Free Speech Diary

My schedule calls for posting some kind of essay every Monday, even if only something excavated from the archives of my crumbling, ruined old blog. But yesterday was one of those melancholic, out-of-focus days where nothing seems right, or apt, or worth doing. (You have those, too, right?)

But while drifting in this sea of passive dolefulness, I was following the story of Count Dankula’s sentence (a criminal conviction and an £800 fine for posting an off-color joke), the British teenage girl who was convicted of a hate crime and fined £500 for posting hip hop lyrics to Instagram, and the case of the Fresno State professor who tweeted some cartoonishly impolitic things about the departed Barbara Bush and became a target of the customary internet campaign to get her fired from her job in retribution.

To me these all seem to be very much a part of a more general trend toward intolerance and illiberality that is evident pretty much everywhere you look these days, tiny, perhaps insignificant features of a map that is only obviously alarming when you zoom out far enough to see how cluttered it is. (And I’m aware that many good, smart, right-thinking people just don’t see it. I think they’re wrong, they think I’m wrong, and they often accuse me, in effect, of agreeing with my own opinions. And, on that score: guilty as charged.)

I blurted some stuff out on the social medias, as one does (though I don’t do it all that often lately), much like I might have done on my blog in the old days. Since this Medium account is essentially the “thing I have instead” now till I sort something else out (and because it’s possible that I may want to find that stuff at some point in the future, which you can’t do easily on those platforms — plus I hope they all fail and crumble to dust soon anyway: the platforms I mean) … because of all that, and to check the weekly post box and fulfil my pledge, sort of, I’m going to quote them here.

I’m also going to quote, at the end, a bit of an essay I wrote about the writers’ pushback against International PEN’s “freedom of expression courage award” accepted by one of the few remaining staff left alive after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. In it, I tried to make clear those opinions on free speech (and its particular importance to the artists and writers who seem to take it for granted these days) that so many seem to dislike.

So Dankula avoids jail but is fined £800 — but at least he now has a lucrative career as an internationally famous free speech martyr celebrity. (And he may well be vindicated on appeal, as he should be.) This girl probably won’t be able to monetize her prosecution for quoting song lyrics on Instagram, nor is any kind of appeal likely. People generally find this crazy, but then say something like, “well, it’s only money.”

This is how people lose their rights, by tacit, passive acquiescence borne of relief it’s happened to someone else, a fine here, a prosecution there, an irrational standard of propriety capriciously applied to random scapegoats, a chilling effect on everyone else: the death of a thousand cuts.

Thank God we still have the 1st Amendment. (Though private “mobs” perform a similar function here nonetheless.) As we see, the alternative is dystopia.

To me the lesson of that lady who tweeted the mean things about Barbara Bush is not that some self-styled free speech advocates can be hypocritical when their own tribe is maligned, and therefore the argument for free speech is tainted; it’s that no matter what kind of tribe you’re in, you don’t want other people deciding whether or not what you say should be permitted or subject to penalty, that you will always have opponents willing to make the offense claim against you, and that the only way to ensure that your own freedom of expression doesn’t depend on the subjective judgment of people who dislike you is to take subjective claims out of the equation entirely and just allow people to say what they want across the board. Even then it’s a precarious balance because people in mobs are fundamentally irrational and when they think they’re winning they believe they will be in charge forever and can afford a little terror here and there without too much risk of things turning back on them. But of course they’re wrong about the permanent winning, plus, in the matter of freedom of expression there is simply no other way to do it because you can’t trust anybody.

nb. I’ve never been able to understand, quite, how so many of the world’s oddballs welcome the opportunity to participate in conformist mob attacks with such enthusiasm, apparently forgetting entirely their “lived experience” that oddballs don’t tend to fare too well out in the general population.

(That was in the comments, in response to something somewhere. Also, in the comments, a wise guy who posted a link to Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance” essay, to which I responded: “lol.”)

Finally this is from that blog post about Charlie Hebdo:

…but this gets to another more general matter, which is the attitude toward free speech of people in my own cultural reference group (blue state urban well heeled stuff-white-people-like San Francisco types who self-flatteringly like to call ourselves “liberals” from time to time.) Basically, we tend to be a lot like Francine Prose’s essay when it comes to free speech. Our support for it tends to be rather… “soft.” And by that I mean: grudging, equivocal, contingent — in essence, it kind of seems like we don’t really mean it. I notice it whenever this topic comes up in social media and I’m stupid enough to argue about it there (and I’m sure it’ll come up if I ever post this, in which case I’ll probably be stupid enough to argue about it all over again.) Of course I’m in favor of free speech, but… the line describing what “free speech” means tends to be drawn very tightly and narrowly, with manifold exceptions and caveats that take the ideal of “disagree with what you have to say but defend to the death your right to say it” and poke it full of so many holes that pretty much anything can get through.

Two tacks stand out. One might be called legalistic: the notion that “free speech” has no intelligible meaning outside the bounds of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. If the Constitution doesn’t literally prohibit it, it cannot, by definition, be an encroachment on, nor in fact have anything whatsoever to do with, free speech. And, in fact, if you say “free speech” when you mean anything other than speech protected by the First Amendment from government restriction, you’re obviously an ignorant birdbrain. So, problem solved, next topic.

This is manifestly absurd to me, for a host of reasons, but people argue the case so fervently that I have to assume they must genuinely disagree with me, crazy as that may seem. (I think this, perhaps, originated as a displacement whereby the argument that the First Amendment only protects speech from government suppression — quite true, and often necessary to point out — is applied unreflectively to the greater notion of freedom of expression. This then has become reified into a token that can be played without regard to whether it literally applies, as in, say, the question of freedom of expression in other countries, the Rushdie fatwa, or in cases where speech is suppressed or punished by some other means than the government literally sending in tanks or rounding up dissidents and the like.)

The other tack is related but much broader and more worrying, in part because it is, unlike the legalistic one, literally true. “Speech has consequences,” it goes. Of course, you’re free to say anything you like, but if it doesn’t pass muster prepare for punishment. This is brought up when the subject is social media campaigns to get this or that person, say, fired for expressing an unpopular opinion. Of course it is quite true that speech, like everything else, has consequences. And there’s no law, per se, against trying to organize mass harassment campaigns to get someone fired for holding an unfavored opinion. Nor should there be, unsettling though it often is in practice: the remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech, and social pressure of that kind falls into that category.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bear on the issue of freedom of expression, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Tolerance is a two way street. You voluntarily allow people the freedom to express opinions with which you disagree because you realize there may come a time when you will want to expect the same from them in return. Free Speech requires tolerance, in law and in society. And tolerance is a moral ideal that can be rather hard to live up to, but I don’t think you can truly claim to be in favor of free speech if you don’t accept and aren’t willing to defend it. Tolerance only for things you like is not tolerance, but rather its opposite.

I see these two tacks, the legalistic and the social, as complementary attempts to make a kind of “end run” around tolerance. (Always in a good cause, of course — so many unsavory things have been visited upon the world by well-meaning people in a good cause.) But the question arises, then: why do they do it? I think it has to be because they really do feel that some speech should be suppressed and punished for the good of the collective and would like to reserve the right to practice intolerance when they feel it necessary without being accused of illiberality. Of course they draw the line at murder; they presumably also draw the line at tanks in the streets and gulags full of dissidents. But there are other ways to police unpopular opinions, and there the line can be drawn in such a way as to provide quite a bit of wiggle room. And this is where “my” people seem to like to draw it.

Well, my view is that that wiggle room’s “space” should be of concern to any writer or artist, any person really, who is not utterly confident that his or her speech or art will always meet with general approval or endorsement. (In fact, I think that kind of misplaced confidence underlies a great deal of the discourse in this matter.) “My” people seem to have no trouble seeing this logic when it comes to campaigns to ban or restrict access to books they or their friends have written — no one tells Sherman Alexie: “speech has consequences man, maybe write a less controversial book next time?” And everyone understands that this matter concerns freedom of expression, despite the absence of tanks in the streets. Further, Salman Rushdie’s death sentence is no less serious, nor less “free speech related,” because the First Amendment doesn’t happen to protect him from it.

When defending an ideal, you have to go all in. The line that you think murder went too far but that some other punishment might well have been in order is not a defense of free speech. It is its opposite. If you’re a writer or artist, the idea of punishment for art should be anathema.

That’s all. I wish you luck navigating your own sea of melancholia, as I trust you wish me, with mine.