Tag Archives: freedom of speech

The Liberating Value of Reconciliation

Two things amaze me, again and again, about American enthusiasm for rancor in politics.

I. Vengeance welcomes and relishes any opportunities to humiliate or oppress one’s opponents, but shows no foresight of how this creates a precedent—a legal and cultural blueprint for how one could be destroyed by the same methods, once the enemies one has made have similar opportunities.

The ones who now clamor to deny their opponents freedom of political speech, and (for instance) demand putting conservatives on no-fly lists as punishment today seem to have no memory of putting antiwar activists and Muslims on them yesterday (figuratively speaking). They seem to have no imagination for how their own civil liberties could be curtailed in the future by other no-appeal persecutions and exclusions, if the supposedly-abominable category of beliefs were simply adjusted to a different definition, and re-assigned to one’s own group—just as it happened in this case!

And those of us who vividly remember how words like traitor, disloyal, sedition, unpatriotic, pro-terrorist, etc. were used to silence dissent during the post 9-11 administrations (not to mention, during the McCarthyite Cold War and before), have been very unhappy to witness the comeback of these rhetorical bludgeons, which have so often excused official crimes against civil liberties of valuable dissidents and whistleblowers, as well as minorities.

Nothing more enlightened or generous than long-term self-interest is necessary to realize the value of protecting civil liberties of people one doesn’t like, and vehemently disagrees with.

II. But another amazing thing is an evident incomprehension of the famous principle, divide and rule.

It seems the more gullible because we may observe eager divisiveness not only among the political class, but also among those who are essentially almost powerless, without influence, who pick up crumbs left in the jostling of corporatist plutocracy, party oligarchy, and inexorable bureaucracy. It’s not amazing at all that members of the political class and state—which is to say, the ruling class extended broadly beyond politicians and plutocrats to bureaucrats and policy experts, prosecutors, media and pundits, ideologues and activists, and invested enforcers—should deliberately engender rancor, with a stake and some means to profit by conflict. Even petty members of those guilds are at least in a position to gain attention, or status in an aggrieved group, if not other currency.

But of course, the fantasy everyone has is that they become part of the ruling class, because they take political action, or engage in political argument, or feel outraged. This is the fantasy helped along by media incitement and magnification of arguments, but also by the ideology of democracy, in which we are all supposedly included in the “power of the people.” In Grand Illusions, I explained how the fantasy works against any sensible assessment of one’s own power and influence, or rationally assessing the dog one might have in a fight. But it also leads to a strategy that cuts one’s own legs off, in terms of any ability to resist one’s true oppressors, or even to identify the true and implacable enemies of one’s liberty and opportunity to carve out a better life.

To seek understanding of one’s apparent opponents, instead of deliberately obscuring facts in order to score rhetorical points and humiliate them, and to try to find common ground instead of making all political opponents one disagrees with morally untouchable (with invective like “white supremacist” or “communist” or “Nazi” etc.) are both potent weapons against actual oppressors as judged by tangible measures.

Oppressors may comprise a quite different category from outstanding offenders, who attract so much attention by things they say, and essentially performative acts. Oppressors who control the state can continue quietly to appropriate billions or trillions of dollars in all, and subjugate or murder thousands of people. Whole industries fall so they could gain without earning, and whole communities perish at their whims. Meanwhile, it’s quite easy to take offense caused by someone who has caused little to no injury (whether because they were incapable, incompetent, or less malevolent than it seems)—and pay far better attention to that insult. Do not imagine then that the former category have any trouble seeing the value of distractions.

Politically-active Americans, like many who engage in politics around the world, have quite a lot of trouble with this realism. Politics rests on so much myth-making that offense feels more appreciable. Hysteria is easily caused by offense to pride or “desecration” of symbols.

But the truth is that even the most offensive persons who lack power have a great deal of trouble causing even a fraction of the harm done by “good intentions” and the vast power of a bureaucracy. Even outspoken, genuine racists are rendered marginal and trivial without state power, whereas the power of the state, were it sanitized of either true white supremacy or MAGA-style nativism, would continue to be used to oppress, either in favor of dozens of other ideologies and supremacies—nationalism and militarism among them—or simply for age-old self-aggrandizement, the enrichment of cronies and personal greed. The basic corruption of politicians, of the sort that regularly empowers lucrative war or police-state interests and accepts bribes from brutal autocrats, doesn’t harm its victims less than some grandiose goal for the state’s apparatus.

The fear that is sold by fearmongers is of course, Just wait! Destroy them now, or be terrified of what your enemies will do—would do—if you treat them like anything less than anathema. Look how offensive they already are! So called “conservatives” and “right-wingers” are often told they can’t reason with “liberals” and “left-wingers,” and vice versa, because the Other seeks to destroy all they hold dear.

This is the logic that never permits an end to war, and makes the war of politics perpetual.

Those who are not incorrigible suckers should ask themselves: who really profits from such a state of affairs—this Eternal State of antagonism? Well, who profits from a never-ending drug war? Who profits from a never-ending “war on terror”? Who—as a matter of fact—just managed to add a new category to the “terrorists” we must either be against, or with?

The continuing fantasy that we are part of the Good Fight, that we are relevant to a Good Fight, appeals to very basic emotions. These emotions obscure the incredible power disparity of “the state,” which is to say connected people, versus most other people. We haven’t the awesome power of legalized recourse to compulsion and violence, legal favoritism, and access to the “public money” taken from us en masse. Surely we can summon up some of that base resentment and anger instead against being tricked, fooled so miserably, for so very long.

The Political Correctness of Death Threats, and the positive right to not be offended

In a blog post I recommend, Katabasis writes about multiple cases in Britain in which “Three separate University Atheist / Secularist student societies have come under attack from islamists” but also politically-correct peers. One case involved a cartoon depicting “Jesus and Mo.” In another at Queen Mary:

students had organised a talk on ‘Sharia Law and Human Rights’. An Islamist thug turned up (with help apparently), filmed members of the audience and threatened violence against them if he heard of any “insult to the prophet”.

Having now spent some time with the Queen Mary students to find out first hand what happened I can tell you that these kids are feeling not only scared, but also very isolated. Not only do the various students unions involved in these debacles appear to be uncritcially taking the Islamist side against all reason, demanding that the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist societies censor themselves or – in the case of LSE – face expulsion from the Union, but I’ve heard a number of them asking ‘where is the left’?

The university “left,” mired in PC culture and allergic to offense to the point of a zealot’s intolerance in their own right, responded by attacking the victims of death threats such as beheading. Take for example the LSESU Socialist Workers Society statement: “The Atheist Society’s efforts to publish inflammatory “satirical” cartoons in a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims serve to highlight a festering undercurrent of racism.”

It is disgraceful but typical of PC reactionaries that actual oppression doesn’t matter compared to conceptualized victimhood—on behalf of someone else!—or rather some collective identity idol that’s not intended to be interactive or reflective of real people.

The entire account of the surreal PC university culture from the LSE Society is here and worth reading, as is the entire post by Katabasis, particularly to get a sense of just how serious these threats have been, and how unserious and inadequate the response of offense-policing censors and offense-averse police has been.

An American observer may note the irony here that the “creeping tide of sharia” feared by so many anti-Muslim bigots in America since 9-11 is to some extent a reality in exemptions from British law, but while almost exclusively nonviolent and mostly moderate Muslims have been persecuted extensively in the US, actual violent Islamists have been allowed to force their sensibilities of offense upon British society and threaten critics, while those critics have been dutifully attacked for stirring up trouble.

Non-white Muslims are among the special, protected groups under a sanctimonious, multicultural (that is, anti-white, anti-Western, and anti-Anglo) regime of victimhood—so much so that pretend religious adherence can be used as a defense for savagely attacking a woman for being white.

(Americans should also note that Britain is a country where people who defend themselves may be prosecuted, and will be excoriated by the politically correct. In that linked case, the woman’s boyfriend had the gall to fend off four women ripping her hair out, which in its threatening maleness was seen as a mitigating factor by the judge.)

The British infection is at a very advanced state. But I’m not talking about the Islamists, for if they were not treated to special rights to threaten others and impose their will by force, they would stop. Far worse is the cultural infection of pusillanimous political correctness which routinely blames real victims even as special victimhood is cultivated like a renewable resource.*

It’s a predictable disaster when people allow free speech to be trumped by the presumed right to not be offended.

This is an ideal occasion to explain the difference between negative rights and positive rights, the importance of the distinction, and why positive rights set a dangerous precedent.

Traditional, negative rights like freedoms of expression and private property are simply based on people being left alone to do what they will, or treated equally from an official legal perspective—like rights of the accused.

The “right not to be offended” is an example of a positive right. In order for you to not be offended, someone else has to be MADE to shut up. Who’s going to do that? And of course, someone has to determine what the fuck “offensive” means, even though it’s clearly in the eye of the beholder. So with that one pseudo-right, we would empower an entire social apparatus of political correctness to adjudicate and require compulsive thuggery on a massive scale if we wished to enforce it.

Officializing such a right makes these problems even worse, not only metastasizing the state to control citizens so they refrain from “offense,” but ensuring arguments over the official definition. Real illustrations extend from mandated censorship of “bad words” in broadcasts (see George Carlin’s seven dirty words routine) to censoring dissidents during every major war—for nothing is more offensive to jingoes.

Other examples of presumed (positive) rights include food, jobs, high wages, housing, etc. Someone else must be compelled to provide these things for you, so they inherently violate negative rights. They violate the freedoms not to be forced to serve others, or comply with the demands of others.

Positive rights aren’t rights in the traditional sense at all, they are demands on others.

It’s worth noting that “human rights” documents such as the European Convention on Human Rights and UN Declaration  make no proper distinction between the two, in addition to qualifying rights so that they are subject to interpretations of political and bureaucratic officials, and thus useless. The common public perception of human rights is a muddle between licenses to enable tyrannical demands in the name of good ends, and rights that were devices used to help ensure personal freedoms since the Magna Carta and more recently, the American Constitution.

*Addendum: In another stark indication of this abysmal cultivation of victimhood even at the expense of real victims, the violence, hooliganism, and thievery of opportunist rioters in 2011 provided an opportunity for many PC British leftists to sermonize about racial and economic justice, privilege, and other buzzwords, and lecture about the plight of the downtrodden in underprivileged welfare communities—never mind that many of those subsequently arrested turned out to have good jobs, and never mind that the rioters’ targets were often the local businesses serving these communities.