Who is to blame?

Did you know that the first Covid-19 vaccine shot reduces your body’s ability to produce white blood cells by 50% and the second shot reduces it by an additional 25%? For good measure these shots contain poisonous ingredients as well.  Did you know that “former” President Trump actually won the 2020 election? Or that former President Donald Trump’s grandfather was, “a pimp and tax evader,” and that his father was a member of the KKK. Or that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a ban on motorcycles, and that House speaker Nancy Pelosi was diverting Social Security funding for the Trump impeachment inquiry. None of these claims are true but they were viewed and often believed by millions of Americans, often on Facebook.

Granted that it is often hard to know who or what to believe, many of these claims don’t pass the laugh test (though they are rarely funny). A debate is now underway in the U.S. over whether social media should do more to weed out such lies. (“What to do with social media”) While the best answer to this dilemma probably requires balancing several approaches, I want to focus on our own responsibility vs the government’s to sort out the “truth”. To what extent should we rely on protection by government (forgive me for referring to it as “Big Brother”) or on our own efforts to identify reliable (trusted) sources of information (“Trust”) and to develop the capacity to spot obvious or likely lies.  Where do we want the dividing line between what we do for ourselves and what we want the government to do for us?

Over the years I have defended free speech as the best way to challenge bad ideas. “Do we really need free speech”  So naturally I resist giving the government much of a roll in protecting us from offensive, or “wrong” speech. Controversies over vaccines, facemasks, climate change, oil pipelines, etc. often involve serious claims on each side that are best tested in open debate.  In my view, Facebook and other social media platforms should be free to set their own rules and standards for posts. According to The Economist “Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president of policy and global affairs,… pointed out that last year the company removed 30m posts that violated its policies on terrorism and 19m posts that crossed company lines for inciting hatred.” “Facebook flounders in the court of public opinion” Their users can decide whether they agree or disagree with these rules and either stay or opt out of the social platform.

But we have an interest in and responsibility to evaluate the many claims that come our way. We can do a better job of providing our children with the tools for spotting fake or potentially fake information. Along with civics and home economics (how to cook etc.) that are (or should be) taught in high school, students should be taught how to spot and challenge highly improbably statements.

For example, it does not require any medical knowledge at all to spot the vaccine video referred to above as a fake. The medical “expert” who presents her shocking claims is anonymous, as are her credentials and medical affiliations. The vaccine she reports on and claims will kill 20 to 30% of those who take it is unnamed. All the animals it was tested on died, she said. While many of us have lost confidence in the veracity of the information provided by the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control (drugs might be approved too slowly or too quickly, etc.) none of us would (or at least should) believe that they would approve a vaccine with the properties alleged in the video.

I have seen much better produced videos the were totally fabricated stories for reasons I find hard to understand (we shouldn’t blame Russia for everything). One very well done and potentially convincing video claimed that no plane actually crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. Any sensible person should have doubts about claims that are so directly contradicted by pictures and reports to the contrary. But I must admit that my rejection of its big lie was fortified by the fact that at that time I lived next to the Pentagon and saw the damage to the building, and I witnessed the wreckage of the plane laid out for months in the Pentagon parking lot. I also knew a woman who died in that plane.

More could be done by social media platforms to flag potential misinformation, but it should not be censored by the government. We should strengthen our personal capacity to evaluate propaganda but most importantly we need to carefully establish news sources that we trust. Knowing that the Facebooks of the world feed us what they think we like, thus creating an information bubble, we should make the effort to check other sources for their views. We have not flourished as a nation because we turned over our care to the government even if it must provide a critical foundation for our security and interactions. 

Independence Day Celebration

As we listen carefully to the current criticisms of America, we should see them in the context of the wonderful features of our nation that continue to attract tens of thousands of the world’s best and brightest to become Americans and thus add to the material and cultural richness of our lives. We should not lose sight of, nor stop defending, the features of our society that have made us the Land of Opportunity even as we confront and strive to deal with our shortcomings. Those motivated by making more money and those motivated by serving and doing good to others enjoy the incentives for both in our free enterprise system. We make money by serving others, by creating better things and services for the benefit of our fellow man.

Our rights to make our own decisions and speak our minds are protected by our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Our property and commitments (contracts) are protected by the Rule of Law. Indeed, our history is not without sin, far from it.  Slavery was practiced almost from the beginning of time, and our new nation shamefully participated in the practice for almost the first hundred years of its existence. Discriminatory laws and practices replaced slavery for many decades beyond the end of slavery.  Though all Americans now enjoy the equal protection of the law, the uninformed prejudices of some persevere. Our culture of mutual caring that is nurtured by our capitalist economic system and the values taught by all major religions, continue to make progress towards shrinking and isolating bigots. But we have a ways to go.  We have engaged in wars that are not justified by our defense and that are inconsistent with our values. In this area our economic incentives are perverse.

Our freedom to speak out when we see wrong and to praise what is good are critical to preserving what is good and fixing what is not.  The “cancel culture” crowd seem more intent on tearing America down than building it up by fixing its weaknesses.  The current cancerous attacks on our freedom to speak out and debate the important issues of our day in the name of political correctness risks undermining our progress:  “America’s Jacobin moment”.  This is not to say that we should not strive to address our fellow Americans politely “What is wrong with PC?”.  But if we become afraid to express our views and concerns honestly, we lose the ability to understand one another and build mutually satisfactory compromises. “Do we really need free speech?”.

So on this celebration of our Declaration of Independence and the birth of our nation let’s commit ourselves to preserving what has made us great, which includes the ability to freely criticize what is not so great, and to admit and learn from our mistakes and to work at becoming better still: freer, responsible for our own lives, and more compassionate toward others.

New tools require new rules?

A hammer can hit a nail on the head, or it can hit you (or your enemy) on the head. Most, if not all, tools have multiple uses, some good and some bad.  Societies adopt rules to promote the beneficial uses of technologies and discourage harmful uses. New tools/technologies necessitate a discussion of what the rules for their proper uses should be. We are now having that discussion for the uses of social media to promote and propagate ideas and information (some true and some false).

Free speech is revered in America for good reason. Like many other aspects of our preference for self-reliance (personal freedom), it requires that we take responsibility for sorting out what is true from what is false rather than giving over that task to government (and whoever leads it at the time). This can be a challenging task.  We must sort out who we trust to help us. Those of you my age will appreciate that we no longer have Walter Cronkite, and Huntley and Brinkley to help us filter real from fake news.

Our commitment to free speech is so fundamental to the character of America that I have written about it a number of times. https://wcoats.blog/2012/09/14/american-values-and-foreign-policy/    https://wcoats.blog/2012/09/15/further-thoughts-on-free-speech/ https://wcoats.blog/2012/09/29/freedom-of-speech-final-thoughts-for-a-while-at-least/

Various social media platforms present us with another new tool and the need to sort out how best to use it. The answer(s) will take the form of social conventions and government regulations. It is important to get the balance right.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Instagram, Tiktok and other platforms do not generate or provide content. They provided a very convenient and powerful means for you and me to share the content we produce. What responsibility should Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, etc. have for regulating the content we post to their own platforms, which are after all private. As you saw in my earlier blogs on this subject, publishing and broadcasting our words are limited when they endanger or slander others. But these limits do not and should not limit our advocacies for policies and political beliefs as I am doing now.

The big issue today is fake news (out right lies). If you create or repeat lies, you must be responsible for what you do (but we don’t generally punish lying unless under oath). You are allowed, for example, to state on Twitter or Facebook that you believe Obama was born in Kenya despite thorough documentation that he was born in Hawaii. Perhaps you are gullible enough to actually believe it though it is false. But should Facebook and other platforms have a responsibility to block clearly fake news? What if their own biases lead them to block more Democratic Party “fake news”, or vice versa?

As a private company Facebook can more or less do what it wants but it has a strong business/financial incentive to build a reputation of fairness and to provide a platform that attracts as many users as possible. Here are their rules from their website:

“To see the full list and learn more about our policies, please review the Facebook Community Standards.  Here are a few of the things that aren’t allowed on Facebook:

  • Nudity or other sexually suggestive content.
  • Hate speech, credible threats or direct attacks on an individual or group.
  • Content that contains self-harm or excessive violence.
  • Fake or impostor profiles.
  • Spam.”

The debate at the moment is focused on political ads. Facebook has said that it will not fact check political ads and Tweeter has said that it will not run them at all.  A Washington Post editorial stated the issue this way: “Politicians should, for the most part, be able to lie on Facebook, just as anyone else is, and the public should be able to hold leaders to account. But that’s a different question from whether politicians should be able to pay to have their lies spread, based on unprecedentedly precise behavioral data, to the voters who are most likely to believe their lies.”  “Google’s reply has been more nuanced. The company will limit the criteria campaigns can use to “microtarget” ads to narrow audiences based on party affiliation or voter record. The aim is to increase accountability by letting more people see ads….”  “Tech-firms-under-fire-on-political-ads”

No one, thank heavens, wants the government to vet ads for truthfulness. Some facts are obvious and some are less so. The potential danger to free speech is illustrated by Singapore’s “fake news” law.  Singapore claimed that a post by fringe news site States Times Review (STR) contained ‘scurrilous accusations’.  Giving in to the law, Facebook attached a note to the STR post that said it “is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information”.  “Facebook’s addition was embedded at the bottom of the original post, which was not altered. It was only visible to social media users in Singapore.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50613341

However, the government should provide the broad framework of a platforms responsibilities.  For example, the U.S. government requires transparency of who pays for ads in print and TV ads. The same requirement should be imposed on Internet political ads. To qualify for Facebook’s say whatever you want in a political ad policy, the candidate being supported should be required to attach his/her name as approving the ad. Limiting the use of micro targeted ads broadens the exposure and thus discipline on truth telling.  According to The Economist: “To the extent that these moves make it harder for politicians to say contradictory things to different groups of voters without anybody noticing, they are welcome. “Big-tech-changes-the-rules-for-political-adverts”

Knowing what sources of news to trust is no trivial matter. Knowing the source is helpful. Rather than fact checking the content of posts, Facebook attaches an easily viewed statement of the source.  Establishing standards for and establishing boundaries between categories of posts sound easier than they really are, but insuring transparency of who has posted something should play an important role. Flagging questionable sources, without changing the content of a post, as Facebook does, is also helpful. I hope that the discussion of the best balance (and not every platform needs to adopt the same approach) will be constructive.

Alex Jones

Alex Jones and his Infowars website have been removed and banned from YouTube, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify among the most popular social media platforms.  As of this moment, Twitter claims to be reviewing CNN claims that Jones and Infowars violate Twitter’s standards.  What should we think about this?

Jones has made many ridiculously false claims, such as the belief that Sept. 11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened and that Michelle Obama is a transgendered person with male genitalia.  “An InfoWars video posted in July 2018 falsely declared that the ‘CIA admits transgenderism is a plot to depopulate humanity.’” Twitter-Infowars-Alex Jones But accuracy and honesty haven’t been criteria for banning posts or President Trump’s tweeter account would have been closed long ago. Who is to decide whose lies can be tweeted and whose can’t?

Hate speech, which violates Twitter’s rules, is another matter, as is the promotion of violence.  Twitter’s rules state that it does “not tolerate” content “that degrades someone.”  President Trump violates this rule as well on a regular bases.

What should we do about the lies and hate that are regularly posted on the Internet?  I agree with Kimberly Ross who said that: “It is imperative that we don’t view those like Alex Jones, who peddle in fear-mongering and lies, as harmless. In fact, we should actively call out such appalling behavior….  We should never wait around for the Left to come in and clean up our side.  We should do that ourselves.  Individuals like Jones who manufacture outrage and spread falsehoods should find that the market on the Right for their wares is minuscule.”  Dont-defend-Alex-Jones-but-dont-let-the-government-get-into-censorship-either

Several important policy issues arise from this.  We should challenge what we believe to be lies and hatred ourselves.  Our First Amendment protection of free speech rightly prevents the government from deciding what is true and what is hateful and banning it.  Few of us would be happy letting Stephen Miller, a nasty minded White House Adviser, determine what could be posted on Facebook about American experience with immigrants.  Jonathan Rauch has updated his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought,in which he argues that the best defense against fake news and hateful speech is to exercise our free speech to challenge it.  Kindly-Inquisitors-Attacks-Free-Thought. See also his short essay on this subject:  “Who-will-regulate-hate-speech”.

Facebook and Twitter are private companies and should be free to set whatever policies for access that they want.  On the other hand they come close to being public utilities like telephone companies and Internet access providers who should not be allow to block access to the Alex Joneses of the world because they lie and spread hate.  This deserves further thought.

Turning to government to protect us from every unpleasantry we might encounter weakens us and takes us in the wrong direction.  Those who defend protecting us from hate speech with “safe zones” and “trigger warnings” reflect a paternalistic attitude toward the responsibilities of our government and of ourselves as citizens of a free society.  Like the well-meaning, but ultimately harmful, helicopter moms, we risk creating a society of wimps dependent on government for far more than is healthy for a free society.  Part of our training as we grow up and encounter a sometimes nasty world should be to stand up and challenge falsehood and hate when we encounter it.  Safe zones deprive us of such training.  It’s our job to counter lies and hate, not the government’s.

The Wedding Cake

Americans harbor many conflicting views on many subjects. Our right to freely express them is guaranteed in the American Constitution’s First Amendment. It is precisely this right that has enabled the LGBT community to convince an ever-growing number of our fellow citizens that they should be entitled to the same protections under the law as anyone else.

Public discussion of conflicting opinions in a spirit of civility and mutual respect is an important aspect of developing consensus as well as tolerance for other beliefs and ways of living. While we are required by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to set aside our personal opinions and tastes when we open for business to serve the public (the non discriminatory public accommodations requirement), our personal views are much more likely to be meaningfully changed by persuasion than by legal requirements. “There-will-be-no-winners-in-the-supreme-courts-wedding-cake-case/2017/12/04/”

In 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple, walked into Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood Colorado to order a cake for a celebration of their wedding. Jack C. Phillips, the owner and cake designer of the shop, refused to bake it on the grounds that he opposed same-sex marriage. In the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, now before the Supreme Court, Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission maintains that Mr. Phillips has violated the state’s public-accommodations law, which forbids discrimination against LGBT customers. The case pits the Constitution’s First Amendment protection of the right to free speech against the right of everyone, including gay and lesbian Americans, to the equal protection of the law on non discriminatory public accommodation. The Supreme Court must now decide how to balance these two rights.

Phillips argued that making him create a cake that celebrates a same-sex wedding would violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, by forcing him to express a message, and celebrate an event, that runs against his beliefs.  Messrs. Craig and Mullins argued that the cake shop had discriminated against them.  How can the rights and needs of each best be satisfied in our society of diverse beliefs?

There were many other cake shops happy to bake the desired cake. Why would Messrs. Craig and Mullins want to give their business to an unwilling baker? What goal was served by challenging the baker’s refusal in court? Did they think that a judge could force the baker to change his views about same sex marriage? Really? Public attitudes toward LGBTs have improved dramatically in recent years including attitudes toward same-sex marriage because of persuasion, not because of legal coercion. In fact, in 1996 legal coercion was used to prevent same-sex marriage with passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Supreme Court fortunately overturned it in June 2015 in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. What ever the Supreme Court decides, the LGBT community looses from this case. George Will: “A-cake-is-food-not-speech-but-why-bully-the-baker”/2017/12/01/

Everyone should worry about the threat of state-compelled speech, says gay marriage supporter Andrew Sullivan:  “It always worries me when gays advocate taking freedom away from other people. It worries me as a matter of principle. But it also unsettles me because some gay activists do not seem to realize that the position they’re taking is particularly dangerous for a tiny and historically despised minority. The blithe unconcern for the First Amendment in the war on ‘hate speech,’ for example, ignores the fact that, for centuries, the First Amendment was the only defense the gay minority ever had — and now, with the first taste of power, we are restricting the rights of others in this respect? Ugh. Endorse the state’s right to coerce speech or conscience and you have ceded a principle that can so easily come back to haunt you.” New York Magazine December 8, 2017.

The LGBT community should look first to improved understanding and then to tolerance of diversity. The courts are the last place to search for a workable balance between free speech and conscience and equal treatment of everyone under the law.

Do we really need Free Speech?

James Damore was fired by Google for a memo he posted at work giving his views on why there are so few women at his workplace. Basically, he argued, fewer women are interested in math and science than men and thus Google’s hiring policies designed to attract and hire more women are misguided. In this note I make two points: First, we lose a great deal of first order importance if we counter erroneous or offensive speech by repressing it—FREE SPEECH is protected by the First Amendment for good reason. Second, it is more effective to counter false ideas with correct or better ideas than to repress them.

Damore went further than Larry Summers did twelve years ago. Summers, who was President of Harvard University at the time, noted the fact that there were so few women at Harvard in the hard sciences and asked why that might be so. He explored several possible explanations without endorsing any of them. He was, in fact, raising a serious question for serious discussion. Many of his colleagues found his question so offensive that he was forced to resign his Harvard presidency. This is what I wrote about it at the time: “Science-discrimination-and-Larry-Summers”

One of the possible factors in the underrepresentation of women in the sciences not raised by Summer is the fact that the approach to teaching math and science has been designed by man and best suits the ways men generally learn. Considerable research indicates that men and women tend to learn differently. A pedagogy best suited to men might discourage otherwise potentially interested women from perusing science.

Damore went further by concluding that Google’s hiring practices were discriminatory to men and thus illegal. In a Wall Street Journal oped Damore stated that:  “I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment…. I suggested that at least some of the male-female disparity in tech could be attributed to biological differences (and, yes, I said that bias against women was a factor too).” “Why-I-was-fired-by-Google” None of us needs to be convinced that there are biological differences between men and women (hopefully), so why not with regard to tastes in employment?

I have not read Damore’s ten page memo and don’t intend to take sides on the points he makes, over than to agree with his statement that Google will have a better Human Resources policy if it is based on fact rather than ideological presumptions of the facts. Open discussion of the issue—of Damore’s biological claims—is one of the best ways to sort out what is scientifically supportable from what is ideological fiction.

Opening public discourse to the views and comments of anyone wishing to say something, i.e., “free speech,” potentially exposes us to some pretty nasty stuff. There is a fundamental and critical difference between addressing rudeness—bad manners—via inculcating cultural values of mutual respect (good manners) and via government suppression. Today’s millennials seem to have been raised to expect protection from anything unpleasant (shame on you helicopter moms). Rather than take responsibility for their own good behavior and the encouragement of the same in others, they seek and demand protection imposed by the “authorities” with “safe zones” and the like. In my view this is on the “Road to Serfdom.” I have shared my views on the emergence of state imposed political correctness on several earlier occasions: “What-is-wrong-with-PC”

To my second point, suppression of speech is also an inefficient way of countering falsehoods or doubtful or “bad” principles. If such views cannot be aired openly and publically, they are very likely to live on and survive within social or ideological bubbles where they are not challenged. The Internet facilitates living within a bubble or reaching beyond it and we need to encourage everyone, and especially each new generation to reach beyond their echo chamber in order to confront their beliefs with other views.

In an interview with Bloomberg on August 10, Damore stated that: “There are simply fewer women that want to get into these fields,” he said. “If you’re a girl and you’re interested in technology, that’s great…. If anyone is interested in technology they should just pursue it,” he added. “It’s a great field.” “Fired-google-engineer-says-company-execs-shamed-and-smeared-him.” This doesn’t sound much like a bigot to me.

Science, Discrimination, and Larry Summers

It is clear that Harvard President Larry Summers has hit a nerve, yet again. It is far less clear why reactions have been so strong and often so disappointing to those of us who believe in science. Let us know the truth, whatever it is. If women have less “intrinsic aptitude” for science than men, and no one—not even Larry Summers—is arguing that such a fact has been established, then we should know about it. Choices are better made on the basis of facts than ignorance or fiction. To my mind, the key overlooked point is that such a fact would have almost no relevance to the values most of us believe in.

Equal treatment under the law and in public policy has nothing to do with whether the average intelligence or other indicators of aptitude or virtue of women is the same as men, or whether the same is true for blacks, whites, Asians, Jews, Arabs, Christians, Moslems, etc, or for gays or straights. We are each individuals, not averages. Our public policy and the personal beliefs of most of us are based upon the morality and advantage of dealing with individuals rather than classes of one sort or another. Whatever the averages might turn out to be—and why should we be afraid to know?—currently available evidence clearly establishes a very large dispersion of traits within each group and a very large overlap with all other groups.

Such principles are expressed and upheld by governments only when they are broadly believed by the governed (in democracies), or by enlightened rulers, or, as in our case of a constitutional democracy, when enlightened leaders in the contemplative environment of a constitutional convention imbed such principles in a constitution that limits what majorities may do. Fortunately, in free market economies self-interest works in favor of such principles. Profit minded employers want the best employees for the least cost.

It is human nature to economize and conserve in various ways. It is part of being efficient. Economizing on the gathering of information is but one of the many ways we prioritize the use of our time. We often develop impressions of people or groups of people (say Southern Baptists) on the basis of partial information. We often rely on the views of others we trust. It would take more of our time than it is worth to gather ALL of the facts. Biases and prejudices are perpetrated for some time for these reasons even among the good hearted.

If women are being discriminated against in the market place, presumably because of incorrect perceptions of their productivity, they will tend to earn less for the same work. If this is the case, it is economically advantageous for an employer to hire them. Thus there is an economic incentive for firms to look beyond the stereotypes (or averages) for individuals whose talents may not be fully appreciated yet in the market place. Not all employers will bother to do so, but those who do so will profit at the expense of those who discriminate. Over time more profitable firms tend to grow more rapidly than less profitable ones. If employers are forced to pay women the same wages as men when they believe they are less productive, fewer women will be hired until such time as broadly held prejudices are over come.

Open and honest debate about such issues is another way of advancing the truth and overcoming prejudice. In my opinion Larry Summers has contributed to that goal and the sometimes hysterical reactions to his raising legitimate scientific questions have not.

What is wrong with PC?

Almost five years ago I wrote about political correctness (PC, politeness and caondor): https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/pc-politeness-and-candor/. In short, I said that what would normally be considered “good manners,” — values and behavior of free individuals– was becoming a stifling imposition of expected behavior by various authorities, another manifestation of the nanny state. Given our laudable propensity to generally rebalance excesses in one direction or another, I assumed that PC would be fading by now.

In 1964 at the University of California at Berkeley, I participated with other students from the far left to the right (University Conservatives and Young Republicans– we didn’t have far right students at Berkeley) in demonstrations AGAINST the University administration’s efforts to limit our freedom of speech. This was the famous Free Speech Movement. Thus I am shocked to read that today’s students are demanding restrictions on speech by the authorities. What is going on here?

On November 9 the WSJ reported that: “On Oct. 28 Yale Dean Burgwell Howard and Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee blasted out an email advising students against ‘culturally unaware’ Halloween costumes, with self-help questions such as: ‘If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?’ Watch out for insensitivity toward ‘religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc.’ In short, everyone.

“Who knew Yale still employed anyone willing to doubt the costume wardens? But in response to the dean’s email, lecturer in early childhood education Erika Christakis mused to the student residential community she oversees with her husband, Nicholas, a Yale sociologist and physician: ‘I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns,’ but she wondered if colleges had morphed into ‘places of censure and prohibition.’

“And: Nicholas says, ‘if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.’

“Some 750 Yale students, faculty, alumni and others signed a letter saying Ms. Christakis’s ‘jarring’ email served to ‘further degrade marginalized people,’ as though someone with a Yale degree could be marginalized in America” Read the whole sickening story: http://www.wsj.com/articles/yales-little-robespierres-1447115476

It is hard for me to grasp that some Universities now carve out limited spaces within which students may freely express their opinions on controversial issues. Charles Murray’s reaction resonates with me: “Safe space. That’s the POINT of a university. To be a safe space for intellectual freedom in a world largely hostile to that concept.” FACEBOOK, Nov 10, 2015.

It is a good thing that today’s students are more sensitive to bad behavior among their peers and hopefully better behaved themselves. However, the swing from students demonstrating to defend free speech to students demonstrating to restrict it represents, in my view (as correctly noted by the brave Mr. Christakis in the above article) a swing from each or our personal responsibilities to exhibit, defend and promote good manners to a wide ranging state—big brother—to oversee and enforce all that in its wisdom we should believe and do. We will be a weaker and more subservient country as a result.

Freedom of Speech – Final Thoughts (for a while at least)

Our right of free speech is not a partisan issue in America. Democrats and Republicans, both President Obama and Presidential aspirant Romney, vigorously support its value and its constitutional guarantee. The extent of that right, which is not without limits, is greater in the U.S. than in any other country. The right to speak in some countries is simply at the whim of the existing government. The residents in some counties, such as Egypt, have more limited but legally defined (in principle at least) rights. Even the UK limits its press more than it is in the U.S. (think of the invasion of the privacy of the Queen and her family, though British standards are evolving too).

On this as with so many other issues, the world would benefit from a civil but vigorous discussion of the value of free speech to a healthy society and as a check on the powers of government and of where it is most appropriate to define its boundaries with the right to privacy and other values. We also need to understand and respect (but not necessarily agree with) the boundaries established by other countries and cultures.

President Obama reflected the American view well in his UN speech September 25.

“As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day. And I will defend their right to do so…. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect…. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.”

The next day, to the same UN audience, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi defined a different position: “The obscenities that I have referred to that were recently released as part of an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities are unacceptable. We reject this. We cannot accept it. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed…. Egypt respects freedom of expression, [but] not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”[1]

Any real dialog over this issue requires a deeper understanding of just President Morsi means when he says “we will not allow anyone to do this.” He clarified this in the same speech: “Egypt respects freedom of expression,… [but] not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”[2]

The arrest in Cairo of Alber Saber, a 27-year-old Coptic Christian Egyptian illustrates an application of what President Morsi means. Saber was accused of providing a link on his Facebook page to the inflammatory video “Innocence of Muslims”, which he denies.  He “was arrested two weeks ago on charges of disdaining religion and ridiculing religious beliefs and rituals….  Showing contempt toward what Egyptian statutes call the “heavenly” religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — is punishable by up to five years in prison.

“The same day, [as Obama’s UN address] Egyptian authorities announced that charges would be filed against a prominent Islamist activist and TV personality, Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah, who tore up a copy of the Bible during a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo…. But liberal activists here say the blasphemy laws are so vague, and applied almost exclusively when people allegedly defame Islam, that they are nothing more than a political tool.”[3]

Clearly Egypt has a very different standard of free of speech than we do. We have very good reasons for believing that our more liberal standards are better and we should defend that view. But obviously views differ and those differences must be respected.

The freedom of speech is not absolute anywhere. All Americans know that we are not free to shout fire in a theater unless we think there is one. We are not allowed to deliberately tell lies about others in public. But that already puts us in some difficult waters, as the distinction between deliberate and unknowing lies is not easy to establish. In seeking the best balance between free speech and the right to privacy, American libel laws have set different standards for public (politicians, movie stars, etc.) and private individuals on the grounds that by choosing to become “public” officials or celebrities, such people have chosen to forgo some of their privacy.

For most of our country’s existence, free speech was thought to apply primarily to political speech and religious expression. America’s legal system evolved from English Common Law, which set a rather low standard for the prosecution of publishers of libelous material, who could be jailed for material that damaged the reputation of a member of the community. In 1734 New York publisher John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for printing political attacks against the colonial governor of New York.  However, his lawyer established a new legal precedent by arguing successfully that truth was a proper defense in libel cases. Prior to that, truth of allegedly libelous statements was not relevant to whether libel had been committed. Since the Zenger case, however, someone can sue successfully for libel only if the defamatory information is proven to be false.

Since the 1964 Supreme Court ruling in the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, “public officials no longer could sue successfully for libel unless reporters or editors were guilty of ‘actual malice’ when publishing false statements about them…. Retired Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who wrote the Sullivan decision, defined it as ‘knowledge that the [published information] was false’ or that it was published ‘with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’ In other words, public officials no longer could sue for libel simply by proving that something that had been broadcast or printed about them was false. Now they would have to prove that a journalist had knowingly printed false information while making little, if any, attempt to distinguish truth from lies.”[4] Egypt obviously has a different balance between conflicting rights in mind.

Even in the United States, freedom of speech is under constant attack from within. Columnist George Will, with his usual flare for sarcasm reports on bone chilling attempts by North Carolina’s Board of Dietetics/Nutrition to stop Steve Cooksey from offering nutritional advice on his internet blog based on his personal experience with losing 75 pounds. They argue that he does not have a license to offer such advice (hopefully the self interested protection of the right of only their members to offer such advice doesn’t need to be explained).[5]

Finding the best balance between free and acceptable speech is an ongoing quest and different societies, even the same society at different points in its history, define it differently. I, like most of my countrymen and our constitution, believe that we have very good and compelling reasons to tightly limit exceptions to and limits on free speech to the minimum. In defending this view to others, we must respect that they may prefer a different balance, while at the same time explaining the reasons for our view.

That said, the quality of any society also depends on what actually gets said. A society in which most residents adhere to the values of mutual respect and make public pronouncements that are thoughtful and well meaning is clearly a more desirable one that where many are rude and thoughtless and speak hatefully. But the freedom of all members of society to speak freely is, in my view, is the best way to develop a thoughtful and civil society.


[1]Anne Gearan, “Egypt’s president Morsi tells UN insults to Muhammad unacceptable” The Washington Post, September 27 Page A2.

[2] Ibid

[3] William Booth, “Egyptian blogger Alber Saber’s arrest shows differences over freedom of speech” The Washington Post, September 27, 2012, page A9

[5] George Will, “Bureaucrats declare war on free advice”, The Washington Post, September 27, 2012.

Further thoughts on Free Speech

Why are Americans (in particular) so attached to free speech, even repugnant free speech? Why is the first item in our Bill of Rights (i.e. the First Amendment to our Constitution) devoted to its protection? Our strong defense of free speech rests largely, in my view, on three beliefs held by most Americans.

The first is that it is our right and our responsibility to decide for ourselves what to read, view or listen to. We turn to ourselves and our families first and to our communities and our government second and third for most things. No one is absolutely self-reliant (even Robinson Crusoe had his man Friday), but Americans have historically been more self-reliant than most any other people. We trust our own judgment more than that of a public morality police. Though we often turn to trusted advisors in our churches or communities for guidance, we choose whose guidance we respect. No one has a stronger interest in our getting it right than we do ourselves. I don’t buy the paternalistic argument of some “do gooders” that the poor or uneducated just don’t care.

The second belief, born of centuries of experience and accumulated evidence, is that government power is always in danger of being corrupted to the service of those in power if not carefully checked and balanced. If government had the power to control what we heard, it would, sooner or later, be abused. If government is able to filter what we see and hear, it will not be able to resist filtering out information inconvenient to or critical of itself.

The third belief is that competition in ideas and information as well as in the provision of goods and services will reward the truth and drive out falsehood. This issue of discovering the truth is complicated. These days anyone can say anything and post it on the Internet. However, it doesn’t generally take long for the truth to crowed out lies (the claims that Ambassador Stevens body had been sodomized or that American Embassy Marine guards did not have live ammunition come to mind). To the extent that we trust the statements of our government it is only because we know that we (and the press) are free to contradict it if we have contrary evidence.

Our strong defense of free speech does not obligate us to defend the content of that speech. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “’both the mentality and the organization behind this movie and those perpetrating terrorist actions exploiting Islamic symbols and discourse’ were equally to be condemned.” (The Washington Post “Anti US fury widens in Muslim world” 15/9/2012). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the offending video “disgusting and reprehensible.” She was right to say so, though I found the film merely pathetic.  We defend the right of the cretins who made this film to make it and to show it where ever they can convince some company or person to do so while also defending our right to denounce it.

This brings us to the “Muslim” reaction to the film. Many Muslims around the world have complained loudly about pictures or films that denigrate Mohammed, as do many Christians when pictures or films denigrate Jesus. That is simply an exercise of free speech. But what about demonstrations at American Embassies? “The right of the people peaceably to assemble,” is merely one of the means of exercising free speech and is also protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Attacking our Embassies and their officials and employees is quite another matter. Muslims are wrong to do this and their governments should not allow it. I hope that you stumbled at my broad brushed attribution of this violence to “Muslims”.  If you didn’t you should have. Muslims did not kill four Americans in Benghazi or set various American properties on fire in several countries. “It is no more accurate to condemn the Muslim world for the atrocities of a relative few than it is to indict America because one lowbrow decides to upload a lousy flick that nobody otherwise would watch or even know about.” (Kathleen Parker, “In Libya and America-imbeciles affecting foreign policy” 14/9/2012.) Individuals did these things, each with their own motives. What drew people to these demonstrations? Who are they and what are their goals? In Benghazi, the murderers may have been al-Qaeda linked. The attacks in Egypt were primarily lead by hard line Islamists groups against the somewhat more tolerant and moderate new government of the Muslim Brotherhood. (David Ignatius, “Cairo and Libya attacks point to radicals jockeying for power” The Washington Post 12/9/2012)

Not everyone in the world understands or accepts our strong commitment to free speech. Our self-interest calls for us to carefully explain to the rest of the world its value and importance for the kind of societies that respect individuals that we want to live in.