What if They Threw a Culture War and No One Came?

I didn’t expect to get so much feedback on my first amendment post yesterday. Here’s one¬†from Phil Brewer. His opinion is representative of others I heard from. And while I very much understand that point of view, I don’t think what I had to say would have been even slightly controversial twenty years ago, when it was very popular for people to cite the quotation popularly attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”

The internet tells me that this is not a direct quote of Voltaire, but variations of it have been used to describe his beliefs about freedom of expression.

So often now, though, especially on the internet, discussions of freedom of speech are framed in terms of limitations. The sentiment is not “I will defend to death your right to say it,” but “You have the legal right to say it, but I will silence you by any other means that I possibly can.”

This makes me sad, because freedom of speech or expression is not a legal technicality of the US Constitution, but a globally recognized human right and probably THE key differentiator between an open society and a closed society. When Voltaire formulated his ideas, he was not talking about the U.S. constitution. He was born in 1694 in France. He knew nothing about the U.S. constitution. He was not describing a legal idea, but a moral practice.

The philosophy of freedom of expression is so much more than a single sentence in our constitution, to be interpreted in narrowist possible fashion, but an entire philosphy developed by thinkers of the enlightenment period including John Milton, John Locke, Denis Diderot. (I am cherry-picking heavily from the wikipedia article on freedom of speech because I am lazy and because all of my history and philosophy texts are in boxes in a storage unit.)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In order to protect not only our American constitutional right to free speech, but a global value of freedom of expression as a human right, it is incumbent on every citizen to “buy in” to the spirit of the law, not in a grudging way, but in an open-hearted embrace. I know that people point to Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church as some kind of failure of freedom of speech, but we shouldn’t think of it that way. Much as I despise his idea, his message, his very existence, every time he pulls out his protest signs, he proves that we truly live in a free and open society. Phelps has offended everyone. If we didn’t live a free and open society, he and his whole family would be dead.

I like this quote by former UM President Lee Bollinger:

“the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters.”

In the discussions around this subject on the internet, the overwhelming message I get is that words are not enough anymore. Countering poisonous or harmful ideas with words is no good because no one is listening and people will believe what they want to believe, so ignoring or debating ideas you don’t like is never going to work. Instead, you have to use economic leverage, intimidation, “shouting down,” google bombing, DNS attacks, hacking, or any number of other means to silence those words.

I blame the internet, partially. The internet gives everyone with the bare rudiments of language and access to electricity and a phone line the ability to “publish” their ideas. And unlike Voltaire’s words, those hastily concocted essays are often barely literate and filled with hatred. When faced with that kind of avalanche of ignorance, trying to make a moderate, rational argument can feel like yelling into a gale force wind.

A blog post by author Alex Bledsoe, serendipitously published today, touches on this subject by discussing the phenomenon of the “internet pile on,” which he aptly describes as a form of bullying. Bledso writes:

And this leads directly to the pile-on, as these fans, followers and commentators rush to join the bloggers in being the most offended by whatever (or whoever) the topic at hand might be. Often, the people most offended have, as they say, no dog in the fight. They simply enjoy being part of the pile.

Over the years, I’ve noticed how the phenomenon of piling on has discouraged people from engaging in debate or presenting dissenting opinions in blogs. Bloggers who write about controversial subjects may congratulate themselves on having “civilized” discourse in their blog comments, without realizing that dissenters have literally been bullied out of the discussion. Some of those dissenters retreat to their own echo chambers, where they can have safe “civilized” discussions with people who agree with them. Others have simply given up engaging in any kind of debate on controversial subjects.

But it makes me sad, because words are as powerful as they ever were. In the hands of the ignorant and semi-literate, those words of hate lack any power.

In contrast, a thoughtful essay by a skilled writer shines like a beacon. Every single person who dissented with me on this subject is a person I respect, listen to, and am influenced by. They are people whose words matter. They are people who can make a difference in this world by telling the truth.

I also blame the culture war. And this is kind of ironic, because Rush Limbaugh has been one of the most prominent and long-lasting culture warriors of the political right. I think he has possibly been more influential than any single conservative politician. A lot of people aren’t familiar with Limbaugh or his radio show. Last I knew, he was on the air two or three hours a day, every week day, and almost all of his airtime is dedicated to warning and illustrating how the liberals are conspiring to take away all of our rights, including free speech. Especially free speech. Limbaugh has been an innovator of the “words are not enough” school of political advocacy.

(And this is hard to write because I have loved ones in my life who are fans of his show and read this blog, but twenty years of living among liberals has convinced me that liberals are not interested in dismantling our constitutional rights, and are in fact equally worried that conservatives want to do so. We need to stop being afraid of each other.)

Silencing him is not the answer. In fact, any minimally successful attempt to silence Limbaugh, or force him to find another outlet would absolutely set fire to his fan base, confirming every fear in them that Limbaugh has spent decades stoking.

Getting back to the title of this post, what if we decide we don’t want a culture war? What if we refuse to wage it? What if, when faced with paranoid, hateful, intolerant speech, we turn and walk away? Or instead of concentrating all of our energy battling over rare, irreconcilable questions such as what is the beginning of life, we focus on the great many goals and values we all share, like how are we going to build sustainable prosperity for all? or how are we going to take care of all the sick elderly baby boomers we’re going to have on our hands in twenty years? What if we decide we CAN be a multicultural society, with all of the abundance of tolerance, understanding, and forgiveness that implies?

I worry a lot about indirect boycotts–boycotts of advertisers associated with offensive media, boycotts of publishers that produce offensive material. You don’t have to follow that trend very far to realize the outcome is an increasingly balkanized media. One source of entertainment and information for right wingers. Another for left wingers. Never mind if we all like vacuum cleaners, the manufacturer will have to choose whether to sell it to a liberal or a conservative audience. Would you like to sell vacuum cleaners to fans of the Daily Show, or of Bill O’Reilly? And don’t say you want to sell to both, because they each have economically active fanbases who will stage a boycott if you “support” offensive material by purchasing advertising time from the other side.

I can’t tell people what to do with their money, but I would suggest that love of a good vacuum cleaner is something we can all share regardless of our religious and political affiliations, and that it might be good, after having heated discussions of politics on the internet or with friends and families, to maintain a politically neutral marketplace where we can focus on quality, customer service, and fair trade practices, and allow advertisers to follow their audience rather than signing on to one or another platform.

I’ve enjoyed the dialogue on this subject, and I appreciate that there are still places on the internet where people can discuss difficult subjects openly without resorting to least-common-denominator insults and name-calling. It keeps me glad, every day, that I, unlike Voltaire, was born into a free and open society.