Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Bans on bigotry backfire

Bans on bigotry backfire


THE first casualty of racist speech is often freedom of speech. When bigots espouse anti-black, anti-Islamic, anti-Jewish, anti-gay or anti-feminist ideas, the initial reaction of many well-intentioned people is to ban such expression.
I have seen this all across the globe, from the US to Europe, Israel and now Australia. This resort to censorship as a short-term response to racist expression does far more harm than good, both to the cause of anti-racism and to the cause of liberty.
By turning those who express racist ideas into criminals, we give their bigoted voice a megaphone. Racists want the government to censor them so they can claim the mantle of free expression. The racist expression escalates from a one-day story to a multi-day story, with the censorship receiving far more attention than the statement itself. Civil liberties organisations defend the right of the racists, thereby creating the strangest of bedfellows, which itself makes a good story for the media. Villains become heroes, and the well intentioned censors become civil liberty’s villains. This plays right into the hands of the racist.
I vividly recall an episode in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, when a group of ragtag neo-Nazis decided to march through this largely Jewish area — a neighbourhood with many Holocaust survivors — in a deliberate effort to provoke a confrontation. The town of Skokie banned the march, thereby putting the neo-Nazis on the front pages of American newspapers, and on prime-time television. A one-day story turned into a yearlong debate about the limits of free speech. In the process the neo-Nazis were able to spread their hateful message widely.
So those who think they are helping the cause of racial or religious tolerance by banning hate speech are simply wrong as a matter of experience. History has proved that the best answer to bad speech is good speech, that the best answer to falsehood is truth, and that the best answer to hate is brotherhood and sisterhood. The challenge is not to remain silent in the face of bigoted speech but to respond and defeat it in the marketplace of ideas.
Censorship of racist speech is also bad for liberty in general, and especially for freedom of expression. Once a government gets into the business of banning one type of bigoted speech, the circle of censorship inevitably expands. I call this “ism equity”. As soon as one ism, say anti-racism, gets to employ the power of the state to stop its enemies, every other ism claims an equal right to employ the power of the state against its enemies.
Some feminists demand restrictions on sexist speech, which can be defined broadly to include pornography, sexist jokes and other genres deemed offensive to some. Jews demand an end to everything deemed to be anti-Semitic, which can include Holocaust denial, demonisation of the nation-state of the Jewish people and anti-Jewish jokes and cartoons. Other groups similarly demand equal treatment. The result is that the circle of civility expands and along with it the circle of censorship. The big loser is the freedom of all to hear and see everything and to judge for ourselves.
When I was a kid, we learned a ditty that went this way: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never harm me.”
Like many other things we learned as kids, this is arrant nonsense. Words can and do harm. Being called a name — whether it be a racist epithet or a more personal insult such as retard, sissy or fatso — can cause serious psychological harm.
Lies, rumours, gossip, slurs, insults and caricatures can be painful. Bullying and verbal taunting can drive vulnerable people to desperate measures, including suicide. The truth can hurt. That’s why we learn to be polite — to self-censor. That’s why families, schools, groups and other institutions have rules, sometimes explicit, more often implicit, regulating speech. “We just don’t say that kind of thing around here” is a common limitation on freedom of expression.
It is a far cry, however, from an informal family understanding to formal government legislation and legally enforceable restrictions on expression. I would never use the kind of epithets listed above, but neither would I want the government to prohibit, under threat of criminal punishment, the use of those words in the open marketplace of ideas.
Freedom of speech isn’t free. It’s expensive, but it’s well worth the cost. Without freedom of expression, democracy is weakened. Democracy can endure the coarsening and painful effects of bigoted speech.
It cannot survive a regime of governmental censorship.
Alan Dershowitz wrote Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.

No comments:

Post a Comment