Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Difference Between Enough Rope To Hang Yourself And Enough Rope To Hang Someone Else

As part of the introduction to my attempt at a series of regular posts on Bernard Williams, I quoted Williams on the proper extent of fundamental rights to freedom of speech. Williams described the importance Americans attached to the defence of the permission for racial speech as a "quaint local obsession", going on to say:

I should have thought that these were matters of political judgement, above all in telling the difference between the point at which the enemies of liberalism have been given only enough rope to hang themselves, and the point at which they have enough rope to hang someone else.

This piece by Jeremy Waldron in the LRB is, I think, excellent, articulating the same kind of view on the subject. The question which is at the centre of both Williams' and Waldron's critiques, which share the same concerns about the overly analytical style typical of much academic political theory, although not the illiberalism of some thinkers motivated by that worry, is what moral features of hate speech place in it a category where it is automatically protected? The intrinsic moral interest in systematically defaming whole categories of other members of the human race on the basis of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation seems to me to fairly categorically small, while as Waldron points out, whatever virtue there is in the confrontation of such evils is as likely served by highlighting, through legal sanction, that evil as by allowing it a space and engaging with it in the forum. Summarising Mill's argument that

the truth could not emerge except through "the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners", and that even where some doctrine is known to be true, we need combat with real opponents to maintain its vitality and keep us healthily on edge in its defence. "Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field"

Waldron says,

[i]f Robert Relf - a man "who had festooned the streets of Leamington Spa with posters depicting Britons of African ancestry as apes" - Frank Collin - the leader of the Neo-Nazis who attempted to march through Skokie, Illnois, home to a large Jewish population, including Holocaust survivors, and distributing leaflets calling for "Death to the Jews" - and David Irving did not exist, it is as though we should have to invent them to keep alive the sense that fascism is vile and genocide forbidden.

This seems to me rather unlikely. The best way to keep our minds sharp with the horrors of the Holocaust and other genocides is surely not to permit their existence to be denied, but to be brought to unavoidably face with those horrors, the ghastliness of the numbers, of the sheer administrative effort, of the weight of each and every individual who suffered through the attempt to exterminate a portion of the human race.

Waldron even allows himself a little jibe at those who seem to believe that hate speech is relatively costless, and hence to be protected:

[I]f [this belief] signifies anything, what it signifies is that the costs of hate speech, such as they are, are not spread evenly across the community that is supposed to tolerate them. The Robert Relfs of the world may not harm the people who call for their toleration, but then few of them are depicted as animals in posters plastered around Leamington Spa. We should speak to those who are depicted in this way, or those whose suffering or whose parents suffering is mocked by Frank Collin and his Nazi colleagues, before we conclude that tolerating this sort of speech builds character.

You do have to wonder, at times.

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