Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Left and Right Fists


I find myself arguing points that any mature, educated adult should not have to argue.

I have to tell Trump supporters that torture is immoral, illegal, and ineffective . These points are indisputable (if anything, torture provides opportunities to recruit for "the bad guys). And they respond that they don't care about any of those things, and that they "believe in torture".

After that, it is difficult to accept anything else these people have to say. Particularly disturbing is these aren't all crazy-eyed John Birch Society gun-wavers. These are soccer moms. Students. People who should know better.

But when they advocate torture, I cannot see them as anything other than selfish, soulless, and hateful.

Their avatar, Mr. Trump, has said he is in favor of torture because "they probably deserve it".

This is a morally bankrupt position to take, and indefensible in every way. It is not something that any thinking or feeling person can debate. If our values include torture, we are in the wrong and our values are not worth saving.


The New Left has its own problems to wrestle with, or perhaps I should say "punch in the face".

The current fashion is to argue that we should be punching Nazis in the face at every opportunity. The justifications for this rely on a semantic shell game (as do some other New Left arguments), conflating those who espouse disgusting neo-Nazi views with actual Nazis invading Poland, building concentration camps, and engaging in a world-wide war; and engaging in the current practice of "just kidding/not kidding" intent-flipping.

At least in America, our laws and culture articulate that people are allowed to speak freely (with a few narrow limitations). And that this idea -- that our society tolerates speech that we might find offensive -- is something that makes us strong.

Without the freedom to express your ideas in words, written or spoken, society cannot evolve. For that most part, that evolution has been in a positive, more progressive direction. But not always, like anything. "Progress" is not always a straightforward endeavor.

Assaulting someone on the street while they are talking is wrong. Committing violence against someone for their ideas is anti-Democratic. It is contrary to our fundamental values as a nation.

There is no exception in free speech (legally or morally) for "when you disagree with them". That is part of the challenge with free speech -- you can't carve out the speech that you don't like, while insisting that everyone else has to accept yours.

As many have noted, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Those consequences can include ostracization and wide dissemination of the fact that you said or did these things ("Hey, did you know Jane articulated neo-Nazi values?"). It can also mean that speech becomes part of the official record of the courts or government. Or that others can make recordings of same and put them up on YouTube or WorldstarHipHop or CNN.

In many cases, real-world offensive speech can result in physical violence. Walk into a bar, start calling people names, and you're likely to get punched in the face. Mouth off to a cop, see how that goes (sadly). Be nasty to a woman, get slapped.

However -- and this is critically important -- violence as the first response to speech is indicative of weakness and failure of reason for the listener more than it is the offensiveness of the speaker. For a long time, society considered those who responded to speech with violence to be lacking basic self-control or dignity, operating on a hair-trigger.

When we resort to violence as a first response to someone else's ideas, we effectively state that we have no argument, alternative or retort to the ideas being put forth. We say we are afraid of the ideas.

Put another way, I'm comfortable letting neo-Nazis talk, because I believe the neo-Nazi ideas are disgusting, powerless, and absurd -- and everyone exposed to those dumb ideas will see that. Perhaps a few wackos and losers will adopt them, but so what? There will always be some flavor of hateful and ridiculous ideology out there for people like that to embrace, and we will always counter and defeat it with better, stronger ideas.

And if we cannot trust in the robustness of our ideas and our rhetoric in the face of darkness, evil, or just some other competing ideology, it suggests a much more significant problem with our beliefs (or at the very least our way of "marketing" and delivering them) might be lurking.

The Westboro Baptist Church engaged in some of the most inflammatory and distasteful displays of free speech I can think of (short of people advocating for child molestation, and, yes, neo-Nazis). And yet society still felt physically assaulting them was largely inappropriate, or at least not celebrated to the degree our current moment has been advocating punching Nazis.

Perhaps the neo-Nazis are an appealing target at the moment, because, aside from being loathsome and taboo, they're embodied by the only allowable out-group for the left: white men. That particular demographic allows the left to say "anything goes", because everyone hates Nazis, right? You're with us or against us.

Ask yourself how you'd feel if the video was of someone punching a Muslim cleric (even one who was known to advocate Wahhabism, or had endorsed terrorist attacks). Or punching a woman who happened to be identified with the alt-right (for example, Kellyanne Conway). Or someone on whichever side of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict you disagree with. Or an abortion doctor. Or someone protesting abortion.

Making an exception for violence against certain speech and ideas is dangerous, because what happens next is what always happens in these situations: anyone who disagrees with the ruling dogma gets labeled a ____ (by definition! Because "we" are anti-____). Or a ____ sympathizer. Or just someone who looks like a ____. Then they're fair game. Here comes your beat-down.

Sticks and Words

Over the last decade, our ideas of speech have been deliberately made murky by various parties. The internet and its apps are speech. Money is speech. Marches are speech. What isn't "speech"?

There are even people advocating liberal or left-leaning values who are bringing reactionary thinking and Orwellian philosophy into the picture, They claim destroying property (by smashing it or burning it) is not violence (as long as it isn't yours). It, too, is speech.

And sucker-punching people isn't violence. It's "speech." If' that is speech, what is violence?

In some people's views, speech is violence. To say the wrong things, or even say the right things using the wrong words, is violence. They say "words hurt" and that speech can "seem like an assault" or "feel threatening". Yet instead of responding in kind, with their own nasty speech, the proposed solution is the aforementioned physical violence.

So in some contexts and arguments, actual speech is "violence", and actual violence is "speech".

There is a huge difference between someone espousing hateful ideas and someone committing actual physical violence, as anyone who has experienced both will tell you. "Sticks and stones..."

We erode that distinction and clarity at our own peril.

The Quality of Speech

A minor diversion. The current societal moment also likes to chastise people for the words they use, absent original context and intent, amidst shifting definitions. As an example, the word "racist" now has different meanings depending on the people you're talking to, and the chasm in those meanings is being specifically exploited as part of the current political discourse.

It used to be that "educated" people wouldn't use what they referred to as the "f-word" in polite conversation, in art, and certainly not as part of public discourse. Now, the "f-word" is not only no problem, but failure or refusal to use it marks you as some kind of fuddy-duddy (or perhaps f-word duddy.) But if you use the "n-word" in any context (assuming you're not part of the group "allowed" to use it), you will be in big trouble.

There is something almost quaint about the idea that some words can still shock, and still have that kind of power. I say "almost" because more than quaint, I find it ridiculous and arbitrary, or perhaps more accurately an indication that words, language, and society continue to evolve and change. Maybe we shouldn't take it so seriously, or at least recognize that speech we deem "offensive" can be ignored, or says more about the speaker's deficiencies than our own.

Context and intent also matter, and perhaps matter more than the actual words. The words themselves have no meaning or power. It's how they are deployed. It's like if people started using the word "pickle" as a hateful term for people of color. You get upset about the intent and the context, not the word. No matter what words someone is actually using, if their intent is to hurt, they're in the wrong.

This works the other way, too. Certain people jumped all over Steve Martin for a tweet he shared after his friend Carrie Fisher died. Rather than accepting and understanding that he was grieving for a a friend and saying nice things about her, they chose to ignore the context and intent and focus on policing speech. Even if you believe Martin or his choice of language were sexist or representative of the patriarchy or whatever, is this really the best target to pick here? And the best time? It is clear to everyone (including the Speech Police) what Martin meant and was trying to do. Unfortunately some people saw a rich target for making an ideological point.

When people focus on which words you use, instead of what you said and meant with them, every speech or dialog becomes a list of good words to be ticked and bad words to be avoided. And when that happens, the speech you end up with when you do that is bland and empty, "positive" but unable to actually advocate anything for fear of upsetting people.

How and Why

How we do things and why we do them matters as much as, and perhaps more than, the actual results. Winning by cheating isn't really winning, is it? If we defeat our enemies by destroying our values and replacing them with their values, who is the victor and who is the vanquished? We win, but what have we lost?

When we adopt the tactics of the brutal because we are convinced we are right and justified, we give in to the trap of "might equals right". We give in to fear. We give in to our worst instincts. We play by their rules instead of ours. That is what happens when we start by punching people whose ideas we disagree with. We go to the dark side. Or Iraq.

Maintaining the moral high ground isn't just "nice". It is the thing that makes our cause just and gives us the right to exercise force if needed. It is literally what allows us to be better than and different from those we are fighting.

(And I suppose I have to clarify again that I am not talking about self-defense, or responding to individual physical aggression, though depending on where you live, local laws may or may not support you).

What is so ultimately disturbing about all of this for me is the Ourobouros these right and left actions forms. This is not some "both sides do it" argument, but rather an uncomfortable parallel.

Because when you're fighting Nazis or the out-group or ____ or whatever boogeyman you have, why stop at sucker punches on the street? Based on the logic and justifications you used to start punching, you cannot stop there. Ideological purity demands it.

After all, they're evil and we are righteous. What about guns? Assassinations? Blowing up their houses? Attacking their families? Torture?

They probably deserve it.

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