Wednesday, December 9, 2015

More on freedom of speech

Followers of this blog already know that I am a big supporter of freedom of speech (see here and here and here).  Free speech is a complex topic and I think all of us struggle with it from time to time.  It isn't so easy to define its limits.

The primary principle of free speech is that the freedom must be granted to everyone, especially those who say things with which we disagree.  Detestable groups like neo-Nazis and religious crypto-fascist fanatics must be allowed to express their opinions if the freedom of speech principle is to have any real meaning.  If we only grant that right to those with whom we agree, then we have transformed the principle into its exact opposite.  The principle is based on the assumption that in a free nation, the people don't need protection from ideas with which they disagree - we can choose for ourselves to accept or reject what others say.  Those of us living under laws protecting free speech can even tolerate groups we know would abrogate the principle of free speech were they to gain power, because we're confident that our way is the better way and most Americans will remain unconvinced that denying rights to others is what we're all about.

That said, however, there are limits to free speech.  One cannot legally incite violence, or threaten people's lives and freedoms with words.  The limit is that anyone's free speech is bounded by that territory in which speech is harmful to others in a physical way.  When speech infringes on someone else's rights and welfare, that speech must be considered unlawful.  Just because what we say offends or angers someone doesn't mean they need "protection" from that speech, but when the line is crossed into physical harm resulting from that speech, then it has gone too far.

Of late, the political rhetoric from hate-mongers like Donald Trump and his ilk has become increasingly inflammatory.  Talk of "cleansing" the land of those with whom they disagree, erecting walls, carrying out deportations, etc. has been increasingly divisive and is right on the border (pun intended) of stepping into the territory of illegal speech.  The USA has always prided itself in its principles even though many Americans have trouble with granting those principles to those coming from different cultures and different "racial" stock - bigotry and xenophobia have been with us since the beginning.  And one reason they're thriving of late is the rhetoric of self-serving politicians (or would-be politicians).  There has always been an undercurrent of bigotry and xenophobia in this nation, directed at African-Americans, Latinos, gays, Jews, Muslims, etc.  This disgraceful tendency's star rises and falls over time - like the membership in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan - and it seems of late that the national mood is increasingly bigoted and xenophobic. This seems to be in response to politicians inflaming such thoughts in their efforts to find enough votes to come to (or stay in) power.  Muslims and Latinos have been targeted for exclusion and even proposed deportation.  In some circles, even vigilante violence is being considered as a remedy for the perceived pernicious influence of racial and cultural minorities.  This is wrong and yet such ideas find fertile ground in some circles within the USA.

This inflammatory, hateful rhetoric is mostly within the bounds of what is protected speech, although some is perilously close to being illegal incitement.  Even when such rants stay within legal bounds, it must be accepted that there are consequences that flow from those words.  As we have seen, individuals have been so "inspired" by divisive speech from politicians that they have taken it upon themselves to commit violent acts, up to and including murder, against the targets of their anger.  The explanation of these incidents as isolated "nut cases" just doesn't wash.  The politicians want to be allowed to say what they want, but they simultaneously want to deny any responsibility for the consequences of their words.  This is unacceptable.

In today's America, I see an increasing polarization and inequality.  It's a formula for disaster: the terrible possibility of civil war looms.  Just because our nation survived one civil war doesn't immunize us from another, as world history shows us.  We simply can't stand by passively when the political rhetoric incites people to violence.  We must speak out against it.  Count me among those doing so.