at some other time, but don't count on it. If your attention span for this post has not yet run out, please continue the conversation either here or on your own blog.

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