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Expression Isn’t Difficult, But It Can Be Awfully Hard To Tolerate

Can Free Speech Go Too Far?

By Craig Axford | United States

Following the January 7, 2015 attacks on the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Pope Francis addressed the media regarding the deadly assault. “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith,” the pontiff said, obviously referring to the history of irreverence Charlie Hebdo was famous for. Comparing past insults delivered by the magazine to directing a vulgarity toward his mother, the pope concluded by stating that those engaging in such behavior “can expect a punch” as a consequence.

Freedom of expression is hard. Not because it’s so difficult to practice — in a functioning democratic society expression should be almost as comfortable to a citizen as breathing. Freedom of expression is hard because it’s frequently very difficult to tolerate.

Even the staunchest libertarians and most ardent liberals will have days when they find themselves staring at the TV, listening to the radio, or scrolling through a social media feed while asking themselves whether anything is sacred. Be it pornography, images of a crucifix drowning in a glass of urine, cartoons mocking your prophet, or attacks on well established scientific theories, democracy’s highest and absolutely essential principle can be awfully hard to endure.

That some cherished view or another has earned the privilege of existing free of criticism is a temptation we all flirt with now and then. But it’s a temptation we must resist. Even facts as basic as heliocentrism and the roundness of our planet cannot be segregated by censors for protection from challenges, however ill informed. Removing such ideas from the mainstream must remain a personal and cultural endeavor based upon well reasoned arguments rather than an official state one.

That nothing beyond freedom of expression itself is ultimately sacred is the source of democracy’s strength. Paradoxically, it is also its greatest vulnerability. Radical official neutrality is something institutions like the Vatican are still adjusting to, as the pope’s comments following the Paris terrorist attacks make clear. Fundamentalists and ideologues far more doctrinaire than Pope Frances reject it outright.

If we’re being honest, none of us is completely at ease with the idea of freedom of expression as a universal right. We all have Pope Francis moments when we think someone’s words or images have crossed a line. We may not always be wrong.

The political philosopher Karl Popper described what he called “the paradox of tolerance.” The one thing democracy cannot abide, Popper argued, was intolerance. In tolerating intolerance a society opens the door for intolerance to walk through and put an end to free speech and other liberties.

Some version of this Popperian argument is being employed increasingly today, particularly on the left. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came in for considerable criticism, including from many of its members, following the Neo-Nazi Rally in Charlottesville that ended with one of the participants driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Heather Heyer, one of those demonstrating against the white supremacists that had gathered in her city, died as a result.

The ACLU had gone to court defending the right of the white nationalists planning the Charlottesville rally to receive a permit for their march. One ACLU of Virginia board member resigned following the event stating, “I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis.” Hundreds, if not thousands of others, cancelled their monthly contribution to the organization, expressing similar sentiments on social media as they did so.

I suspect Karl Popper would have agreed with the ACLU’s critics in this instance. Defenders of freedom of expression need to pick their battles. While white supremacists do have a right to protest, provided they remain peaceful, if they want to challenge a community’s denial of their permit application for their gathering, they can hire their own attorney. They don’t need the ACLU fighting for their rights pro-bono, especially given they are marching to undermine those rights in the first place. Perhaps if they had to cough up a few dollars to defend freedom of expression now and then they would develop a greater appreciation for it.

Terrorist attacks on provocative magazines and court battles regarding protest permits for extremist groups define the edges of the free speech canvas. Though these fringes attract the most attention, they are far from the whole picture. These days that picture is becoming increasingly muddled.

Karl Popper assumed the citizens living in the democratic societies he passionately defended would share a more or less common understanding of what qualified as intolerance worthy of their resistance. His entire argument rested upon this assumption. His definition of intolerance did not include reasonable day-to-day differences of opinion, to say nothing of personal slights. Words like microaggression and trigger warning were not only not on Karl Popper’s radar screen, but may very well have been seen by him as the emergence of an unanticipated form of intolerance that a democratic society cannot tolerate.

In a November 17, 2010 post in the publication Psychology Today, Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue defined “microaggressions” as follows:

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.

The purpose of this essay is not to defend rude behavior. My intent is to defend free speech, which annoyingly includes impoliteness.

I have little doubt that Dr. Sue meant well, but the bottom line is that by labelling “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional” a form of aggression, he’s essentially arguing that anyone who has ever had a bad day has been a victim. Ironically, by these standards anyone who has ever had a bad day has also likely been an aggressor, whether intentionally or not.

The word aggression is loaded. Like any weapon, it should be used sparingly and only under certain conditions. When confronted with overly broad concepts that essentially classify everyone as being in a marginalized group on some level, and which further define both “intentional” and “unintentional” snubs as “aggression,” even if only of the “micro” variety, I’ve always found the dictionary a useful means of getting back to reality. Merriam-Webster defines aggression thusly:

Definition of aggression

1: a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master

2: the practice of making attacks or encroachments; especially : unprovoked violation by one country of the territorial integrity of another ~ warned that any act of aggression could start a war

3: hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior or outlook especially when caused by frustration

Aggression is often the expression of pent-up rage.

There’s nothing “forceful” about a snub, insult, or slight. Certainly not in any physical sense. Nor do these forms of impolite behavior constitute an “attack.” If you’re hurt by a snub or insult, it’s because you allowed yourself to be hurt by it. You can’t say the same about a punch, being denied a job because of your race or gender, or being born into poverty.

But what does all this have to do with free speech? When we see university students increasingly demanding “safe spaces” where they can enjoy their identity without having to fear “microaggressions,” or we have professors beginning to insert “trigger warnings” into the syllabus about course content that might upset a student for one reason or another, it begins to have a great deal to do with it.

Certainly professors should be sensitive. There are times a little advance warning about alarming topics may be warranted. But teachers can’t anticipate every trauma their students have faced, and they certainly can’t be in the business of eliminating all controversy or discomfort from the classroom. Ultimately, students should leave their university not just with a degree, but with a somewhat thicker skin and the courage to approach those in positions of authority if something bothers them.

Professors are people too. They won’t always see things a student’s way, and some may be downright insensitive to a student’s genuine pain. Sadly, bosses and other people out in the “real world” will sometimes exhibit a similar callousness. But even if we don’t get our way, each time we stand up for ourselves and communicate our thoughts and feelings we learn something. Over time the experience of engaging with others with whom we have a disagreement hones our skills as thinkers, listeners, and communicators. Democratic societies need a deep bench of players with those skills.

Universities training citizens to feel life owes them “safe spaces” where they will be protected from “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights,” reshapes public attitudes toward speech in a direction that reduces tolerance, to say nothing of personal resilience in the face of a challenge. We need citizens whose instinct is to confront controversy intelligently rather than reacting by simply attempting to silence it through loud assertions of hurt feelings.

The recent uproar at Evergreen State College is an example of the concept of “microaggression” taken to its logical conclusion. The refusal by some students in the video to even enter into dialogue with those with whom they disagreed says it all.

It’s worth noting at this point that Dr. Sue’s definition of microaggression is completely subjective. To be a victim of a “nonverbal” snub or “environmental slight,” one need only perceive they were a victim of one. That the victim may have misinterpreted the motives of the other person is not the least bit relevant. Being on the receiving end of either aggression or an accusation of aggression, whether real or perceived, necessarily puts people on the defensive. Defensiveness renders dialogue that may lead toward the resolution of any racism, sexism, or homophobia that may genuinely exist virtually impossible.

Tolerance requires citizens to foster a posture in which giving our fellow country men and women the benefit of the doubt is our default position. If we’re constantly looking for examples of “micro” intolerance in other’s speech or actions, we’re going to find it. If we proceed to blow these “everyday” occurrences into examples of racism that are morally equivalent to a white supremacist rally, or nearly so, then we’ve degraded ourselves as much as President Trump did when he stated “there were good people on both sides” marching in Charlottesville.

As both individuals and as a culture, we must be seeking opportunities to open up debate and dialogue, not shut it down. Overt racism is easy to identify. White supremacists literally advertise their hatred. Their attitudes have no place in the 21st century and should be opposed. The person at the grocery store that looked at you funny or the professor that challenged your worldview do not fall in the same category.

Concepts like microaggression advance racism and division rather than countering it. By insisting everyone adopt the stance of a victim and react accordingly, it shuts down dialogue between individuals and groups while allowing demagogues like Donald Trump to seize public office by, at least in part, railing against a PC culture that has lost all sense of proportion.

Critical thinking, tolerance, dialogue… These things are hard. Playing the victim card every time we hear something that makes us uncomfortable is easy. Though their arguments and methods differ, those advancing concepts like microaggression and ideological safe spaces are just as committed to silence and conformity as any fundamentalist or dictator. Their attitude has no place within a mature democratic society.

Follow me on Twitter @CraigAxford

Other stories by Craig Axford include: Who are the undeserving poor? When I meet one I’ll let you know and The Canadian Healthcare System from an American Perspective.

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I'm a US citizen, but for most of the past decade I've been living in British Columbia, Canada. I have degrees in both anthropology and environmental studies from the University of Victoria. I am currently working on a master's degree in environmental management at Royal Roads University. I've been a Green Party candidate for the US Congress as well as an organizer for the DNC. I've also served as the program director for a local non-profit environmental group.

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