Sunday, October 24, 2010

replying to Saladin Ahmed: one more about Elizabeth Moon, Wiscon, and free speech

I started to leave a comment for Saladin Ahmed here that became so long I'm making it a post instead:

Saladin, I agree with everything you say except your conclusion. Just as it was wrong for the University of London to cancel the Hizb ut Tahrir speaker after people objected to his politics, it was wrong for Wiscon to cancel Elizabeth Moon after people objected to her politics. I don't think the offer to speak should be withdrawn from lesbian speakers or Tony Judt or Noam Chomsky or Norman Finkelstein or Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan or, well, anyone.

Yes, not being invited to speak is not a speech issue. But being uninvited to speak is.

I would make this argument if Moon had been Wiscon's only speaker, but I'm completely baffled about why people ignore Nisi Shawl, the co-GoH. Ain't no one gonna call her an Islamophobe.

Now, I strongly support people's right to protest a speaker. If I'd planned to attend Wiscon with Moon as co-GoH, I would've made a green armband to show which side of Islamophobia I'm on.

I think what I hate most about the affair is a bad solution was found for a problem. What Moon said was all kinds of bigoted and stupid and embarrassing, especially for a woman who studied history. But taking away her invitation to speak and engage with people at the con is wrong.

Mind you, this is an issue that I'm perfectly cool with agreeing to disagree on. Just as she isn't responsible for Islamophobia in the US, most of the people who support uninviting her are not responsible for the decision to do that.

There's an interesting article here on Islamic speech. I agree with much of its criticism of westerners who promote free speech—until they conclude that free speech is a capitalist issue. Like anything, free speech is abused by capitalists, but it's a human issue.

In the quick google on Islam and free speech, I found this, which may explain why this child of the '60s' is obsessed with free speech:

Contemporary understandings of freedom of speech, however, owe even more to developments in the 1960s, during which first civil rights protesters and then objectors to the Vietnam War found the courts upholding their activities against governmental efforts to restrict them. Increased public acceptance of such activities followed. In this respect, the modern protection of freedom of speech is partly fortuitous, for the protection of civil rights demonstrators, paraders, and picketers in the 1960s was largely an adjunct to judicial protection of the civil rights movement generally. Nevertheless, the First Amendment principles developed to further the civil rights movement remained in place to be used for other speakers promoting other causes.

The most important manifestation of this transfer started in the late 1960s, when the Supreme Court with some consistency recognized the right of speakers in the "public forum" to articulate ideas that not only were in opposition to established military and political authority but also were highly likely to offend unwilling listeners or viewers. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Court protected with some frequency those who desecrated the American flag, who displayed offensive language, such as obscene words on an article of clothing, and who conveyed messages often as likely to be harmful as they were offensive. Operating on the assumption that underregulation of even harmful speech was the only way in an imperfect world to protect against the overregulation of harmless speech, the Court went from the protection of Vietnam protesters to the protection of the speech of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, it was the Klan case of Brandenburg v. Ohio that in 1969 established the current extraordinarily strict understanding of the Holmesian idea of "clear and present danger." Speech leading to violence or other unlawful activities can be restricted only if the ensuing lawless activity is likely to be "imminent" and even then only if the speaker has explicitly urged that activity. By 1977 it was considered an "easy case" when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, sitting in Chicago, upheld the right of the American Nazi party to march in a community (Skokie, Illinois) heavily populated by Holocaust survivors, a decision the Supreme Court refused to review.

I also found a quote from the Qur'an that I like, which isn't about free speech, but is about forgiving people for their shortcomings:

The recompense for an injury
is an injury equal thereto (in degree),
but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation,
his reward is due from God,
for God loves not those who do wrong.
But indeed, if any do help and defend themselves
after a wrong done to them,
against such there is no cause of blame.
The blame is only against those who oppress men
with wrongdoing and insolently transgress
beyond bounds through the land,
defying right and justice.
For such there will be a penalty grievous (in the Hereafter).
But indeed, if any show patience and forgive,
that would truly be an affair of great resolution.
Qur'an 42:40-43

Forgiving bigots is hard. I've been beaten by racists; I know how hard forgiving them was. But if you believe in institutional injustice, why blame anyone other than those who control the institutions?


P.S. Anyone reading this, I recommend Saladin's fiction. You can find some of it free on the web, and I'm looking forward to his novel.

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