Monday, 23 July 2018

Shut Up, Or We Will Shut You Down

"I'm Triggered By Your Ugly Speech"

The Iron Fist Inside the Velvet Glove

David Farrar at Kiwiblog has directed readers to some material on Free Speech.  The topic is timely at the moment, because of (successful) attempts to stifle the free speech of New Zealanders.  Naturally, folk attempting to shut people up or shout them down so that no-one can hear what they are saying ooze with self-righteousness.  They paternalistically see themselves as protecting others from ideas or opinions which might upset them or damage their self-esteem.  

Robert Guest, Foreign Editor for The Economist responded recently to some questions about speech and why free speech must be maintained as a fundamental human right.  We scarcely need to remind our readers that Christians have a significant interest in this issue.  Unbelief always stands ready to shut down Christian discourse and proclamation, given half a chance.  The ultimate champion of such repression is Satan.  The last thing the demonic realms want is an open, free proclamation of Christ and His Kingdom.

Here is Robert Guest's take on why the right of free speech is so fundamental to civilisation.
Why are we so passionate about free speech? It is not just because The Economist is a newspaper. It is also because free speech is the best defence against bad government. Everyone should be at liberty to berate politicians. Constructive criticism can alert them to things they are doing wrong, and perhaps persuade them to change course. Mockery, even unfair mockery, is part of the rough and tumble of democracy. No government can be trusted with the power to silence it.

Secondly, in all areas of life, freewheeling debate helps to sort good ideas from bad ones. Science cannot progress unless old certainties are questioned—remember how the Inquisition threatened Galileo with torture for claiming that the Earth orbits the Sun?

Limits on speech are in effect limits on thought. So censorship makes it harder for us to understand the world. When a government orders statisticians to fudge the numbers, as happens in all kinds of places, it ensures that its own policymaking will be poorly informed. When academics declare certain topics “too controversial” to discuss, they hinder the quest for knowledge.

The law should recognise the right to free speech as nearly absolute. There should be very few exceptions to this rule.
Child pornography is one. It should be banned, since making it involves harming children. States need to keep some things secret, too: no one has the right to publish the names and addresses of people in a witness-protection programme, for example.

Incitement to violence should be banned. However, it should be narrowly defined. If you lead an angry mob to my house and shout: “Let’s kill Robert Guest”, that qualifies. If you hate something I’ve written and tweet “Robert Guest is an idiot and I wish he were dead”, that is a disagreeable thing to say but it should not be illegal, because you’re not seriously expecting anyone to harm me.

The test is: does the speaker intend to encourage those who agree with him to commit violence, and are his words likely to have that effect in the near future? If not, it’s not incitement to violence. So, for example, if you say something offensive about me and I react by smashing a window or punching you in the face, I’m the one whose conduct should be illegal, not you. Other people’s words are never an excuse for violence.

We once summarised our views on free speech with four short, robust rules: “Never try to silence views with which you disagree. Answer objectionable speech with more speech. Win the argument without resorting to force. And grow a tougher hide.”

I don’t think governments should try to limit speech at all. Words are not deeds. Governments should by all means prosecute those who commit hateful acts, such as physical violence or vandalism. And persistent harassment or threatening behaviour is rightly illegal in most places. But I don’t think governments should try to stop people from being offensive.  I don’t say this because I think it’s OK to be offensive. Personally, I think politeness is an important virtue, but I don’t think governments should have the power to enforce it.

Many countries have introduced or revived laws against “hate speech” that are typically broad, vague and easy to abuse. Far from promoting harmony between different groups, such laws encourage them to file charges against each other. This is especially dangerous when cynical politicians get involved. Those who rely on votes from a certain group often find it useful to demand the punishment of someone who has allegedly insulted its members, especially just before an election.

An idea has taken hold in recent years that people have a right not to be offended. This implies that someone should have a power to police other people’s speech. But no one should have that power. For one thing, what counts as “offensive” is subjective. I find some of the lines in the Old Testament condoning slavery objectionable. Should we therefore ban the Bible? In France Brigitte Bardot, an animal-loving actress, has been convicted five times of incitement to racial hatred because she decries halal slaughter methods. I don’t agree with her views, but I think she should be free to express them.

I find it worrying that many American academics I meet admit that there are certain subjects they dare not investigate, for fear of being accused of racism or some other form of bigotry. I also think the habit of shouting down or “no-platforming” speakers with whom some students disagree is profoundly illiberal. If someone at your university wishes to hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Germaine Greer speak, what right do you have to prevent them? If you find their ideas objectionable, give a speech or write a blog post rebutting them.

The censorship that goes on in western universities is of course nowhere near as bad as what goes on in autocracies and theocracies. But it undermines the central mission of a university, which is to educate. The idea that students should never be exposed to ideas that might upset them is likely to infantilise those students. The world is full of ideas that will upset them. University is the ideal time to learn how to cope with that fact. Students who are never exposed to ideas they detest will be ill-prepared for adulthood.
The West is now at the position of fundamental absurdity.  Many call for censorship and controls upon free speech because "people" will take offence at what others might say.  As soon as that standard is  introduced to control and arbitrate between what is permissible and impermissible, free speech has disappeared.  Anyone can claim to be offended in order to warrant shutting opponents down.

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