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"The Right to Free Speech" is a BOGUS Concept

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by John Spritzler

March 5, 2017

How people should respond to racists who try to speak on college campuses (such as Charles "blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites" Murray's recent attempt to speak at Middlebury College reported here) is a question that we should answer by figuring out how, in the specific circumstances of the moment, we can best prevent their racist views from gaining support and from being acted upon. The notion of a "right to free speech" has absolutely nothing useful to offer in this effort.

Voltaire's Famous Declaration

Let's start by examining the famous statement attributed (perhaps apochrophally) to Voltaire: "I disagree with what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is a stupid statement. Here's why. "Saying" is a form of "doing." Whenever two or more human beings do something for a shared goal, it is virtually always the case that it required some previous "saying" to make this "doing" possible. Joint actions require prior communication to motivate the action and formulate how to execute it. "Saying" is a key part of "doing"--often the most important part.

Nobody would say, "I disagree with what you are doing, but I will defend to the death your right to do it" would they?

Consider this act of "saying": a bunch of people are driving a truck around the city and using a bullhorn to say (not do, just say, mind you), "It's time to burn the Jews who are the cause of all our suffering; let's start by assembling at 4th and Vine at 5pm today; bring weapons."

Would you say about these "sayers," "I disagree with what you are saying but I will defend to the death your right to say it"? Wouldn't that amount, under the circumstances, to saying, "I disagree with what you are doing but I will defend to the death your right to do it"?

There is no sharp line between "saying" and "doing." A bogus "right to say" amounts to a "right to do." Saying is often merely the first step in doing.

Yelling Fire in a Crowded Theater

Most people make an exception for the "right to free speech" when it is the proverbial case of "yelling fire in a crowded theater." The reasoning is that the "saying" will clearly cause _immediate_ harm. People who defend the "right to free speech except when it is 'yelling fire in a crowded theater'" are wrong in believing that they have a coherent philosophy. This too is a bogus kind of "right to free speech." Here's why.

First, note that the original use of the phrase "yelling fire in a crowded theater" was when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used it in defense of the government's right to prevent the distribution of flyers opposing the military draft for World War I. Holmes argued that the flyers might be persuasive for some people, and this might in turn lead them not to enlist in the military, and this in turn could prevent the "War to End All Wars" from ending all wars. Here's the point.

Even the man who coined the phrase "yelling fire in a crowded theater" knew that "saying" is a form of "doing" and that the immediacy and inevitability and specificity of the causal effect of the "saying" on the "doing" is NOT what is important; what is important is the harmfulness of the possible (not even guaranteed) effect (not that I think anti-war flyers were harmful during WWI, but Justice Holmes certainly did.)

Speech is Part of Waging War

WWI was orchestrated by the oppressive classes of the world against the oppressed (working) classes of the world. This was class war. In a war, each side uses "saying" to strengthen its side and weaken the other side. Winning a war means, among other things, prevailing over the enemy and preventing it from using "saying" to reverse the outcome and prevail over one's own side in the war. Justice Holmes knew this, and we should too.

In the class war between oppressors versus the oppressed, the oppressed should aim to win. This would mean creating a society in which doing ANYTHING ("saying" included) for the purpose of oppressing people would be prevented.

The question is not whether to prevent oppressors from doing and saying, the question is how.

When a person who "says" ideas that strengthen the forces of oppression has at least a certain level of support or friendly neutrality in the general public, it may be the case (it depends on the actual circumstances, not some bogus abstract "right to free speech" principle) that physically stopping this person from speaking will be counter-productive because that would only increase sympathy for this person and for his/her ideas. Sometimes the best way to prevent their pro-oppression views from gaining support and from being acted upon is by doing something different, such as demonstrating disagreement with the ideas or refuting them effectively.

But sometimes physically preventing the person from speaking is in fact the most effective way to prevent his/her ideas from gaining support and from being acted upon. If somebody goes around today on a college campus declaring that Jews are the cause of some recent unfortunate event and calling on people to meet later that day at a certain time and place to find and attack Jews on campus, it would probably be best to physically stop that person from what he/she is "saying/doing." Right?

It would be STUPID to say, "Well, we should let this person say whatever they want. I disagree with what they are saying but I will defend to the death their right to say it. And they're not 'yelling fire in a crowded theater' because, who knows, maybe nobody will show up at the specified time and place and even if they do show up maybe they won't try to do anything bad and even if they do try maybe they won't succeed."

Free Speech Does Not Exist Today in Our Class War Society

Our society is a dictatorship of the rich. The rich control the important institutions and use them to control public discourse. I discuss in some detail here. Also, go here to see my email exchanges with seven Harvard deans or directors of Harvard centers in which they all adamantly refuse to hold a symposium on the absolutely pivotal question that is at the root of the Palestine/Israel conflict: "Should there be a Jewish state in Palestine?", in spite of the fact that their department or center deals with this area as a focus in one way or another. Harvard--supposedly a bastion of the "Right of Free Speech" suppresses anti-Zionist speech. (For a comical demonstration of this, read my email exchange with a Harvard dean who prohibited distribution of an anti-Zionist leaflet on campus, here.)

The rich know very well that anti-oppression speech is dangerous (to the rich) and so they limit it as much as they deem necessary.

At the same time the rich promote the idea that we have "freedom of speech" and that this enables EVERYBODY to be heard and therefore--this is the kicker--advocates of ideas that support oppression have a RIGHT to be heard. Well, no they don't.

When Freedom of Speech IS Important

Among people who are opposed to oppression, freedom of speech is important. It is important to the extent that it enables people to hear and discuss and debate ideas so as to be better able to prevent oppression. But in such a context, there is no "right" for somebody to advocate for oppression.

Yes, sometimes it is not clear whether a particular idea promotes or opposes oppression, in which case it needs to be heard and discussed freely. But once an idea is known to be supportive of oppression, it has no "right" to be heard. Allowing it to be heard may be useful for exposing it as being pro-oppression, but this is not a matter of a "right" but of deciding, given the specific circumstances, what is the best way to oppose and defeat a pro-oppression idea.

Is Free Speech for Oppressors Required in Order to Safeguard Free Speech for Good People?

Some people argue that we need to stand up for the "Right of Free Speech" for everybody--including those who use it to oppress people--because that is the way to protect free speech for good people. The thinking behind this notion is that our society is ruled over by institutions that are neutral in the class war, like a referee in a fight. In this mistaken view, the neutral rulers of society will either adopt a "Free speech for Everybody" policy or else nobody will have a right to free speech, and so, therefore, if we want free speech for the "good guys" then we have to demand it for everybody, including those who use it for oppression.

But our society is NOT ruled by a neutral "referee" that imposes the same rule for both "sides" of the class war. Our society is ruled by the plutocracy--the oppressing side, and it is going to suppress free speech for our side--the anti-oppression side--as much as it can, and promote free speech for it's own side as much as it can. The only way for those against oppression to get the right of free speech is to fight for it. Fighting for the right of free speech for oppressors is crazy. It is as crazy as it would be for somebody who wanted to ensure the right of cooks to use knives for food preparation thinking it was necessary to demand for the right of everybody to use knives for any purpose whatsoever, including murdering innocent people, in order to protect the right of cooks to use knives for food preparation.

We need to carefully think about how to respond to pro-oppression speech. Yes, this can be difficult. It requires taking into account all sorts of things to figure out how best to prevent pro-oppression ideas from gaining support and being acted upon. But let's abandon the fairy tale that we don't have to think because there is a general one-size-fits-all "no need to think" absract "freedom of speech" principle that tells us what to do in all cases--fight to the death for EVERYBODY'S right to free speech. That's absurd.




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