Icosian Reflections

The crisis through which we are passing

is only part of our day’s work.

What did you learn in school today?

This post is 4 of \(\infty\) in an ongoing loose sequence of posts meandering through the ethos that Scott Alexander dubs "charity over absurdity".

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Yesterday, Kent Greenfield argued in The Atlantic that a First Amendment that protects the racists of ΣAE is a First Amendment unbefitting a modern America:

We are told the First Amendment protects the odious because we cannot trust the government to make choices about content on our behalf. That protections of speech will inevitably be overinclusive. But that this is a cost we must bear. If we start punishing speech, advocates argue, then we will slide down the slippery slope to tyranny.

If that is what the First Amendment means, then we have a problem greater than bigoted frat boys. The problem would be the First Amendment.

No one with a frontal lobe would mistake this drunken anthem for part of an uninhibited and robust debate about race relations. The chant was a spew of hatred, a promise to discriminate, a celebration of privilege, and an assertion of the right to violence–all wrapped up in a catchy ditty. If the First Amendment has become so bloated, so ham-fisted, that it cannot distinguish between such filth and earnest public debate about race, then it is time we rethink what it means. (...)

...and, if you'll bear with me a moment, I'm reminded of a recent LessWrong post on what it means for Them to Hate Our Freedom[?]:

If we substitute the symbol with the substance though, what we mean by freedom - "people to be left more or less alone, to follow whichever religion they want or none, to speak their minds, to try to shape society's laws so they serve the people" - then Al Qaeda is absolutely inspired by a hatred of [our] freedom. They wouldn't call it "freedom", mind you, they'd call it "decadence" or "blasphemy" or "shirk" - but the substance is what we call "freedom". (...)


Kent Greenfield hates the racists of ΣAE for their freedoms -- particularly, for their freedom to chant racist ditties about lynching their black classmates. One draft version of this post used this observation as a jumping-off point to attempt to explain what (I imagine) it must feel like from the inside to be a fundamentalist zealot who hates certain freedoms. But as much as I'm for charity and understanding thy enemy, my heart really isn't that much into humanizing al Qaeda, so let's talk about free speech instead. I think that'll be more fun.


Greenfield writes:

When frat boys delight in singing about lynching in Oklahoma, or loop a noose around the statue of James Meredith at Ole Miss, or publish a "rape guide" at Dartmouth, the First Amendment tells us our remedy to these expressions of hatred is to grimace and bear it. Or ignore it. Or speak out against it. But punish it we cannot. That would go too far; we would slide down the slippery slope to tyranny.

Those not targeted by the speech can sit back and recite how distasteful such racism or sexism is, and isn't it too bad so little can be done. Meanwhile, those targeted by the speech are forced to speak out, yet again, to reassert their right to be treated equally, to be free to learn or work or live in an environment that does not threaten them with violence.

The First Amendment's reliance on counterspeech as remedy forces the most marginalized among us to bear the costs of the bigots' speech. Counterspeech is exhausting and distracting, but if you are the target of hatred you have little choice. "Speak up! Remind us why you should not be lynched." "Speak up! Remind us why you should not be raped."

You can stay silent, but that internalizes the taunt. The First Amendment tells us the government cannot force us either to remain silent or to speak, but its reliance on counterspeech effectively forces that very choice onto victims of hate speech. (...)

I've previously spoken against social-movement dynamics that place the burden of the costliest speech on those least able to bear its costs:

[A]llies aiming to do the most good for their cause should make explicit effort to strengthen the thing they are best able to contribute -- their ability to communicate to difficult-to-communicate-with people. To fail to do so... forces the people who find it most difficult to engage to take on the task of engaging in the most difficult situations, which is obviously suboptimal for themselves, their friends, and their converational partners. (...)

So I guess I misspoke. The thing that Oklahoma University President David Boren has comparative advantage in doing is expelling racists from OU. I don't really think he should make explicit effort to strengthen the thing he's best able to contribute to the good fight, however cool of a superpower it is.

Because the thing that Greenfield gets wrong is that, while yes, the First Amendment does indeed limit any reaction from The Powers That Be to counterspeech, and not retaliation,...

[T]he First Amendment tells us our remedy to these expressions of hatred is to grimace and bear it. Or ignore it. Or speak out against it. But punish it we cannot. (...)

...the burden of this counterspeech need not fall to those targeted. Allies are good at speaking when speaking is hard! David Boren is capable of doing great things with his position as OU President, besides summary discipline! Hell, I have fifty-something readers on a good day, and I can speak out against racist chants on buses! (Instead, much more vitriol than I can stomach has already been spilt, and so I'm left arguing for free-speech protections...is this what it means to be a rightist in the twenty-first? Because, no joke, I used to think of myself as a leftist.)

"Speak out against it" is no minor action, nor one which is reserved for people of any particular social location. And I could try to explain what good "speak out against it" looks like, but this post is going to be long enough as it is.


One of the reasons why American universities are so activist-ly liberal, I have hypothesized, is that they have been designated the weapons-testing facilities for any social movement hip enough to be able to attract undergraduates with the aid of free pizza. And though I had a little too much fun coming up with that quip, I do mean it -- our schools are where our generation (as our parents' generation) is learning the art of social action. Here is where we practice, and here is where we train to take our causes to the real world. (The cynic says: "Here it is we play at fighting for justice before fleeing to jobs at GoldBridgeKinsey", but the cynic isn't, in general, welcome on Faults, so.)

Relying on counterspeech instead of escalating to summary discipline is hard, like fighting a conventional war without escalating to nuclear arms is hard. But, if we're going to fight the good fight in a world where the people able to mete out summary discipline aren't always (or usually!) on our side, we should treat every opportunity as a chance to practice approaching problems with dialogue, in a setting that's a little more conducive to it than the real world. This instead of:

"What did you learn in school today?"

"That if someone is Really Evil, and the people in power are Good Guys, that they can get the Bad Guys shut up forever and sent away. And! If the people-in-power are Really Good Guys, you might not even have to ask them too hard before they mete out the maximum punishment on the Bad Guys!"

This is not a tactic worth practicing. This is not the way that we should get used to winning. It takes active effort to practice fighting cultural wars that are not "exercises in annihilation", as writes Leah Libresco in the American Conservative, re: another recent issue:

Civility campaigners aren't protecting victims from villains, but trying to foster a conversation about how to live well, and what constraints on our own actions we should accept, not due to fear of legal or violent reprisals, but out of positive concern for others.

This is not a project of censorship and violence, trying to prevent exposure to what offends us, but a project of education and charity, trying to know and love our neighbors well enough to only offend when necessary, tempering our actions by cultivating empathy for and understanding of the pain of others.

When pressure comes through boycotts or a simple "You really shouldn't say that" there's an invitation to dialogue that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not offered by their murderers. We shouldn't fear giving an answer to the people who question us, or be ashamed that, once we listen to their objections, we might change our behavior. (...)

Yes, we invite racists (who chant about lynching black classmates) to dialogue. Otherwise, when will they stop?

Things you might think you heard me say that I didn't say:

  • That Kent Greenfield is literally al Qaeda.
  • That everyone in ΣAE is racist.
  • Tha the correct response to the actions of the members of ΣAE was counterspeech solely by white allies.
  • That David Boren is firing nuclear weapons.
  • That racism isn't worth fighting.
  • That ΣAE is literally Charlie Hebdo.
  • That there are (or should be!) no punishments appropriate for anyone involved in the event in question.

And, to be clear, I intentionally ignore the issue of whether we can replace the First Amendment with a less-expansive protection of only nontoxic speech, and instead take a swing at the question of whether we should.

Update: This post is awaiting a follow-on, re: what it means that the first substantive post I made on race was in defense of free-speech protections.

Update: Here it is.