Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Hate Is guaranteed to have a home if it pays on time, just like anyone else
I'm at a complete loss. This is not new, or unusual but what troubles me is that others aren't at that same loss -- things seem to them to be so obvious and I just don't understand.
Stuff has been happening in the U.S. In a nutshell, there has been a galvanization of people who espouse beliefs based in the hatred of non-whites (racial and religious minorities) and those people have recently massed and protested things which undercut what they view as the fair expression of their beliefs. The removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee was apparently a flashpoint this week. I don't know. I try not to follow the news because it depresses me.
Our commenter in chief made the error of neither naming/labeling the protesters nor placing blame securely and exclusively on them. A firestorm ensued because even after he decried the hatred he reiterated that there was blame enough to go around. Memes exploded with righteous fury and talking heads went on and on about this. The Tweetmaster reminded us that the counter-protesters were doing the same thing when trying to assemble and strip rights from others and brought up the slippery slope argument -- if we remove Lee then do we next remove all slave owners (Washington and Jefferson)? On one hand these are reasonable concerns:
1. schools named after slave owners are having names changed and people want to separate themselves from that legacy and
2. it seems unreasonable to shout down voices that demean races or religious groups just because they are unpopular opinions to have, since the freedom of speech extends to all,
but on the other hand, totally dumb.
2a. Those shouting down the Neo Nazis seems obviously proper -- we fought the people who acted on those ideas so why would we condone their opinions now, and
1a. Lee isn't being removed because he was a slave owner but because he was a general of a rebelling force, an enemy. We don't have statues to Rommel in German communities in the U.S. He was also a general who denied the primacy of the construct that is the United States. He lost. We don't have to celebrate him, no matter his other (potentially) good personal qualities.
Does that make this all simple? Not by a long shot.
I remember very few things from middle school Social Studies class (apologies to Mrs. Liebman -- I wasn't "not trying" but I was certainly "not getting it"). One thing I remember is the tenet "It is the obligation of the majority to protect the rights of the minority. When the minority becomes the majority, it must do the same." I also have spent some time studying the first amendment (in graduate school). I learned what was protected and what isn't. I learned what is actionable after the fact and what kinds of expression are subject to a priori restraint. And I learned that what developed (either because of the American revolution, or if you are a more honest historian, a bunch of years after that) was a respect for the freedom to say unpopular things. The government cannot suppress a sentiment simply because it is controversial. As long as it doesn't run afoul of those categories which are not protected, people have the right (with a permit) to assemble and shout it.
Now, as much as I'd like to be, I'm not a naive, pie-in-the-sky liberal who buys into the ACLU, no questions asked. If I were, I would be a lot angrier at this invention called a "hate speech" statute which denies people the right to say things that are considered hate speech. On one level, this is laudable -- why should we allow people to say hurtful and (frankly) disgusting things about individuals or groups? Shouldn't one element of the minority we protect be its right to dignity and equal status and not disparagement? But isn't the hater also a protected minority? Whose rights, um, "trump" whose?
When I was growing up there were people who would make my life difficult. My parents, sagacious as they were, often advised "ignore them and they will go away. If you give a bully attention, he wins." That was interesting advice and well-intentioned. The bully does want to be acknowledged so, when ignored, he often then ramps up his attacks. Will he eventually go away? Maybe. I don't know. I was not very good at ignoring because I also heard that "silence equals death" or at least "silence is tantamount to agreement." If you don't raise your voice in opposition, you are tacitly acceding to the bully's position. Those two pieces of folk wisdom are at odds here and this is where I get lost.
Protesters have the right to assemble and shout horrible things. I think. Counter protesters have the same right. Not everyone agrees with any one particular opinion and in the free market place of ideas, don't all have the right to be heard? Or maybe, some positions are so abhorrent that they, by definition, should never see the light of day? Holocaust denial is a crime in many countries. Is this healthy? Words and ideas do infect and influence behavior; is it healthy to expose young people to unchallenged hateful ideas which will lead to violence or repeats of oppression? But censorship creates a backlash and resentment (and hearkens back to "the greater the truth, the greater the libel"). Your hate speech can drive someone to want to strip me of my identity and rights, but if your hate speech motivates me to punch you in the nose should you be silenced or should I have to control myself? Whose rights are paramount here? And, with our recent focus on safe spaces and trigger warnings, that slippery slope reemerges: who gets to decide what topics or words are off-limits? The pope drew one line. A college professor might draw another, and a plumber from Iowa, a third.
So we have the alt-right which marches with swastikas (allowed in the Skokie decision) and the intolerance of outsiders and the alt-left which marches with muzzles and gags, and intolerance of intolerance. One side wants the right to hate, the other, the right to muzzle hate. And both are protected but are both equal? Some people (OK, me) are more of an alt-tab, or possibly a shift-F5 kind who want to go back to playing Castle Wolfenstein. At least there, I knew who the bad guys were.