The Consequence Of Secret Stalinism

Millions of netizens seem to regard their right of “free speech” as meaning a duty incumbent on all hearers to agree with them, or at least not to express disagreement. Every day you can witness somebody explicitly claiming that your having a different opinion is a criminal denial of their rights. Moreover, any reluctance to stroke their egos seems to constitute “oppression”. I would not be the first to point out how freedom of speech has been misconceived as a guarantee, not of personal safety in public speech, but of popularity.

I would suggest that, against the background of such breathtaking ignorance and intolerance, nay online Stalinism, the whole conceptualisation of “hate speech” is a thoroughly bad idea.

In a reasonable world, getting up on your hind legs and yelling “Kill the Outgroup!” would be deemed to fall under the traditional exception to freedom of speech, namely that you are not free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. We could then usefully discuss where precisely the boundaries should go between saying, “The Outgroup is Naughty” and “Kill the Outgroup!”

Again, in a reasonable world, saying that the outgroup is naughty should not lead to people descending on it with torches and pitchforks, but we do not live in a reasonable world. In Tsarist Russia, the acronym “HEP” was not an expression of an intellectual position but a call to murder all the Jews of the town. In Rwanda, the radio instructed people to kill the cockroaches, that is, the Tutsis, and behold, people went out and killed them. So under certain circumstances, saying certain words must fall outside free expression.

On the other hand, we do not live in a reasonable enough world for a person’s feelings of this and that to be allowed to abrogate freedom of speech. This is because people do not have strong feelings solely as an unavoidable consequence of being oppressed. Having your feelings hurt is by no means dependent on the real and objective actions of other parties. For people manufacture their feelings, cultivate them like hothouse blooms, exaggerate them and lie about them. Especially when they can get something out of it, such as attention, power and pecuniary compensation.

This means that none of us are safe from your claiming that we have hurt your feelings. It is like the old Metropolitan Police offence of “causing suspicion” in the mind of a police officer, against which no defence was even theoretically possible. The sole criterion was the existence of a subjective phenomenon in the mind of the police officer, for which we only had his word. This phenomenon was disproportionately invoked at the sight of a black citizen. Do we really want this to be our modern epistemological model?

No, sanctions should be attracted only by our actual behaviour, our demonstrable acts, and not by the creation of alleged emotional states in other people with their own axes to grind. This gives far too much power to people whose core skill is throwing tantrums.

(Fiddle date-stamp to October 19, 2009)

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