January 25, 2017

Assaulting People Who Say Things We Don't Like

Richard B. Spencer in 2016I have a few brief comments on this post by Kevin Davis at Secular Voices. If he's correct that he loses followers or friends because he has chosen to express the opinion he expresses in this post, I find that to be incredibly unfortunate. I say that not just because I happen to agree with much of what he says but because I find it so absurd that we even have to consider facing that kind of repercussion for expressing ourselves. But I suppose if some are going to insist that physically assaulting people who say things they don't like is justified, then being unfriended or blocked on social media seems fairly trivial.

I should probably begin by admitting that I had not heard of Richard Spencer prior to this incident and still have little idea who he is or what he thinks about much of anything. For the sake of this post, I am going to assume that he is a hateful neo-Nazi with ties to the so-called "alt-right" who has said all sorts of despicable things with which most of us would disagree. Perhaps he's gone so far as to advocate for the genocide of non-Whites. Even if that isn't an accurate description of him or his views, it will serve our purpose here to attribute to him some of the most offensive and objectionable views we can imagine.

I should also be clear at the outset that I agree with Kevin's conclusion. That is, I agree with him when he says:
Ultimately I feel that using violence against someone who holds, promotes, or spreads hateful views is not acceptable.
Strangely, I don't think it would have occurred to me prior to this incident and the social media outrage surrounding it that this perspective would be so controversial among people who claim to be freethinkers, something that is true of most of the people with whom I am connected on social media. Of course, I know better. I have seen plenty of evidence on Facebook and Twitter that this is not the case.

I said above that I agree with "much of what he says" with "he" referring to Kevin. So what don't I agree with? Although I understand why he says that this is not a free speech issue, I am not sure it makes sense to limit ourselves to governmental actions when it comes to our right to free expression. I suppose this could be a case where I'd have to acknowledge that Kevin is technically correct insofar as this is not a First Amendment issue. And yet, I find the notion that one might be physically assaulted for expressing oneself to be sufficiently chilling to raise at least some concern. Even if this is not a First Amendment issue, I think it does concern free speech. These days, the threats to free expression most of us face are not coming from our government but from one another.

I suppose another point of disagreement is that I can't claim to share Kevin's enjoyment of watching Spencer being assaulted. In part, this may be because I have little idea who he is; however, I don't generally enjoy watching real-life violence no matter who the victim is. Kevin claims that "everyone enjoys watching a villain get what's coming." This may be true of me when it comes to the fictionalized depictions of violence of the sort we see from our entertainment media, but it is not at all true of me when it comes to real-world violence. I derived no pleasure from the video of Spencer's assault just as I derive no pleasure from watching the execution of a serial killer.

As far as the three reasons Kevin provides for why he does not see violence as a viable solution for dealing with speech we do not like, I think he raises some excellent points. There is the question of how much violence we are willing to tolerate in order to protect ourselves from upsetting viewpoints (e.g., if punching Spencer is okay because he's a Nazi, would stabbing him be just as okay?). I also think Kevin is right to bring up the question of Spencer's own behavior. If he hasn't been violent, are we really going to equate his words with violence and then use that to justify actual violence?

Kevin's third point is my favorite and the one that I think needs to be emphasized. If the reason it is okay to assault Spencer is that we find his statements unacceptable, then what do we do when someone else assaults us because they find our statements unacceptable. Kevin reminds us that some Christian extremists have convinced themselves that abortion providers are as bad if not worse than Nazis. I suspect some religious believers feel the same way about atheists, especially atheists who criticize their preferred religious beliefs. Should we be assaulted on the same grounds some are using to justify the assault on Spencer?

In the end, I can't help feeling like something is missing here, another reason why we should not condone this sort of thing. When we restrict the free expression of ideas - not only through the application of state power but by any means at our disposal - I think we all pay a price for doing so. When we make it unsafe to express certain ideas, we lose something in the process. I, for one, wish to retain my right to be offended and my access to potentially upsetting ideas.