Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is Hate Speech Really "Free Speech"?

I had a sinking feeling even before the Supreme Court rendered its recent 8-1 decision that a majority would side with Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (a group I deliberately refer to as "Hell Benders" because they yell that dead soldiers and others are en route to Hell) against the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. The Court's ruling basically upheld an appeals court decision tossing out a $5 million judgment on behalf of the family.

As people may recall, suit was filed by Mathhew's father after the Westboro clique of bible-bangers assaulted his funeral with their cries for Hellfire and damnation, and further called on more damnation (and death, 'praise be to God for Death of Americans!') to all other serving soldiers.

This was disgusting and abominable. Worse, it disclosed the "god" worshipped by these freaks to be no more than an impostor, and veritable Beast. No more worthy of worship than a common cockroach. Let me make the further point that NO ONE can condemn Phelps and his gang of blustering damnation spouters if they themselves call down damnation on ANYONE! If they do, they are pure hypocrites. They have no problem seeing the beam in Phelps' followers' eyes but fail to see the whole logging forest in their own!

Anyway, Chief Justice John Roberts' words were as follows:

"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow and - as it did here- inflict great pain. On the facts before us we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course - to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we don't stifle public debate."

And yes, so because of that we've seen travesties such as the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords (which did arise out of a political maelstrom as the assassin Jared Loughner did use the political term "assassinate" and used it in conjunction with Giffords!) Thus, the medium of rancor and passion, violence can, in extreme cases ....give rise to an unstable person who will act it out, never mind he himself may be incapable of articulating what it is he's acting out. (But here, the actions plus the background, speak louder than words).

By contrast to Roberts' 'get out of jail free' card (and the appeals court), other advanced nations are not so sanguine and recognize a clear barrier between actually offensive speech that veers into hatred (and can excite retributive passions) and speech that doesn't. Thus, Canada has speech that clearly disallows overt hate speech, as Anne Coulter and other rightists found out when they attended a university function there in '09 and tried to use the same hyper-hateful rhetoric they do in the U.S. As I recall, a Muslim student asked Coulter what she (Coulter) would have her do when she insists no Muslims ought to be served in the Canadian Halls of Ivy. Coulter then responded that she ought to take a plane back to wherever it was she came from. When the Muslim student broached the problem about getting on planes, Coulter offered an even more hostile rejoinder.

The Canadian authorities shut the assembly down forthwith and Coulter and Co. had to leave or face arrest.

In Barbados similar provisions proscribing outright hate speech exist, and so - in a nation that is 97% black- one cannot use race baiting, or racist terms, period. Even bloggers that put up racially offensive images (e.g. such as Obama in a witch doctor's garb and bone through his nose) would find themselves before a magistrate and possibly facing 5 to 10 at Glendairy Prison.

The authorities there have no tolerance, not a scintilla, for any communications that may arouse passions and cause mass unrest or riots in a small, confined nation of 166 square miles. They don't have the luxury for that level of free speech any more than authorities here can tolerate people yelling 'FIRE!' in crowded theaters.

This is similar in both France and Germany where it is a felony to crack jokes about the Holocaust, or even try to insinuate publicly that it "never happened". The German authorities already have at least a hafl dozen reprobates serving time for such remarks.

People on this side of the pond are appalled at all this, but I have trouble understanding exactly why, because the application of the so-called "free speech" provision is already unequally applied here in the U.S. of A. Don't believe so? Ask former Colorado University Professor Ward Churchill. The guy made the error of writing a non-descript essay on "Roosting Chickens" after 9-11 which some trolling student in New York just happened to find, and then he sent a copy of it to the university Churchill was to address, as well as to the President of CU.

All hell broke loose and seeing its attacks on Churchill for exercising his free speech rights weren't working, CU then commenced an academic witch hunt (to get around the free speech provisions) and accused him of "academic fraud and plagiarism". Churchill lost his job and hasn't been re-instated. Many faculty, meanwhile, pointed to the fact this ruse was deliberately used to punish Churchill specifically and the faculty "oversight" committe was hokum since no other CU prof was subjected to it. Unequal treatment rearing its head again!

Never mind that around the same time, many similar sentiments were being prominently circulated especially by author Chalmers Johnson (‘Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire’). Thus, he like Churchill, argued that U.S. middle eastern policy along with the first Gulf War led to inevitable 'blowback' and 9/11 Some of the comments of Johnson, made in a September 13, 2001 interview with the magazine In These Times:

Q. Is what happened on September 11 an example of blowback?

Johnson: "Of course it is. That's exactly what my book was written for: It was a warning to my fellow Americans, a year ago, that our foreign policy was going to produce something like this. It's important to stress, contrary to what people in Washington and the media are saying, that this was not an attack on the United States: This was an attack on American foreign policy. It was an example of the strategies of the weak against the overwhelmingly powerful."

Did Johnson pay any price for his speech on the order of Churchill? Not at all! Which means that unequal application of free speech protections means there is unequal treatment under the law. And if slimeballs like Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist pseudo-christians can get their speech justified, even when calling for the deaths of soldiers and "Hell", why not Churchill's speech for using the example of Philosopher Hanna Arendt's "banality of evil" (and specifically applied to bureacrats like Adolf Eichmann) when asserting that the bureacrat traders in the World Trade Center were equally guilty of evil - by enabling trades that undermined the security of millions in Africa and the Middle East?

Yes, both statements are reprehensible. Both are even despicable. But is one more despicable than the other and unworthy of free speech protections? If so, then how so and how is this quantified? My point is that either we have a uniform standard for free speech protections, OR we adopt the stricter standards for speech of Germany, Barbados, Canada and other nations. (In which case both Phelps and Churchill would feel the hammer for their statements). But we simply can't continue to justify who - or which speech - we will defend and protect and which we won't.

These questions need to be asked else we become hypocrites: protecting free speech for some, but withdrawing it for others, for whatever rationalization (e.g. "an attack on the nation's honor" or some other humbug). My point is if free speech can be "painful" (as per Roberts' statement) then it must have the capacity to be so without limit and without regard to those offended, if it is judged truly free - and to use the parlance of Roberts: "we as a nation have chosen a different protect even hurtful speech on public issues."

Then DO it!

Maybe again, our intelligentsia and courts can gain some insight from the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle and especially his application of the "golden mean". Aristotle argued the best humans could do (in the absence of attaining an absolute truth) was to strive for a "golden" mean between two extremes.

Thus, unlike the Greek Stoics (who detested all passions) Aristotle asserted that the passions can have their place in a just society but they are not something we choose per se, so much as choose HOW to react to. Anger, then, is justified if it is used appropriately. Not to use appropriate anger (and to avoid all anger) is to be accused of timidity or wimpiness. However, that doesn't mean one gets a gun and fires on the person who inflicted pain on him - as this would be excess.

Thus, Aristotle argued that anger when needed will allow a spirited response say in the face of some injustice. Or it will allow the same, say if lies are spread about a person on a blog, and another blogger forcefully responds to them rather than remaining quiet. Aristotle's approach to passion thereby focused on cultivating the habit of recognizing the passion before it grew out of control so it was tempered accordingly.

If more in our society were inclined to follow Aristotle's example, there would be less need for overt free speech defense or protections, since people would delimit their expression to the "golden mean" avoiding the extremes that initiate challenges to such speech. Thus, Churchill exercising control on his passions would never let his speech rise to the level of blaming those actually killed in 9/11, just as Phelps would never let his rise to the exteme of blaming U.S. soldiers for homosexuality or some other off the wall nonsense, and hence be designated as hell bound.

In similar manner, fundie bloggers would rein in their own passions so as never to castigate whole religions as "whores" or their followers (or catechists) as "hell bound" or any other segments of the populace as hell bound (never mind it doesn't actually exist, it's the nature of the hate speech underlying it).

Aristotle's essential point was that speech devoid of responsibility cannot really be free, and it doesn't matter if all the courts in the land assert otherwise.

No comments: