While I’ve always thought that there was something particularly crass about our habits of erecting edifices of grief to strangers whom we perceive as similar to us even as we note and let pass without comment the deaths of so many more distant, more different people in our country’s wars and misadventures, and while I likewise find our habit of reacting with dismay to items like the prosecution-unto-death of Aaron Swartz even as we’re dimly aware that poorer, less connected, less important people are hounded to their lives’ ends by the dirty machinery of our penal system, which is powered by punishment wholly out of scale to any wrong, punishment which is itself quite often the only wrong ever committed, the sheer, tawdry, grotesquely ill-proportioned persecution of the young man for acts whose criminal taxonomy is something out of a Lewis Carroll poem is the sort of spectacle that really does make you wonder how long, actually, a society intent on destroying its genius in order to preserve the inbred rights of its rentier class to extract filthy lucre from the margins of genuine intellect can endure.
Following a call by a French minister to censor certain so-called hateful speech, a Guardian writer wrote what I’d call a predictably contrarian piece praising limited forms of censorship, and Glenn Greenwald wrote a predictably outraged piece arguing that
Nothing has been more destructive or dangerous throughout history – nothing – than the power of the state to suppress and criminalize opinions it dislikes.
Let’s say I’m not entirely convinced by this formulation, or by its corollary slippery slope: that the first infringement on free expression is the first step toward the camps. I mean, if we reject the notion that government-sanctioned gay marriage leads inexorably to interspecies romance or traditional Mormonism or whatever, then we’re also obliged to reject the notion that outlawing fag-baiting and Holocaust denial will march us straight into 1984.
Now I’m not in favor of government censorship, and The Higher Power According to Your Understanding of Him only knows that letting a bunch of self-satisfied énarques troll through hashtags, fishing for hatefulness and incivility and historical revisionism is a distressing—if also comic—proposition. But I do subscribe to this formulation:
First of all, I still lean to free speech absolutism. My position right now is to simply not give a shit about defending jerks.
That is to say, I think the left confuses the imperative to defend the least among us with the need to zealously defend the biggest fucking dickshits among us. The ACLU is great and all, but we completely over-valorize getting the Nazis a permit to march in Skokie. There’s a terrific irony underlying this notion that on the other side of prohibiting the swastika is inviting the yellow star. I do think the Nazis should be able to march past the synagogue and the Klan through downtown Birmingham, but we’ve too carefully cultivated the reflex to leap out of our seats when it seems that such ability might be curtailed.
Or, taking the French example, the conditions of extreme poverty and repression that obtain in the banlieues are much greater “threats”—are much more “destructive and dangerous”—than a bill to ban #SiMonFilsEtGay. That’s not to say that we need to fixate on one to the total exclusion of the other, but if we’re more concerned with assholes tweeting rank opinions (many of them not even the real, truly held opinions of their shock-seeking pseudonymous authors) than we are with the lack of a commuter line to Clichy-sous-Bois, then our allegiance is really to a hollow formalism rather than to the rights of human beings to live free, happy, comfortable, unmolested, and uncircumscribed lives.
In fairness, I believe that Glenn Greenwald would echo a lot of these sentiments, and it’s never fair to presume that a writer’s chosen emphasis implies the exclusion of other concerns. Still, there’s tendency to swashbuckle into these absolutist arguments about free speech every time some C-list bureaucrat or columnist suggests cutting off this or that asshole’s microphone, which is rarely matched in intensity or duration when the police go storming in to nettoyer la cité au Kärcher. (Plenty of free-speech advocates are also prisoner’s rights advocates; are also drug law opponents; but as a matter of column inches, well . . .)
We saw a similar phenomenon when one of the Democratic Party hacks at the blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money made some shall-we-say intemperate comments about Wayne LaPierre in the moments immediately following the school shootings in Connecticut. Of course, a gang of right-wingers put on their shit-eatingest Schadenfreude grins and accused him of “eliminationist rhetoric”—a coinage popular on liberal blogs—for calling for Uncle Wayne’s “head on a spike.” Meanwhile, the blogger went on to call for the state to declare LaPierre a terrorist and toss his ass in jail. His university employer publicly regretted his comments, and a gang of luminous slightly-to-the-lefties circled the wagons and demanded that his freedom—his Academic Freedom, ye gods—be respected, with the implicit understanding that telling a guy to quit acting like a dick is the equivalent of Threatening His Job and Livelihood.
But people in much shittier and more precarious jobs all over America and all over the world actually get canned every day for mouthing off or using Facebook wrong or failing to ask the customer if they found everything they were looking for today, and that is the sort of injustice that demands our attention, not the plight of some entitled shitbag who felt that recent bloody events made for an opportune moment to advocate for criminalizing gun advocacy—that is to say, for supporting activities that, if lamentable, are legal in our society.
Insofar as there is a public debate about free speech, it’s largely confined to a neverending argument about the rights of privileged dickheads to be dickheads, and usually to each other. But most of humanity isn’t limited in the expressive sphere by censorship or hate speech laws or MPAA or whatever. It’s limited by poverty, imprisonment, the tyranny of intellectual property, the limitless powers of the boss, the cartel ownership of the means of communication. The terms of service are a bigger constraint on free expression than the Minister of Women’s Rights. The unequal distribution of wealth has more profound implications for speech than any statute.