Some Thoughts On Free Speech

I’ve become pretty much a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, but this is not to say that I don’t question this belief and wonder if it should always universally apply, even when it’s not a direct incitement to violence.  Things get quite murky when it comes to hate speech because, I think there are going to be disagreements of what hate speech is.  For instance if I said:

“All Jews are scum and should be eradicated.”

I think we would all agree that this was hate speech and incites violence.  But what I just said:

“All Jews are scum.”

Image result for Free speechSome might say there is no incitement to violence.  But this is a hate speech no question.  And I would argue that it dehumanizes a group of people (which increases the odds that violence will perpetrated against them) and also simply has no merit in any intellectual fashion.  I think even most would agree that both should not fall under the purview of free speech, but what if the message, like the second one, is not so overt?  Hate groups tend to be a little cleverer about their message these days, yet there are still groups that get away from some pretty blatant hate speech.  Consider the Westboro Baptist church.  Their message about homosexuals is certainly dehumanizing them, they certainly talk about torture being done to them (at least on some other plane of existence) even if they aren’t the ones to do the torturing.  Religious posturing, particular using fear-based tactics to gain followers certainly makes out those who do not follow the religion to be less than human, possessed by evil, worthy only of eternal torture, they are the enemy, etc.  But I am not trying to bash religion, but only to point out that when freedom of religion mixes with free speech the murkiness increases and we tend to be even less punitive despite the harm that might result from those words spoken publicly.

Which brings us to the topic of punishment.  If we aren’t going to punish hate groups for advocating for things like white nationalism by the law, is it reasonably to have groups like Antifa do the punishment for us?

Image result for free speechIf we want to live in a society where the government isn’t going to interfere with what people say publicly, we are left with a sort of vigilante style justice system. When I was on social media there were quite a few people that felt Antifa’s actions were justified.  Some of those people were quite well educated also.  Their argument, which I tend to agree with, is that any group that advocates the superiority of their own group over others, purports a worldview that only their group has certain rights while others do not.  And this tends to include a lack of protection from violence for those groups that they feel are unworthy due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.  Such a worldview is not compatible with a free society and thus if we must have free speech, then punching a Nazi is completely acceptable as a consequence to somebody expressing their racist worldview.  Answering hate speech with violence is the part I struggle with.  I tend to think that anybody who advocates a worldview does not support equal rights for all humans is simply sowing seeds of hate which will lead to violence and this is therefore harmful speech that should be punished.  If we say the law should punish them, then this becomes a slippery slope. Once we start limiting free speech this also presents dangers to a free society.

Image result for free speechI am sure there many people who have thought more deeply about this societal right than I have, but I tried to think about what the purpose is for free speech.  I think I would boil it down to two important aspects 1) The ability to have an unbridled free market of ideas that allow people to challenge ideas and choose the ones that have the most merit and 2) The freedom to voice dissent about existing paradigms, culture, governments, etc.  Both these things are good for a society and not being punished by those in power for this speech is important.  History is full of bad ideas that have taken hold of societies and without dissent, things would simply not have gotten better.

Image result for colin kaepernickOf course the problem is that people are punished for dissenting ideas all the time.  Certainly those who disagreed with slavery, segregation, and other oppressive policies and cultural attitudes towards African-Americans has paid prices in this country (and still are).  The fact that those in power can advocate for policies that cause real harm to particular groups of people, makes the importance of being able to express dissent freely even more obvious, even if this hasn’t happened in practice.  We know how hard it is to have progress in affording all people basic human rights when free speech is chilled.  And even though I can bring many more examples of consequences that people face when exercising their first amendment rights (even if that punishment isn’t be federal law) we know that speech is rarely 100% free.  And if this is the case, do want mob style justice for that speech or do we want thoughtfully put together laws, and judges and juries making decisions about whether possible violators are innocent or guilty?

Of course freedom of expression shouldn’t imply freedom from consequences.  And it is those consequences that we have to be mindful of.  When does vigilante violence become the solution to dealing with groups pushing the limits of what is considered hate or harmful or speech?  Is violence ever a good idea, even against groups whose worldview would advocate violence against others?  I don’t think that it is morally wrong to do so, but since the action of punching a Nazi doesn’t exist in isolation, one also has to wonder about the bigger picture.  When people see violence enacted against somebody and others cheering it on how does this play into the psychology of individuals?  Even if that person, could arguably deserve it because they advocate a worldview that would inflict violence on others does such an action actually change people’s point of view? If we avoid violence we might turn to shaming. Social media is pretty good at shaming.  Is shaming effective?  It can be, but this is a court that makes mistakes too.  Shaming can also have deep psychology impacts which don’t necessarily lead to positive change.

Image result for free speechIt’s not obvious to me that violence is the right action, nor is it obvious to me that such speech shouldn’t be met with sharp reprisal given the level of danger that such ideas represent.  Maybe the question really boils down to “Is it okay to dehumanize people who dehumanize others?” There might be obvious actors that we would answer yes to this question. But certainly we know that people also reform, and that many people who are part of hate groups realize the errors of their ways and turn their lives around.  I know there are times when violence is the only answer left to confront people who mean to do serious harm.  It’s just not obvious to me that we’ve reached that point and worry that organizations like Antifa do more harm than good, when other options might still be on the table.

Perhaps it’s my own frustration that leaves me wondering, “Why do we still have to still talk about whether one race is superior to others or not?”  Hell if you had asked me if that flat Earth theorists would be making a comeback, I’d have laughed my ass off.  I don’t know why we have to convince people that vaccines are in their and society’s best interest.  Yet here we are.  My commitment to free speech waivers it seems when confronted with revisiting conversations we’ve already have and should be over.  There are real problems to solve, and while speech should be free, wasting time on speech that is factually incorrect and in many cases can cause real harm, affects me on an emotional level and there is a part of me that says “Yeah, shut that idiot up, even if you have to punch him, his shit is ridiculous.”  Ultimately though the best argument for free speech is to look what happens in societies without it.  A society committed to freedom of speech, I don’t think is likely to spin into totalitarianism.  I guess the best thing to do is just be vigilant and to make sure that bad ideas are always exposed as such, and fortunately we have the freedom to do so.

Free Will and Changing Your Mind

There was a very good question posed to Sam Harris on his podcast which was:

“If free will is an illusion, why are intentions morally relevant?”

Sam Harris’ answer was very good, but I wanted to throw in my own answer as well.  This also brought to the fore questions I have been asking for years and has led me on a path to learn about the brain and cognitive science: “How effectively can we change our own minds about things?  And what is the manner in which we can change our mind?”  Now perhaps to some, the question posed to Sam Harris doesn’t seem related, but I think there is a very important connection here.

Whether or not you agree that free will is an illusion or not, isn’t something I want to debate with right now.  I haven’t heard a compelling reason in favor of the idea of free will in some time.  I think what the more interest question is to understand why people are against the idea of free will being an illusion.  Sure you could argue that religion is part of that reason, but even secular people are uncomfortable with the idea.  The question posed to Sam Harris says it all.  If there is no free will, how is anybody responsible for their actions?

The word responsible is the word that doesn’t belong here, and this is what most people seem to miss.  This has important consequences for our justice system.  So then why do intentions matter?  The reason why intentions matter is because of what it says about your brain.  Let’s say I’m driving and I accidentally hit a cyclist, what does this say about me as a person?  I may be careless on the road.  Maybe I need to take some more driver training classes.  Maybe I need glasses.  Maybe if I’ve gotten into numerous accidents it means I probably shouldn’t drive any more.   What if I feel genuine remorse for what I’ve done?  Doesn’t that say something about how my brain works as well?  Do I belong in jail?  I don’t think so.  But if on the other hand I see that cyclist and get a sinister grin on my face and speed up and mow that cyclist down, what does this say about me?  It says that I am a person who takes joy about causing harm to others.  I might not feel remorse…maybe I do…but there would be something troubling about my mind that speaks to what future actions I am likely to take.  What if I know the cyclist and hate the person and that’s why I mow them down?  This also says something troubling about future actions I might make.  Because who might be the next person I hate, and what might I do to them?

I have talked about the idea of “personal responsibility” before and as I write this post it becomes even clearer why that phrase confuses me.  Having a party centered around personal responsibility seems to be an even bigger mistake.  We are a social species and it’s easy to say we are responsible for ourselves, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  It is the environment which shapes the individual and we have laws in large part not to control individual behaviors but to protect society.  It seems to me that it is we as a society, as other people in a person’s life that intervene to impact someone’s behavior.  And when a person does change their behavior it is a response to what society values, or through some personal experience in interacting with society or their environment that changes one’s mind.  If I am going around running people down with my car, whether accidentally, or on purpose, it is society that in some way says hey you can’t be doing that and finds an appropriate way to make me less of a danger.  If I take it upon myself to make changes, it is because of some emotional reaction to what I’ve done that is the impetus for change.  Rather than a decision to change, my body, my mind doesn’t want to feel a certain way and thus pushes me in a direction to not feel that way again.  My consciousness of that motivation is what gives me the illusion of free will.

Change in an individual seems to be a result not of an individual’s decisions, but rather the environmental context in which we live.  If society hasn’t shaped us to be more receptive to changing our mind, it is actively intervening to try and convince us to reform our views.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  It seems that there is no real reason for me to want to change my mind about anything when I think about it.  I mean if what I believe has kept me alive so far, to be of an age to reproduce and raise children to a sufficient age so they can reproduce then what I believe must be pretty reasonable.  Now for a social species it could be that what I believe is very counter to surviving well with the people around me.  But as long as I generally believe what the “group” believes I’ll probably be alright.  Whether those beliefs are true or not makes no difference.  It really doesn’t even make a difference if they are harmful, providing that harm doesn’t lead to any consequences that would significantly reduce my chances to reproduce.

As we realize the global society that we live in, and that more and more of us are infringing on each other cultural and intellectual space, as we become more acutely aware of the harm of certain beliefs and values, not just in our community but over the entirety of the planet, I feel it’s important we start asking how can we all get along?  What values should this global community have?  What differences can we afford to maintain and still get diversity?  Does diversity’s value diminish over time if we hope for unity among humankind?  And given how difficult it seems to be to change one’s mind, what are some beliefs we could have that would provide a backdrop to growth for a better future where less humans suffer, and well being is increased?  It is this last question I want to explore a bit more in future posts.  I think tied to this is the area of human emotion which I have become more intrigued with of late.  I think that our emotional and reasoning side are more tied together than we think and that without emotions, at least for humans, growth isn’t possible.

In the Beginning, Part IV

Woman approaches Adam with fruit in hand.  Adam is bent over next to a rock outcrop.

“Adam, I have returned.  I have something for you.”

“I have something for you too.  Check this out.  There is this creature that seems to have been preserved in this rock over here.  I don’t even know what it is.  I named every animal, and this wasn’t one of them.”

“Hmmm…that is weird.  But listen I have something more important.  Here let’s eat this fruit.”

“Oh okay.  I guess I am a bit hungry…er…wait.  Where did you get this fruit?”

Woman gives a little smirk, “Where do you think?  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

“Oh no…no.  We can’t eat this.  Our Father, He had one rule.  That’s it.  Seems pretty clear cut and not a whole lot to ask.”

“Don’t worry Adam.  A talking snake explained it all to me.  We have to eat this fruit.”

“Wait…what!?  Talking snake?  Are there any of those hallucinogenic frogs I named hopping around?  How can there be a talking snake?”

“How can you make a person out of a rib?  Listen we wondered before why He would have put the tree here, and you said He probably knew we weren’t going to touch and so He didn’t think it was important where he put it.  Well what if He put it here, because He wanted us to eat it?”

“Well why would He want us to eat it, but tell us not to eat it?”

“You said you had a lot of questions.  So do I.  Curiosity.  We have loads of it.  These questions burn within us and we want to find the answers to those questions.  That’s how He made us.”

“That’s some pretty good reasoning.  But why can’t we just ask Him and He can explain it to us.”

“Weren’t you listening Adam about making children.  Children grow into adults.  At some point children have to leave the guidance of their parents and make decisions for themselves.  Every home feels like paradise when you’re a child, but this can’t be our home forever.  We have to grow up.”  Woman does her best God impression, “Symbolism!”

Adam’s eyes narrow and his expression hardens, “Alright, let’s do it.  By doing this together we’ll be husband and wife, right?!”

“Oh shut up, and eat the fruit!”

Adam takes a fruit from woman and they both take bites.  Chewing slowly and swallowing.

“Adam, do you feel anything?”

“No nothing.  What about you?”

“I don’t feel anything either.  I thought, for some reason, that I would suddenly understand everything so much better.”

“Yeah, me too.  This is kind of disappointing.”

“You don’t think he just put the tree there as a test to see if we would obey him, and that the tree had no special powers at all do you?”

“No.  That would be kind of cruel.  God wouldn’t do something like that.” The fossil Adam was holding slips out of his hand making a cracking noise as it hits the ground.

The winds begin to shift northerly and pick up speed.

“It’s getting a bit colder Adam.”

“Yeah, well I have noticed the daylight hours gradually getting shorter, so I expect weather patterns will start shift, but also you seem to be naked.”

“What!?  I’m naked?!  Clearly you’re the world’s first crack detective too.  No shit I’m naked.  So are you!”

“Ack…you’re right…I am naked too.  I guess I knew that…but I don’t think I want to be naked anymore.  It doesn’t feel right.  How do we get less naked?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we should cover up our…um…naughty areas.  I don’t feel like we should just be exposing them for everyone to see.”

“Who’s everyone?  We are the only two people on this planet.”

“I don’t know, let’s just cover up.  I’m going to go find some big leaves.  Maybe from that fig tree over there.”

        Fig leaf only legal as clothing in 12 states.     Warning: Do not check wristwatch while     hiding your nakedness.

“Fig tree?  What’s a fig tree?”

“That tree over there.  You got the animals…I decided I’m naming the plants. Let’s go.”

Woman and Adam walk over to the fig tree to find some suitable leaves.

“Adam, I’m feeling a lot of shame right now…like I need a big leaf to cover my behind, and I feel upset that the leaf   has to be so big.”

“I feel shame too.  Like I need a big leaf to compensate for what seems to be a sub-par dangling appendage.”

“So thus far eating that fruit has only led to feelings of shame associated with a negative self-image.   I don’t know about you, but I’m also feeling regret.”

“Yeah me too.  Being an adult sucks.  I don’t even know who I want to impress.  My motivations are so unclear to me right now, I….wait…do you hear something?”

Woman and Adam stop what they are doing and they hear the sound of rustling leaves and the voice of God humming a merry tune.

Adam whispers, “He’s here!  How come he doesn’t know we already broke the rule?”

“I don’t know.  Inflated sense of self-confidence?”

“Let’s hide!”

“Hide?  What good is that going to do if He’s omniscient?  He’ll know where we are.”

“Just do it! Quick over here among those trees!”

God stops in His tracks and tilts his head listening.

“Adam.  Is that you?  Where are you Adam?”

Adam whispers to woman, “See, told you hiding was a good idea!”

Adam!  I have divine hearing.  I know you’re in the garden somewhere.”

Woman whispers to Adam, “He placed us in the garden, and He knows we’re in the garden somewhere?  I see where you got your detective skills from.”

“I think I should answer Him.  He’ll find us eventually.”

“Fine…but he should have found us immediately as an omniscient creator.”

Adam steps out from behind the trees.  “Oh hey, God. We’re over here.”

Aaah…Adam.  Woman.  How are things been going?  Getting along?  Make any babies yet? Um…wait…why are you holding fig leaves over your naughty areas?

“Well…er…we weren’t sure who it was in the garden and well we were naked and so we hid.  You know…I didn’t want anybody pointing and laughing at me.” Adam blushes.

“Wait!  Who told you, you were naked?  Those are precisely the lust-filled concepts I didn’t want floating around your heads!”  God’s eyes glance towards the Tree of Knowledge. “Have you been eating from the Tree of Knowledge?!  There are two less fruits there than there should be.  I am very good at counting.  The book I’m writing right now even has a chapter called Numbers.  Out with it children.  No lies!”

“Well Father, I was just taking a look, and well this snake came along and really explained it all quite clearly and you know, it just seemed to make sense.”

“Snake?!  I think I know the culprit.  Hold on.”  God vanishes in a puff of awesomeness and returns holding the snake with its stubby little legs waving in the air.

“Alright everyone.  It’s punishment time!”

Adam asks, “Why do You look so gleeful Father?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never done it before.  New experiences are hard to come by.  Okay now….snake!  You have deceived my creation and for that I am removing your legs and forcing you to crawl on your belly!!”

      Picture of snake eating dust not available.

Snake begins to slither around rather impressively climbing up and down trees and curling around woman’s legs.

“I rather like this…”


“I mean punish me no further!”

“Yes…well I curse you to eat dust!”

“Well that would actually make my work easier since dust is everywhere, but I still feel rather hungry for small rodents.”

“And you will now be enemies with mankind.  You will bite at their heel and they will stomp you on the ground!”

Snake slithers up woman and speaks in her ear, “Well we’ll just stay out of each other’s way then yeah?  Seems simple enough?”

Woman responds, “Sounds reasonable to me.”

“Quiet woman!”

“Excuse me.  Woman’s voice will not be silenced.”

“It will.  To punish you for what you’ve done, giving birth will now be of the greatest pain!  And pitocin will not be invented for many years to come!”

“What?!  You want me to populate the human species but are making giving birth the most painful experience in my life.  You’re a sadist you are.  Whatever happened to forgiveness?  Isn’t that a better way to treat your children?”

God thinks about it for a few seconds….”Nope.  Also, I’m not done.  I’m also turning the civilization into a patriarchy.  I wanted everything to be equal, but because of what you’ve done I am making women beholden to their men.”

“What?! Are you kidding me?”  Woman gives an exasperate look and turns red with anger. “Well considering you made me a nameless helper for Adam over there, it probably wasn’t going to get much better anyway.”

Adam woman turns and says with a comforting smile, “I promise to use my power over you responsibly.” Woman gives him a dirty look, killing the grin instantly.

“Adam!  Don’t think I am done! You also ate the fruit against my command.  I curse you to become a farmer.  You will till the earth and eat from it.  It will be hard work and much that grows will have thorns and thistle requiring you to wear thick clothing so that you get very hot and sweaty while you work.  Your diet will mostly be vegetarian in nature due to it providing the maximum amount of calories and nutrition per square foot, and you will eat until you die returning to the earth enriching it with organic material for new plants to grow and continuing a never ending cycle of death and life.”

“Actually that doesn’t sound too bad.  Makes you really appreciate each moment and strive for a better life while you have it.”

“Yeah Adam, I like this part.”

Adam turns to woman and smiles. “I shall name you Eve as you will be mother of all.  And though large amounts of toil and incest lie before us, we’re going to make it.”

“So finally I get a name.  Not bad actually.  But I reserve the right to come up with one of my own if I find something better!”

Adam capitulates, “Fair enough.”

“I just want you to know children that this hurt me more than it hurts you.  I really didn’t want to do all of that, but you forced me hand.”

“Stop victim blaming,” responds Eve, “well…what next?”

“I am sending you out from paradise and you will be cut off from the Tree of Life forever.  But before you do that I am going kill a few animals and make you some clothing.  It’s cold out there East of Eden and I don’t want you to get sick.  Besides people will start dropping like flies once you domesticate large mammals.”

Adam and Even watch incredulously as God slaughters a few animals and skins them. Using a little bit of omnipotence to speed the tanning process.”

There you go, and I put in an extra set so you have something to wear while washing the first set. Now here’s a pack of seeds to start off with as well.  They’re all labeled.  I put them in this little pouch I made from that dead deer over there.”

God snaps His fingers and they are magically transported next to a large river.  “Well good luck.  I’ll make a few appearances again just to make sure everybody is aware of my awesomeness.  Byeeee!”

“Well Eve, I guess we got some seeds to sow.”

“Yeah.”  Eve looks around.  “We’ll probably need something to dig with, let’s see if we can find some tools of some sort over by those trees.”

Adam starts to remove his clothing.  “Those weren’t the seeds I was talking about.”