Free Expression

11 February 2007

Last Sunday saw this year’s Superbowl, when the marketing agencies try to wow us into another enthusiastic year of American consumerism. I was in no mood for any of it; in fact, I was rather grumpy last weekend. So when I found Theodore Dalrymple’s intolerant text entitled Freedom and its Discontents in which he expresses thanks for not having to voice on radio his thoughts on the 12 year old Austrian boy who recently had a sex change, I was annoyed and grumpified even more, although I appreciated his perspective. He wrote:

If I had spoken my mind, without let or hindrance, I should have said what I suspect a very large majority of people think: that there is something grotesque, and even repugnant, about the whole idea of sex-changes, let alone of sex-changes for twelve year-olds.

I don’t find the issue repugnant nor do I find it very interesting. Dalrymple goes on to write about how the freedom of expression has been curtailed, not by onerous censorship laws, but by the intolerance of the politically correct. He concludes by writing: ‘Please don’t reply to any part of this article. I won’t read it: I know I’m right.’Those who know they are right are the most exasperating people one ever has to deal with. Stubborn minded fools so set in their ways they don’t even care about appearing to be ignorant, deluded and hateful. Dalrymple’s work nevertheless tends to be a good read because we can learn and gain something from his perspective. He isn’t constrained by an idealism, nor his he constrained by the specialized knowledge that cuts ‘those in the know’ off from the common.

Over my time doing this list, I’ve occasionally received letters taking to task something I wrote in introduction, or questioning my link selection. I thought I would need a defense of Dalyrmple’s article saying basically: don’t shoot the messenger, and began it anticipating this edition. But over the past week, I saw more than one article appear which basically underlines a theme of intolerance. It is one of the things I’ve enjoyed doing with Goodreads, and that is attempting to document through the link selection the occasional popular meme – an idea which seems to be expressed in more than one article appearing simultaneously from different sites.

The greatest example of intolerance in current public/web discussion has to do with the Holocaust, and seems focused on the latent assumption that the next war will be with Iran. There seems to be a lack of appetite in the United States for another invasion, which is a good thing, but churning along underneath the popular sentiment is the attempt by the right-wing blowhards to demonize Iran’s president Ahmadinejad who made the cover of yesterday’s (Feb 10) Globe & Mail. We have been told for months that Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier, because he has said in the past that it was a myth. Out of an extreme generosity and skepticism of North American propaganda, I’ve questioned whether he didn’t mean the anthropological sense of the word, until I remembered referring in recent conversations to consumerism as a myth (meaning it as an inaccurate oversimplification of our economic activity) and I was using the popular form of the word.

To clarify: anthropologically a myth is a story of meaning, one that punches above its weight of accumulated incidents. To say that the Holocaust is a myth under this context I think is accurate. It is has found a high, and defining, place in the Jewish story, and in a world of secularism, it seems that while not all contemporary Jews may believe in their God, they certainly all believe in their near genocide. As a gentile I find the overwhelming presence of the story sometimes noxious, as it has seemed to breed an unhealthy and unproductive paranoia that generates more hatred and anger than peace. And as a gentile I have to be very careful about what I say regarding this historical incident, since there is an element within Judaism who are ready to condemn any one who questions this reality in any way, who seem to think that all gentiles are closeted anti-Semites ready to light up the ovens again if given the chance. The taboo and reverence that is now tied to the Holocaust story is surely mythic in this regard, making condemnable heretics of those who deny.

But popularly, a myth is a fairy-tale, a fiction, and I don’t question the veracity, or the horror of the Shoah. The reality of Holocaust denial fits in perfectly with the stupidity of the age which questions even the Moon landings; such is a healthy skepticism toward the stories of authority taken to an extreme and absurd level. We live at a time when some believe in the literalness of the Bible, that people lived with dinosaurs, and that perhaps Jesus only lived a thousand years ago. It is doubtful that Ahmadinejad is sophisticated enough to mean the anthropological sense of mythology when referring to those events.

But my problem is essentially based on the fact that I have no reason to believe anything I’m ever told by Western governments in general with regard to foreign policy. Since childhood I’ve been told that political leaders on the other side of the planet are generally untrustworthy and/or crazy. And because everything nowadays seems to be about the other side of the planet, I was left with cognitive dissonance when I heard Mike Wallace interview the President of Iran, as he did last August (and available in the two mp3s below). Because Mr. Ahmadinejad sounds saner than my own political leaders.

Wha? I mean, listen closely to the interviews: at one point Ahmadinejad says to Wallace (who prompted him to be more sound-bitey) that all of his questions require book length answers. What North American politician would say such a thing? ‘The problem that President Bush has is that in his mind he wants to solve everything with bombs. The time of The Bomb is in the past, it’s behind us. Today is the era of thoughts, dialogue, and cultural exchanges’. Who the fuck said that!?

Now, with props to my culture’s conditioning, who knows if he was just putting on a show of reasonableness for the Western cameras. We are told continually that these foreign leaders are like that: crafty propagandists who seduce our liberal left-wingers with their talk of international justice and wanting to do good things for their people. But we know The Truth, because our warmongering political elite have deemed to tell us The Real Story in between all of the secrets they keep. These leaders in the next hemisphere want to nuke us, they hate our freedom, they’re insane and hateful, unenlightened and ignorant, and they regularly flaunt international laws. They are also undemocratic and barbaric, because their elections are either rigged or the wrong people (Hamas) win. Further, when they execute their past tyrants they don’t do it tastefully.

Worst of all, they’re all anti-Semtic and want to destroy Israel, which is another way of saying they are Latter Day Nazis and thus we’re in another Just War against genocidal fascists. In the midst of this snake pit there is Israel, and the Israeli Cabinet, we need to remember, is along with the Pope and the American President, infallible; all graced by God with the ability to never be wrong about anything.

On Freedom of Expression

As I’ve said, I’m being extremely generous in assuming that Mr. Ahmadinejad could be more intelligent than he is portrayed. But such an example, based on an uncommon view, removes my argument from the realm of shared experience from which we should be debating ideas about free expression. The controversial issues of our time are discussed based on common understanding and misunderstandings, and it’s important that we debate within those limits, rather than resort to extreme examples which make everything hypothetical fast.

Abortion is the example that comes readily to mind – growing up in the 1980s and hearing about Henry Morgentaler in the news, and even once participating in a junior high school debate on the subject, the pro-choice contingent regularly argued for cases of rape, incest, and maternal health concerns as deserving abortions. I haven’t checked out the stats, but I’ll hazard a guess that over 90% of abortions performed in North America have nothing to do with those examples. Common knowledge – which may be ignorant and flawed granted – suggests that most abortions are a form of birth control. To hedge around that by arguing the extremes keeps the debate from really being held in the first place, and thus the camps can remain unconvinced by the other’s position.

American commentators see free speech as a sacrosanct right, and as a result have one of the most intolerant and ignorant cultures on the planet. But that is their self-described right. The United States gift to the world seems to have been the enlarge definition of rights to include the right to degrade, discredit and humiliate oneself to a state of unreserved indignity. Anna Nicole Smith had the good fortune to die this past week to provide me with her example. The idealists of the U.S. make it a point to defend the offensive and vulgar as a part of this right, and perhaps here I shouldn’t remind you that vulgar came from the Latin word for common, as I want to try and elevate the common to think of our common capacity for intelligence and compassion rather than our current and common psychopathologies. It is to this end that we need free expression defended: so that we are able to judge things for ourselves.

Our position in Canada is a more intolerant view on intolerance. We accept limits to free-speech which includes anti-hate speech laws. This is meant to prevent harm, and as I understand it, our Supreme Court allowed this by stating that some forms of speech are not worth defending.

A case in point is Holocaust denial: questioning the interpretation of the evidence is one thing, but what is the motivation behind it? The Jews have a right to mythologize (anthropologically) the story, and why should any of the rest of us care? When did the phrase ‘mind your own business’ fall out of favour? I think I know the answer to my rhetorical question, and it’s basically the one favored by Ahmadinejad and his fellow skeptics, one that prefers to dehumanize Jews with the word ‘Zionist’. I don’t think I need to get into it. I think the point raised by the Supreme Court’s decision is essentially it isn’t worth the debate, and that in fact it could be perceived as harmful to engage in it.

Somehow (and I think this has remained largely unexplained and unexplored) we can enjoy a freedom of expression without regularly crossing the line into hate speech. Seldom is anyone investigated or charged: you really have to make an effort to be that offensive. Or one has to be basically poking a bee’s nest: posting calls for Bush to be assassinated online, creating cartoons of Muhammed as a terrorist and the like. As free expression those examples are a waste of the freedom, since it contributes nothing to a discussion and is really only retrogressively ignorant.

How do we manage to use our freedom of expression productively when and if we do? I think it comes from our appreciation for those who offend in ways that increase our capacity for all of expression by showing us a new idea, a new way of life, and a new way of thinking. But we are wary and even intolerant of those who want to limit our expression, or limit our innate sense of progress toward a better world, through the expression of their retrogressive views. In other words: blowing away a stale old convention and offending conservatives by doing so rocks; bringing about the downfall of civilization with a medieval attitude and mindset does not. Somehow we understand what constitutes this through a language of behavior rooted in our common experience. This is what makes conservatives so defensive: they know when they’ve been beat by a new expression. It used to be rock n’ roll: now it’s their teenagers using abbreviation, emoticons, and chatting online with strangers.

While we are united by a common grammar of speech, so too we are united by a common grammar of behaviour. This has been in the past referred to as bourgeois values and considered worth rebelling against, and thus movements created a type of poetry of misbehavior which expanded our own vocabularies of affect. But within these values is a core set of ideas about how we should treat one another, a common value set which sees the benefit to the whole at the individual’s expense.

Consider littering. Off hand, I’m sure we all agree that littering isn’t really a good thing. We’ll define it as saying it’s the introduction of garbage into a public space meant to be shared by all. We’ll further define garbage as something unwanted by someone. Thus, our definition here of littering is the introduction, of something unwanted, into a public space.

But what if this unwelcome introduction of something unwanted is called art by the litterer? Then it’s an intervention. Then, that cigarette cellophane you just dropped on the sidewalk is a performance. According to the art-rules I should shut up now, because the recontextualization destroys it as litter and makes it a human expression that should be nurtured, encouraged, and supported by art council grants. But here I really want to link littering to graffiti and say that because some people consider it unwelcome it is also a form of littering, but it’s one that I personally support as a human attempt at the beautification of plain (plane?) architecture.

While we all understand why we shouldn’t litter as part of our common knowledge, we also understand the deal with most abortions and why hate-speech could be criminal. We don’t need freedom of expression – or whatever other freedoms we enjoy – to be defended by extreme examples, because all laws, all social agreements, all freedoms exist first as a social convention in common knowledge and it is from this basis that the state feels it has the authority to police them. The fragmentation of our society into specialized interest groups is perhaps where we began to disagree about what should be legal and what shouldn’t be. Our common knowledge – our vulgarity – has been reduced to extreme forms of behavior and reduced in intelligence to something less than our potential making us more undignified than some animals.

The challenge has always been to incorporate the deviant into the conventional: this pattern has always seemed to be about the dominant sanctioning another – minority’s – convention as harmless rather than a sudden revaluation of the dominant’s morals. The arguments raised by Christopher Hitchens in his defense of the ‘freedom of denial’ in essence is of allowing that process to continue: for the dominant to not become so self-satisified that they refuse to consider the other’s point of view. But it also seems that we have reached examples of extreme perspectives that the dominant decided long ago were not sanctionable. Holocaust denial is one, as is sex with kids and animals. The recent Sundance film festival featured a film in which a 12 year old girl was raped, and another was a documentary on bestiality. My thoughts are essentially: do we really need to have that discussion? Are we so intellectually and emotionally bankrupt that we have to resort to those expressions for stimulation? It turns out that no distributor wants to buy the Dakota Fanning movie Hounddog and all I can think is thank god.

Ultimately, this is all about the strangeness of language: how a set of sounds, strung together a certain way, can have such intense psychological and intellectual effects. Words uttered or read can make the heart leap or fall, can be emotionally devastating or immensely uplifting, and it’s all just a bunch of sounds or a bunch of shapes on a surface. Through this, one mind interacts with another and our sense of what’s going in our world – that intersection of imagination and environment – grows until we eventually are changed people: more sophisticated, more learned, more conversant. We have a bigger bag of tricks and fuller experience of life. The freedom of speech is also the freedom to be exposed to ideas that we don’t agree with, so that we aren’t held back from the mysteriously transformative power of hearing or reading words. But a case can be made that some of this has the potential to be retrogressive and counterproductive, making us more stupid. Inasmuch as the state tries to do this for us, they should have better things to do, but I think it is also true that they don’t need to control what we think about things because that’s already done by a televised culture of idiocy.

Document History
  1. Published as a Goodreads intro on 11 Feb 2007 (07w06:1)
  2. 2007-2015: archived on my blog
  3. Sept 2015: this version produced