Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Cost of Free Speech

Michael - Thursday

EFF members in red being ejected from parliament
I’ve been brooding about free speech. Why everyone is in favor of it, but no one really seems to like it. I suppose this was motivated by the State of the Nation address that our president – the redoubtable Jacob Zuma – presented to parliament this week. It’s an annual event that gives the president an opportunity to present highs and lows of the last year, and enunciate policy for the coming one. In the event, the speech was long on rhetoric and short on new ideas or realizable plans. Not many people actually noticed the speech because it was drowned out by protests from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, led by the colorful Julius Malema. In advance of the speech, the parliament chamber was occupied by the army to keep order. (Yes, the army. Not the police. There’s a message there.) Julius and his followers were forcibly expelled from the chamber to join the demonstrators outside, and the official opposition – the Democratic Alliance – walked out in protest. The whole thing was good television, and did well on Facebook and Twitter.

Julius has his say outside
Zuma is held in such low esteem that his address was regarded as an insult, not worth listening to. More so, he shouldn’t even be allowed to say it. In this case, the speech was freely available afterwards, and so the opposition parties could read all the details after the event in time to start objecting to them in the debate the next day. Was the speech worth hearing? Probably not. Was it appropriate that people be allowed to hear it? Despite my feelings about the president and his failings, I would argue that it was.

The press on the other hand – supposedly the bastions of free speech - face more and more regulation. Everywhere – South Africa is no exception – governments are developing more laws and rules, sometimes with harsh penalties, to prevent the press from reporting ‘certain matters’ or misreporting (in the government’s view). As the New York Times pointed out today, Trump embraced the leaks of Clinton’s emails and called for more openness in ‘the swamp’ that he intended to drain when elected, but he was horrified by the pardon of the ‘traitorous’ Chelsea Manning, and is now very negative about leaks concerning his own administration.

Perhaps free speech is only an issue when it’s not the powerful who are doing the talking? How about the case of Helen Suzman – who spent her life opposing the apartheid government here as the sole true opposition representative in parliament – being refused permission to speak at Wits University? There were reasons why this might have inflamed radical students or perhaps infringed the University’s careful impartiality in the elections, but was it not worth hearing what she had to say? Shouldn’t her liberal and consistently honest views have been heard?

UC Berkeley demonstartion
Recently, President Trump threatened federal funds allocated to the University of California-Berkeley in the aftermath of a riot that forced the cancellation of a speech by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos. I don’t know that gentleman from a bar of soap and  I suspect I would have rejected his views and hated his speech, but I won’t know now, will I?

On the other hand, we have ‘fake news’ – even the Russians are complaining about it – where people announce events, usually on social media, that they know actually never happened. Is this also free speech? Surely not. It’s a somewhat weaker form of shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater. No one seems concerned about this, however. Much of what’s coming out of the White House these days seems to fall into this category, and readily believed.

I know that the boundaries of free speech and what it means in terms of context is a vexed subject, and it can be argued strongly from several points of view. It does seem to me, however, that for free speech to be meaningful, you have to be allowed to listen and make up your own mind.


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  1. Hear, hear. Let's hear a little more tolerance, from everyone, for everyone. I fully support Trump's freedom of speech. I also fully support my freedom to not listen to him. But humans... will we ever evolve into wiser, more tolerant beings? It's a long, slow road, and some days traffic seems to be stuck in reverse.

  2. Oh we do need freedom of speech, that's how I recognise numpties.

    1. It's also how we're exposed to new ideas, like what the hell are numpties... searching, searching... aha! Numpty Trumpy. I LIKE it.

      Numpty Trumpy sat on a Wall,
      Numpty Trumpy had a great fall.

      We can only hope.

  3. EvKa, in light of the following definition, I dare say you might like to be a bit more precise as to the intended meaning of your use of "Numpty" in relation to POTUS.

    Scottish usage:
    a) Someone who (sometimes unwittingly) by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject or situation to the amusement of others.

    b) A good humoured admonition, a term of endearment

    c) A reckless, absent minded or unwise person.

  4. Certainly not b). The definition I found was: a stupid or ineffectual person.

    That's my story and ...

  5. Yiannopoulos is an editor for the far-right Breitbart website. He is an associate of Steve Bannon's. He promotes every type of bigotry and is open about it. He is regarded as a neofascist.

    Also, he was banned from Twitter permanently because he led a racist, misogynistic attack on that social media against Leslie Jones, an African-American actor because he didn't like her acting in a movie.

    Twitter draws a distinction between hate speech and free speech and its users have to sign an agreement that they won't engage in hate speech.

    At an event in Seattle where Yiannopoulos, people were protesting. One of his supporters shot a protesters and seriously wounded the person.

  6. The word 'numpty; is often used in polite company when another word might be more apposite... but socially unacceptable.....
    a word that might float across the mind of all those present.....but remains unspoken

  7. "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." Evelyn Beatrice Hall (not Voltaire)

    I agree that there's a difference between spreading hatred and free speech, but who gets to decide where that line should be drawn?

    1. Exactly, Zoe. Maybe Yiannopoulos wasn't a good example - I don't know what he was going to say - but I'm sure there are lots of examples on the left and the right and even the middle (where Helen Suzman sat). Who decides?

  8. A very pertinent article in the New York Times. You don't need violence and overt suppression to destroy freedom of speech. All you need is a lack of courage.

  9. Frankly, the "president" is attacking the establishment media, not a good thing. He's saying it's an enemy of the people.

  10. Another interesting article from the Washington Post. Why shouting down right wingers only strengthens their support:

    1. Michael, you know my politics very well. But I have to say, in conversation with people off my own persuasion, I have tried to differentiate Trump's supporters and make a case for some of them. I try to explain that some are not "deplorable" but those left completely behind by economic change and desperate for hope and help. The mainstream of both parties ignored them to our peril. I have been publically vilified for making such statements. We are are doomed if we can't find a way to listen to one another.

    2. I think you've put your finger on it exactly. Listening to someone doesn't mean you do or will agree with them, but it means you can persuade rather than dismiss.

  11. I think it's OK to listen but it depends where it's going. If it's about loss of jobs or homes or lack of medical care, I can deal with it. If it slightly veers towards racism, anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant bias or anti-woman or anti-gay bias, I don't want to hear it. Reasonable economic discussions are fine. I hear them on TV. But there has to be room for dialogue without bigotry.

  12. I'm worried about Trump's Brain: Bannon, called President Bannon by some. He wants to destroy the government and the press.