The Fire in the Theater

12 06 2015
Artist Andres Serrano and his inflammatory work, "Piss Christ".

Artist Andres Serrano and his inflammatory work, “Piss Christ”. Note damage done by protesters.

A couple of days ago, Reddit announced a crackdown on hatespeech on its subreddits, five of which were banned because of their overt racism, trans- and homophobia, and fat-shaming. No surprise, this created a bit of a stir.

On the one hand, you’d be hard-pressed to make a credible defense of the specific speech involved, which not only slammed the victims brutally, but advocated off-forum harassment as well. It’s the sort of thing that would make any intelligent, compassionate person cringe. There is absolutely no justification for it, and the world is a poorer place for its existence.

On the other hand, free speech.

Mind you, as a writer, blogger, and enthusiastic supporter of a free and unregulated Internet, I believe in the freedom to express ideas. I don’t think I need to list in tedious length the number of times a society has suffered and progress been crippled because an authority decided that certain ideas were “dangerous” or “unacceptable and inappropriate” and imposed silence.

We also know that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not free speech but a deliberate act of irresponsible malice.

But is saying that “Fat people have no right to live” the expression of an opinion, or a deliberate act of irresponsible malice like the above example? Unfortunately, it is both. The person yelling “Fire!” is not expressing an opinion. The fat-shamer most likely is. And he knows people are going to be hurt by what he says.

There are certainly people who say things, not because they honestly believe them, but because they want to outrage. Their speech is purely for shock value, an act of verbally violent protest. (*cough* 4chan *cough*). Personally, I feel no obligation to protect speech like that. Speech that is used as a weapon, for no other purpose than to push limits, using the “F” and “N” words just because they know it will make somebody uncomfortable, gets no sympathy from me.

But, how does one prove intent? How to distinguish between the person who advocates the torment of transgender people because they honestly believe transgender people are abhorrent (an unpleasant, but honest opinion on their part) and the douchebag who says it just to see the reaction of horror? You can have your suspicions, but you can’t be sure. And once you start gagging people because you find their opinions repellant, you’re heading right into the swamp.

Meat DressAnd then there is, gods help us, Art. Remember “Piss Christ” artist Andres Serrano? He immersed a crucifix in a jar of urine to stunning effect. His intention was to protest the profaning of a sacred icon, so I am told. It also massively offended religious believers who doubted his motives or didn’t give a damn about them. How about Lady Gaga’s meat dress, which came with a long explanation from her that it wasn’t intended to be offensive to animal rights advocates, but a statement against the governmental restrictions placed on the rights of gay soldiers (a connection I have a little trouble making).  Said she, “‘If we don’t stand up for what we believe in, if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones.’ “

Guerilla art, street theater, performances whose very shock value is part of their message and purpose, all are legitimate forms of expression which a free society ought to tolerate as much as possible, as long as it doesn’t amount to the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in that famously crowded theater.

So, back to Reddit, which has been known as a safe haven for stridently opinionated social outcasts of all stripes. It’s a free forum for the sharing of news stories, images, blogs, and, of course, comments thereupon. The volunteer moderators on most subreddits ask submitters of content to play nice, and for the most part, people do. Or they get called on it. Then there are the subreddits where you just don’t go because you know you will be unapologetically offended. I don’t go there. I stick mostly to the Science subreddit, and don’t think they don’t sometimes get a bit salty there, too. I used to subscribe to the Atheism subreddit, but grew weary of their echo chamber antics. Now I don’t go there, either. If the place makes you uncomfortable, leave it. But demanding it be shut down so no one else can go there either is a bit harsh.

As much as I wouldn’t want to be in the room, I have no right to prevent a group of like-minded people from getting together to spew contempt. (Now that I think about it, I HAVE been in that room — we were like-minded political and environmental activists spewing contempt for the government and corporations.) What worries me is that when groups like that get together, they feed off each other’s energy. They tend to gravitate towards greater extremes when their negativity is normalized by fellow travelers. They get the urge to take their free expression beyond the realm of speech and into action. That’s when people get hurt. Property gets defaced. Damage is done. (Or, in my case, marches were organized and votes gotten out. The sword slices in both directions.)

Perhaps society has a right in self-defense to discourage the proliferation of hate groups and abusive speech. True, there are laws that deal with hate when it spills over into action. But a very good argument could be made that this is like waiting until the weed sprouts to pull it, while ignoring the seeds settling all over the lawn. We can’t disregard human nature and the dynamics of social interaction. We wind up running around putting out fires while matches are still being freely circulated.

But perhaps that’s the best we can do. Just keep putting out the fires, arresting and fining or jailing people who go over the line from abusive speech to abusive action. And use our own rights to free speech to express viewpoints in opposition to hate and intolerance. Argue loudly and tirelessly against the purveyors of irrational prejudice and defend the objects of their tirades. Fight fire with fire.

And you know, they have subreddits for that, too.




2 responses

12 06 2015

I totally agree with you, while not in the same realm I joined a Local Rant & Rave Facebook page, I made a small rant about someone who wasn’t sticking to the rules, I wasn’t mean, I never cursed and only stated my opinion. I was booted off the site and received many a hate rants with-in 1/2hr. Why? it’s beyond me! I’m starting to wonder if giving my opinion on a public site isn’t worth the headache!

12 06 2015

Without knowing the context, it’s difficult to say if this applies in your case, but I have observed that it’s often those who most loudly preach tolerance who are most intolerant of those who disagree with them. Or, to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, I’m sure we all agree that we ought to be tolerant of one another, but I know there are people out there who are not tolerant, and I hate people like that.

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