Sunday, September 26, 2010

Advocate Censorship on a Forum I Frequent? Expect Something Like This:

From this thread.

Alright, so a bunch of points have been made throughout the debate on free speech and where its limits ought lie. I'll ignore the barrage of personal attacks between Kenny and the censorship apologists as irrelevant. Let's talk substance.

First, I'll note that Nitish cited the popular "Shouting 'FIRE!'" exception to free speech. Likewise, Kenny mentioned the "Clear and present danger" exception. Both of these ideas come from the same despicable Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States. This case ruled that the U.S. government had the authority to arrest anti-war protesters because their speech could hamper the war effort. Yet it could be just as plausibly argued that American involvement in the war posed a clear and present danger and that the anti-war activists, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, "were the real firefighters, shouting fire when there really was a fire in a very crowded theater indeed." So, if this precedent were current, banning Quran burnings would be constitutional. Thankfully, that precedent was overturned by Brandenburg v. Ohio, which barred the government from restricting speech unless that speech is both intended to incite and likely to incite imminent lawless action. While speech offensive to Islam is likely to incite lawless action, incitement is not the intent, and thus the speech is constitutionally protected by current precedent.

Nitesh wrote:
A possible future danger? It's already happened. It is happening. It will continue to happen. Aren't we in a "War against Terrorism" right now? How would burning a holy book not create clear and present danger?

Yes, inflammatory anti-Islamic speech does provoke terrorism. But if this logic were applied to stop the anti-Islamic violence of the American government, those negative impacts of anti-Islamic speech would be greatly diminished. Do Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups use the fact that individual Westerners burn Qurans or cartoon Mohammed as their primary recruiting tool? No, those grievances are secondary to the fact that the United States government cluster bombs Yemen, increases the use of drone strikes which kill civilians, kills Iraqi civilians even after "combat operations" are over, asserts the power to execute a Muslim American cleric without pressing charges against him, denies Muslim victims of torture the right to sue, funds an Israeli government which used white phosphorus to burn Muslim civilians alive, etc. No matter how much anti-Muslim speech you stop, the West will remain the target of terrorism unless you stop Western governments from initiating anti-Muslim violence. Giving our government more power to regulate speech will be used to interfere with those of us arguing against this violence. Indeed, even with the Bill of Rights untouched by those who would protect Muslims from being offended, the FBI just last week raided the homes of anti-war activists.

Marianne wrote:
Hate speech laws in the United Kingdom are found in several statutes. Expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person's colour, race, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation is forbidden. Any communication which is threatening, abusive or insulting, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is forbidden.The penalties for hate speech include fines, imprisonment, or both.

The UK's weak protections on free speech have not been used to facilitate mature discussions, but rather to prevent mature discussions by allowing one side to fine or imprison, rather than refuting, their opponents. Let's look at a few examples. From Wikipedia, indeed the same entry she quoted:

On 13 October 2001, Harry Hammond, an evangelist, was arrested and charged under section 5 of the Public Order Act (1986) because he had displayed to people in Bournemouth a large sign bearing the words "Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord". In April 2002, a magistrate convicted Hammond, fined him £300, and ordered him to pay costs of £395.

Now, you might think that being queer identified I might find this result satisfying, but I don't. How are we to have a "mature discussion" of whether my sexual preferences and others like mine are sins if my opponents can be arrested and fined for expressing their views? Furthermore, incidents like these provide homophobes with argumentative ammunition. One red herring brought by homophobes is that recognition of queer civil rights leads to the persecution of Christians, and incidents like this support that conclusion.

On 4 March 2010, a jury returned a verdict of guilty against Harry Taylor, who was charged under Part 4A of the Public Order Act 1986. Taylor was charged because he left anti-religious cartoons in the prayer-room of Liverpool's John Lennon Airport on three occasions in 2008. The airport chaplain, who was insulted, offended, and alarmed by the cartoons, called the police.[11][12][13] On 23 April 2010, Judge Charles James of Liverpool Crown Court sentenced Taylor to a six-month term of imprisonment suspended for two years, made him subject to a five-year Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) (which bans him from carrying religiously offensive material in a public place), ordered him to perform 100 hours of unpaid work, and ordered him to pay £250 costs. Taylor was convicted of similar offences in 2006.[14]

So, in the UK I could be fined, imprisoned, and barred from publicly possessing certain literature and images simply for rudely expressing my view of a faith, even if it's a faith which says I deserve to be tortured for my opinions, sexual orientation, and gender identity. As you might say across the pond, that is bollocks.

The UK's weak protections for free speech have stamped out even mature and non-inflammatory debates. Specifically I refer to the litigation friendly libel laws. Such laws permitted the British Chiropractic Association to sue the excellent popular science author Simon Singh for correctly debunking pseudoscientific claims they had made. Admittedly, Singh eventually won, but only after enlisting the support of most of the British and American scientific and skeptical communities while losing plenty of money on legal fees and tons of time he could have spent writing.

Yours in free speech even for assholes,

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Curse of Political Dogmatism

"The world is far too lovely a place to walk through it along a party line." -Bill Kauffman

As someone who is active as both a libertarian and a radical leftist, I have encountered my fair share of political dogmatists. Rather than honestly engaging their ideological opponents, they seem steadfastly convinced that the opposing party is either morally repugnant, intellectually vacuous, or both. To many of my comrades on the left, libertarians are selfish sociopaths and anyone ever influenced by Ayn Rand has zero moral credibility. This is not to say my libertarian allies are necessarily more tolerant. A common sentiment, especially among voluntaryists and anarcho-capitalists, is that anyone who supports any sort of statism is supporting the initiation of force, and is therefore not merely wrong but evil.

Such petty partisanship risks dooming our movements to the epistemic closure which plagues the mainstream American right. Seemingly immune to facts, right wingers pontificate about the evils of liberalism, progressivism, Marxism, and socialism. The truth or falsehood of statements comes second to whether those statements fit a particular conservative orthodoxy, an orthodoxy confirmed through the echo chambers of talk radio and FOX News, while contrary information is seen as mere propaganda either from the "radical left" or the "liberal media."

But even if we don't sink to such intellectual lows, leftists and libertarians both rob themselves of key insights if they refuse to look outside their inner circles.

What do leftists stand to lose if we demonize libertarians and "the right"? Well, anti-war activists find many allies among paleoconservatives, particularly Ron Paul, who popularized the concept of "blowback" in his 2008 presidential campaign. More paleoconservative anti-war commentary may be found in The American Conservative magazine. When we wish to discuss police militarization and the disgusting, often racist violence of the drug war, we would be foolish to ignore the work of Radley Balko. The fact that he began his research on police misconduct at the Cato Institute and continues it at Reason Magazine, both libertarian outfits funded by Koch Industries, does not detract from his insights one iota. Any opponent of corporate power would be well served by reading Timothy Carney, a free market libertarian who primarily writes about government collusion with big business. Even those who are clearly our opponents can provide useful material. For instance, Ayn Rand was in many respects my antithesis, as she loved big business, defended misogyny and homophobia, supported imperialism, and denigrated anarchists, leftists, and libertarians. But her notion of the anti-concept, a cognitive package deal which conflates distinct ideas under one definition to obscure thought, is incredibly useful to understanding political language, even if you disagree with the examples she gives. Likewise, her critique of "states' rights" is excellent for addressing the theocratic tendencies of paleoconservatives, and I can't count how often I have quoted her defenses of individual rights and rational ethics when I debate homophobes. Some leftists may never expose themselves to the quality libertarian, Objectivist, and conservative writings I just referenced. Instead, they'll buy into straw men, perceiving libertarians and conservatives as merely bigots, selfish curmudgeons, and apologists for the status quo.  And they'll have fewer allies and fewer strong arguments as a result.

Libertarians would lose just as immensely if they refused the intellectual output of the left. It's no accident that Lew Rockwell, easily one of the leaders of the libertarian movement, has referred to Howard Zinn, a known socialist, as among his favorite historians. Zinn's skepticism of war and the state exudes from every essay and book he has written. Like radical libertarians, he has some choice words for the war crimes of historical sacred cows such as FDR and Abraham Lincoln. Left wing activists like Jeremy Scahill, Cindy Sheehan, Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Wolf, and Amy Goodman have popularity in some libertarian circles for this same style of principled opposition to the growing national security state. But even leftist writing which libertarians may find harder to stomach often contains points that are quite useful for expanding liberty. Noam Chomsky's attacks on free market economics primarily consist of pointing out the prevalence of protectionism and corporate welfare under capitalism, and can thus be valuable reading for those who wish to genuinely free markets. Similarly, despite its smears against free market economists, Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" describes some very real cases of authoritarian corporatism masquerading as free market privatization. Furthermore, Klein's documentary "The Take" shows worker cooperatives that are far more libertarian than capitalist firms ever have been.  Tim Wise may be often condescending and hostile towards libertarians, but his writings on racial privilege can help us counter the inequities that result from a history of enslavement and state assaults on people of color. And don't let Marxism automatically turn you off. The influence of Marx makes Rosa Luxemburg's case for free speech no less powerful, it makes Angela Davis's critique of the prison system no less valid, and it makes Paulo Freire's arguments for critical pedagogy no less eloquent.

Why does it matter that we pursue the truth without regard for these ideological boundaries? Because, to quote Freire, "apart from inquiry, apart from praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other."