“The words are violence crowd is right about the power of language. Words can be vile, disgusting, offensive, and dehumanizing. They can make the speaker worthy of scorn, protest, and blistering criticism. But the difference between civilization and barbarism is that civilization responds to words with words. Not knives or guns or fire. That is the bright line. There can be no excuse for blurring that line—whether out of religious fanaticism or ideological orthodoxy of any other kind.
Today our culture is dominated by those who blur that line—those who lend credence to the idea that words, art, song lyrics, children’s books, and op-eds are the same as violence. We are so used to this worldview and what it requires—apologize, grovel, erase, grovel some more—that we no longer notice.”-Bari Weiss, “We Ignored Salman Rushdie’s Warning.” Common Sense. August 13, 2022.
Thinking for yourself is never going to line up with any kind of ideological orthodoxy. Free speech is ultimately about listening to unorthodox voices. But, if it is used to drown them out, giving certain orthodoxies the greatest share of voice, then do you really have free speech? What often pretends to be “free speech” isn’t about free speech. It’s about something else. As Steve Bannon would have it: “This is not about persuasion: This is about disorientation.”
The disorientation is to make it more difficult to come to independent conclusions, and it is also designed to limit the kind of traction unorthodox ideas can get among the population. Both are very much designed to promote established ideas and the status quo.
To use a metaphor, who is the Amazon of ideology in a culture? Often, thee are driven by political elites, whether they be based on religious, business, or some other orthodoxy. Ideally, free speech is about expanding the Overton window, the things that we can talk about. Shouting down the opposition isn’t free speech. Giving room for dissenting voices is free speech.
Of course, if that is the view, people will claim their views are somehow dissenting. They’ll espouse the most mainstream ideas, and they’ll exclude some portion to signal that their ideas are in the minority or unique.
There’s also the other direction. You may have some unique ideas. But, it’s very possible that they aren’t interesting to many other people, even if you believe they should be. Tolerance for people that do not share your views has to flow in all directions. A minority that thinks they are on the right side of history and doesn’t have to listen to people that don’t agree with them have all the same problems of the dominant ideologies without the political clout. For people on the sidelines, it is hard to see the advantages of switching out one for the other.
So, it’s a complex business. The Dead Kennedy’s offered good advice though in Nazi Punks Fuck Off, i.e., our default mode should be to listen to new ideas and voices. But, a punk Nazi, or one that shares some of our ideas or aesthetic, isn’t necessarily an improvement over the choices of the ideological Amazon.
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