On One Hand

November 2, 2009

Some Conversation-Framing Concepts in Free Discourse

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 1:54 pm

When we talk about free speech and the media, we often delve into intellectual absurdities and passionate yet bizarre mentalities that derail conversation. Since I talk a lot about talk, about language, oppression, speech and pop culture, I frequently encounter conflicted views on what “free speech” or “discourse” means. The White House vs. Fox News debate is offering up a litany of examples.

That’s because the Fox News agency is just aghast that the President of the United States is opposing their “free speech” by telling the world that Fox News is unfair and unbalanced. Commentators compared Barack Obama to Hugo Chavez, the leftist president of Columbia who shut down newspapers that were critical of his government.

Whenever somebody criticizes the effort or purpose of an entity that is exercising “speech” (such as a news organization, a pundit, or even just a loony person ranting), indignant self-proclaimed First Amendment advocates rise to the surface. “How dare you criticize my argument!” the self-serving defendant will say. “My opinion is my free speech! You can’t oppose it!”

Which brings is to the first component of free speech, as part of a set of three components I think need to be acknowledged by all parties to frame healthier conversations about speech. That component is:

Reciprocity.

You have a right to “free speech,” meaning freedom to make your controversial point or offend somebody, and to express views that are sane, controversial or even forehead-smackingly ridiculous. Inversely, others are allowed to respond to your statements, even to offend you back. People may respectfully disagree with what you say, disrespectfully disagree with what you say, tell you that they don’t like you any more because you said it, tell you that you shouldn’t say it at all or even say that you are a vile scum-sucking cretin and your mother was a lunatic. This is because free speech is reciprocal; their rights are equivalent to your rights, and everyone is allowed to respond to speech with speech.

People have a hard time understanding this. For example, when I posted How to Confront Hate Speech on the Internet on YouTube several months ago, I got comments and personal emails from people essentially saying “how dare you condemn hate speech, that’s so totalitarian!” because I am infringing on a hate speakers free speech by responding disapprovingly, or asking others to respond disapprovingly. They said that my video was one step on the road to a fascist society because hate speech is hard to define so who knows what other kind of views against minorities could be argued against using that very video! I struggled to explain that telling somebody who made a racist comment that her or his comment was racist is hardly an infringement of a racist’s rights and is considerably less antagonistic than racism itself. I also struggled to explain that telling someone her or his ethnic slurs are “not cool” is not to infringe on that person’s right to use them, which I even specifically explained in the original video.

I do think that hate speech should be called out and that public misinformation should be called out and condemned. But that doesn’t mean I advocate censorship; I advocate discourse. Which brings me to point two in the components of discourse.

Saying somebody should stop saying a certain thing is not “censorship.”

Understanding this principle requires your ability to make a distinction between force and encouragement. It explains why telling your mother to go jump off a bridge is just frowned upon but throwing her off a bridge is murder.

Censorship entails the use of force. When censorship occurs, the language being censored is removed from discourse by a moderator on an Online forum, by a publisher, editor, or most critically, by government (government censorship of political speech is the only kind that is protected by the First Amendment). Responding to the comments and saying that they are inappropriate is not censorship, because the original comments are still available.

People have a hard time understanding this. Let me use the following reader comment on an NPR online poll over the White House vs. Fox News debacle as an example:

The “White House” and it’s Czar’s are Socialist….the type of people that I feared most when first learning about this type of government in my junior high social study classes. Limiting our freedom of speech and controlling the news is the first step toward absolute tyranny…

This is an example of conflation at its finest, which seems to epitomize the way wacky people of all strips (I’m choosing not to single out the Far-Right) deal with political conflict. First, the commenter conflates “socialist” (which is an economic system practiced in Norway and Sweden) with the totalitarian governments of Orwell’s 1984 and Stalinist Russia. The two may overlap, but do not coincide. Second, the commenter conflates a political comment from the White House with tyranny.

Shutting down news agencies would be a step towards tyranny. Using laws or coercion to remove certain viewpoints from the public discourse entirely would be tyranny. Those are the things that the Bill of Rights seeks to protect Americans against. Censorship is, acknowledgedly, very problematic.

But the White House never made an attempt to shut down a news agency or to control news content; it issued a public statement that it will henceforth treat the Fox News Channel as a political opponent (because it is) and claimed the Fox channel’s news reporting is often conflated with opinion reporting (which is not outrageous to claim, especially considering that Fox constantly accuses every single other news network of doing that). The people who work in the White House have the right to say and do that because the people who work in the White House are protected by the same right to free speech that everyone else is. You can consider their comments inappropriate if you choose to, but it’s a pretty distant stretch to say it’s “totalitarian” for them to make the comments. The Bush White House did the exact same thing when it maligned NBC’s “liberal bias,” and political leaders have always been free to criticize their critics. Any leader who could not do that would be ineffective. Yet 40% of the comments from Fox News fans on the NPR comment forum seem to carry the assumption that the White House took some form of legal action against the Fox News agency.

What the White House essentially did was say, Fox News can say what it wants, but we don’t find it to be legitimate. As in, we don’t find them credible, and anyone listening is invited to decide whether or not to agree.

Ironically, Fox News, which is up in arms over the Obama White House’s statement, was very supportive when the Bush White House launched similar criticism of NBC. Which leads me to my third and final conversation-framing concept in free discourse.

Reciprocity, revisited.

Other peoples’ rights are based on your rights, and vice versa. Think about whether you would be willing to abide by the rules you call for, or whether or not you are doing exactly what you indignantly oppose somebody else doing. Do you ever criticize people? That means they get to criticize you. It is stupid to call somebody out for being mean when you are both being mean. It is stupid to call somebody out for being violent when you are both being violent. It is stupid to call somebody out for being combative when you are both being combative, and for being critical when you are both being critical. If you want to call a “new rule,” you have to stop doing the thing that breaks that rule before you can even consider holding the other person to it.

Interestingly, conservative commentators who celebrated the Bush White House condemning NBC launched scathing attacks on the Obama White House for condemning Fox News. Keith Olbermann, who had criticized the Bush Administration, defended the Obama Administration and criticized the pundits. These sorts of double standards are rampant in political discourse, and make useful bits of opinion or information particularly difficult to find.

Intellectual reciprocity is an important component of any constructive discourse. It is impossible to force compliance, but for any two sides to come to agreement they must first agree that both parties are allowed to respond to each other in analogous ways. It seems that it is the responsibility of K-12 English and Social Studies teachers to explain this concept, and where they fail, we must pick up the slack. That is why I have written this, as a free exercise of my own free speech, and critique of but not an infringement of the rights of those who claim otherwise.

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