The Other I

September 30, 2012

The duty of free speech

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 3:43 pm

I have recently been introduced to a blog debate about the NY subway posters attacking Islam, which have been in turn defaced, which has in turn led to the arrest of those accused of defacing them.  After all, this is a country where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution.  But should it be?  Should we all be allowed to say whatever we think, no matter how slanderous, as long as it is not patently, provably untrue?

When I was a young psychologist, Richard Hernstein, an eminent Harvard professor, published his research in which he concluded that Blacks are genetically less intelligent than white people.  I was asked to join a protest outside the university where Hernstein had been invited to give a speech on his  research.  I declined to join the protest.  Not because I agreed with Hernstein’s conclusions.  But because silencing his opinion would only push it underground.  What his ideas required was the fresh air of debate.  I thought then – and still do – that it is more important to examine the research and the validity of Hernstein’s conclusions.

This experience had a major influence on the direction of my professional life.  I was already focussed on the way intelligence develops from infancy.  I knew the issues, the factors that influence cognitive development, and I was a trained researcher.  I knew the questions to ask about the data and had the skills to do it.  Nonetheless, it is an extraordinarily complex task, and it is easy to see why most people simply had to take Hernstein’s research on faith or reject it on faith.

This post is not a professional treatise on why I think Hernstein was wrong.  Suffice to say that I am convinced it is.  But not because it’s an uncomfortable conclusion.  Not because, having brought Blacks to America as slaves, it was a double insult to point out that they are less intelligent than their former white masters.  It is rather because I am convinced that the data simply does not support this conclusion.  I taught university courses in which students were asked to analyze the data themselves.  Their grades did not depend on their reaching a conclusion with which I agreed, but on their knowledge of the data and their ability to examine it forensically.  These students, at least, are not today walking around thinking that Blacks really are less intelligent, but that it is simply politically incorrect to say so.

STFU.jpgFrom everything I have read, the anti-Islamic posters in the NY subway are bigoted and nasty.  But if I were in a position to do so, I wouldn’t deface them, or pull them down.  I’d put up parallel posters to refute them.

In Germany it is against the law to deny that the Holocaust took place.  Here in Britain there is a law against racist speech and hate crimes.  I’m not campaigning for the laws to be abolished, but it’s a very tricky business.  Speech which many Britons have traditionally found acceptable, Muslims often find insulting.  One of the difficulties British soldiers in Afghanistan are having today is that they sometimes insult the Afghans with whom they are working without any intention of doing so.

I am reminded of Churchill’s comment about the then-prime minister Clement Atlee,  “An empty car drove up to Downing street, and Mr. Atlee got out.”  Atlee, as a matter of fact, was extremely astute. The remark did not require an apology.  It was okay to say it in that context.  Obviously, even Churchill would not have said it in many other contexts.

All of which is a fairly long-winded way of saying that not everything that should not be said in the first place should also be against the law.

We in America pay a high price for our freedom of speech.  And perhaps we too often do not realize that with that right comes the duty of care, the duty of truth.

If you put them up, I’d like to talk to you about those anti-Islamic posters.  But I’d rather convince you to take them down yourself because they are untrue and destructive.



  1. There are a number of issues involved here, it is easy to conflate them and this is happening a lot (though not in your excellent post!).

    – Freedom of opinion and expression is a basic value of pluralist, secular, constitutional, democratic states, founded on the principles of enlightenment.

    – Respect for the feelings of others is a positive moral principle and an important part of the social cement which keeps societies working, but it is not and cannot be a legally defined obligation – any more than you can legally force someone to be morally decent.

    – As you point out, the best rebuttal of bad science is better science. Unfortunately, the very right of science to be heard is frequently under attack; even if this hilarious video is intended as comedy, it is not so far from the truth.


    Comment by Francis Hunt — September 30, 2012 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

    • Great video. Thank you. I think sometimes humour and kindness between them can accomplish as much and sometimes more than science — much as I love science.


      Comment by theotheri — October 1, 2012 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  2. A free discussion, I agree, is best, even if that means giving a platform to the most detestable form of speech. But a free discussion presumes the same courtesy, or right, would be afforded to us if opposition were in the majority. I think Gandhi said that a protest gets what it wants only when the powers-that-be are already inclined toward what is being protested about.

    Those anti-Muslim subway posters are, according to responsible media reports, paid for by a pro-Israel organization. I don’t think mirror-image anti-Jewish posters would ever have appeared. Or anti-black, for that matter. Protesting these anti-Muslim posters and getting arrested is not much different to me from protesting racial discrimination in the South (also legal at the time) and getting arrested.

    Airing things out, with free speech for everyone, I’m afraid is not
    enough. Nor is relying on moral good sense. I’m trying to think of the
    parallel for Nazi Germany (the go-to parallel for every issue for people of limited historical perspective). Anti-Jewish posters, cartoons etc. were certainly legal in the 1930s. Protesting them would have landed you in Dachau. Ergo, what?…

    By the way, it’s not just an intellectual discussion at this point.
    Muslims were in fact rounded up and thrown into “camps” (notably a federal prison not far from where I live) after 9/11. Their mosques here are regularly infiltrated by government agents. They are vilified on the airwaves.

    I think the First Amendment is a very fine thing and I support it as much as the pope does the Nicene Creed. But I’m wary of the self-righteous among us who denounce those who don’t happen to believe as we do, much as I want to preserve my own rights. Free speech in the end is not the result of something written down on a piece of paper. It’s a consensus of belief. The day that consensus fails is the day the rights disappear. They are not God-given. We have claimed them Prometheus-like. We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves too much on our couple hundred years of very patchy freedoms after two thousand years of mental despotism (and a long history to this day of denying those same rights to others).

    Atheists (speaking of people of faith) bought space on billboards outside the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, denouncing Christianity. They were quickly defaced and the workers who put up the ads were threatened with death. The ads came down. The atheists had the First Amendment behind them, but it seemed to matter little in the face of moral outrage and loaded guns.


    Comment by pianomusicman — October 2, 2012 @ 4:08 pm | Reply

    • Ah, I’m beginning to see what you are getting at.

      Are you saying that you think anti-Muslim posters like the ones in the NY subway should be made illegal? I would be in favor of forbidding it on the grounds that it’s a Hate Crime if I didn’t have so much concern about who would do the defining. Obviously what you and I would call “moral good sense” is not going to stop everything we would also call racist, bigotted, or a hate crime. After all, Christian churches in the south for years supported slavery and then segregation as moral.

      I would also point out that in two of the examples you give – Nazi Germany, and America today in relation to atheists and racist views against either Jews or Blacks – free speech was or is effectively impossible. As I said earlier, I’m not arguing that enabling truly free speech is sufficient when it comes to these kind of abuses. And I do think that free speech sometimes does almost incalcuable damage. But I do think driving ideas with which we disagree underground will only make the problem worse. I cannot think of a single example of its being part of the solution.

      But since I know your values are at least as deep as mine when it comes to racism, I really would like to hear what you would do about those posters. Or how you think these kind of hate crimes should be combatted.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — October 3, 2012 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  3. last month a very dear friend, working for the past 50 years for peace and justice issues, came to visit. we went to the 9/11 memorial. it was profoundly moving. i spent 6 months every friday after work to saturday morning volunteering at st. paul’s (episcopal cathedral) just inches from tower two. but that is another story. while there the subject of the proposed mosque being built at the site came up. i stated that while i strongly supported that the building of faith structures should not be dictated by place, i felt that it could be insensitive to the families of 9/11 victims, my friend called me a racist. i was shocked. i have worked all my life to guard against this – bias against tea-party folks, against those who i thought of as racists, against the shallow or those who i labeled as such. and here i am labelled myself as such. i reiterated that they had a perfect right, absolute right, but was it the respectful, sensitive, loving thing to do. i, myself, understood and respected the difference between muslims and those that perpetrated the autocracies of 9/11. but i was not clear that the world, at large did. i worried about the ramifications of erecting a mosque in the ashes of the twin towers and the victims who lost their lives there. my friend was firm in her comments. i was a racist. i became silent and have carried this in my heart since then. my gut told me that a mosque built there would engender at the very least protests, and it was not unthinkable that attempts to blow up the mosque would happen. more bloodshed. does “what might happen” or even “what will happen” violate muslims’ rights to have their place of worship wherever they choose? then there is the ole “can one shout “fire” in a crowded theater? Is there a parallel or just my way of self-soothing?


    Comment by kateritek — October 3, 2012 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

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