Thursday, October 21, 2010

A sad day in the commons: on the suppression of error at NPR and WisCon

I've learned of two decisions made by organizations I had respected:

NPR Fires News Analyst After Remarks About Muslims

Wiscon withdraws its invitation to Elizabeth Moon

disagree vehemently with Islamophobes. But the greater wrong has been done by those who are punishing them for saying what they believe. I'm rarely a binarian, but on this, I'm comfortable with a simple division: There are those who support free speech for all and those who silence others.

Frederick Douglass said, "To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker."

John Stuart Mill said, "The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

I'll add this to Mill's point: when you suppress speech, the issue changes from their ideas to your suppression.

The danger to free speech comes whenever people forget that the ends and the means are the same. That happens on the left and the right:

Frank Hague said, "We hear about constitutional rights, free speech and the free press. Every time I hear those words I say to myself, That man is a Red, that man is a Communist. You never heard a real American talk in that manner."

Vladimir Lenin said, "When one makes a Revolution, one cannot mark time; one must always go forward -- or go back. He who now talks about the freedom of the press goes backward, and halts our headlong course towards Socialism."

Americans have an especially troubled relationship with free speech. As Alexis De Tocqueville noted, "In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them."

At NPR and Wiscon, the majority has raised its barriers. Whether they'll stand depends on those of us who are not within their walls.

Capitalists talk about the "marketplace of ideas" because they think everything is for sale. I don't think speech should be for sale, so when I'm feeling pretentious, I talk about the agora, but really, we're all just talking about the intellectual commons, the sphere of ideas that belongs to all of us. If we can't agree to disagree, we can never hope to coexist. We can only hope to conquer, and I want no part of a world where ideas, no matter how much I may love them, are imposed by force.