Free speech versus the spread of "harmful" ideas...

One of the points often brought up in debating Milo Yanowhatever is that of free speech, and whether common citizens shutting off avenues of such is harmful to the overall idea of it. One in particular is that by limiting the ideas that “deserve” to be heard, that starts the slippery slope.

It’s this one in particular that I was musing over. On Reddit, someone pointed out a post on a sub taken over by the so called “alt right” in which the writer hoped that a prominent figure would “de-stigmatize” “genocide along racial and religious lines” as the “only way to preserve western civilization and culture.”

That got me wondering what we REALLY think about “allowing” the spread of certain ideas. On one hand, you could argue that the above directly advocates for harm against people, so “it’s different.” On the other hand, what exactly are the “alt right” advocating in general? The peaceful ejection of all non whites and non Christians? It seems absurd.

This has been on my mind for a while, so I’m not sure I’m explaining myself or covering everything properly. But does anyone have any thoughts?

It seems like what some people are afraid of is that the uneducated and gullible (for example) need to be protected from hearing really bad stuff that might make them think and behave in really bad ways. The rest of us are capable of evaluating and condemning this really bad stuff, we can walk away or protest it or do whatever we think is the right thing to do to make sure it doesn’t spread, but there are too many people who are susceptible.

I’m not sure if this is what you are suggesting. If it is, putting it in these terms may put it in a different light for you. Whether or not you have that low opinion of a large number of your fellow citizens, I strongly believe that it is never a good idea to censor any ideas.

Loathsome they may be, but we have a right to say these things, and to hear these things.

(And to use rude names against those who believe them.)

The “cure” to “bad freedom” is not less freedom.

This type of debate is what I was looking for, yes. Everyone has limits; few people would be happy with a “did the Holocaust actually happen?” presentation at Pine Elementary School. It just depends on where your limits are and why. Of course, examples like that are easy. What’s tougher is, say, the YouTube personality who has a large youth following who expresses white supremacist/nationalist views on either his videos or on another social media platform.

As to your specific point, I suppose it depends whether you think that, say, Harvard University hosting a “should we put all the Muslims into camps” debate, on its own, “de-stigmatizes” the points of view expressed therein.

Elementary school is a bit early to be debating holocaust denial, but I think by high school at least, students should be aware that there are such people in the world, and what their arguments are, and what the available evidence shows. How the teachers and parents react is 90% of the battle; it would be great if young people could be taught that the best approach to points of view that we strongly oppose is not shrieking and name-calling but rather calmly listening to and then (presumably) destroying their arguments with evidence and logic*. Early exposure to things like holocaust denial can inoculate a young person against being swept away by something more convincing later.

So I challenge, to a degree at least, your assertion that we all have limits. The only limit I can think of that your example brings up is that the topic should be age-appropriate.

eta: *This is how I used to deal with people who wanted to argue about the existence of deities. Not that I put belief in deities in the same category as holocaust denial, but it is a view that I strongly oppose, and one which some approach with a lot of shrieking and name-calling. I no longer have these kinds of discussions because I have found it not worth my time, but the principle stands.

The general liberal line is that the “free market of ideas” is the best way for a society to figure this stuff out. This ignores a lot of problems with both markets and democracy and its advocates seem to think the wise crowds will produce some mushy middle safe centrism because the crazy factions will cancel each other out instead of placing into power an apocalyptic religious uprising or an anti-vax movement. On the plus side, it gets to skip the thorny discussion of how to decide which positions aren’t allowed to be aired.

What if the market of ideas concludes the opposite and is thus self-defeating? So meta.

A lot of people advocate harm against people, direct or otherwise, like pro-war advocates or people who want to take away people’s healthcare.

That’s their friendly public position and many even believe it, but it’s ahistorical. If you want to see how forced mass migration works look at the trail of tears, the Armenian death marches, or the partition of India.

Yes. Exactly. Precisely. Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Human beings do not come into the world with the ability to use rigorous logic, or any type of logic whatsoever. The ability to craft arguments, to evaluate pieces of evidence, and to assemble a convincing case are all things that must be learned. That’s the main purpose of education. So how do people gain the ability to do those things? In a gym, people build muscles by pushing weights against the force of gravity; you can’t build muscle by pushing weights downwards and having gravity do the work for you. Mental muscle, likewise, is built by pushing against contrary ideas. It can’t be built well in an environment where everyone agrees. If educational institutions assume that there’s some reason to “protect” students against ideas that cause “harm”, then they are depriving those students of the chance to get the best possible education. William Deresiewicz recently wrote an excellent article making this point:

Dogma, and the enforcement of dogma, makes for ideological consensus. Students seldom disagree with one another anymore in class, I’ve been told about school after school. The reason, at least at Whitman, said one of the students I talked to there, is mainly that they really don’t have any disagreements. Another added that when they take up an issue in class, it isn’t, let’s talk about issue X, but rather, let’s talk about why such-and-such position is the correct one to have on issue X. When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps. But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.

That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer. But the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong. In fact, you are wrong: about some things and probably about a lot of things. There is zero percent chance that any one of us is 100 percent correct. That, in turn, is why freedom of expression includes the right to hear as well as speak, and why disinviting campus speakers abridges the speech rights of students as well as of the speakers themselves.

Read the whole thing here:

My response would be that that kind of give and take rarely happens, especially not immediately. So we’re left, in my viewpoint, with giving Milo and the genocide guy an opportunity to say what they want without response, on the assumption that others can just talk his audience out of it afterward. I don’t find that practical or realistic, especially given that you would rarely KNOW who has those kind of viewpoints to begin with, so how do you dissuade?

As for “shrieking and name calling,” I would argue that when you’re a person dealing with another person who publicly advocates your genetic inferiority and/or his desire to put you and everyone like you in a concentration camp, that perhaps that level of passion is, at the least to be expected.

On the same token, I assume that you do not believe that providing a forum for such beliefs is, in of itself, de-stigmatizing or legitimizing that point of view? Because I expect the people in the paragraph above hear the conversation as going something like this:

Racist: Genocide is a legitimate way to preserve western culture that we should look at.
Minority: What?! That’s nuts! And you want to go around and arguing that in major public forums? My life and freedom? I won’t let you…
You: Now, now, let’s hear him out about wiping out you and your race. Free speech is important

Obviously that’s not how you would characterize such. But I’m sure you can at least see how it must look to, say, Jews and Muslims, who already get enough shit from others.

Q: What happens when a geologist or biologist debates a young earth creationist?
A: The YEC’s audience learns nothing they’re willing to take on board, the biologist’s audience learns nothing of value, and creationism gets a signal boost.

The idea that any given idea is worth debating is simply wrong. It assumes two things that are both patently false.

First, it assumes that any given debate can be productive. This is false. If someone with an honest interest in the truth debates a liar with an interest in propaganda, the result is often a complete disaster. Particularly if the person with an honest interest in debate isn’t aware that their opponent is a dishonest propagandist - and if they were aware of that, why would they agree to the debate in the first place (here’s looking at you, Bill Nye)? And even if the party portraying the blatantly false ideas is coming at it honestly and earnestly, the debate still inherently sends the message that these are two ideas that are both similarly worthy of consideration. It implies that there is a debate worth having. Often, this simply isn’t the case, and this elevates ideas that are crap. Some ideas are just wrong, and the people who hold those ideas should not be debated, as debate implies that the idea is worthy of consideration. They should instead be educated. As Richard Dawkins put it when asked why he doesn’t debate creationists, “That’d look great on your CV, not so good on mine.”

Secondly, it assumes that in any given debate, the party with the truth on their side wins. This is, again, patently false. Go back and watch some of Duane Gish’s old debates. The man’s ideas are incredibly stupid and wrong, and we know that they are stupid and wrong. But the crowd doesn’t know that, and while Gish is able to throw out dozens of individual claims, all of which seem compelling, within the span of a few minutes, debunking those nonsense claims takes far longer than his opponent has. Gish came away from a lot of those debates looking like he won, because he was willing and able to lie, and calling him on his lies is a difficult thing to do within the format. This despite the fact that the position he was defending was that the earth was 6,000 years old and there was a worldwide flood within the last 5,000 years, with every species of animal on the planet repopulating from a mere two individuals.

Some ideas are not worthy of serious debate in a modern society. And of course, I have to question the reasoning of anyone who honestly believes that someone like, say, Milo Yiannopolous or Rush Limbaugh or Ken Ham is actually interested in an honest, open debate.

Mockery and scorn, not censorship.

In general, you “dissuade” by giving young people enough tools to figure out what is trash and what is sensible for themselves by the time they reach college. This isn’t easy, and our educational system is pretty much set up to do the opposite.

Reason doesn’t preclude passion, one can certainly be vehement and thorough as one demolishes bogus arguments. But shrieking and name calling achieve nothing and persuade no-one.

You misrepresent my view. No-one is obliged to “hear out” anyone who is saying hateful things. And again, what is your alternative? Pretend those views don’t exist? Throw rocks at the speaker? Where do you draw the line?

As for your example, why would it only be the threatened minority that is objecting? There are lots of non-threatened members of the majority who would also object and disagree.

Again, I can only ask, what is your alternative? You are asking if people should be allowed to express hateful views. How do you propose to stop them? Shut down all the subreddits that have hateful stuff in them? That is neither practical nor desirable. I don’t object if you don’t invite them to speak at your college, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the students won’t be exposed to these views anyway.

So you wish to change the debate from hateful views to things you disagree with? There are a lot of things wrong with this quoted bit, but I will only say that, in the education of young people, it should be perfectly ok to let them know that some people have outlying opinions due to their religious beliefs, that this is what science says on the subject, here is why the scientific method works on a practical level, and that ultimately each of us has to decide which path to follow for ourselves.

Again, I was not talking about setting up debates; I was talking about not censoring the expression of views I don’t like.

Well, I would save the mockery and scorn and focus on repeating, as often as necessary, why I think whatever it is is wrong.

One point to bear in mind is that Free Speech protections protect the government from censoring us, not from other private citizens censoring us. Just as someone has the right to say something, someone else has a right to tell them that that is a heinous idea.

As far as the extremes taken by some, take an extreme example: someone is explicitly advocating murder. Who would bat an eye over someone being assaulted and/or shouted down for that? This is an easy example because explicitly advocating murder is illegal. But what about when murder, or lets say genocide, is encouraged in a very indirect, sly way that is not illegal but is still trying to encourage and even normalize murder? What is permissible then?

Also, the free marketplace of ideas is not an end in itself, so just saying all non-illegal speech should be taken in stride and discussed rationally is, in my opinion, a misunderstanding of the concept. It is to facilitate the discovery of truth and truly moral behavior while sifting out falsehoods and immoral behaviors. Heinous ideas should be called heinous and thrown out of the marketplace. Ideas that are advocating for undeserved violence against others should be called out and thrown out of the marketplace.

A piece I recently read that I’m mostly on board with is this piece from Slate: Tolerance isn’t the goal—truth is.. Still ambivalent over the use of violence, but the basic idea that tolerance isn’t a good in itself is something I agree with.

The partition of India wasn’t ‘forced’ at least not at the level of governments. Hindus and CHristians are free to live in Pakistan/Bangladesh today and Muslims are free to live in India, and many do (more so in Bangladesh than in Pakistan proper). There were plenty of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus who were forced to leave their homes because of mob violence on both sides, but there was no legal coercion or legal disabilities placed on Hindus or Muslims by either Jinnah’s or Nehru’s government respectively.

A better example of forced mass migration would be, e.g., the expulsion of Germans from eastern Europe after WWII, the mutual expulsion of Greeks and Turks in the 1920s, and the expulsion of Jews from certain countries like Egypt in the 1950s or 1960s, I forget exactly when. I’d argue that the first two were probably the best situation that could be hoped for all around: they did result in a more ethnically and homogeneous landscape in eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, and have probably kept the region more peaceful than it would have been otherwise.

If the Straight Dope banned anyone who advocated liberal positions, what would you think about that? How would you criticize it without mentioning the liberal ideal of free speech?

What if there were a reactionary group who looked for people arguing for atheism or same-sex marriage on the internet and ratted them out to their employers in hopes of getting them fired?

The government, at least in the US, has not generally been the biggest enemy of free speech. It’s been the community, acting privately most of the time. That did not stop people from invoking the 1st amendment to defend their right to say, sell racy books or show movies with profane material. It’s not really a free country if your life can be ruined because you were seen watching Last Temptation of Christ at the local theater

If you’re clever about it, you can explain the problem in a mocking and scornful manner.

To both of these, so what? If the SDMB became a fascist-leaning organization I would just stop patronizing it. And everything on the web is public already, and chances are most bosses are already au courant with their employees’ activities online, if they care about such things.

In any case, what do you propose to prevent these two situations? In my opinion, yours is kind of a cowardly mode of argumentation. Instead of saying “what about situation A or situation B” why don’t you state what your position is, with examples of how that would work if you want, and then let us see and react to what you are actually proposing?

People aren’t entitled to an audience. If people want to hear Milo and not a competing point of view that’s their right. In the internet era it’s not hard to put your message out for free.

You would dissuade in the same way as everybody else - put out your ideas to a general audience, of whoever is willing to listen.

Or you can try to stop other people from listening to Milo and the genocide guy, because other people who are stupid might believe what they say. Then whoever thinks that people are stupid enough to believe you can shut you down, and whoever has the biggest goons wins.

That’s democracy!


Democracy isn’t determined by who has the biggest goons, just by who has the most.