The Marshy Ground Between

And more again. It seems worth trying to figure all this out and get clear what we’re talking about (I think discussions about free speech tend to be surprisingly unclear). With clarity goes honesty, rather than the hypocrisy that cartoon-offended Muslims accuse defenders of ‘blasphemous’ cartoons of, in some ways with justice.

To repeat, or restate. I’m claiming that disputes like the ones over the prophet cartoons and over Irving and Holocaust denial are not simply a matter of Free Speech full stop, or of Free Speech unless there is imminent danger of physical harm. They’re also not a matter of either-or, all or nothing; not a matter of: either criminalization or unqualifed Right; it’s a matter of what lies between: of the broad marshy territory of oughts and shoulds, practice and custom, the tacit, the unwritten, the familiar, the accepted, codes of ethics, morality, implicit agreement. Also of vocational norms – which are very strong, often constraining (for good and ill), and enforceable by firing. Just ask Jayson Blair!

It’s important to keep all this in mind – because if we don’t we will just fall into the hypocrisy, double standard trap – of protecting this free speech but not that, and of failing or refusing to give any arguments for doing so. What it amounts to is that we do have (mostly tacit, implicit, customary, intuitive, so hidden and unnoticed and unaware) principles of selection.

One: consider: we don’t actually think newspapers or broadcasters have a ‘right’ to for instance replace the word ‘black’ with nigger, or ‘woman’ with bitch or cunt or ho, or ‘Arab’ with raghead. We don’t think people should be either arrested or imprisoned for doing so, and we don’t think they have a ‘right’ to do it. (That is, we think they have a narrowly-defined legal right, but not any other kind of right.) You don’t (well, maybe among shock jocks you do, but apart from that) hear people resoundingly defending that right. It’s a legal right, but in practice, it’s not a real right, because no one to the left of Fred Phelps would want to exercise it. Imagine Anderson Cooper or Andrew Marr getting a memo from the brass telling them to make such a vocabulary change. Imagine the New York Times or the Telegraph suddenly adopting such a practice – every article and comment full of whores and niggers and kikes and faggots and kikes and towelheads. What would we think? ‘They have a right to do that, and that is all there is to it, there is nothing more to be said’? I don’t think so!

Two: consider again: we also don’t think newspapers and broadcast media have a right to tell us a pack of lies in reporting the news – I don’t mean differences of interpretation, getting it wrong, selection, I mean gross blatant whoppers. Telling us China has invaded Taiwan, an earthquake has killed ten million people in Argentina, India has nuked Islamabad, Mugabe has resigned, the genocide in Darfur has ended – when none of them are true. We don’t necessarily think they should be arrested or imprisoned (though we may wonder, if the false reports do enough damage – retaliatory nuclear strikes, for instance) – but we don’t think they have a right to do that. In fact we think they have no right to do that, and we’d be outraged. We’d all be running around telling each other ‘They have no right to do that!’ I can hear us now.

These fences are perhaps invisible because they’re generally so well heeded. We don’t think about newspapers telling huge whoppers, because they don’t. (Well, except items like the National Enquirer, but that’s a different genre. Again, the convention is generally understood. Serious broadsheets don’t tell gross lies; tabloids need some caution.) But the fact that we’re not aware that we don’t think the Times has a ‘right’ to lie doesn’t mean we think it does have that right. (In fact the more reputation a newspaper has, the greater its [implicit, moral] obligation to tell the truth – because it’s what we expect, so it has the power to do more damage by lying, because we’ll believe the lies. Authority and reputation entail increased responsibility.)

So – the point about all these people who say ‘of course free speech, but‘ – is not that there never is any but, or that there never is any but except in cases of imminent danger – it is that they have the wrong but. There are buts and then there are buts, and there is no alternative to evaluating them on the merits. To judging each but, each exception, each ‘ought’, on the merits, on the substance, as opposed to waving the Free Speech flag and thinking that does the job. It doesn’t.

And by the way Holocaust denial is not the right retort to Motoons. That would be Mosestoons or Jesustoons. Holocaust denial is parallel to denying what happened in Gujarat, Bosnia, Chechnya.

10 Responses to “The Marshy Ground Between”