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23.2.06

It's Easy To Defend The KKK

It's long been fashionable, particularly for Americans, to make grandiose claims about one's commitment to freedom of speech. Such claims typically take the form of defending the KKK, although Naziism is a popular form of bad-but-should-be-defended speech as well -- Abiola Lapite's statement that "It's cases like the one of Holocaust denier David Irving which provide the strongest tests of how truly committed one is to freedom of speech" is typical. But I think these examples miss the mark a bit by confusing extremeness with unacceptability.

Everyone has a limit to what speech they will allow (if not in society as a whole, at least in certain contexts). The KKK and Holocaust denial examples assume that that limit is defined by extremeness -- that everyone will accept speech that they agree with and speech that's close or sounds reasonable, but moving away from your own beliefs you eventually hit some speech that's so wrong and so contrary to your moral ideals that you can no longer handle it. Lynching black people is so wrong in the minds of most Americans that it provides a good example of extreme speech. If you'd even defend the KKK's right to speak, then it seems to follow that you'd defend any more "reasonable" ideas.

But what actually makes speech potentially ban-worthy is not its extremeness, it's how threatening it is. Take the classic example of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Saying that the theater is on fire is not a particularly extreme viewpoint -- theaters do catch on fire from time to time, and there's nothing particularly immoral about believing that a building is burning (or the implicit claim that we ought therefore to evacuate). But it is threatening, because were the other theatergoers to hear this speech, they would believe it and cause a dangerous stampede.

Thus, it's easy for the average American -- particularly white northerners -- to defend the KKK's right to speak. The possibility of lots of people signing on to the KKK's brand of extreme racism seems so remote that a few guys in white hoods ranting about the evils of equality doesn't feel like a threat. And even if the KKK did win some converts, most of the noble defenders of their speech would not be among those in line to be lynched. Indeed, it's the very extremeness of the KKK's views that makes it easy to defend them, since extreme views are unlikely to win adherents. This, then, is why Europe has more restrictive Holocaust denial laws than the US -- since the Nazis came from Europe, the threat posed by Holocaust denial feels much more real to them than it does on this side of the Atlantic.

This is not necessarily to say that Europe's laws are right, as there is room for much debate about how likely a Nazi revival really is, and how threatening speech must be before it can be banned. I'll close with an interesting quote from Sebastian Holsclaw. I'm not sure how accurate the empirical claim in it is, but it does illustrate my point about the threatening-ness of speech being the grounds for wanting to ban speech.

This reminds me of an interesting discussion I read a few years ago--I regret that I can't remember exactly where. The gist was that one of the practical reasons European countries have more restrictive speech laws than the US is that their political systems allow small group extremists to wield more electoral power. Our system tends toward only allowing two successful parties at a time. This is reinforced by first-past-the-post vote counting and by the fact that the administrative branch is elected apart from the legislative body. The parliamentary system of many European democracies and the voting schemes tend to make small parties very powerful when coalition governments are required. As a result, a party which is popular in only a very few areas can have enormous power from time to time. The US system tends to filter out small extremist parties. As a result we can tolerate a somewhat larger range of outrageous speech because the speaker can rarely gain the leverage needed for real power without appealing to a broad spectrum of people. I don't know if there is something to that, but it struck me as an interesting conjecture.

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