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December 23, 2013

Althouse: What the Hell Happened to the Left and Free Speech?

Camille Paglia had earlier raged:

"I speak with authority here because I was openly gay before the 'Stonewall Rebellion,' when it cost you something to be so," she said. "And I personally feel as a libertarian that people have the right to free thought and free speech. In a democratic country, people have the right to be homophobic as they have the right to support homosexuality -- as I 100 percent do. If people are basing their views against gays on the Bible, again they have a right to religious freedom there … to express yourself in a magazine in an interview -– this is the level of punitive PC, utterly fascist, utterly Stalinist, OK, that my liberal colleagues in the Democratic party and on college campuses have supported and promoted over the last several decades. It's the whole legacy of the free speech 1960's that have been lost by my own party."

Althouse notes:

[S]ome liberals are making the predictable narrowly legalistic point that freedom of speech has only to do with rights held against the government. This is a point I've strongly objected to over the years, most obviously, in debating the liberal Bob Wright (see "When did the left turn against freedom of speech?" and "[W]hat free speech means in the context of saying Roger Ailes needs to kick Glenn Beck off Fox News").

1, he's not a liberal, he's a progressive.

2, this argument drives me bananas.

"A company has the right to fire an employee" is a completely disingenuous argument. Let me explain.

When someone doesn't wish to defend an odious point that they nevertheless wish to win the day, they resort to arguing the point collaterally. They will not argue the actual point, as that would be rhetorically challenging.

Instead, they'll attempt to argue for some more abstract principle.

This isn't necessarily dishonest. I actually disagree with Phil Robertson on homosexuality (and the purported contentedness of blacks in the 1950s), and I don't mind saying so. I will argue, however, for his right to speak his mind, even if he is wrong.

The freedom of speech must include the right to be wrong. Without that, what is there? No one ever seeks to squelch speech they believe to be right. People only seek to silence speech which they believe is wrong.

Unless a man agrees that people have the right to speak, even if what they're speaking is false, then that man simply does not believe in the right to free speech at all.

However, this shift from the particular (what is being said or being done) to the abstract (the general right involving the speech or action) can and frequently is a dishonest tactic.

For all of those saying that A&E has the right to suspend Phil Robertson: Let me concede, for the sake of argument that A&E can terminate Phil Robertson at-will for any reason. (Actually, his contract may specify the reasons for which he may be fired or suspended, and we don't know the terms of that contract. It could very well be that A&E is in contractual breach for presuming to "suspend" him for private statements made not in connection with the show. But I will concede, just to simplify things, that A&E can suspend him.)

So, okay, where are we now? A&E has the right to fire or suspend Robertson. So what? The argument is not about what people can do, it's about what they should do.

98% of political (or cultural) arguments are not about what people may legally do, but what they should do.

A person who insists that the question is "Does A&E have the simple legal right to undertake this action?" is either deceptive or stupid. He either deliberately conflates what may be done with what should be done, in order to dishonestly confuse an audience, or he confuses these two things because he is confused himself.

I have the right to use the word "retard" as much as I want on the blog. Some readers have objected, noting that, as parents of mentally-challenged kids, it makes them wince every time they see this mean word in print.

It would be the height of dishonesty and evasiveness for me to reply, "I have the right to use that word." Of course I have the right to use that word. The readers objecting to it never suggested I didn't have the right to use it. That argument was never made in the first place, so it evades the question to answer it that way. It's a non-sequitor.

What they actually said was something like, "It's emotionally tough for a reader to keep seeing that word in print, so I'd appreciate it if, as a matter of decency and respect, you didn't use it any more, or at least used it less." Any response about my "rights" here would deliberately avoid the actual issue -- which is a request that an upsetting word be avoided. (I do try to use it less, but I still do use it. But usually I only say it when I'm not thinking about it. If I think about it, I use a different word.)

The PC Goons who keep braying "A&E has the right to fire Robertson" are deliberately avoiding a difficult question -- "Should media companies, of all people, be in the business of using coercive tactics to compel a particular mode of belief and expression?" -- by instead answering a very simple one.

They hope you don't notice the fact that their answer is a non-sequitor. But you should notice, and you should notice it to their faces.

Similarly, it is beyond doubt that IAC had the right to fire Justine Sacco. But that is not the question. The question is, "Should a company (again-- a media company, of all things!) employ coercive tactics to chill free speech just because a mob of giddy bullies tells them to?"

The people defending this bullshit know it's pretty illiberal -- intolerant and hostile to free speech and thought -- to answer "Yes" to those questions. Which is precisely why they keep answering the question they wish you asked, the easy question, the question about a company having the right to fire an at-will employee.

The real question is this:

As between one of two possible worlds -- one in which freedom of thought and expression is generously and broadly encouraged not only by the state but by other powerful institutions, such as corporate employers, permitting a wide latitude in speech and respecting large zone of personal autonomy, or one in which freedom of thought and expression is sharply curtailed and discouraged by the threat of economic coercion against anyone dissenting against this week's folly -- which world would we prefer to live in?

I would like to hear the New Puritans answer that question, instead of continuing serving the slippery, soupy answer about employers having the right to fire at-will employees.

At the end of her post, Althouse asks:

Why is the left taking the narrow view of the concept of freedom? It's a general principle, not something you save for your friends. Like Paglia, I remember the broad 1960s era commitment to free speech. There was a special zeal to protect those who said outrageous things. Today, we're back to the kind of repression that in the 60s seemed to belong to the 1950s. What the hell happened?

I can answer this: They came into power.

This is a human thing, I'm afraid, and not a failing specifically located on the left.

Those who have less power -- who fear coercion more -- will naturally tend to argue for the widest possible latitude, the largest zone of tolerance, for "weird" beliefs, statements, or practices.

Those with more power -- who fear coercion less, because, end of the day, they'll be the ones doing the coercing -- will naturally become more and more hostile to the idea that people can do whatever they like.

Like Mayor Bloomberg, they will stop fearing coercion and start seeing it as a useful and valuable tool for guiding people into becoming the best people they can possibly be.

Which is to say: People exactly like themselves. Mayor Bloomberg is a big fan of the exercise of coercive power... because he's the one exercising it, and he knows that every edict laid down in NYC will be in furtherance of turing everyday average joes into the ne plus ultra of enlightened humanity -- people who share Mayor Bloomberg's tastes, preferences, and worldview.

The sixties radicals were once culturally disfavored and so championed the maximum possible freedom of thought and expression. But they're not culturally disfavored anymore -- thanks to Gramsci's long march through the institutions, they are the culture.

And so now it doesn't appear quite so important that people be permitted a large zone of free movement in the sphere of thought, belief, and speech.

Now the Cultural Deciders -- like Mayor Bloomberg -- understand that to the extent people will be compelled to speak, think, believe and feel a certain way, they'll be compelled to speak, think, believe and feel the same way as the Cultural Deciders themselves, and what's wrong with that?

They were right when they were younger, and they're wrong now that they're old, rich, fat and comfortable, and have their soft chubby hands on the levers of corporate, academic, and bureaucratic power.

They should have listened to their 1968 selves-- Never trust anybody over thirty. Especially yourself.


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posted by Ace at 06:16 PM

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