Freedom Sucks (And That's Why We Have To Defend It)
A recent poll showed 60% of American millennials want the First Amendment rewritten to further restrict speech, in the name of stopping hate speech and other dangerous expression. I realize that this poll is limited to the kind of freaks who will stop their day to talk to a pollster (and even then it's hard to know their true thoughts on the matter -- question wording is everything). But I feel like I'm running into this sentiment all over the place, partly because so many of the people on the other side of the argument are trolls and assholes.
So, allow me a moment to explain why I think we're on some dangerous fucking ground here...
"But If We Have Freedom, We Might All Die"
Freedom isn't free, according to a cranky-looking bald eagle on a bumper sticker I just saw. When we say that in America, we usually mean, "Having freedom means we occasionally have to suffer by buying bumper stickers like this." But the truth is that freedom not only isn't free, but it's kind of a huge pain in the ass. It's stressful and scary and hardly seems worth it. But that leaves us open to history's oldest grift, which works like this:
If you demand some kind of rights for yourself and your fellow human beings, someone who does not want you to have those rights will come up with a doomsday scenario to make you back down. "Oh, you think people should have the right to not get tortured by cops? But what if a TERRORIST has a TIMED NUKE about to go off, and torturing them is the ONLY WAY to find out the deactivation codes?"
That was the actual argument, despite the fact that such a scenario has never, ever actually happened, and never will (bombs don't work that way). And, once you buy into it, it'll be about five seconds before they say, "And if you think about it, isn't selling marijuana a form of terrorism? And isn't all of society a kind of a ticking time bomb, at all times?"
This playbook has been used to justify centuries of bullshit, because it always works. "Give people the right to immigrate to the USA? What if one of them turns out to be TERRORIST and they SET OFF A NUKE?" "You want people to have a right to privacy? What if they use their privacy to BUILD A NUKE?" "You want people to have freedom of speech? What if they use that speech to RADICALIZE TERRORISTS who then BUILD A NUKE?"
I think that reasoning is dangerous as hell, whether the supposed terrorist you're talking about is a member of ISIS, a Nazi, or QAnon. Their trick is to make it seem like any argument for due process or privacy is really an argument for terrorists destroying cities, as if the extreme scenario is the only one worth talking about. In practice, it winds up being used as a justification to ruin the lives of people who A) wouldn't actually bomb anyone, even if they knew how to, and B) don't have enough money or influence to fight back.
I cannot possibly stress that second part enough: Laws claiming to protect the vulnerable can and will be used to oppress the vulnerable. Politicians sold the War on Drugs as a way to save inner-city communities, then threw teenagers in prison for a decade for having an amount of crack small enough to fit in their pocket. The public was happy to see it, since every day brought panicked headlines about "CRACK'S DESTRUCTIVE SPRINT ACROSS AMERICA." But please note that those laws didn't do shit to stop people from smoking crack.
Related: What Free Speech Doesn't Give You The Right To Stay
So Now Let's Talk About Free Expression
OK, but let's say it's not a hypothetical. Let's say a far-right extremist actually blows up a government building, killing a whole bunch of people, including an entire daycare full of children. And let's say that afterward, he openly states that he was inspired to do it by a specific movie depicting a similar scenario in a positive light.
Would you support banning that movie? Or at least restricting its sale? Of course everyone believes in a right to free speech, but there have to be limits once that speech takes away someone else's right to safety. In this case, the extremist was Timothy McVeigh, the building he destroyed was in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people including 19 children. The movie he cited as inspiration was Star Wars.
See, because he had decided the government was evil, like the Empire, and that this building was kind of like the Death Star(?). In both cases, he said, the people inside weren't all Stormtroopers, some were just sitting at consoles and doing some kind of office work. But the movie makes it clear that they're all fair game, because the Death Star couldn't perform its evil functions without them.
"That's an amusing rhetorical trick," says the Hypothetical Skeptical Reader Who Talks Back To Their Screen, "but obviously he didn't just watch Star Wars and start filling a U-Haul with fertilizer. Something else radicalized him." Sure, he cited the government killing people at Ruby Ridge and Waco (Google those if you're too young to remember how fucked the '90s were). But those were just ... events that happened. How would you keep him from being radicalized by reality?
"Well, he was probably listening to a bunch of pundits who used those events to push a message of violence and hate!" Probably. How in the hell do you stop that, unless you have the government monitoring everything everyone says about current events in public, at all times? Think about how badly the government failed at stopping us from buying drugs, and how many lives were ruined in the process. Now imagine it tries to ban people from even knowing what drugs are.
Related: The 6 Weirdest Free Speech Issues Around The World
There's A Reason This Never Ends Well
I'm not anti-government. I'm not even anti-police. I understand why we have laws. I understand that free expression doesn't encompass expressing to a hitman that you'll pay him $5,000 to plant a bomb in your ex's car. But I've been around long enough to see how our paranoid, over-protective society works. Crime has reached historic lows in the USA and our response, it seems, is to just keep inventing new things for police to arrest people for. Here's a guy who got handcuffed for eating a sandwich on a Bay Area subway platform. Meanwhile, New York added 500 cops to the subways just to fight fare evasion.
It's therefore no surprise that whenever we make it someone's job to police dangerous speech, they will find some speech to police, no matter what. Their funding and paycheck will depend on it. That's how in the '80s, we had cops arresting singer Bobby Brown on stage for doing a sexually suggestive dance.
So when you start talking about using the law -- aka the threat of personal harm -- to suppress dangerous expression, you're on a slope that is, historically, slippery. The logic behind any such restriction always leads you naturally down the same hill:
A) Speech can influence the behavior of others.
B) Violence against innocent victims is a type of behavior.
C) Therefore, speech that could possibly motivate violence must be prosecuted.
D) Since it is impossible to objectively judge which speech would have caused hypothetical violence, the state must have nearly unlimited right to ban any speech, at any time.
The paradox is that every single individual -- including the 60% who apparently want more speech restrictions -- believes that they themselves are smart enough to hear ugly ideas and safely reject them. We need new laws because other people are mindless robots.
You saw this logic in the efforts to ban pornography (they were rampant during my childhood in the '80s -- Reagan had a whole anti-porn commission). Hell, a famous serial killer literally stated that porn made him do it. What more do you need? Are you going to argue in favor of more serial killers murdering women??? What if one of them BUILDS A NUKE?
In The End, The Wrong People Always Get Targeted
That actually provides us with an instructive example. Let's ignore what grandma always told you about never taking a serial killer's word at face value and assume Ted Bundy was right about porn driving him to murder (we'll even ignore that the arrival of internet porn came with a drop in sexual assaults). That would give us just as much ground to ban it as hate speech, right? The expression is triggering violence, therefore we must criminalize the expression.
So who gets punished for violating the porn ban? Everyone who gets caught with the material? Or just the people producing it? But remember that some of the most popular porn today is made by women running their own streams, or posting selfies on reddit. It's almost like, I don't know, a law claiming to protect a group can wind up prosecuting that exact group.
And what if a murderer says he was driven to lust by the Victoria's Secret catalog? Can we honestly say it isn't objectifying women? Or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? Or the servers at Hooters restaurants? What about just random women simply showing too much skin in public, couldn't that drive a sex-crazed psychopath to violence?
This isn't like having a law against stealing cars, where pretty much everyone agrees on what a car is and what stealing one looks like. If you make a law banning entire categories of potentially dangerous ideas and hope to encompass every possible iteration someone could express in the future -- including all of the clever ways people will disguise their banned expression in some protected form -- you've created a system so ripe for abuse that the whole thing is abuse from the start.
That the government would then use those laws as an excuse to jail or harass whoever the hell they feel like isn't some alarmist hypothetical. It's the norm through most of the world across most of history. In China, criticizing the government can get you five years in prison after a trial that lasts ten minutes. In Turkey, you can get four years in prison for insulting the president on social media. After all, what if your words inspire a terrorist, or an assassin? Once we've decided that words are a form of violence, pretty much any speech or speaker can be made to fit whatever the government decides it doesn't like.
Related: 5 Ways Stand-Up Comics Hate Free Speech
We Take Freedom For Granted, So We Only See The Downsides
"So what's your answer? Just let terrible people run wild?"
To a degree, yeah. That's what freedom is.
Freedom isn't, in fact, free. It's fucking stressful. Your right to choose who you get to marry means the stress of dating, loneliness, and rejection. Your right to choose your career means you may fail. Your right to worship or not worship as you please means your neighbor may believe in a god that says you're the spawn of Hell. Your right to a fair trial may mean you get stabbed to death in an alley by a psychopath who was freed due to a lack of evidence.
Freedom isn't free, and the cost comes in the form of lethal risk. Freedom is dangerous. Freedom is work. Freedom is accepting that no one is going to come along and make the bad people and bad ideas disappear. This means, as I keep saying, that we have to do it the hard way. A world saturated with porn means we have to actually talk to our kids about objectification and consent. A world riddled with sickening ideologies means we have to talk to our kids about extremism, conspiracy theories, and the addictive nature of hate. It means learning how to counter bad expression with good expression.
This is what I fear we've failed to teach a generation -- that freedom is hard, that it's sometimes traumatizing, that it's the worst way to live, aside from all of the other ways. And as the world becomes more and more stressful, as we are exposed to more and more ugliness, we will hear more and more voices offering to take it all away. They won't tell you the truth, that right now your freedom is someone else's burden, that they see your choices and expression as a blight on their landscape, that they too have a soothing voice in their ear offering to protect them from you. The same voice that offers to save you from the Nazis promises to save them from Antifa. Or the immigrants, or the rapists, or the terrorists, or the pornographers, or the drug dealers, or the animal rights activists.* Whatever monster scares them into saying, "Yes, you can rule me. Just take my fear away."
*If you think I threw that last one in as a joke, in 11 U.S. states, it's illegal to film slaughterhouses and expose how the animals are treated there.
The fact that the knee-jerk rebuttal to this always comes in the form of "Oh, so you're saying we should just let the Nazis (or ISIS, or gangs) take over?" shows how well they've trained us, how well they've taught us to jump to the extreme scenario, to always assume that monsters lurk in the shadows and that certain words will summon them. Eventually a government can say with a straight face that just uttering the words "Liberate Hong Kong" are enough to cause their entire society to collapse, and we'll have a lively debate about whether or not that is true.
Related: What The Alt-Right's Alt-Internet Means For Your Free Speech
The Government Isn't The Only Problem
What we've found out in the social media era is that there's a brutal mental load that comes from getting exposed to 2,000 bad opinions a day. So our first response to being confronted with something challenging is to look for a reason to immediately dismiss it. Somebody will post a link to a long article or in-depth video, and we'll feel relief when somebody else replies with "Nothing to see here, just more clickbait bullshit from ." So for a bunch of people out there, their only experience with this article will be a tweet that says something like "A Cracked editor suddenly discovers libertarianism lol."
Well, here's the twist they'll probably never bother to read:
Those voices offering you security for the small price of your freedom and privacy? They're not just coming from the government. It's the corporation offering to simplify your life if you'll just let them monitor everything you do. It's the church offering to save your soul as long as you don't question why the rules are contradictory. It's the mob of vigilantes offering to take out the bad people the government won't. It's the smart-sounding pundit promising to do all of your critical thinking for you. It's the husband saying he'll pay all the bills as long as you let him tell you what to wear and who you're allowed to be friends with.
If your fear of losing your freedom extends only to whether or not the government is making laws, you're going to be shocked by how easily others can put you in the exact same chains. If we as individuals don't have pro-freedom attitudes and the willingness to bear the costs, then the government's actions are irrelevant. We'll all just terrify our neighbors into silent submission. These are choices you have to make every day, not just in the voting booth.
And, yeah, freedom-for-security is a trade you'll have to make sometimes, because we're only human and we live in a society. But it should never be made lightly, and you have to be especially suspicious of the people who won't admit it's a trade at all, who'll feed on your fears and hype up the threats until you're begging for them to take the wheel.
It's only after you've given in that you realize freedom surrendered is almost impossible to get back. Then you'll realize that at a certain point, your choices and individuality stopped mattering, because you are just a puppet that exercises the will and choices of someone else, right down to parroting their talking points. The security they gave you was the security of a caged bird. But, you know, other than that, it's fine.
You can follow Jason "David Wong" Pargin on Twitter, his Instagram, or Facebook, or Goodreads, or any of the many accounts he's forgotten about.
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