We all know the orthodox, conventional wisdom about all these hateful expressions.
The conventional wisdom is that, as a healthy social system, we can endure these toxic contributions to our cultural discourse. They will refute themselves and in the broader marketplace of ideas and entertainment, they will be overwhelmed by other, more socially beneficial messages. The CW admits that they are violations of all of us, but also thinks that we become stronger and healthier by enduring them. Free speech, you know. The only antidote to hateful speech is more speech.
In a perverse way, the toxicity of the speech that we can tolerate is seen as a sign of how strong we are. That is a sort of masochism, if you ask me. In effect, we prove ourselves by allowing ourselves to be violated and disrespected.
This constant violation (the free circulation of violent hate speech) has a power. One of the effects of being violated and accepting it, is that it binds you to the violator. If someone slaps you and can convince you that you are a better person for having accepted it, they have gained a measure of power over you. The next time they slap you, if you resist, you are not only resisting them, but admitting that you were wrong not to resist them before.
We are collectively under the spell of pornographers, misogynists, the nazis and the klan, the racists, the aggressive gun-nuts, the hate groups. We are absolutists about defending their rights, even though they have no respect for the dignity of others.
And periodically, some consumer of this vile stuff engages in mass murder or horrendous sexual violence. How awful! But when someone digs into the perpetrator's browser search history, it turns out to be no surprise. The fact that women online are so frequently threatened and harassed must mean that there are a lot of anti-female terrorists out there, practicing with messages, for now.
It's a difficult problem to solve. There is no good way to separate the merely disgusting from the dangerous, and any effort to eliminate the dangerous will place restrictions on the different and even the prophetic. Many great works of art and literature were judged obscene and scandalous when they first appeared. Censorship is the tyrant's tool. So the small danger that evil hateful speech poses to our social health seems so much less than the damage that trying to restrict it would do.
So we, as a culture, are left with a pragmatic masochism. We know this stuff is poison; we don't know how avoid consuming it; we hope that it doesn't hurt us too much; we are proud of ourselves for being brave and reckless enough to consume it anyway.
Liberalism, in all its forms, makes a bedrock commitment to this masochistic understanding of liberty and free expression. It's more important that everyone has the fullest freedom of expression than that everyone feels safe and respected.
But what if the world of culture and communications have changed so much that our conventional
wisdom is no longer true? Is it really true that we can be a healthy society which protects the dignity and safety of every person, and yet allow the full free expression of misogyny, racism, homophobia, political paranoia by anyone, anywhere? I am asking whether our conventional wisdom needs to be reconsidered. In UU speak, maybe the conventional wisdom is too grounded in first principle thinking (everyone has to have the right of free expression) and insufficiently conscious of the 7th principle. All of our speech is interdependent; what everyone says becomes a part of an entire culture, which is either hostile or nurturing to all.
Virtue and decency have become passive; while hatred, violence, and disrespect have become the active element in the culture. Hatred acts; decency accommodates.