It appears that some people disapprove with the stand that I took this weekend on the Westboro Baptist Church – claiming that their protests are a protected form of speech. One of the main lines of reasoning used in these arguments is that ‘hate speech’ is a particular type of speech that is not deserving of protection.
My response to this objection is that all moral philosophy is ‘hate speech’ in a sense - and desire utilitarianism is probably more so than others. Any act of moral condemnation, any statement in which an individual is branded as evil and blamed for causing harm to innocent people, The main focus of the objection is that ‘hate speech’ is a particular type of speech that is deserving of mblame for harm done to innocent people – is an invitation, or even an encouragement, to hate such people. If hate speech is such a bad thing, then morality itself is to b condemned.
Yet, morality (or ethicists) cannot be condemned without a contradiction. To condemn ethicists – to condemn those who use ‘hate speech’ against certain targets, is to attempt to elicit hate against those who use hate speech. It is an act of condemning all those who condemn, and to call evil those who call others evil. The position makes no sense.
The correct question we should be asking, then, is not whether we should or should not condemn others, but who should we condemn? In answering this question, the proposal that, “We should only condemn those who condemn others” can be thrown out at the start foor being totally incoherent. We must then look for other answers.
Different people are going to come up with different answers. I hold that there is a right answer to these types of questions. Yet, I also hold that human beings are fallible creatures, and that none of us have exactly the same set of data at our disposal. Consequently, some people will inevitably come up with some false beliefs about who should be condemned. Even in this blog, I have expressed the view that at least one of the things that I have written is false, and I have to leave it up to others to discover what it is.
The next question to answer, then, is, “How are we going to deal with disagreement?” What is the best way to deal with the fact that somebody, somewhere, will always have an opinion that ‘those people deserve our condemnation’ when, in fact, those people do not deserve our condemnation? There will always be somebody, somewhere, directing hate against those who do not deserve it.
Throughout this blog I have maintained a principle that the only legitimate response to words is words and private action. ‘Private action’ consists of those things that a person may decide on without having to justify his actions to others; who to vote for, where to shop, who to go to lunch with, what to eat, what to wear, when to pray, whether to pray, and the like. The proper response to words and private action, no matter how painful, is never to draw out a gun and to threaten the speaker with violence.
One commenter noted accurately that rights are never absolute, and that they must be weighed with other concerns. Of course this is the case. This is why the argument above does not apply to cases of fraud, libel, slander, revealing company secrets, invasions of privacy, and violations of contracts and other forms of legal promises.
The motivation here is to protect people, not from hurt or offense, but from more substantial and substantive harms such as threats to national security (and the loss of life for those who are charged with providing national security), the loss of jobs and income by unsubstantiated claims, or to even allow the institutions of law and medicine to function for the public good. The Westboro Baptist Church provides no such threat of substantive harm. Important institutions will not fail because these people are able to make the comments they make.
The argument for free speech also does not apply to a case in which demonstrators chant, shout, and otherwise disrupt an event such as a movie or play, or a wedding, or a funeral, or to forcefully evict a heckler from the audience (or to taser him if he is resisting the arresting officers in a way that endangers others). Here, it is legitimate to use force to silent those who are disrupting the event.
In the latter case, the key here is whether the protest actually disrupts the event. Some people speak as if the Westboro Baptist Church members were literally dancing on the coffins in which their protests took place, If this were the case, then I, too, would argue for their removal on the grounds that they were being disruptive. However, when their protests are far enough removed and subdued enough not to disrupt the event, then this line of argument disappears.
To silence the Westboro Baptist Church through a civil trial is still a case of responding to words that one does not want to hear with weapons and violence against those who would speak.
If this is permissible, then why is it NOT permissible for certain Muslims to call for a use of violence against people who say things that are offensive to their religion? Why is it then wrong to threaten those who draw cartoons of Mohammed, when it is quite possibly the case that Muslims suffer as much discomfort – as much hurt – as the father of the dead solider.
How long have we had allowed cheering crowds at executions, on the roads approaching a prison where an execution is scheduled, celebrating that execution? None have thought to wonder at the effects that this would have on the family of those about to be killed, and none would certainly have given any sense to confining those protests where they can be out of sight and out of mind.
The question comes up, “Where is it permissible to draw a line?” I would argue that it is permissible to draw the line at harm and at the disruption of an event
The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions. When guns become a legitimate response to words, we must all worry about whether we have enough cover to protect ourselves from the bullets that will start flying and anybody offended or hurt by something others might say.