Monday, 28 August 2017

Look, I'm Seriously Just Trying to Help

Another CBC article, another complaint from me. This time it's "The left is alienating its allies by shutting down free speech."

The arguments in favour of free speech are actually very few. That's not because it's a bad idea to think carefully about laws restricting what people can and cannot say, it's because free speech as an ideal has basically been accepted as right for generations and there's little reason for people on the victorious side of history to be particularly thoughtful in the defense of their position.

If you support
free speech
, here are the arguments you will use, and why they are, as arguments, utter failures:

If we give the current government the power to outlaw speech, the next government, with whom you disagree, will have that power too.

OR

If we make saying a thing you disagree with illegal, maybe next we will make saying a thing you agree with illegal.

1. There are already many things you could say that are illegal (threats, harassment, copyright violation, sexual solicitation, etc.). These have
not lead to such a slippery slope
.

2. In any nation with constitutionally codified right to expression, it is the role of the judiciary to balance the rights of the individual against laws that are there to protect society. You will find that sometimes the judiciary goes one way and sometimes it goes the other way. You'll also find that they carefully spell out multi-part tests to ensure that their rulings aren't used out of context for precedent. This argument, therefore, is that the judiciary is broadly failing to apply the law and that
you know better
.

3. This isn't even a principled argument about law, it's a personal appeal. All I have to say to shut it down completely is the following: "If I express myself in ways that are similarly harmful to society, then I agree that society should step in and stop me." The argument essentially assumes that anyone who disagrees with the strong free speech position being taken thinks they ought to be above laws that they propose.

4. This is a "
we can't tell the difference
" position that says we ought to be able to cut other people because otherwise we might lose our right to cut meat. Freedom to use knives.

By protecting the rights of a well known and privileged person we protect the rights of everyone.

I addressed this argument in this post.

1. You have no evidence to defend your claim.

2. This is trickle down human rights. People's rights are being violated all the time, and they don't all have a national spotlight or enough money to fight for their own rights. We can't protect the rights of a poor trans black woman who has been illegally fired by lending our voices in defense of a rich white cis man who is saying that trans people deserve the death threats they get. If you want to protect free speech, use your political influence to ensure better legal representation for the poor.

We've seen from [specific instance of someone getting in trouble because of what they said that we've already swung too far in favour of censorship.

This one comes down to the details of the case, but if you are going to bring this kind of things up, at least be knowledgeable enough about the case to:

1a. Explain why the ruling in the case didn't adhere to the principles in the law as they exist. That is, make sure you can out-argue the judge. Remember that judges are applying the constitutional rights you are arguing in favour of as they really exist in our society now.

OR, if you think that the current law results in unfair consequences:

1b. Explain why the consequences were dire or at least significantly disproportionate to the action. Do this using the actual consequences to the actual person you are talking about, not imagined catastrophic consequences. If a speaker has a gig cancelled because they said something terrible, if a person loses their job, or if a group of people are made to experience the pain they caused to others by saying something awful, what happened to them after that? Are they living on the street with post traumatic stress disorder from the incident or are they worth millions and still appearing in major motion pictures? An unjust thing is still unjust if it is minor, but if we are devoting our lives to arguing about famous minor injustices when the world is full of severe injustices, it really ought to make us question that values that led us to that point.

2. Explain why this case is a useful example and not an aberration. A case will really stand out as an injustice if is stands alone in a sea of cases that were ruled on quite well. People are wrongfully convicted of murder and child abuse, we can't expect any law to have no wrongful convictions. When we look at how sexual assault is prosecuted, or how crimes committed by police are prosecuted, we can see systemic problems that run like a thread through multiple unjust outcomes. Having one or two go-to anecdotes rather than an analysis of a systemic problem actually gives other people reason to believe you are wrong.

And now, the argument from the article that set me off today.

You are going to alienate your allies by going against free speech.

OR

These are the wrong tactics.

1. This argument assumes that the majority, or at least a large portion, of people already agree that free speech is very, very important on principle. Most of the time, if someone finds a speaker odious and that speaker is told to get out of the public square, that someone is going to just be glad they shut up, not sympathetic to the speaker`.

2. The idea that you know what the right tactics are to get your point across seems to be disproven by the fact that I am not even remotely convinced by your argument. You don't know how to convince me of anything,
so I have no reason to think that you know how to convince anyone of anything
.

3. My issue right now is that we have a really big white supremacist problem. If you are saying that by taking aggressive tactics against that problem you may be alienated, or you may stop being an ally, you are saying that you may be convinced not to battle white supremacists by me being an asshole. But I think you should be ready to fight against white supremacy - in the way you think is best - regardless of whether you think other people are doing it wrong. I don't care if you like me, I care about results. If you are going to give up doing what you think is right because someone else is doing it wrong, then you don't really think that's the right thing to do in the first place. In other words, when you make this argument, it kind of
makes you sound like you are indifferent to white supremacy
.

4. This argument is entirely reversible. You risk alienating
your allies
by talking about free speech when there are white supremacists to fight. That doesn't concern you. Either you are not an ally or you don't think this argument really matters. Essentially the argument can be restated as, "It is very important that I am on your side because I am very important, so you'd better appease me."

Now that you know why your arguments are stupid, let me explain to you how to argue in favour of free speech in a coherent way.

1. Acknowledge that there are many existing restrictions to speech and provide a reason why you think these existing restrictions are defensible. Alternatively, argue that no existing restrictions are defensible. Then we can argue about whether those are the right principles on which to restrict what people can say, perhaps using individual cases as sort of test cases to see if our principles achieve the right results.

2. Back stop your reasoning about the value of free speech in itself by asking yourself what underlying value you are trying to protect. Are you trying to protect people's lives, people's dignity, people's range of choices? What is it that you think is important that supports the idea that free speech is important? That way, we can avoid advocating pyrrhic strategies to support free speech.

Without doing both of these, you are going to end up making an ill-informed nonsense argument in favour of free speech. Free speech to advocate genocide can only be argued for if it can be meaningfully differentiated from free speech to make death threats. Free speech to share nuclear bomb designs can only be argued for by someone who thinks that eliminating government controls on speech is so important that it's better if we're all dead so there's no government to institute such controls.

Of course by suggesting these things, I'm basically telling you that in order to be sensible you have to basically agree with me - that free speech shouldn't be considered holy and should instead be reasonably balanced against other rights and objectives.

The reason I'm saying that is because it is objectively true. If you want to burn 10% of your income in sacrifice to the free speech altar in your basement I have
no objection to that
. But blind appeal to a heartfelt principle isn't part of any reasonable argument in favour of anything.

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