Thursday, May 4, 2017

This Speech is Free

Writing at The Washington Post, Catherine Rampell notes a new poll which, if accurate, shows that 49% of the people who responded to it are silly twits who should not be allowed back into a voting booth until they can demonstrate they understand the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The poll was taken in light of recent campus events in which industrial-sized toddlers threw tantrums serious enough that the adults involved were unable to complete their planned activities. In much the same way that a two-year-old's meltdown in the grocery store can make mom or dad head home and schedule the trip for later, the chanting children afraid of all ideas but their own have forced speakers to record their talks for online viewing or in some cases cancel altogether. Were this poll -- asking whether or not campuses should allow guest speakers to appear if their words "are considered hateful or offensive by some" -- conducted on an actual campus, we would expect a large group to respond the same way their emotional peers respond to naptime at the day care center.

But the new poll was not conducted on a campus and includes the responses of everyday Americans who are supposed to be more grown up than that. And if it's right, 30% of those people think universities should not have such speakers on campus, with 19% being unsure about it. The questions in the poll are reprinted exactly as they were asked, so there's no guesswork involved: 30% of the people responding have forgotten what country they live in and 19% require spinal reconstruction.

We can allow that people didn't listen closely to the question, I suppose, and maybe they didn't notice the words "considered" and "to some." The problem is that "hateful" and "offensive" are by definition subjective standards. Sure, some speech is clear, cut-and-dried hateful and would be seen as such by everybody.

But most such speech lives in a gray area that requires one to accept a particular definition of hate or offense in order to consider it hateful or offensive. I, for example, mired as I am in my traditional Christian theism, would consider a speech advocating mandatory readings of Phillip Pullman in church to be offensive. Many people, though, would not think it offensive at all and might want to hear this presentation. According to the poll 30% of people think that I, in my role as "some," should be able to prevent that speech from being given because I consider it to be offensive.

The irony in this situation, I think, is that most of the speech that really is hateful and offensive should be heard more often because exposure to it frequently drains it of power. In my example, a regular reading of Pullman would quickly point out how lightweight his thought is when it comes to theism. When you hear a good old-fashioned anti-Semitic "Jews run the world!" ranter start going off, you figure out pretty quickly what a load of hooey it all is. When people watched the ilk of Bull Conner set dogs and fire hoses on polite, well-dressed folk who wanted to do radical things like vote in elections and sit down at a lunch counter, even those who probably retained quite a bit of racial prejudice started saying, "That's not what this country is about."

And I'll confess overreacting with my suggested remedy to the problem. I'm not in favor of disenfranchising people who should know better -- if for no other reason than on some issue or another I've been among their number and will be again. People who don't know what they're doing have just as much right to vote as people who do. Even if it seems the former are already distinctly over-represented in elective office.

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