Against censorship via bigot
Recently there has been a huge fight in the atheist community, and one of the features of it was the issue of harassment and free speech.
This is not about atheism, it is about a much larger, more important issue where the online atheist community unfortunately often acts as a negative example.
Now before we get started, I want to take Ophelia Benson's advice on this and separate out what I mean when I talk about rights here - I am talking about the moral right. The legal right varies from country to country, and I am not a lawyer so I can't argue that.
What I can argue however is the moral right - that right which we mean when we stand up and say we defend free speech. That right is the right to the free exchange of ideas, not simply to express ideas that contradict other people, but be exposed to such ideas if we seek them.
So do people have the free speech moral right to harass other people? No. No they do not.
Because you see the thing about harassment, including online harassment, is that it is not about expressing a given view. It is about preventing somebody else from expressing theirs.
This is important, because a lot of people seem to think getting a negative response to their ideas is bullying, or censorship or something like that. When you put your idea out there, part of what you are advertently or inadvertently doing is testing it against the ideas of other people, and sometimes the reaction is going to be negative.
This reaction is generally not bullying. You might not like the fact that people disagree with you, or even that they might end up disliking you over that disagreement, but that in and of itself is just part of life.
Lots of people can't stand Justin Bieber's music. They are not bullying him by expressing the fact that they happen to have enough taste to not like the musical equivalent of McDonald's.
To illustrate bullying however, let’s take a recent campaign against one Laci Green. She was getting harassed by people sending her her address, and one of them sent pictures of her own house.
Does this class as free speech? Is this simply "I don't like your ideas"? No. It was aimed at stopping her expressing her ideas, so it is in fact the very opposite of free speech. It is censorship.
A recent kick-starter campaign was held in order for a feminist to get together the funds to do a proper analysis of sexism in gaming.
Her Wikipedia entry got defaced with porn, her videos got reported to YouTube for “terrorism”, she received all sorts of threats and a campaign of online hate. She also managed to get about $144 thousand more than she was asking for, but that is aside the point right now.
The point is that this entire campaign was designed for one reason – to keep her from expressing her opinion. It was not free speech; it was the exact opposite of free speech. It was censorship.
Now does this mean one cannot express disagreement? Of course not, but disagreement is not expressed by sending someone a photo of their own house. Nor is it expressed through threatening somebody with violence, or trying to drive them off the Internet entirely.
There is a willingness amongst all too many people to defend the bully, to make a big deal about how the complainer is always wrong, and to say “free speech” when speech degenerates into threats. I blame cartoons for this one.
A lot of the cartoons I grew up watching seemed to have this thing with the complainer always being wrong, and always being kind of sleazy about it too. Censorship is about maintaining order - about keeping a status quo where the powerful stay powerful, and the powerless stay powerless.
The thing about this kind of bully, the kind that is going after feminists right now, is often they are engaged in maintaining the social status quo. In a racist society, the guy who stalks the black kid wearing a hoodie has every right to “stand his ground”, and people complaining about the racism of this are out of line with the group.
Just imagine for a second if Trayvon Martin had a gun, and had shot first. Just imagine if he went to court and said “This guy was following me while I was talking to my girlfriend on my cell phone. I saw he had a gun, I thought he was planning to mug me.”
Do you honestly think any of the people defending his shooter now, would have been defending Trayvon Martin?
Personally I don’t, because Martin would not have been defending the status quo. Martin, as a black man, was breaking the status quo by being there, and he would have been breaking the status quo of who has power by “standing his ground.”
And that is exactly what happens with feminism online. Pointing out gender issues upsets the power structure, simply pointing that there is a power structure upsets the power structure.
When women stand up for themselves, even just a little bit, even simply asking people not to hit on them in elevators, or talking about the need for harassment policies at big conferences, or relating their opinions on video games, or talking about sexism, even that little bit, not only will they get threats but there will be no shortage of “enlightened” philosophical types making excuses.
And that is going to need to change if we are going to be serious about free speech. That is going to have to change when we talk about when we do, and do not stand up for someone's "free speech."
Because right now, all too many people are standing up for censorship via hateful bigot and calling it free speech.
PS: Go read Pamela Gay's speech on making the world better. It is important.
H/T Ophelia Benson.