Another week, and another sad one for the state of our democracy. Each week seems worse than the last. Even though the cacophony of scandals should lead up to a crescendo of action by Paul Ryan – nothing concrete has yet to happen.
I usually only take the time to post on here if I know I have something worth saying and worth reading. I have a dozen half-assed drafts sitting in my Evernotes. This is different though, the events of the past week are monumental enough that I have a few thoughts to share that are important enough that it’s worth writing if it even changes one person’s behavior.
Twice in the past week, Donald Trump has made shock waves throughout the news cycle with his insistence that “both sides” are to blame for the current violence and protests. Now, blaming counter-protesters to neo-Nazi’s for violence is like blaming chemotherapy for violence against cancer cells. There’s definitely some action going on, but one side is clearly in the wrong.
This is an egregious example of false equivalency, but I hear similar retorts all the time. People in America are terrified of coming off as biased – for good reason. We rightly recognize that whenever someone is overly critical of one side and not another, they are probably being unfair in their argument. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a critique of the right, only to be interrupted to be reminded of the ills of the left.
The first and most obvious response is that two wrongs do not cancel each other out. You can acknowledge the flaws of the right at face-value without trying to rationalize it by pointing to others. The “well, they did it too” argument is a poor one for a toddler, much less a political party and the adults trying to defend it.
The other response is that it is also irrational for us to always seek the middle ground between two polars. In an era of such political polarization and dysfunction, it’s tempting to reject both the left and right and find some balance between the two. There’s been a sharp increase in the number of people identifying as independents or moderates. I’d say it’s because to even publicly declare yourself as a Republican or a Democrat today makes you look too biased.
This is known as “argument to moderation” and it is a fallacy just like personal bias is. To stand up and say, “both sides are irrational, I’m above this bickering so I will stand in the middle” is in itself irrational. So instead of being a blind neutral, take a second to recognize that one political party nominated, elected, and supports someone who sympathizes with white nationalists. For that, they are in the wrong and you can criticize them for it, full stop.
Trump and his supporters are masters at manipulating this. They’ve been able to equate actual fake news – that is fabricated content meant to slander or cause outrage – with the occasionally biased news (CNN, Washington Post, etc.). Now, they are going to equate the “alt-right” with a new term, the “alt-left”. One wants to kick brown people out of the country, and one wants universal health care (something nearly every other OECD country has) but I guess they’re the same. They’re also grouping everyone who wants to protest Nazi’s (which could be almost anyone) into a political group with an extremist connotation to delegitimize them.
There’s also a lot of scare-crowing going on amongst both sides. Though once again, it’s not the same. Those who marched on Charlottesville last weekend do not represent the entire “right” in our country. Likewise, Antifa or the more extreme counter-protestors do not represent the “left” either. Yet, the candidate of the Republican party has the unrelenting support of one of these groups and supporters like Bannon and Gorka in the White House.
Free speech is inherent to democracy, it is hard for either to exist without the other. I’ve always considered myself to be a free speech absolutist. I love the work of John Stuart Mill, the more open and free debate is, the better off our society is.
However, I’ve recently had to wrangle with this belief in light of the protests in Charlottesville as well as those who claim to be 1st Amendment Activists. I understand and sympathize with them. It is a very slippery slope when you start to silence certain voices or opinions. The point of protecting free speech is to ensure proper public debate, which ideally leads to proper policy.
What happens when that speech is antithetical to our society? If we can say that at the very basis, our society is founded upon the ideas that
- all people are created equal
- they get equal protection under the law
- as much as we can – give people equal access to opportunity to add to that society
Then the groups that gather and march to spread ideas of exclusion and violence towards others based on appearance or creed is in sharp contrast. There are two responses to this type of speech. One is to say (as Mill would) that even bad speech is good in the long run because when we refute it, it helps to strengthen the original position. This is the view I would’ve had in the past.
There’s the second response, which is that it falls under the harm principle, which is an important free speech caveat. You cannot, for instance, yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater which creates a mob or say, incite violence. Watching the Vice coverage of the Charlottesville protests, and it is clear that these people are asking for violence and they got it. One of them drove his car with the intent to kill and was successful.
In this way, democratic society can create the seeds of it’s own destruction by allowing movements such as this to grow – because it doesn’t give itself the means to contain it.
So… should we deny the free speech of the radical right by denying their permits, pushing them out of public places, insist that institutions such as universities and business not book their speeches, etc? Unfortunately yes. Until they can prove that their speech isn’t inciting violence against minority communities (which has significantly increased post-Trump).
These people aren’t looking to elevate the level of public discourse, it most cases, they’re looking for legal protection to say mean things about people who don’t have the political or legal capital to stop them. We don’t have to silence them, but we don’t have to give them a microphone either.
As a final note, I’m tired of seeing stuff like, “Wow. I can’t believe this is happening in 2017.”
Progress is not guaranteed. The natural state of the world is shitty. Innovation happens because we invest in education, research, and technology. Social progress happens because we make small steps in changing attitudes and legislation. The arbitrary number on the calendar does not give us anything – we have to work for it.
Which brings me to the conclusion for all of this.
We still ultimately get the government we deserve. The quality of our society is dependent on the citizens that make it, that’s all of us. If we’re committed to being more rational in our debates, to elevating the right voices and being steadfast in our commitment to our communities, then we will be fine. If we continue to stay neutral, to stay silent, to stay complacent, then we will continue down this dark path.