These posts by Pink (here and here) and this post by Swarn had me thinking about how societies deal with anti-intellectualism and propaganda. Classically in the U.S., people are generally held responsible for how they react to such things. Opinions are not and cannot be restricted by government in a free society; such is the shelter free speech provides (and an even bigger shelter by the First Amendment, unlike in other countries). Indeed, it is frequently this shelter that gets claimed by proponents of false statements, anti-intellectualism, and propaganda geared to incite people for whatever gain.
Can there still be consequences for this kind of speech?
The short answer is yes. I linked to the trailer for the movie Denial as one such example portraying Dr. Lipstadt’s defense against David Irving’s libel suit. Mr. Irving could not rely on alternative facts to support his suit, and consequently lost.
There can and should be other consequences for this kind of speech. Here is a news story about the Southern Poverty Law Center suing neo-nazi blogger Andrew Anglin after he allegedly called for his readers to take action against a Jewish woman in Montana. If the suit is successful, he will have to pay damages for any harassment his readers engaged in. In short, he will be financially responsible for the consequences of his speech.
It’s very important to note that these people are not getting punished for their beliefs or even just for uttering unpopular speech. Rather, they are facing the consequences of their actions. Speech might be protected, but it is not a shield to prevent people from saying everything they’d like.
What about people who toe the line elsewhere?
For every Rush Limbaugh and Milo Yiannopoulos out there, there’s an Ed Schultz or Rachel Maddow. Social media gets inundated with fake news that gets more publicity than real news. Even our President gets bombarded by partisan news. Right now, the public is at the mercy of a misinformation system which prompts all sorts of bizarre beliefs.
As I’ve mentioned above, classical ways to deal with this involve relying on consumers to control themselves, a caveat emptor for information. The problem is that these rules were established in a world where information could take days to reach one person, and word of mouth was the best way of sharing an idea with the masses. Nowadays, everyone can read, and electronic devices let one person with a keyboard reach billions of people worldwide.
Universities and places of higher learning have tried to combat this through public education, and there are popular channels on YouTube and elsewhere which spread actual, provable facts. But universities only really affect where they reside, and the other spread of information is purely voluntary. On top of that, it’s hard for people to find accurate information which contradicts false information.
Critical thinking is important, and if it’s to reach everyone, it needs to reach them at a younger age.
If one cannot create laws to protect the public from misleading speech and propaganda, then education must be an answer to this problem. Unfortunately, we have a Secretary of Education that’s tanked one state’s public education system. Not only that, but some parents do not trust improving critical thinking skills. Putting these two things together is practically a perfect storm for a populace that can’t protect itself from alternative facts and fake news, let alone deliberate attempts to incite people to violence.
We can’t have it both ways here. If we want a free society that protects speech, then we need a populace that can tell what’s right and wrong. Such a requirement entails intellectual discipline and study, and to reach everyone it has to happen while they’re in a lower school grade. Even high school might be too late, as people drop out.
Something also needs to get done about people who resort to violence in response to speech.
Protesting is fine, but making casual threats of violence against people is not okay. Over at UC Berkeley, there are more protests which cancelled a talk by Ann Coulter. Some of the students seem fine with this decision because of safety concerns, and there have been allegations that the violence is being prompted by outside sources. Regardless, this means that a university is unable to host talks of any sort due to violence.
What is not clear is how the university (and others, for that matter) are educating students on how to debate others rigorously without resorting to our baser instincts. As of this writing, I couldn’t find any information on whether students are being held accountable through expulsion for participating in violent acts on campus. If students are being held accountable, this needs to be more highly publicized.
What happens next.
Free speech cannot be eroded in a free society – either by government or its people. Consequences for speech is a separate matter entirely. If I use my speech to promote violence or terror, or if I issue false statements knowing the facts are otherwise, I need to bear the costs of that speech. Those costs can and should include people not listening to me, and people not having to spread the muck I rake.