There have been a lot of discussions lately about freedom of speech. Some of this has centered around the question: Are we hurting the Nazis (Golden Dawn) in Greece by signing and circulating a petition to ask WordPress to take down their web site? (More on this below, there have been interesting developments.) What about (intentionally) offensive comedians, hired to perform at conventions and conferences? Are we right to get mad at the organizers for organizing that, or do we just assume that somebody out there finds it funny, so we should just back off and maybe go sit by the pool for a while or something? (You need to know what satire is to really understand.)
Often, people jump into any discussion where it looks like speech is being questioned, silenced, affected in any way, dare I say ‘repressed,’ with strong admonitions that at all costs one must not interfere with anyone’s freedom of expression. Those who jump in first and hardest are often lost causes. No amount of discussion, no slew of examples, no pile of evidence, no plethora of historical facts will talk them down from the position that all speech must be protected at all times no matter what the speech is, who is saying it, the context in which it is said, its consequences, how it is being “said,” or anything. Not only that, but that which damages or represses speech is generally over-defined to include any call for putting a lid of any kind on any thing.
Those people, with their blind rage against repression, need to do one thing: Shut up.
Why? Because I’d rather have a tiny bit of speech (theirs maybe?) repressed and otherwise engage in thoughtful conversation that is not only free but rich, than to have a quiver of rules always at hand and to have only one purpose in life: to enforce those rules at all costs, even the cost of sanity.
The truth is that speech is repressed all the time in many different contexts, including places that exist mainly for the purpose of doing things like protecting speech. Speech is not “free” in the “I CAN SAY WHATEVER I WANT ANY TIME I WANT TO ANYONE I WANT NO MATTER WHAT” sense in the very halls of Congress or State Houses around the United States, where activities governed by the very constitutions that guarantee expression are carried out daily. And that only relates to American Protected Speech, not Speech as it may or may not be protected in other countries, or across borders. (Again, we’ll come back to that, with the Greek Nazis, in a moment.)
Rachel Maddow, or rather Rachel Maddow’s Blog with Laura Conway as Blogero, provides an interesting example of recent events in the New Hampshire House that serve as a vehicle for pointing out a few realities regarding speech, its freedom, and why freedom of speech does not mean what a lot of people think it means. It also serves as a fun example of Republicans being dysfunctional, which is always amusing. But before we get to that, since Rachel Maddow was mentioned, I want to step into the Way Back machine for a moment and remind you of a conversation she had on her show a couple of years ago that is stuck in my head and that is very relevant.
Watch this video about the activities in the House of Representative Alan Grayson, and Rachel Maddow’s interview of him. I’ve provided crib notes below.
0:00 – 1:40 Grayson snarking on the Republican Health Care Plan
1:40 – 2:27 Maddow speaking of Republican demands for apologies, Grayson’s non-apology
2:27 The mention of the Holocaust
2:27- 5:51 Discussion comparing the rhetoric of Republicans vs. Democrats on the House Floor.
5:51 Interview with Grayson starts
6:43 Maddow asks about the Holocaust reference
7:31 Maddow asks about the Holocaust reference
8:00 Maddow asks about the Holocaust reference
8:00 Remainder of discussion about what people want to see in Congress
That was a great example of several things. First, we have the contrast between what Republicans generally do (speech-wise) vs what Democrats generally do. Then we have the double standard applied by Republicans with respect to what is considered acceptable speech. Mainly, we have examples of institutionally regulated speech irrespective of party. Congress can, technically, make a member apologize, take words back, or shut up and, though not exemplified here, Congress has rules about what you can say and do on the floor or even with what is done on the floor. For example, using footage of floor speeches is not allowed in campaign ads. So, in the very place we have speech being protected by all these people who have sworn oaths to protect the Constitution, we have run of the mill (and also disputed and debated but widely accepted) regulation of speech.
The reason I picked this video instead of any of the others available that cover the same issue is because of Rachel Maddow’s three-times a charm questioning of Grayson on his reference to the Holocaust. Rachel Maddow clearly believes that one should not Godwin the conversation, as it were, by using a reference to The Holocaust when referring to other things, even if those things are themselves really bad things in their own way. The reason for that is because we do not want to reduce that particular term (“The Holocaust”) to a trite aphorism, or in fact, anything less than it is: a reference to one of the most spectacular examples of human horror we know of, one that we as a culture (many cultures included) have quite purposefully decided to Never Forget. Rachel is right, Grayson learned something, and a tiny piece of the world improved at about 8:02 in this discussion, even though it involved, in a sense, a suppression of speech. Someone was told that he should not say something. There are a number of reasons I chose this example, but one of them is that it was one progressive “repressing” another. Makes the conversation simpler.
And now, on to New Hampshire.
Republican State Representative Steve Vailancourt became annoyed at his fellow Republicans during a debate on Voter ID, which is, of course, a law that will limit expression through voting. The House Speaker (a Republican) placed restrictions on what could be addressed during a floor debate, and the irked Vailancourt may or may not have risen his hand in a Fascist Salute and shouted “Sieg Heil.” Here’s the video of that:
Vailancourt was asked to apologize, so he provided a very snarky and insincere apology. A committee was formed (we learn from Twitter) to shape the apology for the hapless Representative, and he tried it again. He bunted, that didn’t work, so he did it again-again. Here’s the video of that last at-bat
Personally, I think it is mildly entertaining that this was Republicans, who are the Party of Lockstep, sniping at each other.
This is obviously another example of institutionalized restriction of speech that every one accepts (more or less) and works with and feels important in order to allow other free speech to happen (in floor debate) and be protected (as in protecting and defending the Constitution of the State and/or Nation). But it is also another example of this whole Nazi thing.
Nazis really did exist, and their handiwork is still a scar upon our culture. Just the other day I attended a play based on a book written by Sabina Zimering, a woman in Amanda’s school district. The woman’s granddaughter was in Amanda’s biology class two years ago. The students put on this play, based on Zimering’s life as a young Jewish girl who, with her sister, “Hid in plain sight” as Catholics, in Germany, during World War II. They ended up working as maids in a hotel in Germany that catered to Gestapo officers. Sabina Zimering is still alive (and attended the opening of the play), and of course her offspring and grand offspring feel a link to her history. At the moment, with this play and with grandma having spoken to school groups many times, the entire Wayzata School District feels an affinity and a link to her and her experience. And thus, everyone feels something for … or about … the Nazis as well.
And that’s just a school district in the Upper Midwest. Families across the country have parts decimated by the Holocaust, others have old veterans or memories of them who fought in the war. And so on.
Hogans Heros and Mighty Mouse aside, Nazi things, references to Nazis and Nazi things, and The Holocaust and references to it are all special. Pure free speech disregards these meanings and disregards the power in these symbols, and advocates for anyone to say anything any time they want to anybody about anything, arbitrarily and without regard to the pain and without regard to the dangers. Pure free speech is a dick.
Which brings us, finally, to the actual Nazis, the ones in Greece, who call themselves Golden Dawn. A few days ago I posted a petition started by a friend to have them knocked off WordPress’s servers because Nazis violate the terms WordPress requires. These Nazis in particular have made and continue to make threats of violence, and have carried out violent acts. WordPress, a private company, can legally and ethically restrict such things on their servers. Pure free speech insists that this is repression. But if a private company following ethics-driven guidelines is repression, than that means I can use stencils and spray paint to write “I drink my own pee” on your forehead, right? No? You don’t want that? I AM BEING REPRESSED!
It is true that more people came around here to defend the Greek Nazis against me than said they would sign the petition to help defend The World against the damn Nazis. At moments like that, I want to stop blogging. By the way, I reserve the right to delete comments that defend Nazis on this post. Anyone who makes such comments and gets them deleted has the right to tell the world that I am repressing them. But not here. Get your own blog. That is how free speech works.
And now, as promised, the latest on the Nazis. They now have a web site claiming that they are being repressed! My Greek is kind of rusty. As in, I can’t read a word of it, but there is always Google Translator. I am in regular contact with Nazi Fighters (really, more like Nazi Annoyers at this point) connected to this Greek Struggle, and I’m told that the web site asks people to complain about the repression of the Nazis’ free speech to the organization (Change.org) that has put up the Anti-Golden Dawn petitions. With that as context, here’s what the website may or may not say according to Goolge Translate:
We were to report the website Blogger!!!
Shame, it’s obscene. The anti-Greek waste trying to shed our website with complaints left and right. Here you will see
Maybe not to prevent contact you again. Remember our address. Never miss this: [URL removed .. I ain't given out no Nazi URL!]
NOR try, the fascist pigs of SYRIZA of New Democracy and PASOK, WE THE they wash ashore. THIS TIME TO SPEAK NEW WEBSITE ALREADY PREPARED IN OUR SERVER AND THEN LET’S TRY!!
Those who can battle against this AISCHOUS TO JOIN, SEND MESSAGES EVERYWHERE.
Those who can, go to this page to report the objector sought to erase all of the Golden Dawn blogs from Blogger on the pretext that they are terrorist, etc. and explain that the Golden Dawn is a legitimate party elected by the people. Those who can help. …
It doesn’t really say “The Nazis” at the end, but I translated this:
The MANAGER, GREEK, PATRIOTIS, ETHNIKISTIS!!
to mean that.
And, moments ago, I found this out. Golden Dawn has started it’s very own Change.org petition complaining that they are being repressed! How cute!
Freedom of speech is not what a lot of people think it is. It does not operate at the place and time of the words spoken, but rather, across the experience of an individual as that individual’s life intersects with an idea or other thing that can be expressed. An artist might want to make a big giant red shapy thing with blue dots. But the moment the artist thinks of this, she does not grab the paint out of a neighbor’s garage and paint the big shapy thing on the nearest bus. Or at least, not without fully expecting to get busted and forced to make amends. But society must ensure that the artist can make the big red shapy thing somewhere, sometime, within reason, and if it is meant to be seen, society must ensure that it can be seen. Freedom of speech applies to people and ideas and other things that can be expressed as they exist in the multidimensional space of society, not to every single fiber of that society’s fabric. Yes, we must be aware that as one or another strand of the weft and warp of society becomes a no-speech zone, then another and another, there may emerge an unacceptable patchwork of repressive places and policies, or a bias against one type of speech or one type of person.1 But as we’ve seen in these examples, it is considered normal in a free society to limit what is said, how it is said, and when and to whom, reasonably, and most of the time nobody thinks of it as repression. A person who sees repression in every restriction is probably being naive.
Feel free to say almost anything in the comments below …
1And yes, we must consider the possibility of a slippery slope down which our dominos may slide, smashing right into our hackneyed, overdone mixed metaphors.