Sunday, November 15, 2015

A response to Liz Wolfe on free speech and not being a jerk

Because constructive criticism was (and continues to be) so important to finding my voice, and because the author has expressed her desire to hear it, I'm responding to the post Libertarians, It’s Time to Decide: Compassion or Free Speech Purism? from the Students for Liberty blog (which has also generated an excellent response). 

I appreciate the author's insistence that American liberals stop relying on their constitution to justify rights and freedoms because it's not been infallible and because it's simply not relevant to most of the world. But the protests at Yale, Mizzou, etc. are great examples of why we need to buckle down on free speech, even though the protesters are sceptical of it. My guess is that the author misses this because she gets two things wrong:

The first is the assertion that "outrage is the very core of libertarianism, at least in the way I've experienced it", suggesting that she is responding to certain libertarians, but may be misinterpreting her experience as generalisable. If our liberalism is grounded in nothing more than outrage, then it is sadly shallow liberalism. Outrage can be a motivator, but it's not a reason. It should move us to compassion for those who are overcome by emotion, or for those whose plights have caused us to feel that way. It might move us to take a stand or to take action, but it can't tell us that or why something is wrong. 

The author also misunderstands, or at least fails to articulate, why liberals generally advocate for free speech (even if the liberals she's encountered use their Constitution as a crutch). She says,
"How can you trust the state to keep you safe when they've repeatedly betrayed people who look like you? How can you trust the school district when it’s comprised of parents who equate poorness and blackness with the threat of violence? How can you trust your university, when it’s halls have been decorated with racist flyers (2012), racist graffiti (2011), a Swastika (2015), and various messages that make it clear your peers see you as inferior because of the color of your skin?"
Free speech shouldn't be protected because the First Amendment says so, but because you shouldn't trust powerful institutions and unfriendly majorities. Free speech protects the weak against the powerful so that those the system isn't serving can point out that something is wrong - something that more advocates of free speech could stand to acknowledge as well as the U.S. Constitution: 
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Protesters who voice their discontent are not only well within their rights, but playing an important role in democracy and civil society - as are those who disagree with them.  Protesters - or their opponents - who shout at or insult people they disagree with are being rude, but they still act within their rights.

Protesters who spit on, push, or physically remove those they disagree with while backed by a crowd have entered, at least in context, a position of power, and may be positioning themselves to seize more. When any protesters demand the power to silence those who have historically been stronger, it's time to think harder about how the power dynamics are changing and what that might mean.

Protesters who push for restricted speech to fight racism today are pushing for a rule that could one day be used to not only legally oppress the people they aim to defend if discrimination is as entrenched as they fear, but also rob them of the means to fight back. Liberals whose understanding of the philosophy is rooted in something deeper than outrage will have the tools to understand why.

We shouldn't be jerks, and SFLers are lucky to have people like Liz Wolfe willing to point out if that's what's happening in their ranks. But we have to be thoughtful to do some good.

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