Rights vs. Principles

The bill of rights

There’s a good, long post over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen* about civilization, tolerance, and freedom of speech as a right vs. freedom of speech as a principle. It’s all worth reading, but I want to briefly highlight that last bit as it dovetails nicely with my hobby horse, the politicized life. Vikram Bath highlights that extremely popular but vaguely chilling XKCD comic that implicitly endorsed silencing people the majority disagrees with. Here’s Bath:

I hate this comic. It views “the right to free speech” as a legal requirement to be regrettably complied with. It places no value on free speech as a matter of principle.

Just because the first amendment to free speech speaks only of the government does not mean that the rest of us should feel free to shout down (youtube) those we don’t agree with. Yes, I know you think your opponents are assholes and that you are simply using your own free speech to prevent them from speaking, but that actually makes you at least as much of an asshole as them. Retract those claws.

I think part of the reason Randall drew this comic was a sense of his side winning in the marketplace of ideas. The most recent boycotts seem to be of bigots and other unsympathetic characters. Munroe isn’t thinking about the McCarthy-era blacklists that were simply private boycotts of workers holding legally protected but worse-than-assholish political beliefs. Are these the norms of private behavior we wish to emulate and carry into the future?

As I noted when Chris Kluwe called on people to steal (or perhaps borrow) Ender’s Game because purchasing the book would put a few pennies in the pocket of a person he disagreed with, no one’s saying you don’t have the right to engage in a boycott. No one’s saying you should be forced to do anything you want to do and no one’s saying that your refusal to purchase a copy of a book is a violation of an author’s First Amendment rights. What I am saying is that your politicization of every facet of the public sphere makes you kind of a dick and leads to a coarsening of society. And, as Bath notes, it shows that your commitment to the liberal order—to the marketplace of ideas, to very basic pillars of civilization on which our silly little band of super-smart apes relies—is tenuous, at best.

Those who live the politicized life want us to treat freedom of speech as something to be tolerated legally and worked around socially rather than a fundamental belief. This isn’t to say every fringe belief should be indulged—9/11 was not an inside job; blacks were not better off as chattel—but on issues where there is legitimate debate and a sizable portion of the populace on either side of the argument? Maybe you should think twice before you try to destroy someone’s livelihood. As a society we’re better off not waging perpetual war against everyone with whom we disagree.

*I always forget that they’ve renamed themselves “Ordinary Times.” Probably because their new name, while more politically acceptable to the whinging cohort, is remarkably dull. In honor of better times I will continue to refer to the site by its previous, better name.