Slow down

Not so fast. Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer, disagrees with Anthony Lewis’s suggestion that some speech is genuinely dangerous even if it doesn’t imminently threaten anyone. (I agree with that, in case you’re wondering. I don’t think there is no danger until one says ‘Here, kill this person right here, now, hurry up.’ I wish it were that simple, but I don’t think it is.)

“Free speech matters because it works,” Mr. Silverglate continued. Scrutiny and debate are more effective ways of combating hate speech than censorship, he said, and all the more so in the post-Sept. 11 era. “The world didn’t suffer because too many people read ‘Mein Kampf,’ ” Mr. Silverglate said. “Sending Hitler on a speaking tour of the United States would have been quite a good idea.”

Not so fast. What do you mean ‘free speech works’? Free speech works in the sense of never issuing in violence? You’re kidding, right? And what do you mean the world didn’t suffer because too many people read Mein Kampf? How the hell do you know that, and is it even true? I’m not a bit sure it is true. It’s not as if the Nazis took power through some kind of magic, after all – they took power because there were Nazis, it wasn’t just Hitler and a book that had no effect on anyone. Anyway even if that very dubious claim were true, it wouldn’t necessarily be extendable to all other books and speech acts. Even if it is true that the world didn’t suffer because too many people read Mein Kampf, the world (at least a part of it) certainly suffered because too many people listened to Serbian State Radio or Radio Mille Collines. In other words if the Mein Kampf point is supposed to stand for all kinds of speech and writing – well, it can’t. It just isn’t the case that violence is never set off by people hearing or reading people saying things. It would be tremendously helpful if that were the case, but it isn’t.

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