Let’s talk about Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom of Press.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism or consequence for what you say. It’s not freedom from people deciding they don’t like your speech. It’s not freedom from people expressing that they are offended by your speech. It’s not freedom from being held socially accountable for using speech to bully others. Legally, it’s not freedom from accountability for slander, or inciting violence. Morally, it’s not freedom from paying a social or economic price for being a jackass.

Humor is not a specially protected form of speech. Claiming that something was “just a joke” does not exempt it from social norms regarding what kinds of speech people find harmful to others. Humor is conventionally allotted a little extra latitude, because humor often functions, in part, by violating taboos in revealing ways, with neither the intention nor result of violating the underlying purpose of those taboos. But far from all violations of social taboos couched as jokes meet that criterion. A racist or misogynistic joke is still racist or misogynistic, regardless of it having been a joke.

There are some gray areas we have to grapple with: For instance: To what extent and under what circumstances is it okay for an employer to punish the speech of an employee? At one extreme, it’s clearly okay for an employer to fire a customer service representative who is in the habit of rudely berating customers when they call for assistance. At the other extreme, it clearly would violate the spirit of the First Amendment if corporations routinely punished employees in non-sensitive positions for expressing any political view at any time or anywhere other than that of the employer or of the employer’s clientele. There is a large and varied range of possibilities between those two, some areas of which are open to debate.

But, in public discourse, when people respond to criticism of their positions with a proclamation that that criticism is a violation of their right to free speech, they are engaging in a particularly convenient and hypocritical notion of what free speech is, for the person criticizing them has as much right to speak as they do, and to insist that their criticism be withheld in deference to your right to say what you like without being criticized for it is to insist that you but not they should be able to enjoy the right to speak freely.

A similar phenomenon occurs with freedom of religion. Christianity is the dominant religion in America, numerically and institutionally. Freedom of religion protects the right of people of all religions, including but not exclusively Christianity, to be able to practice their religion without governmental interference and to be able not to have any other religion imposed on them in any way through governmental agency. But fundamentalist Christians have come to interpret “freedom of religion” to mean their freedom to continue to have an exclusive right to impose the symbolism of their religion on others through governmental agency, and to be free from seeing anyone else ever celebrating any religion other than theirs in public.

Finally, and most recently, the pattern has reached freedom of the press. There is now an authoritarian populist demagogue in power, supported by an authoritarian populist base, that wants to redefine freedom of the press to mean “freedom of the press if we like what the press says,” reserving to themselves the right to declare what they consider to be true or false (independently of actual empirical evidence) and to use the power of government anything that they decree to be false, even if it is by all conventional methodologies clearly true.

All three of these misconceptions –the one that insists that freedom of speech means one’s own freedom to say what they like without any chance of reprisal or criticism from others but not other’s right to say what those others like if they disagree with it, the one that insists that freedom of religion means one’s own freedom to exercise their religion in public and expect exclusive governmental endorsement of it but no one else’s right to do the same, and the one that insists that the press is free to report and editorialize as they like, but that if they do so in a manner that a populist faction in power disagrees with, the government supported by that populist faction should have the power to silence them– are tyrannical interpretations of these fundamental freedoms.

Tyranny rarely announces itself by name. Frequently, particularly in the modern era, tyranny uses the language of liberty while exercising the substance of oppression and political thuggery. Please feel free to use this post, in part or in its entirety, whenever you come across these phenomena in public discourse. These freedoms exist because sunlight is the best disinfectant, and this post is designed to shed some sunlight on a horribly infected portion of our shared cognitive landscape.

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(Thanks to Andy Lewis for posting this Daily Show clip on my facebook page.)

This brilliantly funny, and wonderfully “equal opportunity” satirical skewering of columnist Froma Harrop, plays on a seemingly almost universal failure to make the distinction between humanity and civility. Before I discuss that in more detail, check it out:

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Harrop clearly was, by most definitions, “uncivil” in her representation of Tea Partiers as “economic terrorists,” but she may not have been unreasonable in her assessment. And while it is uncivil to use such language, if it is used well, as a vehicle to oppose irrationality and bigotry, then it may not only be consistent with a commitment to humanity, but actually mandated by it. (There is a related but not identical discussion in The Basic Political Ideological Grid, in which both the form and substance of discourse combine to define where it falls in an ideological grid, or space.)

(A quick disclaimer: I am not arguing that it was used well in this case, or that it really was a productive use of “uncivil” language. I remain unconvinced one way or the other in this particular instance.)

“Humanity” means applying the best analyses to the most reliable information in service to human welfare, without prejudice, and with passion and commitment. “Civility” means being polite and non-incendiary while doing so. Both are generally worth striving for, but the former is far more important than the latter, and occasionally the former is served by breaching the latter. Harrop’s principal mistake was in presenting herself as an advocate, and presiding over an organization dedicated to advocacy of the latter when in reality she is an advocate of the former and not particularly committed to the latter.

She made several other classic, interrelated mistakes as well: A lack of wit, of humor, and of humility. She wasn’t nimble enough to recognize the inconsistency between her official commitment to “civility,” and her marginal breach of it at the same time. She wasn’t gracious enough to see the humor in that inconsistency. And she wasn’t wise and humble enough to admit that it is a complex and subtle world in which we live, and that striving for these ideals is not the same as attaining them.

Here’s what she could have said to John Oliver: Civility isn’t an absolute value that supersedes all others. To take extreme examples, if a genocide is occurring, I am not bound by the rules of civility to refuse to participate in an effort to stop it by any means necessary, including physical violence directed against the perpetrators. If my country is being invaded by conquerors, I am not bound by the rules of civility not to defend myself against them. Clearly, there are some times, at least at the extremes, when acting “civilly” isn’t necessarily the course of action recommended by a commitment to humanity. This is a lesson that Neville Chamberlain, and all who were counting on his commitment to civility, learned the hard way.

Political discourse and action that is non-violent should never be met with violence, but irrational, self-destructive, or hateful non-violent political movements might reasonably be met with strong non-violent language in service to humanity, even if such language is “uncivil.” If a racist organization preaches racism, I am more concerned with stopping that ideology in its tracks than in avoiding offending those who are preaching that odious doctrine. If I can shame them or their followers, or humiliate them with a forceful articulation of why their ideology is odious, even using metaphors and imagery that might be considered “uncivil,” I would feel very well justified in doing so.

Obviously, Tea Partiers and others in their ideological vicinity would argue that their ideology bears no resemblance to such odious ideologies as racism, and so my analogy is moot. But therein lies the crux of the matter, for I disagree with them, and either of us might be right in our assessment. If I am right, in both my assertion that incivility can sometimes be required by a commitment to reason in service to universal goodwill, and in my assertion that extreme Tea Party ideology (not necessarily all moderate variations of it) is comparable to other odious ideologies of human history, then strong language might be justified, whereas if I am wrong on either of those points then it is not.

We gain by striving to be reasonable people of goodwill, and by encouraging one another to be reasonable people of goodwill, not by being self-righteous about it, or pretending that “we” (whoever “we” might be in the particular context) have gotten it perfectly right while others have gotten it perfectly wrong. The difficulties and challenges of a multitude of human beings with a multitude of ideologies pursuing a multitude of interests are not going to be swept away by any panacea. But the effort can be improved by advocating for certain values, and practicing certain disciplines.

Civility is among these disciplines, but, I would argue, clearly not chief among them. No one who is in reality primarily committed to humanity should claim to be primarily committed to civility, because the two are not identical, and people who confuse them will look, as Harrop did in this interview, foolish when the two are at odds and they choose the one they actually care more about. (As an aside, and in fairness, it looks like the editing of this piece, which was intended as comedy rather than as journalism, was designed to make her look like even more foolish than she may actually have been.)

The lesson is, I think, that such language should be resorted to minimalistically and with restraint, both to avoid error and to preserve its effectiveness. It is not that every “uncivil” utterance is an offense against humanity, but rather that too many uncivil utterances certainly are, and, in any case, make those that aren’t less powerful by diluting them in a flood of similar sounding noise (see Godwin’s Law, Revisited).

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(This is my most recent post on a thread on a Denver Post comment board, my participation beginning here: See Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding for the essay to which I am referring)
windbourne wrote:Do you feel that he should apologize for locking up rapists as well? Perhaps murderers, or bank robbers as well?
I already made a distinction between crimes of predation, and “crimes” that are an artifact of trying to legislate human migration. Border control is one thing; creating a permanent underclass within our borders by ignoring the reality of how our society forms itself is another.
windbourne wrote:Or he should apologize to those that have had their lives destroyed by the drugs that gangs from Latin America bring in?

And there we have it: Guilt by membership in a race or ethnicity. Since some Latin Americans join gangs and smuggle drugs, all Latin Americans share in the guilt, and are to be treated accordingly. I’m sure that you apply the same logic to whatever group you belong to, and consider yourself guilty of every crime any member of your own ethnicity or race ever committed, and thus believe that you should be treated accordingly as well. You have chosen to illustrate for us the dimension of the similarity that I did not emphasize, between the two historical contexts I compared in my essay.

If you respond by falling back on the illegality of their presence, then please explain what the relevance of the mention of the criminal activities of other Latin Americans has.

windbourne wrote:NONE of these illegals are suppose to be here. Many of them are DESTROYING American lives and livelihood. PURPOSELY.

Add in a hefty dose of hyperbole and paranoia, and the similarities become even more striking, almost down to the language used. You have a dehumanizing label that you apply (“these illegals”) which reduces human beings merely migrating toward opportunity to some subhuman status that you can then dismiss and revile. You can’t see it; you won’t see it. But others can and will, and America will wake up from the nightmare it is drifting toward. One of the tensions of human existence is the degree that we, as individuals and as socieities, yield to the basal ganglia of the human brain (“the reptilian brain”), rather than striving to be rational and compassionate human beings. That tension, and which of those two poles is dominant in what is being expressed on this thread, is clearly in evidence.

windbourne wrote:At what point will you show compassion for your fellow citizens that these illegals are harming??

What harm is produced is an artifact of pushing people into the shadows, and forcing them to find ways of surviving there. My compassion is for all, as the real rather than imaginary or manufactured need arises.

While I am writing for those lurkers who are not so completely lost to their hatreds and their bigotries, who recognize that we can be more or less cruel as individuals and as societies, and more or less reasonable, I also suspect that many of you who are most outraged by my posts are so outraged in part because you know, just beneath the surface of your awareness, that there is at least a grain of truth in what I am saying; that there is a disconcerting similarity between the attitudes expressed here toward our own undocumented population living among us and the infamous attitudes of Nazi Germans toward German Jews in the prelude to the Holocaust; that there is something unpleasantly familiar about the suggestion that these Latin American immigrants are somehow contaminating our otherwise pure society with the evils imputed to them as a race (as happend to the waves of Chinese, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants before them, many of whom also came here without documentation); that there is something cruel and ugly about mocking the suffering of others you’ve managed to dehumanize (“waaahhhh, waaahhhh”).

I have no ill-will toward anyone here, though I do have a feeling of disgust at what is being expressed and demonstrated. But I am a hopeful person; I remember an interview of a woman several decades ago, who had been a teenager at the time the Little Rock Nine had been escorted into their new school, a cluster of Black students accompanied by National Guard troops surrounded by whites whose faces were contorted in hatred and rage. She was in the photo as a teenager, a white girl whose face was more contorted than all the others. And she said in this interview, in all sincerity, that she now knew that she had been wrong, just plain wrong. I have more respect for her, and for people like her, than for those who never had to grapple with those particular inner-demons, for she demonstrated the wisdom and courage of someone who could triumph over her own hatred.

We can and should discuss our immigration policies, and consider the balance of interests involved. We can and should weigh our real interests (not those that are based on arbitrary beliefs mobilized in service to blind bigotries, but rather those based on considering all analyses applied to all reliable data) against our commitment to humanity, and decide how to balance the two. But we do not have to contaminate that with hatred and indifference to the longings and strivings of other human beings; we don’t have to dehumanize those we decide to exclude or even remove.

Or, perhaps, that’s precisely the point: If we don’t dehumanize them, then we have to own our choices, and take moral responsibility for how we treat those seen in the light of what they truly are rather than what we need them to be to avoid any qualms about our own brutalities.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you think of me, or even what your opinion is about the policies under discussion. What matters is that each and every one of us strives to avoid the orgies of hatred and irrationality that have played such a prominent role in human history, and that are clearly implicated in the attitudes being expressed by some on this thread. That, at least, would be a step in the right direction.

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Curtis Hubbard posted a column on’s “The Spot” describing a right-wing commentator’s callous attempt at humor, and the left’s reaction to it ( First of all, I don’t think that any public call to violence, even if the speaker thinks it’s a joke, is a good idea, especially when it’s one more match being thrown into a highly combustible situation. Secondly, this particular stupid comment isn’t just any stupid comment, but rather one more expression of a belligerent, bigoted movement that contributes only a divisive obstruction to human welfare to the mix.

But, having said that, I don’t think that Rosen’s statement is really “the issue” (kind of like the fictional assassination attempt against the president isn’t “the event”). The issue is the devolution of public discourse into a battle of stupid and callous statements, and the outrage expressed in reaction to them. Neither of those contributions gets us any closer to addressing the challenges of life on Earth. I would rather see the belligerent, divisive obstruction to human welfare remain the sole focus of progressive’s outrage, rather than the particular offensiveness of particular expressions of it. By getting drawn down into a debate over whether this particular remark was beyond the pale or not, we obscure the fact that it is just one example of a consistent, movement-wide attitude, one which is wholly destructive to our collective welfare.

Just as the far-right latches onto simple, consistent messages, and hammers them home constantly, progressives must do the same, only with the difference of latching onto messages that represent reason and goodwill rather than irrationality and belligerence. Our message should not be that Rosen’s comment was inexcusably insensitive, but rather that Rosen’s comment was one more typical expression of a hateful ideology, one which divides our country into the few who belong to the “in-group” and the many who don’t. And we have to make damn sure that everyone who is not in that small intersection of in-groups knows that they are the ones being targeted. We need to isolate those who are isolating themselves, and leave them to the status they covet: Separated from the diversity that the rest of us not only tolerate, but treasure.