The text of my post, however, doesn't restate our disagreement about the meaning of the term, and Bob emailed me to complain. And then last Friday, I did another Bloggingheads, and Bob brought up his beef about the definition of the term again. So I invited him to give me permission to publish the whole email exchange, and he agreed, so here goes...
In the blog post, explaining Bob Wright's position, I said that he thought that "free speech is too dangerous because it might be false and it might inspire bad people to act out in terrible ways." Since Bob's point was that Roger Ailes should kick Glenn Beck off the air, Bob said:
Don’t you think most people take ‘free speech’ to refer to speech that is unconstrained by the government? In which case [that] passage from your blog post is a somewhat misleading characterization of my views?...I responded:
I said not once but twice in our exchange that I absolutely wasn’t suggesting any government constraint on speech.
I said in the diavlog itself [in a clip embedded in the blog post] that I don't agree with that limitation. Free speech is a value that extends beyond the right that people have against government, just as privacy and autonomy are larger ideas than their corresponding legal rights. Moreover, it is when people lose the value in its larger form that they slip into accepting government limitations. There's an interrelationship between cultural values and the law, and an evolution of values against free speech can play out in legal restrictions later on.Bob said:
Just about everyone loses the value in its larger form, including, I venture to say, you. Surely there is *some* essay or article that you would say a conscientious newspaper editor shouldn’t publish, right? Say, for example, an op-ed piece recommending that all black people be killed? And, again, the question isn’t whether the editor should be *allowed* to publish it; we’re talking about moral sanction, not legal sanction. I’m saying that pretty much everyone, when you examine their beliefs closely, *does* believe that moral sanction has *some* place in shaping our discourse. But maybe you’ll surprise me and say that an editor who publishes a piece recommending the killing of all blacks shouldn’t be be condemned, and wouldn’t be condemned by you. Is that your position?I said:
What's missing from that hypothetical is that the newspaper has free speech rights too. It doesn't have to pass along other people's speech unless it wants to, just as I don't have to quote people on my blog unless I decide too.Bob said:
It doesn't have to publish anything it doesn't want, for whatever reason. This is what it means to acknowledge that corporations deserve free speech too.
The moral sanction is just more free speech as I see it.
The simpler way of putting that is that people continue to argue about what is true, what is good and what to do and believe. That's free speech. My preference is to argue on the substantive merits rather than to gasp about how bad people need to be cut off from the people who are choosing to listen to them.
Again, I support the free speech of the publisher. No one has to reproduce any speech they don't want to... for any reason, so there is no need to say exactly where the line is for any given organization to decide what they want to say or offer up as an op-ed.
Exactly. And when you choose not to quote people on your blog are you denying them free speech?
So when I advocate that you not quote someone I’m not advocating that you deny anyone free speech.
That’s the exact analogy: If Roger Ailes chooses not to give Glenn Beck a show, he’s not denying him free speech. So if I advocate that Roger Ailes not give him a show, I’m not advocating that anyone be denied free speech.I said:
I agree that you are exercising free speech when you aim moral suasion at Ailes. You're doing the public shaming thing, which I understand. But Fox News wants Beck on the air, because a lot of people like to listen to him. You can avoid him yourself, but you want to stop the people who want to hear him from getting to hear him by convincing Fox that speech like that is not acceptable. So you're using speech to make an argument about what speech is acceptable and trying to persuade Fox to agree with you about the narrow range of acceptable speech, trumping the preferences of the people who do want to be able to see Beck on TV. If your method worked, there would be a narrower range of speech available to people who are currently eager to hear that sort of thing. You don't trust them enough to try to persuade them with arguments running in the other direction from Beck's. You want them to be protected from speech you think is bad. I see that as an anti-free speech position, because you aren't about talking more to the people you want to influence, you're about protecting them from the dangers in the speech you think is bad.Bob said:
OK, so now I’m pretty convinced of the truth of something I suggested earlier in this exchange: If Roger Ailes ran a show whose host was devoted to encouraging people to kill every black person they see, you (a) would not condemn Roger Ailes and (b) would consider me anti-free speech if I did condemn Roger Ailes.I said:
That’s in some sense a defensible position. But I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a minority position—most Americans don’t consider it “anti-free-speech” to condemn Ailes for at least *some* programming decisions, and to try to shame him into changing them. That’s why I said your depiction of my views as anti-free-spech is misleading. Most people don’t define “anti-free speech” the way you’re defining it.
Please do me one favor: Let me know whether my first paragraph, above, does or does not mischaracterize your position. If it doesn’t, then I think I totally understand your position and there’s probably not a lot to be gained by further elaboration. If it does mischaracterize your position, then I’m afraid I remain confused. (Wouldn’t be the first time!)
I think your hypothetical has the same problem that made Godwin invent his rule about bringing up Hitler. It's not conceivable that Fox would have a show like that, and if we lived in a world where there were shows like that on widely seen networks, everything would be different. How did it happen that blatantly racist speech (even without the incitement to murder) became off-limits in our culture? Not because extra-sensitive shamers got way out ahead of the rest of the culture and deprived people of access to speech they wanted to hear. In any case, we are so far beyond the imaginary world where there could be a show like that, that I have no idea what strategy I would adopt if something so bizarre came into being.Bob said:
To make a hypothetical that is enlightening to this discussion, you have to have some speech that there really is currently a big or at least decent audience for, that a lot of people think is worth listening to, and then ask me if I would join you in saying these people should not get what they want. That's what you're doing with Beck. To me, this unwillingness to trust people to hear and think for themselves and to be challenged with additional speech is what characterizes you as anti-free speech.
You're trying to get me to abandon my definition of free speech, but I'm not going to do that. It's funny that your argument is based on what "most people" supposedly think. If the judgment of the people should prevail, why not let the people who want to watch Beck have their Beck? The issue is whether freedom of speech is a high value and where it appears in your hierarchy of values.
Well, IMHO, the purpose of a specific hypothetical in cases like this has nothing to do with its plausibility; the point is to establish the parameters of a person’s general guiding principles. So in this case, depending on how you answered my hypothetical, you’d be saying that either (a) yes, there are at least *some* situations in which you’d adopt the position that (when adopted by me) you call anti-free-speech; or (b) your reluctance to condemn speech, and those who help amplify it, is extreme, and places you among a very small minority of Americans.I said:
So the point is that either (a) I’m anti-free-speech only in the sense that you are; or (b) I’m anti-free-speech only if you adopt a definition of “anti-free-speech” that is held by very few people—which gets us back to my original complaint: your depiction of my views as anti-free-speech was, according to conventional American usage, misleading; for the average American, “freedom of speech” is about the first amendment.
So the Godwin rule is misguided in your view. I disagree. As I said, when your hypos are off-the-wall implausible, they don't help us think about the real world. I'd have to begin by imagining myself in Crazy World and then come up with a way to think in Crazy World. That might be a fun game, but it's not useful in figuring out what to do in the real world, which is what matters.Bob said:
My standard free speech answer is going to be in favor of expression, access to expression, and more speech, not repression of speech and not cutting off conversations that are still in play because they offend some other people who think the conversation should have already ended. I'm not against condemning offensive speech, though, as I've said. That's part of the "more speech" remedy to bad speech. I don't think it's very effective speech however. I'd rather see engagement on the merits with people like Glenn Beck, not hollow assertions that he needs to shut up. That's actually counterproductive. People who want to hear him are going to see him as more worth listening too. As Rush Limbaugh loves to say: "The left will tell you who they are afraid of."
So if Google or Facebook, private corporations, took steps to squelch free speech that would just not even make sense to you as a concept because they can't affect free speech since they are not the government? If people organized and regularly showed up at events to shout down speakers they disapproved of, it would be incoherent to urge them to respect free speech.
I realize it irks you to be characterized as anti-free speech, but surely you must realize that is telling me what powerful rhetoric it is. I'm scarcely going to abandon it because it irks you. You are encouraging me to keep using it as a way of saying what I'm trying to say. Why would I back off and adopt a weaker form of expression?
By that logic you should call me a rapist and a child molester! After all, I would protest that allegation, too—and that protest would just show what “powerful rhetoric it is” and would thus “encourage you to keep using it”.I said:
Here’s a hypothetical that, I hope, is plausible enough for you to entertain: If a poll of your readers showed that most of your readers take “anti-free-speech” to mean “in favor of government censorship” *then* would you quit using the term to describe someone who is manifestly not in favor of government censorship? (Don’t worry, I won’t try to conduct any such poll—and I don’t purport to be sure what the results of such a poll would be. I’m just curious….)
Bob, you are indulging in logical fallacies like mad. If I'm doing something I already choose to do and believe in doing, and you give me an additional reason for doing it, that doesn't mean that I would do other things for the sole reason that was that additional reason. For example, if I love a dress in the store and it fits me, plus it's cheap, so I buy it, that doesn't mean I'd buy other things because they're cheap and nothing more.Bob said:
Defining terms is a huge part of argument. The notion that a term means what would come in first in a vote on the definition is absurd. What would liberalism or feminism or equality or fairness or any number of important terms mean if the meaning was frozen at the current first definition. Even the dictionary doesn't work that way: there are multiple uses for the same word.
As for the right to free speech, the First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech." Just on that text alone, you can see that there are 2 different things "the freedom of speech" and the specific direction to Congress not to abridge it. Now, if you say freedom of speech is nothing more than the direction to government not to abridge the freedom of speech, try to picture what the text would need to be: "Congress shall make no law... abridging Congress's proscription against abridging the freedom of speech" which would make no sense at all. The freedom of speech is something which we enjoy, and the Constitution bars Congress's interference with it.
Ann, I’ll bet you thought you had worn me out. Wrong! Although I have to admit that I don’t think I’ll last much longer.That's the last email, dated February 22. Funnily, the conversation began before the Wisconsin protests began and ended 9 days into the real-life, free-speech extravaganza in my neighborhood. I'd like to say I let him have the last word, which sounds gracious, but I can see that Bob left some questions for me that I never answered. Except I think I did answer it. Obviously, I stand by my definition of "free speech," and I wouldn't change my position based on a poll of my readers!
As for your first paragraph: Obviously I’m not saying that you take the vociferousness of someone’s protest against your characterization of their views as the sole criterion for believing your characterization was valid. But for you to take it into account at all—to think that vociferous protests to *any* extent *validate* your characterization of their views—strikes me as odd. When someone tells me I’ve misrepresented their views, I think, “Oh, shit, maybe I did” and then go check to see if I did. I’d sure save a lot of time if I adopted your approach, and took every complaint about my accuracy as a degree of validation.
As for your final paragraph: I gather you’re saying that the authors of the constitution are here suggesting that “freedom of speech” can be constrained by something other than the government (though, actually, this doesn’t quite follow logically from the phraseology; i.e., they’re not literally implying it). That may be true, but it says nothing about whether, more than two centuries after the constitution was written, the phrase “anti-free-speech” has come to mean “in favor of government constraints on speech”.
Speaking of which: You failed to answer my hypothetical about whether, if most of your readers indeed shared this understanding of “anti-free-speech,” you would refrain from applying the term to me. So first you said you wouldn’t answer a hypothetical because it was implausible, and now it turns out you won’t answer plausible hypotheticals either?
But here's a poll anyway: