I caught a little flack for my blog post yesterday. Among the various unhappy letters I got there was a running theme:
“You’re too sensitive.”
“This is too PC.”
“Nanny state censorship.”
“SJWs can’t take a joke.”
And at first my reaction was just to do the typical delete-delete-block-ignore dance. Any of us who have engaged in political discussion, especially political discussion that borders arts criticism knows that dance well. But something hit me, and I wanted to explore it.
I’m not the one being too sensitive. It’s actually the guys who, “stand with John Cleese,” who are being too sensitive by half.
Ok so two people. One person hears a comment, directed at him, regarding his family and takes offense.
Another person hears a comment, directed at a general audience, regarding anonymized strangers who he probably doesn’t know. He also takes offense.
The first person is offended by something specific to him and his family and life. The second is offended by an abstract concept: to-whit that, “just a joke,” is not a valid defense for saying something awful.
I encounter abstract ideas all the time. Sometimes I engage them and challenge them, saying they’re not OK, or saying they’re interesting or whatever. But what I rarely do is invest the time and emotional energy into creating an anonymous email account and writing a blog comment on a stranger’s blog, talking about how offended I was by their presentation of that abstract. In part that’s because of the delete-delete-block-ignore dance I mentioned up at the top. But in part it’s because I’m fully aware that there will be people who hold different opinions from me. And that’s fine. Really. I might try to persuade them otherwise, or I might not. That depends on the extent to which I care about them, not about their ideas. On the other hand, if you do some problematic act, I’m going to point to that and say, “that’s not OK.” Because when abstract ideas spill out into the real world and have the potential to cause real harm, that’s when it’s important to speak out.
And this gets to what I think a lot of classical liberals misunderstand about the modern left. We, as a movement, are VERY interested in protecting freedom of speech. But, of course, you hear about PC censors all the time. So clearly there’s some skulduggery going on here.
What speech should be protected?
I read an article recently about harm prevention and meaning shift. The article argued that the proliferation of situations like parents who face legal trouble for letting their 10 year old walk home from school had to do with an a-priori assumption that it was good to protect children from harm rubbing up against a shifting definition for what constituted harm.
When these models of behaviour rub up against extant laws enacted to enforce harm prevention we face problems.
And this gets into one of my favourite topics: Overton windows. Since the mid 1990s we have seen a concerted effort by conservatives to move the Overton window to the right in general. They have been more successful in economics than in social policy, in general, but the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ+ laws and anti-abortion rules in the USA is an example of this.
Another region where the frame of discourse was successfully pushed far-rightward was that related to acceptable speech. And this has been to the detriment of free speech, but not for the reasons many people think.
Simply put, the reason that freedom of speech matters is dissent.
That’s why it was so important to protect during the enlightenment. Society was undergoing a MASSIVE, FUNDAMENTAL shift, and the people working to change their world faced persecution for trying to affect change, for speaking out against power. Protecting the right of people to speak protects them from the powerful. THAT is what free speech is for.
But classical liberalism took an absolutist position on free speech. That’s part of the reason we have had such a struggle over hate speech laws. Because even when speech is directly associated with prejudicial violence against rights-protected groups the knee-jerk reaction is to quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s interpretation of Voltaire.
Enter the early culture warriors. And the conservatives in this movement discovered a tic in liberalism they could exploit: they’re trying to censor you.
Never mind that free speech was a tool to let the powerless speak out against the powerful. Never mind that people who try and shout down critique are just as guilty of, “censorship,” (IE: not at all) as those who are doing the criticism. They told classical liberals that the new left wanted to become censors, and the classical liberals bought it hook, line and sinker. In the process, the greatest crime became framed as telling a comedian that his joke was unfunny and unwelcome. It became not inviting a lecturer to speak for pay because they hold disgusting beliefs.
What Hall cited Voltaire on was regarding a hangman (a government employee) literally burning books. Ain’t nobody even suggesting that on the left. And I mean it. I read a bit of Requires Hate’s blog back in the day and even she didn’t call for book burnings. Context matters. And criticizing something, especially an artwork, which (broadly construed) includes jokes, is NOT the same as censoring it.
Of course these sensitive classical liberals aren’t censoring anybody exactly either. But instead what they’re doing is something else: favoring one category of speech over another.
Being fair that’s what I’m doing. When I criticize freely expressed speech what I’m doing is showing disfavor for that speech. And that’s fine. That’s a built in part of the system. But it means the John Cleeses among us should carefully consider what speech they’re favoring. Because when you say, “you shouldn’t criticize that joke,” what you’re actually saying is, “I prefer that joke over your criticism of it,” and that’s a much more loaded proposition.
Ultimately I think that we should be most adamantly protecting speech that dissents against the powerful. This is because I do believe in the importance of free speech. But I think there’s a vast chasm between an individual favoring speech and censorship. Clearly I have not been censored. That’s not my concern with the criticism I’ve received. My concern is that the people who said I was being, “too sensitive,” think it’s more appropriate to be sexually inappropriate, misogynistic or rude than to criticize those behaviors. And that’s not OK.
Taking back free speech
I think the new left needs to abandon liberalism as a guiding doctrine. I say this because liberalism was the new hotness in 1730, but now, clinging to it is like clinging to a Van Leeuwenhoek microscope in a world where fluorescent light microscopy is a thing that exists. Liberalism is tainted by the conservative failure to differentiate between critique and censorship. It’s infested by an economic model fully invested in capitalism. At best, liberalism is a half-measure. The radicalism of Voltaire is not the radicalism of the 21st century.
And this isn’t trying to discount Voltaire. But just as Marx didn’t address climate change, Voltaire didn’t understand the idea of weaponized speech, because, and this is important, speech began being used as a weapon when people speaking freely began using their soapboxes to point out the actual weapons that were being used by the powerful against the disempowered.
Another problem with liberalism is that it has turned being accused of bigotry into a massive anxiety. Because the disempowered were very effective at showing why bigotry is not OK, and why that sort of speech leads directly to violence. But it means that if you say something that makes a liberal feel vulnerable that somebody might accuse them of being a bigot for something they said in the past, they get defensive fast.
That defensiveness is a problem. Because not one of us is perfect. I’ve told shitty jokes. I’ve subscribed to toxic narratives. But then I listened to people saying things like what I’m saying here, and thought about what they had to say, and I’ve decided to make changes. Because the disempowered spoke freely, I was able to better myself.
Art should be protected speech.
Critique of art should be likewise.
Criticism of critique is also free speech, and so-on, ad nauseam.
And we need to accept that. But that means that the left needs to move beyond the paradigm of speech-as-censorship-writ-small and begin actually engaging expression deeply. Dig into what is said in the cracks of language. What does the thrust of a critique mean?
The question is no longer, “should a thing be said?” The question is, “why was that thing said, and what does that entail?” What impact does that speech have? Is somebody harmed?
Ultimately, I have the right to be offended and you to take offense at my offense. But if you find yourself angered by what I’ve just said, what I would plead of you is to introspect and to ask yourself why you’re angry. Are you angry because you’ve told a shitty joke in the past and you don’t want to be criticized for it? Are you angry because you think it’s fine to hit on people you’ve never met?
Are you afraid?
Or are you just being too sensitive?