Friday, March 11, 2011

Free speech

Since I'm in the midst of a blogging frenzy (spring break starts this afternoon, so there is not much work I need to do right now), I might as well add my two cents' worth (it might be less than that) to the debate about the Westboro Baptists case. I pretty much agree with what Jahel Queralt Lange writes at Practical Ethics: "surely there is a lot of room for improvement in our democratic systems but to allow hateful speech doesn’t go in that direction."

What is at issue, it seems to me, is what value insults can possibly have.  For those unfamiliar with the case, (as I understand it) a family that hates gay people calls itself a "church" and "protests" at military funerals, insulting both gay people and the dead soldiers, in order to get publicity for their views.  The US Supreme Court has upheld their legal right to do this.  A commenter at Practical Ethics writes that: "if we are not confronted with opposition to our most commonly held beliefs then, as you say, we will not be able to “provide better arguments in favour of our convictions”, and understand the real meaning of our hatred of hate speech."  He is paraphrasing J.S. Mill, but seems to endorse Mill's view.  But arguments are not what you use to counter insults, are they?  In response to the paper I am going to be revising over spring break, one reviewer provided a number of comments along the lines of, "You assert x, but I don't believe x. Give me an argument that will change my mind."  This is the kind of comment that might cause me to improve the paper, so it clearly has value.  A comment along the lines of "This sucks!" or "God hates your paper" would have no such value.  Of course, in the face of such abuse I might improve the paper, but this would not be a direct response to this kind of opposition.  A direct response would be to insult the reviewer back.  

I was once called "four eyes" while walking down the street, minding my own business.  Was this opposition to my belief that I am not inferior because I wear glasses (or contact lenses)?  Did it spur me to provide better arguments in favor of my conviction that it is OK to be short-sighted?  Of course not.  And I see no reason to think that the answer would be different if I had been insulted because of being visibly gay, or a  soldier, or African American, or what-have-you.  The insults in such cases are more serious (I was genuinely amused by the weakness of the insult in my case), but this does not make them more valuable as spurs to argument in defense of cherished beliefs.  It makes them less valuable. 

One problem might be drawing a line between arguments or expressions of opinion, on the one hand, and insults, on the other.  For instance, denials that the Holocaust happened are surely often insults, produced in order to offend, not because they are believed.  But some people might genuinely believe that it did not happen.  I would not try to remove anyone's right to express opinions like this, nor the right to insult people as mildly as my insulter did.  Actually, what I mean to say about insults is that I would not support a law against such mild insults, because its enforcement would probably cause more problems than it solved.  But I see no value in a right to insult as such.  If pornography can be banned (within the limits set by the US Constitution), why not other forms of obscenity?  And how is it not obscene to insult the dead at a funeral? 


  1. The last question seems right. Of course, technically, the picketers were not at these funerals but were 1000 feet away. Of course, maybe what should count is intention to be "at" the funeral.

  2. Yes, that's a good point about their location. But the point of what they are doing is clear enough. And I don't see that they have any moral right to do it, nor any reason why we somehow have to put up with it.

  3. Funny. On a different reading of the "point of what they are doing" than you intended, I really don't think the point of what they are doing is clear. Are they protesting the war? Homosexuality? "Thank God for Dead Soldiers"? How am I supposed to read that? Seems like now that "Don't Ask Don't Tell" has been repealed, they [the WBC] could consolidate and clarify their message, and, I guess, picket the funerals of gay soldiers.

    Half-jokes aside, I basically agree with you. Presumably, there's some distance (e.g. they stay in Kansas) that I could live with, but, yeah, I'm all for "zoning" "free speech" well away from funerals. (I have a particular problem with that venue in this case.)

  4. Yes, the venue makes it worse. (I would say much worse, but I can imagine other venues that might be close in badness.) I don't think they make their point very clear, but from what I've read (mostly Wikipedia, probably, but a few blogs and part of the Supreme Court decision) they are basically against homosexuality. From there they go to "God hates America" because it is "too tolerant." But none of it makes much sense.