Machan's Musings—Free Speech's "Least Attractive Practitioners"

removed's picture
Submitted by removed on Mon, 2006-02-13 22:01

Over the last several days I have been thinking and writing about the
furor surrounding the Danish cartoons that many Muslims have found so
offensive. I have noted that even if they are offensive and grievously
insulting, this doesn’t justify the sort of violence we have witnessed in
response to it often perpetrated against people who haven’t had anything
to do with the cartoons. Justice must be proportional—one doesn’t hit
another because one’s been insulted by him and certainly one doesn’t just
vent against innocent bystanders. At most insults may be met with
comparable insults and the targets must be those who issued the original

At one point I gave as an example of an insulting exercise of free
expression Larry Flynt’s publication of Hustler Magazine but I found that
some regarded this case as insipid. What’s the big deal—it’s only filthy
pornography. They wanted to me to make my case by arguing against the
measures taken in some countries against Holocaust deniers and radical
racists. And, indeed, I was accused to be two-faced for not bringing up
those harder cases. As if my not mentioning them—frankly, I didn’t think
of them because I am not all that interested in how Germany or some other
country handles the issue but only in how it should be handled
anywhere—showed that I approve of censorship when it comes to those

Of course, not mentioning the Holocaust-deniers and racists, and how they
all ought to have their rights to free expression respected and protected,
doesn’t show that one doesn’t want these given such respect and
protection. After all, a principle is a principle and if there is any
exception, it would only arise when someone’s saying—or shouting—something
creates a physical hazard to others. The famous instance of falsely
shouting “fire” in a crowd is the example usually presented to illustrate
such an exception, although even that can be handled without having to
compromise on the right to free expression. After all, one has no right
shouting anything, let alone a false warning, where one is admitted to a
hall only to watch a film or listen to a concert.

Still, one thing this complaint of my not mentioning Holocaust-deniers
brings up is whether one needs to go to everyone’s defense. Although I am
fully in support to applying the principle of the right to free expression
to anyone no matter how vile the expression may be, I am not always eager
to do so. Why? Because some folks’ use of liberty is disgusting as far as
I am concerned. Yes, they certainly ought to have their right respected
and protected but it doesn’t follow that we all need to dwell on just
those instances of violating the rights in question. It is enough, I
believe, to make it clear that this principle applies across the board.
Anyone with just the minimal facility in logic will be able to infer that
the principle in question applies to anyone who speaks up, so it is a bit
gratuitous to have to pick out the worst cases. If I have the occasion to
be instrumental in whether these people are defended or not, I will
certainly opt for defending them—but I will hold my nose and will not join
them to celebrate their victory after they have succeeded.

This is one portion of what it means to say that I may find your ideas
disgusting but I will defend your right to have and express them. Those
who adhere to and stand up for principles that also protect some very
unsavory folks will have done enough without giving aid and comfort to the
advocates of the vile notions. I am not interested in making special
mention of either filth-peddlers or anti-Semites and mentioning just one
of these as an case in point should suffice.

When one defends a sound principle, that should often suffice for doing
the right thing. It isn’t necessary to go out of the way to select the
worst practitioners of that principle for mention, lest one suggest that
one is actually sympathetic. Indeed, I am less offended by pornography
than I am by anti-Semitism and racism, both of which treat human beings
without paying heed to them as individuals. There may be some cases when
doing this is OK—say, in a study of married women or plumbers—but in most
important cases lumping people without regard for their individual
characteristics and achievements rubs me the wrong way.

So, I am ill-disposed to seem terribly friendly to such people even when
I acknowledge that they too have rights worth respecting and protecting.

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Another perspective

sjw's picture

I think that if there is a fairly widespread cultural activity that should be protected under freedom of speech but is under attack, then all defenders of liberty should come to its defense, regardless of whether they like the practice. Porn definitely qualifies, and Ayn Rand was right to mention it.

On the other hand, if the practice is ambiguous, such as when known supporters of terrorists may be exercising free speech or may be helping to carry out terrorism--something that's hard to tell without a court of law--then defenders of liberty should definitely not be coming to their defense.

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