There is an oft circulated meme that goes something like “when a conservative doesn’t like guns, he doesn’t buy one; when a liberal doesn’t like guns, he tries to ban them.” This is a very telling meme because it highlights the differences between conservative and liberal thought.
A perfect example can be found at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Although it is often suggested that people in the south are inherently racist, I’ve found the opposite to be true. In fact, race relations are a lot more honest there.
Little Richard Spencer
Auburn recently agreed to provide Richard Spencer a forum to speak in public on his rather ridiculous theories about race and religion. Although sprinkled with lofty-sounding words and scientific-sounding jargon, the policy views expressed in the “Research” section by the National Policy Institute are simply wallpapered garden-variety racism, sexism, and religious antagonism. They sound cultured, but then again, a guy with a M.A. would sound that way while trying to woo the stupid with the siren song of hate.
I won’t debate Spencer’s theories, and I won’t dignify them with exposition. They belong locked in a long-sequestered cabinet that contains Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the predecessor cases of Loving v. Virginia.
However, as you might imagine, when someone with lofty language and a decent suit stands up and starts spouting rhetoric that would make Hitler proud, the kooks, fringe elements, and haters of all stripes show up to have their prejudices catered to and to perhaps engage in a little physical violence with counter-demonstrators. Conservatives see this and think “I’m going nowhere near that mess.” Liberals have a different approach: speech you don’t agree with must be stopped. How moronic.
Fueling the Fire of Hatred
When Spencer announced his little event at Auburn, it had the intended effect. Screwballs, tin-foil-hat wearing nut balls, conspiracy theories, and racists of only one color but in many sizes signed up. The event drew rebuke from the intelligentsia at Auburn, and a move was made by the student body to prohibit his event. This, of course, was right what old Mr. Spencer wanted. He wanted, not a forum, but a confrontation with liberals that would fuel his fire of hatred.
Auburn, committed to the ideas of free speech, said that the speech would go forward, but the damage had already been done with calls by liberal students to “shut down” Spencer’s rhetoric.
The Wrong Move
Now, again, I’m not suggesting that anyone who wasn’t interested in fecal-stained semen samples would derive anything from a Spencer rally, but shutting down the speech was exactly the wrong move to make by the students, because Spencer riled up the crazies and they started calling and making – you guessed it – death threats.
So, the natural consequence of that is that the Auburn Police said “uh, not on our watch, thanks just the same,” and they prevailed on Auburn to pull the permit.
Keep in mind now, the permit was pulled not because Spencer is an awful person with awful views that ought not to be expressed, but rather, because his followers and their illegitimate spawn threatened violence (and of course, the students were not about to back down). But the students had done the damage by suggesting that what Spencer said was hate speech, and Spencer went to court to complain about being denied the right to use a public forum on the basis of the content of his speech. If Spencer prevails in his action for injunctive relief, the students who raised the issue and sought to prohibit his speech will have earned their just desserts. They will, by suggesting his speech be shut down because they disagree with his policy views, wind up achieving the very result they sought to preclude. And more importantly, they will put lives at risk.
What is Hate Speech, Really?
Speech that goes against traditional American values is often thought of as loathesome. It may be, but it isn’t always ‘hate speech.” Take, for example, Westboro Baptist Church, that fine group of upstanding Christians who apparently skipped that part of the Bible about “turn the other cheek,” and “love one another” and instead latched on to the darker Old Testament fire and brimstone scriptures as the basis for protesting the funerals of fallen servicemen and women. How loathsome is it for someone to inflict their political speech at a time and place where families will be personally insulted and hurt by the speech?
It’s pretty damned bad. But the Supreme Court has upheld their right to do it. It’s awful. But the fact is that if the Supreme Court did not act in this manner, then other speech that is controversial – and perhaps speech we care a great deal about – could just as easily be limited and marginalized. So we tolerate speech we find offensive and loathsome so long as it does not physically endanger people. Some speech, because it endangers the public, is not protected under the First Amendment. This is the old “don’t scream fire in a movie theater” rationale provided by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, (1919). Schenck defended an espionage conviction on the First Amendment. It was a bad move, and Judge Ollie didn’t much like it.
Not Fire in a Theater
But those who want to equate what Spencer does, and what Westboro does, with screaming fire in theater simply do not grasp the situation. In the fire situation, lives are immediately imperiled, not so much by the truth or falsity of the speech, but by the reaction to it and the risk of harm from panic and overreaction. In neither Spencer’s case nor Westboro’s case is the speech actually liable to cause immediate harm to another person (other than, perhaps, to distort their view of the world). Under the First Amendment only time, place and manner restrictions are allowed.
If the issue is the loathsome nature of the speech, rather than the likelihood of immediate personal injury, then the solution to this loathsome speech is not protest (which merely empowers the speakers), but rather, to actively encourage others not to go, to ignore the speech, and to try to pressure the media to ignore it also. The approach works because it eliminates the motivation for both the speaker (increasing his media exposure and street creds with his “people”) and the crowds that want to hear him (discovering you’re one of ten people who all look like they stepped out of Central Casting for a remake of Deliverance should be pretty devastating).
If you stop giving the megalomaniac a platform, and you stop favoring him with sycophants who might otherwise not find him, then nature takes its course and the miscreant takes his hateful message somewhere else.
Conservative v. Liberal Redux
So, again, conservatives won’t go hear Spencer because (a) we’re not stupid; (b) we’re not homophobic; (c) we don’t wear tin-foil hats; (d) we don’t believe Jews control the world; and (e) we understand that in the world of the racist, ignorance is the coin of the realm.
Liberals, however, react by (a) threatening the speaker; (b) pressuring the school to shut down the speaker because of, or in reaction to, the speaker’s message; and (c) try to effectively “ban” hate speech by banning speakers.
But hate speech is zombie speech – it never dies. There is always going to be someone out there with a theory, a belief, or a set of doctored photographs that will convince the ignorant that their life would be better if they just hated the right people.
In the fabulous movie The Blues Brothers, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi made great fun of the “Illinois Nazis” and that is exactly the best approach to hate speech. Make fun of it. Lampoon it. Point and laugh, shake your head, and shame them. When people who follow the idiot speakers that spout this drivel, you’ll see them self-shame. They never use their real names in comment sections; they never take ownership of their “beliefs” under their true names because they are inherently ashamed of who they are and what their views represent.
In the end, that is the greatest victory that truth and justice can achieve over people who want to turn America into a place of hate.
God Bless America.