Friday, 28 April 2017

C. S. Lewis and the "soul" of freedom

Freedom of speech is a high ideal that I've complained about before because it's stupid and good for nothing.

Recently a person who makes a living saying horrible things about other people chose not to deliver a speech at the University of Berkeley because they weren't going to get paid to do so and it's thrown a lot of people into Freedom of Speech despair. We're talking about a well-to-do person who could, at a moment's notice: get hundreds of thousands of views on youtube, organize a TV appearance on a major network, or fill a venue of their choice with listeners. They weren't coming to Berkeley to finally have their voice heard, they were coming to promote their most recently published book - the latest of a at least a dozen. This is not a person whose freedom to espouse their ideas is in jeopardy.

But it's the principle of the thing, you see.

Here's a great passage from C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters in which senior devil Screwtape gives advice to his nephew, Wormwood, on how to tempt humans from "the enemy":
It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very "spiritual", that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism. Two advantages follow. In the first place, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, by which, with a little guidance from you, he can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself. Thus you can keep rubbing the wounds of the day a little sorer even while he is on his knees; the operation is not at all difficult and you will find it very entertaining. In the second place, since his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous, he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person, and it will be your task to make that imaginary person daily less and less like the real mother—the sharp-tongued old lady at the breakfast table. In time, you may get the cleavage so wide that no thought or feeling from his prayers for the imagined mother will ever flow over into his treatment of the real one. I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment's notice from impassioned prayer for a wife's or son's "soul" to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.
There is a lot of prayer for the soul of Freedom of Speech going on, but very little care for actual freedom of speech.

Defending your actual right to free speech if it is threatened means spending time and resources in courts - time and resources that most people do not have. Getting the sort of national attention to the suppression of your speech requires already having a platform, already being famous.

If we, as a society, have a positive duty to protect the rights of famous people to say odious things, where are we in protecting the rights of marginalized people to express themselves? You spend your day defending the right of a privileged asshole to advocate racism at length, and meanwhile transgender people still get beaten to unconsciousness for a single use of a pronoun. Might as well fight hunger by delivering 10 tons of steak to Bill Gates.

Trickle-down human rights. Voodoo liberties.

Talking about Freedom of Speech on the internet because an asshole isn't getting paid to incite hatred and violence against identifiable minorities isn't defending a high ideal. It's using "Freedom of Speech" as a racist dog whistle. Increasingly, I think that's what all the term is now.

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