Monday, December 31, 2012

Freezepeaching the WBC

Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds came up with an excellent t-shirt idea: an image of a peach, half-frozen in a block of ice, with the slogan "Freeze Peach! Not sure what it is, but it's mine." This is in reference to the continual shouting of "free speech" in order to defend speech which is not in fact "free"-- objectionable speech made on private venues by people who participate in those venues but do not own them, are not in charge of them. Speech like Michael Brutsch aka Violentacrez posting bigotry and photos of scantily clad minors on Reddit. Speech like hassling feminist bloggers on Freethought Blogs and then complaining that the network doesn't actually support freethought if it bans you. Speech like sexual harassment at conferences.

The defense is so common that the words run together after a while (hence "freeze peach"): "Free speech! We have the right to say these things, so there's nothing wrong with saying them!" "Free speech! Preventing speech you don't like promotes a hive mind mentality and squelches reasonable debate!" The answers to these, of course, being: 1. No, you don't, not on someone else's blog or forum or at someone else's conference, and 2. No, it doesn't-- not when the speech in question amounts to harassment  Harassment has a silencing effect on other people, people who actually have something useful to say.

"Freeze peach" is not a condemnation of actual free speech, of course, but a mockery of how people who clearly are a bit fuzzy on how the concept works try to manipulate it in order to justify...well, being douchebags. Basically, that's what it boils down to. It encapsulates two unfortunate but very common conclusions:
1. Free speech is the concept of people being able to say whatever they want, when and wherever they want. People have an obligation to let us-- if they don't, they oppose free speech.
2. The law is a direct reflection of our societal morality. If something is wrong, it should be illegal. If something is not illegal, it must be okay.

I don't think it's necessary to explain why these two unfortunately very common notions are mistaken. I do think they illustrate, however, why it's important to see that the people who make "freeze peach" arguments using these assumptions are not anarchists as they may seem, but authoritarians. They look to an authority-- the law, in this case-- to dictate right and wrong, and assume that what they're doing is right if the law doesn't forbid it and in fact seems to advocate it ("that which is not forbidden is compulsory"). That if something is entrenched in law, it is not only up to the government but individual citizens (as in bloggers, forum moderators, conference organizers, etc.) to support and uphold it.

But really, requiring that such private individuals should uphold freedom of speech does as much for the concept as requiring that individual citizens should uphold the Fourth Amendment would do for private property-- that is, it would destroy all meaning in the notion. Any "search and seizure" of one person's property by another (without consent) would indeed be unreasonable, and any use of another person's private ability to express him/herself (regardless of media) without consent would be a violation of that person's own freedom of speech. If you want to claim freedom of speech to say something reprehensible,  you can find a sympathetic place to express such a thing, do it via your own means, or don't do it at all. Those are your options. You do not get to pirate someone else's platform in order to proclaim some sentiment they don't agree with.

Freedom of speech does not entitle one individual to use another individual's mouthpiece (whatever it may be) to speak. It prevents the government from deciding what that individual may or may not say, regardless of how brilliant and useful, or offensive and pointless, that individual's speech may be. Regardless of the content of the expression, we may not be prohibited from expressing it in public-- unless, that is, it violates one of the tightly conscribed laws in place to protect intellectual property and, in some cases, prevent the expression of outright obscenity (I'm not a fan of obscenity laws, but they do exist).

This is what free speech means. This is what I passionately defend. But because there are so many Americans who either don't understand or don't agree with this (or both), I'm reluctant to don a "freeze peach" shirt. I don't want to mock the people who think free speech defends their ability to be offensive wherever they want by appearing to support some form of government crackdown on offensive speech. Not when there's no shortage of people who support exactly that.

Not when they are signing petitions asking for that:
Users of the White House's "We the People" digital petition platform have flooded the site in support of an effort to officially designate the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. 
The most popular petition was submitted on Dec. 14, the same day as the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., an incident that Westboro responded to by announcing its intent to picket the funerals of the 26 victims, including 20 young children. This plan made them a prime target of hacktivist group Anonymous and eventually drew a well-attended counter-protest to block the church's followers from disrupting the services. 
The individual push has since received the support of nearly 250,000 signees, making it the most popular single petition ever created through the White House initiative. 
The thing is, there is no such thing as a federally recognized hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of groups that it recognizes as hate groups, which is fine because-- you can see this coming-- it's a private organization. But the government has no interested in determining whether a group is "hateful" or not-- not officially, at least-- because hate speech is not against the law. What they do have an interest in monitoring is possible terrorist tendencies, and WBC has bent over backwards to show that they have no interest in committing actual violence against anyone. They have succeeded in becoming almost a caricature of moronic spite, but that isn't illegal. As a sad irony, one of the effects of Anonymous publishing the personal information of Westboro members online was that people took the opportunity to threaten them, which is illegal. And yes, I would say that threatening a hateful person (or who you assume to be a hateful person-- not everyone who was threatened actually is a member of the WBC) with death is worse than being a hateful person.

Am I defending the WBC's beliefs and actions? Not in the slightest. Not any more than the ACLU was defending white supremacy and antisemitism when they defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie IL in 1978, a move that cost them enormous support from people who confused the defense of freedom of expression with defense of the ideas expressed. It's incredibly disturbing to see that when it comes to the WBC, at least a quarter of a million Americans are confused in just this way. Disturbing, but not surprising-- it's not at all uncommon to see people promote freedom only for those who are on their side, ideologically. Nor is it uncommon to see them go into authoritarian mode when an opportunity like this arises, asking the government to violate the rules it set for itself, so long ago, in order punish people they dislike. And no, it doesn't matter whether that dislike is legitimate or not, or how fervently it's held. It's still called injustice when the law is violating someone's freedom in your favor.
Their actions have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians. They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation.
So people...stop demanding precisely that. You actually have more power than the government when it comes to the speech of hateful organizations, because you don't have to allow them on your space. The government does, because its space is public. Its space is for all of us-- including the morons and the bigots. If you don't like it, take a deep breath and contemplate how many people would be happy to count you amongst the undesirables for your beliefs. Trust me, there are loads.

There are better ways to fight bigotry than by whittling away at the freedoms of bigots, because those are our freedoms as well. Let's remember that.

*Yes, I did narrowly avoid titling this post "I could eat a freezepeach for hours" in honor of the worst Nicholas Cage movie ever.


  1. The parallel with Skokie is very apt. I was very young when that was in the news, and remember the reports inspiring me to go to the library and read about the ACLU. It was one of the major factors in my developing political awareness. I found myself agreeing with the ACLU despite my opposition to everything the NSPA stood for and my deep sympathy for the Holocaust survivors of that community. Years later in a high school civics class we were shown a documentary about it and most of the class condemned the ACLU for their stance.
    I think the authoritarianism of wanting the government to silence these groups, like all authoritarianism, is rooted in emotional immaturity.

  2. That might be true, Johnny. While writing this I was thinking about the moral argument occasionally made against atheists that we might as well be rapists and murderers if we don't believe in any ultimate source of morality in the person of God. That's an authoritarian mindset as well, and it stems from a teleological (rule-based, rather than consequences-based) way of thinking about right and wrong, which is often described as infantile. Or, as you say, immature.

    I don't particularly blame people for thinking this way, but it is dangerous. It suggests that the ultimate responsibility for being good people doesn't rest in us, and somebody-- God or government-- has to come along and force us to be. I have tremendous respect for the ACLU for putting the principle first, and continually fighting for the freedom of conscience, even when it comes to groups most of us (rightly) find despicable.

  3. Worse yet, this teleological view so often hinges on a rule book that condemns rape and murder in some passages, but commands rape and murder in others. There may be some consequence based thinking here, in the belief that ignoring these inconsistent rules will lead to eternal punishment, but the consequences have nothing to do with the real world

    I certainly can't bring myself to blame those holocaust survivors or people who have had their loved ones funerals picketed for wanting it to stop. I was, at the time, shocked and dismayed that so few of my classmates could see the negative consequences of denying the rights of people with whom they disagree. Experience has made me less likely to be shocked, but no less dismayed. While I share their contempt for the ideas of neo-Nazis and the WBC and empathy for their targets, I agree with your advice to "contemplate how many people would be happy to count you amongst the undesirables for your beliefs."