Free Speech or Die?
May 11, 2018 6:12 PM   Subscribe

As a man who places morality above the legal system, I cannot hide behind the First Amendment for my argument. People of color have always had our freedom of speech suppressed in America; this is not new to us. We haven’t been able to depend on the government to protect our freedoms, and we have had to protect ourselves from the government itself. Slavery legally coexisted with the First Amendment for more than 100 years. Cry me a river. -- Talib Kweli on Free Speech absolutism.
posted by lkc (34 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
I appreciate this post thank you.

The Real Dangerous Ideas
I want to suggest a hypothesis that may sound outlandish: What if the whole narrative is backwards? What if people who think they are voicing suppressed dangerous ideas are actually the ones suppressing the truly dangerous ideas? What if this effort to condemn the irrational excesses of political correctness is in part a way of avoiding having to engage with its arguments and listen carefully to its advocates? What if people who seem to be “challenging” a dissent-stifling power structure are actually defending one? Now, I’m not saying this is the case; I’m just asking some questions. But let’s, for a moment, because we are rational and skeptical, consider the possibility that the conservative narrative is totally upside-down. Let’s picture a topsy-turvy world in which Donald Trump is the president and left ideas are actually marginal. Stretch your powers of imagination and consider the following hypotheticals:
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:18 PM on May 11 [34 favorites]

What today’s right-wing free speech advocates are truly advocating is for Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacist organizations and sympathizers to have additional, special rights the rest of us do not have: the right to say whatever they want without dissent, argument, pushback, or consequence.

YES. Goose-stepping morons of every creed want to shriek their foul opinions and be met with respectful silence. This is what their conception of free speech is - one single voice screaming and silence from anyone deemed inferior. It’s not enough for them to say whatever they want, they want to win, and winning to them is erasing everyone else except other white dudes.
posted by supercrayon at 7:32 PM on May 11 [54 favorites]

That was very good.
posted by Grandysaur at 7:33 PM on May 11

I appreciate this post thank you.

I wanted to say this too - I'm bookmarking it to share around the next time someone brings up... well, a lot of very bad ideas, here or elsewhere. I've been struggling to articulate some of this lately and the author of the piece did a much better job than I was ever liable to.
posted by mordax at 7:43 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]

Slavery legally coexisted with the First Amendment for more than 100 years.
This is of course not wrong, but really the First Amendment was pretty much a dead letter for the duration of slavery and reconstruction -- at least by the modern standards of American free speech; the Federal court only began to shift toward its stronger interpretation after World War 1.
posted by ntk at 9:13 PM on May 11 [8 favorites]

"when it comes to oppression, intention doesn’t matter—results do"

oooooooweeeee in a million years i could not have said it better. (and he's a damn good rapper too.)
posted by wibari at 10:06 PM on May 11 [12 favorites]

people often forget- the basis of the US is not the bill of rights. the basis is that all should have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. the bill of rights, including the 1st amdt, are MEANS to that end and often necessary to it, but we mustn't ever elevate the means above the end.
posted by wibari at 10:09 PM on May 11 [25 favorites]

What's even more ridiculous is that the Nazis and Neo-Confederates who probably sometimes actually manage to convince themselves that they're just super-hard-core in their reverence of free speech are not even remotely "absolutists" about free speech. The most glaring departure from any sort of absolute free speech is the intellectual property regime: a system of international government-supported monopolies that furnishes ownership of speech. (Whether it should exist or not it's absurd to style yourself as some sort of radical in your degree of veneration for free speech rights if you support a system for government-enforced private ownership of speech.)

If one of these groups that organizes "free speech" rallies in public places where Nazi and Confederate flags are flown wanted to hold a screening of The Song of the South during the rally, they couldn't. According to the internet, Disney doesn't license it for public exhibition in North America. But you don't hear them complaining about that, of course: their complaints are about things like "political correctness". (Not the kind of political correctness that results in gasps and pearl-clutching and denunciations of Michelle Wolf's jokes at the WHCD, mind you—just the sort that insists on respect and equality for people who aren't white-male-Anglo-cis-het Christians.)
posted by XMLicious at 11:23 PM on May 11 [12 favorites]

I’ve long been basically a free speech absolutist, within the confines of what the courts have defined that as over the years. I was on the board of the ACLU of Virginia when we sued Charlottesville to force the city to allow the Nazi rally on August 12. As I was also on the other side of that case (convincing the city to yank the permit), I recused myself from the organization’s proceedings on the topic, after warning everybody of what would happen if the event was then happened.

The line I drew then, and feel more strongly about than ever, is that the First Amendment can’t be a fig leaf for Nazis to murder people. I think that’s a reasonable exception. If your advocacy for a constitutional right is so absolutist that others can predict where, when, and by whom it will be used to murder others, that seems like a line that we all ought to be able to agree on.

After August 12, the ACLU initially repudiated my position, but some brave staffers spoke up, a few chapters went into open rebellions (yay, California!), and it’s now the organization’s position that they shouldn’t defend people who want to exercise a constitutional right while armed, or something like that. (The Second Amendment is conveniently ignored by the ACLU.) And yet, just a few months ago, I got a Google News alert for my name: the chair of the ACLU was attacking me in an interview, and doing a 180° on the organization’s position here. I hope she doesn’t speak for the ACLU as a whole, but idk.

Anyway, anybody who looks at the events of August 12 and says “yes, we must protect this speech” is an asshole.
posted by waldo at 2:24 AM on May 12 [40 favorites]

I made it half way through this piece before stopping to look in the mirror. I asked my Cuban American of partial African descent relfection "are you anti-human? Racist? Radicalized by your support for Trump after having voted for Clinton?".

"Nope," said he. "This is the flip side of those on the right who reason that because all Muslims read those jihad passages in the Koran then all Muslims are potential if not actual terrorists. It's silly. There will always be those on the fringe who will abuse a text , speech or in this case, a right. This guy assumes most people are sheep. They'll see the marching and swastika waving and the hearts of innumerable white people will be radicalized. Of course, that hasn't happened. Nor will it. Now go have breakfast."

And so I did. In a hole in the wall joint packed with white southerners who said "good morning!" to me while sitting alongside Mexicans and African Americans.
posted by Formfactor at 5:47 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]

Formfactor - people may not become radicalized by taking in fringe views, but if that ground is being watered and those views are being normalized, will they fight it if it gets worse? if internment camps for others spread to more of the population than immigrants? if laws are used to restrict certain kinds of citizens? (i'm not talking about the application of laws which is clearly uneven, but the actual words and intention)

or, will they go along because they're not in the targeted groups and even benefit by the new policies?
posted by kokaku at 5:59 AM on May 12 [12 favorites]

The problem is that many on the far right, the side adjacent to white nationalist and Nazi types like Christian, use the principle of free speech as an excuse to say whatever they want without consequence. Like Christian, they think free speech applies only to what they want to say and hear.
This, over and over again.
e.g. Alice Weidel ranted against political correctness, then a satirist jokingly called her "nazi slut", then she sued the guy because that's just a bit too much freedom of speech.
posted by farlukar at 6:11 AM on May 12 [12 favorites]

Kokaku, those guys have been marching around for decades and not only are they're even fringier today than they were 20 years ago, they're not convincing many beyond the same types: a relatively few young, aimless men. There are no internment camps I'm aware of. And the ones who keep aiming at restricting certain kinds of citizens are the likes of Talib Kwele who's piece is shot through with disdain and swift categorization of those who disagree with him.
posted by Formfactor at 6:12 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

There are no internment camps I'm aware of.

Then educate yourself.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:19 AM on May 12 [29 favorites]

Zombieflanders, I'm open to learning about these internment camps. Where are they?
posted by Formfactor at 6:22 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Kokaku, those guys have been marching around for decades and not only are they're even fringier today than they were 20 years ago, they're not convincing many beyond the same types: a relatively few young, aimless men[...]And the ones who keep aiming at restricting certain kinds of citizens are the likes of Talib Kwele who's piece is shot through with disdain and swift categorization of those who disagree with him.

This isn't even remotely true, on either the impact of hate groups or that it's the eeeeeevil leftists who are the real baddies: posted by zombieflanders at 6:33 AM on May 12 [40 favorites]

Zombieflanders, I'm open to learning about these internment camps. Where are they?

Here's a map.
posted by eviemath at 6:45 AM on May 12 [30 favorites]

Joseph Arpaio was famous for running an internment camp as part of his incarceration strategy.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:58 AM on May 12 [19 favorites]

the basis is that all should have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Or, as I think of it, "Purfuit of happineff"
posted by mikelieman at 6:59 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Zombieflanders, I'm reading through the links as carefully as possible. Not ignoring you...
posted by Formfactor at 7:08 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

...those guys have been marching around for decades and not only are they're even fringier today than they were 20 years ago, they're not convincing many beyond the same types: a relatively few young, aimless men.

Results from the World Values Survey's U.S. respondents (from a 2015 article, back before making lists of Enemies of the People became a thing American presidents do):
According to a growing share of Americans, the answer is yes. Back in 1995, the well-respected World Values Survey, which studies representative samples of citizens in almost 100 countries, asked Americans for the first time whether they approved of the idea of “having the army rule.” One in 15 agreed. Since then, that number has steadily grown, to one in six.

To be sure, that still leaves five out of six Americans who would rather not have a military coup. And of course, not every American who tells a pollster that he would rather have the army in charge would actually support a coup. But the willingness to countenance alternative forms of government, if only by a small minority, reveals a deep disillusionment with democracy, one that should concern everyone living in an advanced democracy, including those in Europe and Asia.

The generational differences are striking. When the World Values Survey asked Americans how important it was for them to live in a democracy, citizens born before World War II were the most adamant. On a scale of one to ten, 72 percent assigned living in a democracy a ten, the highest possible value. Among many of their children and grandchildren, however, democracy no longer commands the same devotion. A little over half of Americans born in the postwar boom gave maximum importance to living in a democracy. Among those born since the 1980s, less than 30 percent did.
Fascist and totalitarian attitudes are not getting fringier: completely the opposite is the case. Just at the moment surveillance and technological mediation of communication between us are becoming ubiquitous, wouldn't you know.

Now is not the point in history to be fucking around and getting all wishy-washy about what free speech actually means, or giving the benefit of the doubt for etiquette's sake that maybe deep down unabashed Nazis or neo-Confederates really believe in freedoms and free speech, as though this is all just a fucking tea party or something.
posted by XMLicious at 7:22 AM on May 12 [27 favorites]

Of course, that hasn't happened. Nor will it.

Already did. I'm mixed race too, and I also grew up thinking it wasn't any big deal largely because I grew up almost entirely around white people. Nobody hurt me for being brown when I was little. Very few people commented on it at all. I didn't think racism was over or anything, but I thought it was a small problem too. Something for other places and other people, and not me and the whites who were cheerful at breakfast with me. I was also a card-carrying member of the ACLU in my early twenties. (Literally. I kept notes for the local branch.)

It's only as I've gotten older and watched this closely that I've seen how this teems beneath the surface. I know white people with mixed children, ones who have been very kind to me personally, who still sincerely talk about how 'the only good n***** is a dead one.' People I once trusted voted for Trump eagerly because he claimed Mexican immigrants were rapists. I used to live pretty close to Ferguson, and people I trusted there... some of them went and attended Blue Lives Matter rallies, took selfies at the site like it was a big joke after someone was killed in the street. I think the most telling incident was, one man I'd been passingly friends with for six years said on Facebook, 'I don't see what the big deal is about one dead kid.'

That's the face of the problem. It's not about misfits with tiki torches, lone wolves. It's about the significant, invisible portion of the population that doesn't see the problem with dead children, as long as those children don't look like them.

It's easy to be fooled because one-on-one, people are mostly fine... but it's not because those people are against this, it's because oppression relies on complacency. It doesn't need all white people to take up tiki torches or man camps. That can be done by a relatively small number of people. The worst of them only need the rest to shrug and ask 'what's the big deal about one dead kid?' each time.

These terrorists have that. They commit crimes, and the vast bulk of people shrug, or don't even notice at all.

And it's true this is not a unique problem to white people. Any group can take part in this. Hell, a girl I was friends with growing up - same high school, same programs - she was the sweetest person. So kind. Her grandparents met in a Japanese internment camp, and her family still tell stories about it. She was in favor of Trump subjecting immigrants to inhumane conditions herself based on the same arguments that were used to persecute her family even though she should recognize the lies for what they are.

You are right that every group has people like this, but you're wrong about how it works. It's a mistake to let any single demographic capture too much structural power: no one group should own the police, the courts, the legislature, not because the rest of us will become their army, but because too many of us will look the other way.
posted by mordax at 8:21 AM on May 12 [59 favorites]

“These are just a small number of mostly harmless idiots who can’t persuade anybody of anything” is basically what the federal judge ruled on the night of August 11. Simultaneous to that ruling being published, hundreds of Nazis were staging a torchlit march across the grounds of UVA, which culminated in dousing a small group of counterprotesters in lighter fluid and attempting to burn them to death, while beating them with sticks. One guy I know was beaten so badly he was hospitalized with a stroke.

And then, of course, the next day happened. After three people died, and dozens were injured, Trump endorsed the Nazis as “good people,” and that’s how polite society learned that it’s A-OK to call for the extermination of millions of Americans.

It’s amazing to me that it is necessary to explain this to any American.

You know who damned well learned how wrong they were? The judiciary. One by one, these Nazis are being brought to justice, as people comb through video and the public identifies each of them. Judges are giving severe sentences to every one of them, applying whatever the harshest available charges are. On August 11, that never would have happened. But now they get that a powerful example must be set in every case, because Nazis are a horrific malignancy in our society that is rapidly metasticizing. We need to see this and act on it before something really horrific happens.
posted by waldo at 11:48 AM on May 12 [35 favorites]

There will always be those on the fringe who will abuse a text , speech or in this case, a right. This guy assumes most people are sheep. They'll see the marching and swastika waving and the hearts of innumerable white people will be radicalized. Of course, that hasn't happened. Nor will it.

In some ways, US society is better than it was back in, say, the 1980s. What we are witnessing currently is a strong wave of backlash against the bit of progress that has been made on social justice issues recently, like the 1980s was a backlash against the social justice movements of the 1960s and '70s. The thing is, we can't just dismiss backlashes. Sometimes they win - witness, for example, the triumph of Jim Crow over the progressive programs of the Reconstruction Era after the US Civil War; or McCarthyism after the progress on racial and labor rights in the early 1900's (last time there was as major a resurgence of white supremacy and xenophobia) - and then there is another long and difficult struggle to regain lost progress and attempt to gain a little bit more ground than the last time around. Yes, decades later in each of the previous cases social movements were able to make some more gains than the previous iteration; but in the mean time many, many people suffered and died unnecessarily. Backlashes have to be taken seriously and fought.
posted by eviemath at 1:12 PM on May 12 [19 favorites]

[One deleted; if you have a point to make, better to just make it, rather than wrapping it in patronizing stuff that will cause a needless derail.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:49 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

I was going yes ... yes ... ok .... until I got to this bit:
What if there wasn’t a new Cold War? What if Russia wasn’t our enemy? What if highly credentialed intellectuals were actually trafficking in dangerous conspiracies?
Yeah, no. I don't think the "Cold War" analogy is illuminating, but there's very widespread evidence of aggressive Russian acts that are calculated to be below the level of open conflict, and tactical positioning to prepare for open conflict. You could call that a Cold War, or a low-intensity regular war, or just Russia being Russia. It's enormously unlikely that these reports are just lies promoted by "highly credentialed intellectuals" to further a conspiracy. E.g., Russia's invasion of Crimea, which was preceded by years of Russian posturing, gaslighting, infiltration, invasion allegedly in support of a Russian minority, then occupation as a fait accompli. If that's fake news then it's bloody impressive.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:49 PM on May 12 [8 favorites]

In a hole in the wall joint packed with white southerners who said "good morning!" to me while sitting alongside Mexicans and African Americans.

It is possible to be friendly in face to face interactions while still supporting racist policies that do great damage at a macro level. The face of racism in the US is not so much the KKK but the "well meaning" majority that do things like underfunding schools attended by minority kids, creating laws (or uneven enforcement) that disproportionality affect minorities, or electing a regime that deports hundreds of thousands of El Salvadorian refugees or disenfranchises African American voters. The language that is used by both the common politician and the fringes goes to creating an environment where this is considered acceptable rather than shameful.
posted by Candleman at 6:44 PM on May 12 [15 favorites]

In a hole in the wall joint packed with white southerners who said "good morning!" to me while sitting alongside Mexicans and African Americans.

Because in their eyes you were behaving yourself. See what would happen if you "step out of line".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:58 PM on May 12 [11 favorites]

This has been going on for awhile. I like Jelani Cobb's Race and the Free-Speech Diversion:

And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.

During the debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Senator J. Lister Hill, of Alabama, stood up and declared his opposition to the bill by arguing that the protection of black rights would necessarily infringe upon the rights of whites. This is the left-footed logic of a career Negrophobe, which should be immediately dismissed. Yet some variation of Hill’s thinking animates the contemporary political climate. Right-to-offend advocates are, willingly or not, trafficking in the same sort of argument for the right to maintain subordination. They are, however, correct in one key respect: there are no safe spaces. Nor, from the look of things, will there be any time soon.

posted by yaymukund at 1:34 AM on May 14 [5 favorites]

I guess as a lawyer I find this discussion hard to follow in some ways. Is it about the legal, constitutional rights to expression under the First Amendment? Is it about academic freedom at private colleges? The balance of constitutional rights, academic freedom, and student's rights to be free from harassment under Title IX (both state & private colleges)? About ACLU chapters' decisions about what clients to represent? Whether the decision to permit the Charlotte rally was incorrect legally? (I think the answer to that one is obviously yes, and I don't think you even need new law to support that.)

One thing I am pretty sure about: attempts to create a stronger legal framework to protect against hate speech (either through constitutional law or Title IX and other anti-harassment laws) is going to be used against people of color. I would predict more prosecutions of "black identity extremists" and arrests during demonstrations. Because I can't think of the sort of law or legal precedent that would carve out a special category for "nazis" and "white supremacists." It would be framed as speech that is "hate speech" neutrally, or speech that causes particular type of harm. This would be similar to how a large proportion of hate crimes alleged perpetrators are people of color. Maybe on balance that would still call for a change in hate speech law, but it's something to anticipate and consider.
posted by yarly at 11:30 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]

For me, the fundamental thing has nothing to do with law: it's that people who get together to fly Confederate flags and "Kekistan" flags, who claim that they're engaging in some sort of communal veneration of free speech, are completely full of shit when they make that claim and must be vigorously and pointedly denounced. No trailing off into some discussion of abstract principles as though they actually care about fundamental rights to speak freely, or how it's not technically a Nazi flag, to distract from what they are publicly and ostentatiously embodying and promoting—these must be unambiguously named as white supremacist rallies and we absolutely cannot shrink from or allow ourselves to be rhetorically obstructed from discussing the racism and fascist ideologies their presence in our society represents.

Especially not when you're talking to some uninvolved Fox News watcher who wants to pat themselves on the back for their supposed fair-mindedness while repeating conservative sound bites and acting as though, by responding to points about the endemic American racism represented by public white supremacist rallies with handwaving about free speech, they're doing their virtuous little bit of effort-free and risk-free "defending to the death your right to say that."
posted by XMLicious at 12:24 PM on May 14 [10 favorites]

Another thing I was just thinking about earlier: these people who so readily accept Birtherism or Pizzagate or tell you that the 14th Amendment doesn't really mean what it literally says and so any court since 1868 which has ruled that someone born in the United States has U.S. citizenship is "just a liberal court", part of a great universal liberal conspiracy of conspiracies, and who talks about crisis actors—anyone who has come to believe that there are unseen factories churning out comprehensive forged evidence to support innumerable conspiracies—they ought to feel moved to take a close look at why POC end up convicted and imprisoned for crimes at many times higher rates than white people, right? I mean if there's so much "fake news" and they can so readily come up with conspiracy theories on the spur of the moment to explain why evidence that is politically and ideologically inconvenient to them exists, that should naturally lead to pondering that maybe the reason we have such radically disparate outcomes in the justice system and more people imprisoned than any civilization in history... maybe this inexhaustible source of faked evidence has something to do with that too? But no.

Don't give a shit about massive racial disparities in the "justice system"? Unambiguously racist. Critical of tearing down Confederate monuments because "it's history!" that must be preserved but mysteriously unopposed to statues of Lenin being torn down all over Europe since the fall of Communism, and pretty much unconcerned about any preservation of history other than Confederate stuff? Unambiguously racist. Promote or defend rallies full of Nazi flags and Confederate flags and other symbols the National Socialist Movement and other groups have switched to during the last eighteen months? Unambiguously racist.

Anyone who holds views like these or has selective blindness needs to be held to account. And hey, maybe for some it's just because they've never really thought about racism much or were misled by their parents or church or peers or other authority figures, or lacked the proper opportunities to obtain information or a broader perspective. But they still have to be accountable and we must demand that they not just look away.
posted by XMLicious at 1:29 PM on May 14 [7 favorites]

posted by turbid dahlia at 5:41 PM on May 16

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