Deadly speech

Eric Posner proposes a way to stop terrorism:

[T]here is something we can do to protect people like Amin from being infected by the ISIS virus by propagandists, many of whom are anonymous and most of whom live in foreign countries. Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions. Such a law would be directed at people like Amin: naïve people, rather than sophisticated terrorists, who are initially driven by curiosity to research ISIS on the Web.

It’s important to note that the “ISIS virus” he mentions is not actually a virus, but apparently consists in text on a screen. Nevertheless, folks are to be “protected”, being incapable of ever acting contrary to what they read. In a similar connection, you’ll note the profound numbers of folks who become card-carrying Nazis upon reading Mein Kampf, Hitler’s views on social Darwinism and racial superiority being irresistible and profoundly convincing.

Of course, acts of violence in themselves are often a sort of propaganda. So beyond banning unsavory words, we should ban all depictions or accounts of violence. The news shall be reduced even further toward entertainment, but now, it shall have to do with topics of no (as opposed to little) substance. Indeed, anyone who mentions unsavory acts should be summarily executed, for fear of poisoning fragile minds and informing them of their capability to do evil.

(They shall be summarily executed, because any proceeding would entail disclosing their offense, thereby making the account of such violence known. Others may be influenced by such accounts.)

On the other hand, Posner does acknowledge the absurdity of his argument, providing that a privileged few may be capable of rational thought:

One worry about such a law is that it would discourage legitimate ISIS-related research by journalists, academics, private security agencies, and the like. But the law could contain broad exemptions for people who can show that they have a legitimate interest in viewing ISIS websites. Press credentials, a track record of legitimate public commentary on blogs and elsewhere, academic affiliations, employment in a security agency, and the like would serve as adequate proof.

Accordingly, the Soviet intelligentsia is to be re-instituted inside the United States. The cabal’s selectiveness hinges crucially upon our notion of “legitimate interest”. Once, I believed that folks might have a legitimate interest in learning what they do not know, or in reading material published by those who’d like to kill us. However, I now understand that for my own protection, I should suppress my curiosity and mind my own business. I should just leave such matters to experts, and accept my own incompetence. I know not what I do, and I know not what I know.

None of this is without precedence in the United States. As Posner notes:

[Before the 1960s], people could be punished for engaging in dangerous speech. The U.S. government prosecuted Nazi sympathizers during World War II, draft protesters during World War I, and Southern sympathizers in the Union during the Civil War. It’s common sense that when a country is embroiled in a war, it should counter propaganda that could populate a third column with recruits. The pattern in American history—and, in the other democracies as well, even today—is that during times of national emergency, certain limits on speech will be tolerated.

Ah, the glory days where one could be prosecuted for sentiment!

Of course, all this word-banning is something that Posner would like to see in other areas outside of terrorism. Take universities for example. Posner celebrates recent accomplishments in ridding campuses of unpleasant words. According to him:

[T]he justification for these policies may lie hidden in plain sight: that students are children. Not in terms of age, but in terms of maturity. Even in college, they must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults.

Again, certain folks are understood to be incapable of rational thought. Posner, on the other hand, was always ordained with basic human capacities.

Indeed, others may even be unable to acquire such (innate) capacities:

It’s not just that sincere expressions of opinion about same-sex marriage or campaign finance reform are out of place in chemistry and math class. They are out of place even in philosophy and politics classes, where the goal is to educate students (usually about academic texts and theories), not to listen to them spout off. And while professors sometimes believe there is pedagogical value in allowing students to express their political opinions in the context of some text, professors (or at least, good professors) carefully manipulate their students so that the discussion serves pedagogical ends.

Teacher as propagandist; student as empty vessel to be filled with water. The Enlightenment be damned. And here, I thought I studied at one of the world’s preeminent philosophy departments where open discussion was our primary means of learning.

Indeed, human stupidity goes beyond words, leading up to actions, and knows no bounds whatever:

Youngsters do dumb things. They suffer from lack of impulse control. They fail to say no to a sexual encounter they do not want, or they misinterpret a no as yes, or in public debate they undermine their own arguments by being needlessly offensive.

Thus, in addition to prohibiting speech, we ought to excuse rapists. The common thread being, you see, that it takes consciousness to regulate one’s actions. And students — and probably others — lack it. Accordingly, to punish a rapist is to punish a person who couldn’t not rape. Something about their élan vital or élan rape perhaps. Enlightening.

Thankfully, I don’t think many people would agree with Posner on these principles. Not in the abstract. However, it seems to me that a growing number of people do believe they have certain rights, such as the right to not hear offensive or batshit-crazy ideas and words. Or the fear that a sizable group — of which they are invariably too intelligent to be a member — are swayed by mere rhetoric. In so doing, they implicitly believe that we all lack the right to espouse offensive or batshit-crazy ideas and words, or that only they reserve such a right.

Problem is, what is considered offensive and/or batshit-crazy is clearly very reactive to the times. So, at some time, suggesting a person of a different complexion might be human would have been considered “offensive”. And in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War, it was assuredly offensive to many people to propose that the United States might be anything other than an angelic force for good in the Middle East.

More crucially, even if a given view is considered offensive as a matter of fact, there are still plenty of good reasons to permit the expression of such a view. For one thing, I personally find my disdain for the Ku Klux Klan to be reinforced when they march about in their silly little robes and histrionic headgear. Hitler comes off as a blood-crazed sociopath in his speeches, which is fitting, given his status as a blood-crazed sociopath. And sexists — well, they never do sound quite as sexist as when they are spouting off sexist notions.

One of the great virtues of free speech is that you get to know who you’re surrounded by. Are you surrounded by aspiring serial killers? Astrologists? Folks like Eric Posner?

You see, it’s because of free speech that I can avoid these people. Without it, I should fear that I’m always surrounded by repressed Eric Posners who seek to kill people solely on the basis of their moon sign.