Speak to me

Two posts on speech:

Mike Godwin, the author of Godwin's law

I sometimes have some ambivalence about the Law, which is far beyond my control these days. Like most parents, I'm frequently startled by the unexpected turn my 18-year-old offspring takes. (I'm happy to say that my 15-year-old offspring—my daughter, Ariel Godwin—surprises me at least as often, although invariably in happier ways.) When I saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib, for example, I understood instantly the connection between the humiliations inflicted there and the ones the Nazis imposed upon death camp inmates—but I am the one person in the world least able to draw attention to that valid comparison.

Overall, though, I'm content that the Law has as much popcult traction as it does. My feeling is that "Never Again" loses its meaning if we don't regularly remind ourselves of the terrible inflection point marked in human culture by the Holocaust. Sure, there has been genocide before that point and genocide after it, but to see an advanced, highly civilized nation warp itself into something capable of creating such a horror—well, I think Nazi Germany does count as a first in that regard.

And to a great extent, our challenge as human beings who live in the period after that inflection point is that we no longer can be passive about history—we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent such events from ever happening again. Key to that obligation is remembering, which is what Godwin's Law is all about.

And Julian Sanchez on shouting down those you disagree with

It’s a little depressing, on multiple levels, to see Jessica Valenti and Pam Spaulding celebrating because protesters at Smith College managed to shout down some bigoted halfwit who’d been invited to give a speech to the College Republican group on campus. Apparently, the “awesome feminists of Smith forced [anti-gay speaker Ryan] Sorba out after a mere twenty minutes of speaking, when he was drowned out by protesters.”

It’s sad first at a principled level, because two women who student feminists around the country look to as guides are endorsing the utterly illiberal idea that the proper response to bad speech—and after skimming a draft of Sorba’s preposterous forthcoming book, I can confirm that his remarks were destined to be both loathesome and stupid—is to silence the speaker. The man’s views may be repulsive, but the students who invited him were entitled to have an opportunity to evaluate those views and come to their own conclusions about their merits. Indeed, had the protesters sent in a couple of halfway-bright students from the biology and philosophy departments during Q&A, I’m confident they could have made the poverty of his reasoning embarrassingly clear to all in attendance. It probably would have made a hell of a YouTube clip, as well. Instead, by choosing bullying over persuasion, they handed this jackass the moral high ground, for what I can only assume is the first and last time in his life.

It’s also sad at the tactical level, because it shows how little some folks have learned from a decade of David Horowitz’s antics. Congratulations, guys: You’ve just elevated this obscure clown into the online right’s celebrity du jour. I’m glad you enjoy the video clip of the students shouting Sorba down so much, because you’re about to see a lot of it, on a hundred conservative blogs, as proof that those awful boorish feminists are so afraid of Sorba’s “ideas” that they’re unwilling to engage him in debate, or indeed, to even let anyone hear whatever “devastating” case he was planning to make. How many times does this scenario have to play out before people start to recognize that it always ends up as a PR coup for the supporters of the silenced speaker?

. . .

Conservatives think Jeremiah Wright’s sermons are “hate speech”. “Men’s rights” activists say feminists regularly engage in hate speech. Presumably they, too, would like to send a message that those speakers are unwelcome on their campuses. You can say “well, their view is wrong and the Smith students’ view is correct,” but insofar as the disagreement is still there, this is pretty unhelpful: Everyone thinks they’re right, and so everyone feels entitled to drown out the speech they dislike. You end up with the meaningless principle: “Free speech, except when we feel strongly enough about how terrible and wrong it is.”

I suppose that works out fine in Northampton: If someone’s invading your safe space, someone whose ideas and way of life are not just wrong but deeply abhorrent, an assault on your identity and community by their very presence, then the community can hound them out—at least if enough people feel strongly enough about it. But I’m guessing LGBT folks in the rest of America might be less sanguine about living under that set of rules.

I don't know if it's new, or if I'm just projecting, but why do so many people seem to be rejecting the notion of civilized discourse as a process? Too many people seem to view speech mostly as a weapon--useful only insofar as it can be used to attack your enemies. Would the world really be a better place if we all believed Marsh's adage that language was given to us to enable us to conceal our thoughts?

It's stupid because if your ideas really are that obviously superior, you oughtn't to need to shout someone else down--the act betrays a certain sneaking suspicion that your ideas mightn't be good enough to succeed through persuasion. And might I add that personally, I'm kind of sickened by the notion that women need a special "safe space" for discussion. All discourse should strive to be civilized, but my delicate little female psyche doesn't need protection from stupid ideas, thank you very much. Having not ridden on a fast train or engaged in vigorous athletics recently, my feminine mind is still (just barely!) strong enough to withstand their assault.

It's also stupid because you can't run a country this way, especially when you're in a small minority. There is no shortcut to consensus; you can't muscle your way to political legitimacy. Indeed, that's why dictators are so keen to shut down dissent.