Free Men Have Free Tongues

by Bruce S. Thornton

Every time a crazy person perpetrates irrational mayhem, we immediately start demanding explanations that gratify our ideological assumptions. For liberals, something in the environment drives people to such acts. Bad childrearing, poverty, bullying at school, violent movies or video games, or bigotry and prejudice are variously trotted out as the source of the violence. The more obvious explanation — that the perpetrator is insane, or an evil free agent — is categorically dismissed as simplistic and old-fashioned, redolent of archaic superstitions like religion.

So it was no surprise that the rampage in Tucson that left six dead and Congressman Gabrielle Giffords severely wounded was followed by analyses filled with the usual received wisdom, unexamined bad ideas, and incoherent judgments that are passed off as sophisticated commentary, but that in fact are assertions of ideological and political preferences.

For example, the liberal media attempted to pin the attack on “rightwing” political speech that generated a “climate of hate,” as Paul Krugman wrote. It took only a few days for commentators to point out the hypocrisy of such a charge coming from a political cohort that demonized the Tea Party movement as hate-filled, racist tools of the Republican Party, and that had spent eight years fantasizing about assassinating George Bush and accusing him of getting American soldiers killed to fill the coffers of the oil industry and the Halliburton corporation.

Nor was it seemly, without any knowledge of the killer’s politics or motives, to jump to the conclusion that he was rabid conservative fired up by immigration and Obamacare. Coming from people constantly touting their superior intelligence and preference for “nuanced” and “complex” thinking, it was hard to take seriously the crude psychology whereby political metaphors somehow infected the mind of the killer and like a puppet-master drove him to murder. It quickly became clear that such analyses were nothing more than partisan attacks, ones so shameless that even the President in his memorial speech had to distance himself from them.

Repudiated, albeit weakly, by the President in his speech, these analyses quickly disappeared, and the New York Times, chief instigator of such libels, was praising the President’s calls for moderation and civility.

But there’s a more insidious bad idea that in part spawned such political libels and goes beyond partisan opportunism. Lurking behind these assertions of a link between political rhetoric and violence is the new category of social crime called “hate speech.” Policing this alleged offense now permeates our society, and so it will still be around long after the commentary on the Giffords shooting has faded away.

The idea of “hate speech” arises out of an identity politics predicated on victimization. Certain minorities, women, adherents of some religions, and homosexuals — all deemed to be the victims of white bigotry and prejudice — have to be given extraordinary protections from anything thought to reinforce social, economic, and political structures that reflect that bigotry, including language. Moreover, this damage control must extend to the feelings of these victims, lest they internalize these oppressive structures and damage their self-esteem, thus limiting further their ability to succeed and achieve full equality and justice.

The problems with this dubious concept are myriad and obvious. For one, like the multicultural ideology it serves, this notion of whole groups deserving of special protection is contrary to our political order, which locates rights, worth, and responsibility in the individual. Second, it rests on the simplistic therapeutic notion that self-esteem is the key to behavior and well-being, which means that guarding against hurt feelings becomes a societal obligation. In addition, “hate speech” can be vague and arbitrary, depending on the “kaleidoscopic shades of grievance, injury, and ego that make up the subjective sensibilities of the ‘victim,’” as Charles Sykes puts it. Finally, this notion in practice is a tool of partisan politics, its standards not applied impartially but reserved for the minority clients of liberalism — just what we saw in the aftermath of the Giffords shooting. No progressive frets over “hate speech” directed at Republicans, white males, CEO’s, heterosexuals, or Christians.

The worst effect of the “hate speech” phenomenon, however, is that it necessarily leads to censorship and the weakening of the right to free speech. This “ideological stance,” Wendy Kaminer writes, “reflects the morally immodest assumption that right thinking people can rightly discern and should be empowered to define the legal limits of acceptable discourse for everyone else.”

This is precisely what liberals have been trying to do with all their talk about “civility” and their decrying of “an atmosphere filled with hate and murderous rhetoric,” as Jesse “Hymietown” Jackson wrote on The Huffington Post. They want to control speech by putting certain kinds of rhetoric, or even certain metaphors, out of bounds. But metaphors don’t kill people, people kill people.

Attempts to codify “hate speech” in law have been serially slapped down by the Supreme Court as infringements of the First Amendment. Yet the “hate speech” threat to free speech remains. Colleges and universities, some two-thirds of them according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), enforce some sort of speech code that punishes free expression under the guise of protecting certain groups from hurt feelings. FIRE’s “speech code of the month,” from Marshall University, proscribes actions that create “fear, stigma, disgrace, degradation, or embarrassment,” and outlaws “incivility or disrespect of persons.”

As FIRE’s Samantha Harris comments, “You can be punished for embarrassing someone. You can be punished for disrespecting someone. You can be punished for exhibiting prejudice, even perhaps in the form of an unpopular opinion on a controversial political or social issue. You can be punished for telling crude jokes. This policy covers so much speech that it seems there is very little speech for which Marshall University can’t punish you.” Needless to say, such illegal censorship in the presumed venue of what Matthew Arnold called “the free play of the mind on all subjects” and the search for truth bespeaks the ideological corruption of the university, not to mention legitimizing the notion that free speech can be compromised if it serves some alleged social good.

A more sinister development has been the camouflaging of “hate speech” prohibitions in the laws covering harassment. Sexual harassment and anti-discrimination laws leave it up to the victim to decide if harassment or discrimination has occurred based on his own subjective, arbitrary, or even neurotic feelings and perceptions. The effect is to inhibit speech through self-censorship, since institutions fearful of litigation will encourage people to err on the side of caution. Politically correct speech and euphemisms come to dominate, even at the expense of truth. Even the statement of simple fact, such as the theology of violent jihad in Islam, or the high homicide rates among black males, can be construed as “hate speech” because somebody feels offended.

Whether as calls for “civility,” or proscriptions of “hate speech,” such attempts to control and limit free speech on the basis of amorphous feelings and subjective impressions threatens political freedom. Open discussion and deliberation uninhibited by fear of reprisal is the life-blood of democracy. As the Athenian playwright Sophocles put it, “Free men have free tongues.” Hurt feelings are a small price to pay for this essential right.

©2011 Bruce S. Thornton

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