Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The High Cost of Free Speech

The Gadsden flag, designed in 1775. Exactly when it became
a conservative nationalist symbol is somewhat murky.

People who use free speech arguments to defend bigoted speech are more likely to actually be bigots. That’s the message from a new research study published by Mark H. White and Christian Crandall, from the University of Kansas psychology department. As summarized in a KU press release, White and Crandall found a strong positive correlation, stronger than they expected, between using the “Free Speech argument” to defend racist speech, and actually possessing personal racist beliefs.

I read this news release the same weekend two pickup trucks made a theatrical show of crisscrossing my town flying some pretty distinctive flags. Each truck had one flag over each rear wheel well: an American flag, a Confederate battle flag, a Gadsden “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, and a Trump-Pence campaign flag. These trucks rode abreast down my town’s main roads, snarling traffic behind their display of… well, let’s postpone assigning intent for now.

We’ve all heard the “free speech argument” recently defending people saying truly awful things. Milo Yiannopoulos urged students to target peers, by name, and demanded free speech protection for what amounts to inciting violence. (He discovered even his intellectual fellow-travelers have limits on what they consider “free” speech, eventually.) Donald Trump rode a wave of Freudian mental meanders, protected by free speech, into the Oval Office. Clearly the free speech argument isn’t hurting anybody lately.

Free speech is absolutely fundamental to American identity. But like other moral absolutes, people fall back on free speech to defend language that’s otherwise morally indefensible. Rather than a starting place, foundations become a hammock. Political bomb-throwers adopt American founding language because they lack their own language. Do they simply lack their own moral reasoning? Or do they realize their own opinions lack foundation? Either way, it demonstrates core unawareness of what constitutes free speech.

Perhaps the most common mistake I hear, is that free speech requires everybody to provide a platform. When universities pull invitations for agents provocateurs to speak, or TV networks yank freelancers for stating odious opinions, the free speech argument comes trotting out. But when private enterprises fire somebody for expressing hateful views, this doesn’t violate free speech; the First Amendment says governments can’t foreclose citizens’ liberty to say something. Private enterprises may defend their platforms.

Country singer Hank Williams, Jr., sold this on his merch table in the 1980s
and early 1990s. In case anybody thinks the Civil War is actually over.

I cannot have employees spouting hateful language about immigrants and brown people if I own a factory staffed primarily by immigrants and brown people. And I can’t alienate America’s fastest-growing customer cohort to appease one person expressing opinions from a prior era. Private enterprises cannot stomach bigotry and also serve their mission. Companies, state schools, media outlets, and other employers have a right, even an obligation, to say: at least take it off the premises.

But more important, the free speech argument ignores two centuries of history. By refusing to have moral justifications for what we say right now, we surrender our place in the ongoing discussion. Falling back on first principles, without acknowledging the evolving debate, means retreating back to the beginning and starting again. Like a child taking his ball and going home, whenever we cite free speech, we fundamentally defend our refusal to have this discussion, now.

As in athletics, the rules aren’t the game. They simply define how we’ll play, to guarantee everyone a competitive chance. Quoting Rule #1 after every challenge is basically demanding a Mulligan whenever you mishandle the ball. Not that free speech is outdated; our debate needs a defensible starting point, and saying the state cannot preemptively silence anybody just makes practical sense. However, if we keep returning to the start, we don’t live in the present.

Thus, when I see people flying Confederate and Gadsden flags, I see someone stuck in time. Their slate of moral principles hasn’t evolved since 1865, over 150 years ago, because they don’t live in the present. Perhaps the world around them doesn’t exist right now, subjectively. Yet the retreat into moral foundations demands state-based defense to avoid addressing reality. Appealing to the state, with its arrest and trial capacity, is structurally an appeal to violence.

Maybe people using the free speech defense have forgotten what they’re fighting for. If they believe the American promise, how dare anyone use size and volume to shout down dissenters? Yet they keep re-fighting the Revolution and Civil War because it’s all they know how to do. They vanish into a mythic American past, perhaps, because war is the last gasp of dying ethics. They just use living values to keep a dying fight alive.

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