Saturday, August 26, 2006

Spare the Rod....

This took place roughly a decade ago.

I left in the morning for work. Got no further than two houses down, when I saw on a neighbour's garage some graffiti. "Die Jews" and a swastika.

I choked on my coffee and drove on.

The graffiti was still there in the evening. It was still there the next day. I guess it was a safe bet that this neighbouring family was Jewish, but aside from knowing their last name, it just wasn't something that I noticed.

The next evening it was still there. Another neighbour intercepted me before I could go inside, asking if I'd join the paint brigade - which would consist of three of us. He had bought the paint already. There was no easy way to refuse, so I joined in.

We were all a little puzzled by the fact that the graffiti remained uncovered. But we wanted to put an end to it.

We knocked on their door and told them what we were going to do. I did not know them well. Everyone was a little uncomfortable with the talk. He agreed to join us, saying that he was going to paint it over, but thought it worthwhile to keep it on for a few days - people needed to be reminded, and all.

Well, he was wrong.

The thought is common enough, but I just don't buy it. There was no value to be gained in keeping it on his garage door for an extra few days. Frankly, there are more than enough lessons on anti-semitism out there that we don't need to keep one going. It taught me nothing. I don't believe it taught my neighbours anything.

I'm not saying there aren't lessons to be learned. I'm not saying that there was no value in the neighbours' responses. But just because we neighbours had an opportunity to do good that we wouldn't otherwise have had, doesn't justify keeping such graffiti on your garage door.

I don't know why people think there is something to be gained by suffering. I think there is something psychologically interesting in the people that do.

You know the father that proclaimed "He won't do that again! He's learned his lesson!" with such authority when his son broke his arm in two places trying to do a trick with his bike? You know the nun who cracked a ruler on her young enthusiastic student's fingers when that student correctly gave the answer to a question out of turn (poor TQL)? You know the mother (now grandmother) who insisted you take castor oil when you were sick? (It tastes bad, therefore it must be beneficial.) You know the saying "Spare the rod. Spoil the child"?

So yes, good people will do good things when bad situations develop. But this is no excuse to wish for more bad things.

There have been two basic arguments for keeping hate posts on the fray:

1) the utility argument;

2) the rights argument;

The utility argument makes two basic moves:

a) There's value to keeping the record of who said what.
b) There's value in some of the responses to the hate. (And this cuts in two ways - the positive value of such responses; and the negative value of losing such responses because of current fray technology.

Basically, I agree with the points. There is some value in having a record. (I've argued for the creation of a garbage fray for which these posts could be moved too.) Also, some of the responses have certainly added value. Sure too, you find out things about others.

But if you are going to use the value argument you have to look at all the consequences, not just those that suit you. Obviously, in the most recent case, I was motivated, in part, by seeing others' concerns that the post in question was allowed to remain. They didn't no where to take their concerns. I did. It served to encourage at least one person to continue posting.

Clearly, some, like me, are bothered by such posts. Why shouldn't our concerns be part of the utility equation? My point is that if we are considering utility we can't just look at the disutility.

Further, I think the disutility of deleting such posts is exaggerated. In the past, I had complained about a poster who went by the name Ken Harbaugh. He's since been banned and his posts, I believe, have been deleted. Such a loss. Yup - we no longer have it on record. Oh no. And all the responses he illicited - like "crawl back under your rock" have been deleted too - staggering losses I'm sure.

And all keeping in mind that non-starred or checkmarked posts would be being deleted anyway. Whether you like it or not, this fact weighs heavily on the utility argument.

My argument is that the utility clearly almost always outweighs the disutility, though gladly admitting all should be decided on a case by case basis.

There is another version though of the utility argument - a clever one at that. On this argument, there is utility in having an absolute right to free speech.

I understand why this might seem compelling. The practice of instituting an absolute right itself, may be very beneficial.

I answer this by pointing out the various laws already in place limiting free speech. There are laws controlling slander and libel. There are laws with regard to being a public nuisance. There are laws regarding revealing state secrets. There are laws concerning privately owned sites or properties - all of which in some way or another limit free speech. And in each case the limitation is based on utility. Utility is the rationale for such limitations.

So - why shouldn't the utility of limiting hate also be up for consideration? Why slander, but not hatred toward a group?

Regardless of whether you like it or not, there are already credible reasons for limiting free speech. Let's not pretend otherwise.

Some will argue that there are many cases in history where brutal regimes have repressed free speech. Bad things can happen, so the argument goes, if you put on such limits. Those in power can abuse their power.

The truth is it is societies which allow the active promotion of hate which have the highest curbs on free speech - and that's because nothing curbs speech more than fear. And nations which promote fate cause fear. For the most part, it is that simple.

Canada and Britain limit free speech even in ways that the U.S. does not. No one there is sqawking about speech rights abuse. In Iran, though, it's a different story. In North Korea, it's a different story.

So, turning this argument around, if you really and truly value free speech, you will actively fight the promotion of hate. You will actively fight the attempt to intimidate.

In short, I find the utility arguments for keeping hate posts to be, by and large (allowing exceptions), weak.

The rights argument is entirely different. On this view there is a straightforward absolute moral right to free speech. This view has the advantage of being both simple and consistent. There's no way to prove otherwise.

I admit from the outset I find this the view of Martians. Nozick is an (intellectual) enemy, but not Rawls. But that's no argument.

The usual moves against such a position are twofold:

a) Point to cases where there are very bad consequences to upholding the right. The Skokie Nazi parade is a case where there are some negative consequences to upholding a right. But it is a rather mild case. Some of the parades in Ireland, though, seemed to be for the explicit purpose of starting violence. How much violence do you want to allow before you start to have second thoughts here? Is it worth upholding a right if hundreds will die as a consequence? Hopefully, at some point you'll say no - but I've got to admit you might score consistency points and say yes.


b) Point out that there will be cases where absolute rights conflict. Name any two rights, and the odds are I can come up with a hypothetical situation where those rights conflict. How do you resolve this?

Well - you might have some sort of resolution framework. I'll again suggest that there will by a utility-based component to that framework and try to get you there. But you could still score those consistency points and just lay out that framework.

I guess the best argument against the rights theory is also the dumbest. Basically, saying that there is such a right actually has no explanatory power. If I counter you and say there is no such right (or it's different, or whatever), there is no way to decide which one of us is right.

In other words, in some sense saying there is such a right kind of begs the question. How do you prove it? It's about as explanatory as explaining that sleeping pills make you sleepy because they have something in them that makes you sleepy.

So, no. I don't think such posts should be saved. I don't think it is a big deal to delete them. I don't buy the arguments in favour of keeping them. I don't see the value in more exposure to hate.


catnapping said...

I'm curious. Do you make this much noise when someone makes racist remarks against Muslims? Pagans? Christians?

When you see the word 'raghead,' do you complain to the freditor? How about 'squaw' or 'christian imperialist?'

Catnapping said...

I'm curious.

Do you complain to the Freditor when people make racist comments about Pagans, Muslims, or Christians?