Much of what follows seems compelled out of me after reading this column by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian, "Free Speech v 'Community'," and the impetus for this column comes out of this Op-Ed by Georgetown Law Prof. Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post, "Shut up and play nice: How the western world is limiting free speech."
Turley writes (and Greenwald quotes)
"Free speech is dying in the western world. While most people still enjoy considerable freedom of expression, this right, once a near-absolute, has become less defined and less dependable for those espousing controversial social, political or religious views. The decline of free speech has come not from any single blow but rather from thousands of paper cuts of well-intentioned exceptions designed to maintain social harmony. . . .
"Of course, free speech is often precisely about pissing off other people – challenging social taboos or political values. . . .
"Such efforts focus not on the right to speak but on the possible reaction to speech – a fundamental change in the treatment of free speech in the West.
Many of you will be aware that I was terminated from an aide position in a public school system after barely three "business" weeks of work. The reason given? My blogging "ridiculed the administration" and "was not conducive to a collaborative environment." No specific blog post was cited and in the HR denial of my "appeal" it was made clear that several blogs were examined. Again, no specific blog posts were referenced or the time-frame of postings that might have been examined.
Now, initially I supposed it was one post in particular, "Instructed to Ignorance," the very title of which might be admitted to be a "challenge" to "social behavioral norms" inculcated in schools via curriculum and hierarchical structures. Perhaps the whole of it is "objectionable" to the "harmonious" operations of the system. At the time I assumed the administrator of the building might have objected to this section:
The Principal, a man, comes out into the hallway and approaches a group of five kindergarten boys. One of the boys had been making loud growling and roaring noises, the others, laughing and talking. The man, 6 feet tall and of athletic build, tells them their behavior is unacceptable and inappropriate, disturbing other students as they work in their classrooms and disturbing him as he works in his office. The boys stand, motionless, and stare up at him, most of them have their mouths open. The growling, roaring boy has his firmly shut. Is appropriate behavior the instruction? Or is it rather that the Principal is a large, scary man? Like the dogs they are at this age, they will forget and need a repetition of a training stimulus.But I have no knowledge of what might have actually been at issue in the situation. I am left speculating as the representatives of systems must not ever commit the sin of revelation. One commenter did offer what I would have to say is a rational institutional perspective; though invalid as a stimulus to termination, possibly valid if leading to discussion in the service of political and community understanding.
The perception was that a principal might feel betrayed by the physical description even if it was intended in the abstract as a representation of type within the hierarchy of order. Also, this might concern parents who could read it and be offended that a teacher referred to their children as "dogs." And finally that a principal might be concerned that such a person might write something about specific children in such a public forum.
Rational, perhaps, as all "reasons" are rational, but as Turley notes above, "reactionary" in its "predictive" condemnation. This is almost to say, "If there is a chance you might offend, speak not and so ensure an harmonious operation of our systems." This, of course, is the basis of the coercion of those "on the inside" who might have knowledge of which a public ought to be aware and allowed to be angry or sanguine or apathetic or whatever about.
Below I excerpt another post from Greenwald ("The Brookings Institution demands servile journalism") that again seems to me to bring into sharp focus the "ethos" that has shrouded our very conceptions of "freedom" and "liberty," the core of which must be that set out in our First Amendment to the Constitution (this "Right" is on offer in our local newspaper on the Editorial page). It's simplicity guards its great power.
Of course, Melville warns of the "trap" in a law's brevity:
Perhaps the only formal whaling code authorized by legislative enactment, was that of Holland. It was decreed by the States-General in A. D. 1695 .... Yes; these laws might be engraven on a Queen Anne's farthing, or the barb of a harpoon, and worn round the neck, so small are they.
I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
But what plays the mischief with this masterly code is the admirable brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As I noted on Sunday, the New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan devoted her weekly Sunday column to an excellent critique of her paper's coverage of US drone attacks. While noting that the Times has done some good work in attempting to bring transparency to the Obama administration's secret killings - in particular its May "kill list" article revealing that Obama adopted a ludicrously broad definition of "militant" that skews the "data" on civilian deaths - she then wrote:
"Since the article in May, its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration's description of those killed as 'militants' - itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers."
There are, to put it mildly, numerous reasons for serious skepticism when it comes to administration claims about its drone program and civilian deaths....
All of this makes Sullivan's call for journalistic challenge to administration drone claims not just unremarkable but self-evident. But her desire for adversarial skepticism very much upset perpetual government defender Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution. At his aptly named blog "Lawfare" - the term of derision used by war cheerleaders to mock the notion that "law" has any role to play in restraining their endless wars and the leaders who fight them - Wittes, in his headline, proclaimed Sullivan's article to be "Very Strange". After quoting her criticism that the paper has insufficiently challenged administration claims on drone deaths, he wrote:
"I find this a bewildering argument. The Times is not an advocacy organization whose job it is to 'aggressively challenge' the government's claims of the rates of civilian casualties - except to the extent that those claims are untrue."
It's amazing that someone not only believes - but is willing to say publicly - that it is not the job of a newspaper to "aggressively challenge" government claims on a highly controversial assassination program that is shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty. That, more than anything else, is the core purpose of journalism (at least in theory): the reason "freedom of the press" is protected in the First Amendment. And it's precisely the media's systematic failure - more accurately: its unwillingness - to engage in this function that has produced the last decade's most destructive outcomes.
Was it once assumed that the US government, alone among the world's governments, was meant to perform its operations in public and under the scrutiny and critique of that public? It can no longer be assumed, if it ever was (if naively so).
But that said, that amendment is respective of laws made by an elected government. What are the "laws" of corporate governance in respect to these restrictions? What are the "laws" of "public" corporations in respect to these restrictions?
People who resist the natural human tendency to follow, venerate and obey prevailing authority typically have a much different view about how oppressive a society is than those who submit to those impulses. The most valuable experiences for determining how free a society is are the experiences of society's most threatening dissidents, not its content and compliant citizens. It was those who marched against Mubarak who were detained, beaten, tortured and killed, not those who acquiesced to or supported the regime. That is the universal pattern of authoritarian oppression.--Glenn Greenwald
These national issues having to do with the bully-ethos of our national "foreign policy" are of course on a different order of magnitude than my personal situation, but I would argue this is only a difference in degree and vastly similar (and as important because more "knowable" and identifiable locally) in kind.
I believe I can speak personally about how speech is limited. My speech, though, has not been abrogated; instead my economic life was. When the bar is closing the bouncer calls out, "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." This is in a sense what has happened.
Yet, this is tantamount to the same coercion; the same oppression. My lesson, unlearned of course, or "untrained" I might say, is that I cannot speak out against those who might allow me to buy food and shelter in this society. Money, income, wages, employment--all these considerations abrogate speech. These are acculturated muzzles to free thought and discussion. The "government" need not pass laws against it as my very existence and "opportunity" (for life, liberty and the pursuit of...) is limited by other institutions and their power to damage individuals in the service of their own "truth."
In an update to one of the Greenwald posts he quotes J.S. Mill as sent to him by a reader.
I admit, and you may lament, that I do not like to use one word when a hundred will do, but I take a cue from Hazlitt as a reviewer--I quote at length so as not to limit meaning that may inhere in the larger structure of a piece. If I select from Mill then I am "reading Mill" for you. And you should know that even the fulsome selection below does not do justice to the thinking in Mill's great work On Liberty. But even I know there are limits and so I have selected! From our vantage we must read much of this, sadly, in an ironic register.
Do note that Mill's arguments regarding the absolute freedom of expression have their cognate in the "scientific method." If we deny our "contradictions" to settled opinion or "fact" then we are as if sailing upon a flat earth. (Emphasis below is mine.)
OF THE LIBERTY OF THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION.
(J. S. Mill, On Liberty)
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.
First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common....
People...who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man's want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of "the world" in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present....
Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right....
Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being "pushed to an extreme;" not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.
In the present age—which has been described as "destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism"—in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society. In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments, to act on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions. But those who thus satisfy themselves, do not perceive that the assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself. There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be noxious, as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full opportunity of defending itself. And it will not do to say that the heretic may be allowed to maintain the utility or harmlessness of his opinion, though forbidden to maintain its truth. The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful: and can you prevent such men from urging that plea, when they are charged with culpability for denying some doctrine which they are told is useful, but which they believe to be false? Those who are on the side of received opinions, never fail to take all possible advantage of this plea; you do not find them handling the question of utility as if it could be completely abstracted from that of truth: on the contrary, it is, above all, because their doctrine is "the truth," that the knowledge or the belief of it is held to be so indispensable. There can be no fair discussion of the question of usefulness, when an argument so vital may be employed on one side, but not on the other. And in point of fact, when law or public feeling do not permit the truth of an opinion to be disputed, they are just as little tolerant of a denial of its usefulness. The utmost they allow is an extenuation of its absolute necessity, or of the positive guilt of rejecting it.
My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.
Whitman from "Song of Myself."
The past and present wilt — I have fill'd them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab
Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through
with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already tooAnd Emerson from "Circles."
But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back....
No truth so sublime but it may be trivial to–morrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.When and where do we expect to be allowed to contradict the speech of power? In cages thrown up around Party conventions that we call "free speech" zones, conspicuously and brutally policed? Our uncaged freedom turns out to be the song that comes only when there is "nothing left to lose."