Free Speech, Poison and Masochism

 There is vile, poisonous, hateful and dangerous speech out there. Misogynist rantings, aggressive assertions of male power and privilege. Paranoid ravings of rightwing insurrectionists. The Klan and the Nazis and their racial hatreds and bigotry. Really sicko pornography. Websites that encourage and support young women's anorexia and other eating disorders. Extended first person shooter games. Many, although not all, are expressions of the conservative backlashes against the agents of progressive change.

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.
The world is different now. There are no gatekeepers on what gets published. Distribution is world-wide, immediate, and indiscriminate. And now, communication creates networks and even communities. And communities can codify impulses and observations into movements and ideologies. And there are always unstable people who become fanatics for any cause, and become violent. In many ways, our culture is becoming structured for the creation and amplification of hatreds and prejudices.

Virtue and decency have become passive; while hatred, violence, and disrespect have become the active element in the culture. Hatred acts; decency accommodates.


  1. I agree with a large part of what you are saying here; about how we as individuals participate in society and perpetuate its harms under the guise of tolerance and freedom. As to what to do about it, as to whether we are trapped by it, I disagree.

    I believe systems of oppression are perpetuated unintentionally, and that religion is one of the ways we can become aware of our intentions and what we really mean by our thoughts and actions. This is one of the major reasons why I belong to a religious institution, I feel it is one of the few places in society with this role. People can be quite educated, and intellectual, but unintentionally perpetuate harm because of a lack of experience that causes transformational change to a different behavior - something I hope religion does - something I think you are doing write now by writing about the societal situation. To me this is a bit different status quo than oppressive forces intentionally causing harm; it is alway a few who do overt violence justified by the covert violence of the status quo. The power does not lay in overcorrecting the few aberrations of the social contract, but in talking to all the bystanders who do not realize that parts of the social contract permitted this to happen. I suppose what I mean is how are we all to be accountable. I was reading Conrad Wright's walking together, who quoted a minister on freedom (who I can't remember at this moment) who said yes, freedom, but freedom for what? Freedom for freedom's sake? No...freedom for commitment to the in this case, freedom of speech in order to more perfect, critique, and lift up our society, not to tear it apart so that the social contract is a breeding ground for violent oppression. So freedom yes, but freedom with accountability, and seeing how we are a part of this system - to me, everything is a reflection of my participation...either my direct, indirect, ignorant, or complete lack of participation. In order to change society, we must engage in the task of asking ourselves how we participate in it, and what we can do to transform ourselves and society to change it...this is accountability to the whole that I see lacking. So to sum up, there are three things religion does to counter this: create intentionality in thought, word, and deed, lead transformation individually and holistically, and hold those who would tear us apart accountable to the freedoms they employ.

  2. It is interesting that many Western democracies that are otherwise more liberal than we are have a less expansive notion of "free speech" and ban hate speech or speech that lies about reality such as the Holocaust. Holocaust deniers are prosecuted in such countries. I wonder if any demonstrable harm comes to countries like Canada for this more "conservative" view?


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