Thursday, 16 March 2017

Schrödinger's Freedom: Let The Feelz Decide What We Can Say

Me accused of bigotry, by Wendy Cockcroft
I've been banging on for some time about censorship and how it is applied, not just by governments setting limits on what we can or can't say or express, but by individuals and group enforcing their ideas of approved speech on the rest of us. The latter is a growing trend and even the most right-on libertarians fall into this, often without realising. Let's take a closer look.

Lawyer Scott Greenfield refers to the oft-exaggerated sentiments of the easily-offended or those who demand special sensitivity as "the feelz." More often than not I find his positions a bit too far to the right for my taste but like it or not, his insistence on being rational at all times is grounded in the belief that rationality makes for fairer legal decisions and therefore a fairer society. I think there needs to be a balance, we're not machines. The reason I'm bringing this up is because he's being proven right again and again as the following cases demonstrate.

Milo Yiannopoulos: the censor censored

As a rule I wouldn't give professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos time of day. He's an alt-right man-child, not a conservative pundit. There's no logical reason to take him seriously. However, in Libertarian circles he's a bit of a darling, the result of which was this hilarious exchange with blogger Adam Steinbaugh. It begins here:
If you read the article we're discussing it seems pretty cut and dried. Well it does to me. The argument is actually about two things: Steinbaugh's support for a Libertarian icon and dislike of Muslims, and me calling him out for both on principle.

This stream is worth reading through not just because I caught Adam giving Milo a free pass to make Approved Speech but because it's an example of the "It's okay if our side does it" trope. It's not a partisan thing, we all do it and I have to catch myself before I do it. To have a blind spot is but human. Does this mean we leave the damn eyepatch on when our error is exposed? I'd have chuckled and let it go but blogger Roy Schestowitz brought it up again, criticising Richard "two cents an hour" Epstein for characterising a rambunctious protest as censorship. Libertarians can be the biggest hypocrites, a point I've made before but this takes the cake: Milo Yiannopoulos, who wants to ban Muslim student organisations, is complaining about being banned from assorted campuses.

Battle of the feelz

Basically, it's the battle of the feelz. It's like two kiddies shouting, "My feelings are more worthy of consideration than your feelings!" at each other. That the man who decried gay rights said he wanted this to protect the LGBT community is the icing on the "OMG, he didn't" cake. The man is a troll. Muslim-hating right-wingers are all over him like a rash because he articulates what they believe, then hide behind freedom of speech when supporting him. Right beneath that, though, is the desire to suppress the speech of others. Where is the Approved Speech pass for people of faith? One presumes it's for the Approved people of faith, if there are any. Meanwhile, the furious social justice warriors lash out with such violence at the thought that Milo might say something offensive they undermine their own cause. It's not okay to threaten harm against people or do damage to property just because the Mean Man said things you don't like. Nobody is forcing you to listen. That's not the point, though, is it? The idea is to try to force others not to listen. Slippery slope, much? Imagine right-wingers banning Bernie Sanders from universities across the nation in case Richard Epstein got the jitters, or something. That Bernie is a well-meaning old man is not the point. Offence is in the rather jaundiced eye of the beholder. Where the Feelz reigns, it's the party with the strongest feelz who prevails.

What does "freedom" mean?

To me, the metric of true freedom is not what you can do till someone makes you stop, it's the Twofold Principle: the individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected. All authoritarians hate the Twofold Principle because they lean towards either the individual (on the right) or towards "the people" (by which they mean "the state"), as if the two were diametrically opposed and we're obliged to choose either one or the other.

The Twofold Principle

My problem with the social justice warriors and Libertarians alike is their antipathy to the Twofold Principle. They can't see the benefit of balancing the demands and needs of the individual with those of the people. Well the way I see it, if you skew one way, for example, to the individual, you cede the field to the most obnoxious and forceful. If, however, you skew the other way, you cede the field to the most easily-offended and daren't say a word in case they faint upon their couches, or something. Techdirt hits this nerve good and hard in its post, Driver Sues State After Receiving Ticket For 'Obscene' Stick Figure Vehicle Decal. Read through the comments where we duke it out — I got stuck right in and nobody has answered me back yet. That might change tomorrow, but for now my calls for self-restraint have not had a response.

A balance of power

Assume, for the purpose of this debate, that the Twofold Principle is indeed the metric of freedom. If that's the case, the liberal mantra "Your freedom ends where mine begins" applies. I'd like to be free from being bombarded with other people's speech whether I like it or not, in return for which I won't be blitzing every online forum with Bible verses and warnings to repent or perish, ye sinners, kind of thing, since I know for a fact that such statements wouldn't be welcome in the places I frequent. What I'm saying, then, is that freedom is not the absence of consequences for one's actions, it's a balance of power between the individual and everybody else. Anyone who deems consideration of the sensibilities of the people around them as an infringement of their freedoms forgets that they would also be subject to the imposition of other people's viewpoints and moral values, etc., if they were in the minority. Those who think like this end up locked in competition with other authoritarian individuals and groups for supremacy of their rights to freedom of speech and expression over other people's. This is the Milo Yiannopoulos controversy, in a nutshell — it has nothing to do with shutting up an obnoxious prat and everything to do with limiting speech to Approved Persons. I'm not having it.

What can we do?

The freedom of speech will always be controversial because there will always be someone pushing the envelope of what's acceptable to find out where the limits are. That said, one man's trash is another man's treasure: what some people find deeply offensive, others find worthwhile and good. I bash Libertarians because they annoy me. I'm sure I irritate the ever-living crap out of them from time to time (because they tell me so. Apparently I'm a statist and a lib) but the one thing I'd never do is try to get them banned. Hell, I wouldn't even ban Milo. I wouldn't support the twit either, I'm not interested in him. We need to let the Milos of this world speak whether they end up converting others to their cause or not — that's the reason for banning them, isn't it? If they're converting people they're meeting a need. It's up to us to address that need instead of trying to pretend it's not there.

Let's be willing to call out bad behaviour where we see it in a calm and reasonable way. If we're having to resort to histrionics and violence to shut down unwanted speech, we haven't got an argument against it. If that's the case, there's something wrong there. Let common sense and fair play — the Twofold Principle — decide what freedom is, not the feelz of the noisy entitled folk.

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