Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Use It Or

[posted by Callimachus]

Here's what I like. This column by Frank Furedi, which discusses the business of intolerance of "denial" speech (a 21st century phrase if I ever saw it) by reference to the sacred cows -- everyone's, all of them, the whole barnyard:

Many influential figures have a cavalier attitude to free speech, believing that ‘dangerous’ ideas should be repressed. Disbelief in today’s received wisdom is described as ‘Denial’, which is branded by some as a crime that must be punished. It began with Holocaust denial, before moving on to the denial of other genocides. Then came the condemnation of ‘AIDS denial’, followed by accusations of ‘climate change denial’. This targeting of denial has little to do with the specifics of the highly-charged emotional issues involved in discussions of the Holocaust or AIDS or pollution. Rather, it is driven by a wider mood of intolerance towards free thinking.

When you start out that way, you get somewhere. Rather than damning someone else's right to deny, then yowling when someone cracks down on your own pet denial fixation. Niemöller's famous poem ought to be re-written with more repugnant victims, even to this level: "When they came for the Holocaust-deniers, I said nothing ...."

Rights are hard things, cold in the hand. Not candy and easy answers. They're as fragile as lightbulbs, too, as Furedi's column notes:

One of the most disturbing developments of past two decades is the loss of support for freedom of speech amongst the wider public. This was confirmed in the recently published British Social Attitudes Survey, which indicated that a larger section of the British public (64 per cent) support the right of people ‘not to be exposed to offensive views’ than support the right for people to ‘say what they think’ (54 per cent). The report concluded that the ‘general public is generally less convinced about civil liberties than they were 25 years ago’. Only a small majority of the public takes free speech seriously. The survey also suggests that these illiberal attitudes pre-date the war on terrorism, and therefore cannot be blamed on the political atmosphere created post-9/11.

That's Britain; I wonder how different the numbers would be here in the U.S. Among the many seeming contradictions you can find in me is my horror that America has effectively wrecked its original Constitution in the period 1850-1920, and now is literally a driverless car, since the original balanced and mixed government was dismantled. But I rarely write much about that. I'd rather people didn't think that way, or that they realize what I see is true, if it is true. Better we believe we're living under the Constitution, and are bound by it, at least by such parts of it as are left. You'd never get them passed into law today.

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