Friday, April 18, 2014

The Steyn Is Back ... and He Still Doesn't Get It

Mark Steyn has returned to the pages of the National Post, and he is continuing his crusade to never be held accountable for his "free speech".  (No surprise there, Steyn and Levant have been mutual cheerleaders for ages)

Mr. Steyn seems to be confused about the difference between free speech, free speech without consequences.  As always, his argument boils down to being able to say whatever the heck you want, and nobody should be able to hold you accountable for it.

He raises several instances where he claims that "free speech" is being unreasonably abrogated:

In California, Mozilla's chief executive is forced to resign because he once made a political donation in support of the pre-revisionist definition of marriage. 

At Westminster, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee declares that the BBC should seek 'special clearance' before it interviews climate sceptics, such as fringe wacko extremists like former Chancellor Nigel Lawson.
Let's give these two examples a little closer scrutiny, shall we?

Brendan Eichs resigned as CEO of Mozilla as a result of it becoming public knowledge that he had financially supported the pro-Proposition 8 campaign in California.  Nobody has said that he has no right to do that.  He's perfectly free to do so.  Similarly, the users and developers behind Mozilla have an equal right to say that they don't like the idea of being led by a man who is objectively hostile to many of their peers and colleagues.  

Open source developers are notoriously liberal creatures.  They don't like the idea of bigotry and oppression being fomented by their leaders.  So, what happened when Mr. Eichs stepped in as CEO?  A few enterprising individuals went and did a bit of digging into Mr. Eichs' public record and found that he had acted in a manner they didn't approve of.  This was publicized, and the community around Mozilla began to protest rather vocally.  

Was Mr. Eichs' right to free speech (or action) being "suppressed"?  Not really.  Nobody is telling him to "shut up", and in fact I'm quite sure that Mr. Eichs could make quite a living for himself on the lecture circuit with Mr. Steyn, I'm sure.  What has happened is the community within which Mr. Eichs resides chose to censure him for what they perceived to be an inappropriate action.  (I won't pontificate on the proportionality of the consequences for Mr. Eichs, I don't have enough information about the particulars to make much of an assessment of it)

Regarding Mr. Lawson, although I have found one or two mentions of this report from the UK House of Commons Committee, it isn't exactly widely reported precisely what was said, so I'm even more cautious about the veracity of Steyn's claims.  Of a total of 3 news results on the subject, 2 were opinion pieces - including Mr. Steyn's column), and the third was behind a paywall, so it's a little difficult to assess the details and the veracity of Mr. Steyn's interpretation of things.

Mr. Lawson's position regarding climate change is well documented, and he has been pretty clear about it for some time.  Fine.  There is nothing saying that the BBC or any other news source has to give him an audience from which to spout his beliefs.  You see, the interesting thing about this is that Mr. Lawson is free to believe whatever he wishes.  But, just as in situations where creationism crosses paths with science, he is not entitled to his own 'facts' as he chooses to make them.    Therefore, a science show on BBC talking about climate change does need to be careful when bringing in someone like Mr. Lawson as an "expert".  If the show is about the known facts, then Mr. Lawson probably is not the right person to bring in.  

Mr. Steyn seems to think that this represents a narrowing of the public discourse.  Of course, like the average creationist who argues that "the debate" should be taught in schools, he is conveniently ignoring the fact that the facts have long since narrowed things down to the point that the debate is not one of "if", but rather of "when, and how much".  When so-called "skeptics" continue to repeat the tired line that there is "ambiguity in the science" or a "lack of clarity", they eventually render themselves irrelevant to the actual discussion.  
But free speech is essential to a free society because, when you deny people 'an opportunity to act like normal political parties' there's nothing left for them to do but punch your lights out
Of course, libertarians like Mr. Steyn argue this all the time.  They seem to have forgotten the lessons that we all learned (or should have learned) during the Nazi era in Germany.  There are in fact exercises of "free speech" that need to be censured and held in abeyance, for if they are not, they can and do become the tools of oppression and violence for those who are the targets of them.

Those few who are foolish enough to "sincerely" hold those beliefs that the Nazis used to demonize Jews in 1930s Germany (or whatever other bigotry you wish to look at, such as that in Rwanda in the early 1990s) don't have a legitimate voice, for their exercise of "free speech" has consequences for others besides themselves.

The problem that Mr. Steyn's position ignores is the inherent privilege that Mr. Steyn has as a reasonably wealthy, white American.  He is not a member of a minority population subject to systemic and deliberate suppression, he is not a member of a visible minority and subject to the consequences of America's racial segregation era.  He is, in fact, quite comfortable.  As a result, he fails to recognize that in order for there to be free speech, there must also be boundaries to it.  Some of those boundaries are going to be legal, some are going to be social - matters of courtesy shall we say.

If you cannot express your ideas reasonably without violating those conventions, then perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the positions that you are holding.  Are they unreasonable?  Has the society you live in moved past the assumptions that those positions are rooted in?  An excellent example of this would be the gay marriage debate in Canada:  If you raised this subject with most Canadians today, they would shrug and walk away on the basis that it has been the law of the land for close to a decade, and the world hasn't fallen apart as a result of it - holding to the argument that gay marriage should be illegal in Canada is largely seen as an archaic belief.  Society has moved beyond that issue.

Similarly, we have a fairly clear sense of what constitutes hate speech, and why hate speech is subject to censure.  I doubt that anybody would have a big problem with hauling off a white supremacist who started publicly broadcasting Nazi-era propaganda lies about Jewish people and charging them with hate crimes.  Mr. Steyn may decry what he sees as unreasonable "political correctness", and he is welcome to do so.  What is not open for debate is whether or not there should be consequences for those who not only violate the rights of others with their insistence on unbridled free speech.  There are and there will always be.

Is that an unreasonable limitation on "free speech"?  To a libertarian like Mr. Steyn, yes.  To the people who are the targets of hate speech, the question is a little different.  As I have argued many times in the past, rights and freedoms are not absolutes, rather they are a cat's cradle, where individual rights exist in constant tension with each other and the rights of others as well.  Mr. Steyn's right to free speech has limits, as does my own.  To believe otherwise is to blind oneself to the fact that we live in a social world.

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