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Free Speech, Curiosity, and More Nazis

According to Yougov, “Americans have always had a problem with free speech…. While the First Amendment may protect speech, many Americans would not allow dangerous speech or speech many of them disagree with.” And they have the poll to prove it, at least until another poll comes along disproving it, which will probably be soon.

Why anyone still trusts polls after the last Presidential election is beyond me, but pollsters need something to do and pundits need something to write about, so here we go.

The poll asks people how tolerant they are of speech by supporters of ISIS, the KKK, and Neo-Nazis. Should they be allowed to make a speech in your community, author a book in your public library that’s challenged, or teach in a college?

The most popular answer in almost all cases is to stop the speech, remove the book, and fire the teacher. The majority of Trump voters would allow the speech and keep the book of the KKK supporter, because of course they would.

On the other hand, the General Social Survey found that 60% of people would allow a racist speaker to speak in their community, as reported in the Washington Post and linked to by the YouGov article. So racists are okay but the KKK isn’t, or polls aren’t particularly reliable, or the “public” is fickle, or maybe all three.

Free speech doesn’t have many absolutist supporters these days. Even the ACLU has finally decided that defending the free speech of armed marchers is a bit too much for them, after defending the free speech of armed marchers in Charlottesville and getting a lot of criticism.

Then again, some people will criticise anything, like claiming they thought the ACLU tweeting a picture of a toddler wearing an ACLU free speech onesie was like a “white genocide” tweet.

But we can dismiss all the busybodies whose only pleasure these days is getting outraged over stupid stuff like that instead of focusing on important things and yet still think defending the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville is a problem.

The problem isn’t necessarily the speech, though, as the ACLU realizes. The problem is arming yourself before you go marching around and speaking. That’s a threat, and people should treat it like a threat. “I’m going to speak and then maybe shoot some people” isn’t acceptable to anyone worth listening to.

The ALA is usually an absolutist supporter of free speech, at least in libraries, even if somebody’s idea of “free speech” is watching porn videos on library computers with children walking by. After all, children have to learn the facts of life eventually, and it’s a fact of life that some people are pathetic perverts who can’t view their porn at home like normal people.

This is the question that was asked: “Supposed the supporter of ISIS [Ku Klux Klansman / Neo-Nazi] wrote a book which is in your public library and somebody in your community suggests removing the book from the public library. Would you favor removing it or not?”

The official ALA response would be “no, because that’s censorship!” even though it isn’t really censorship, but never mind.

In cases like this, though, the ALA has it right about not removing the book, and it doesn’t matter if you support ISIS, the KKK, or the Nazis. Or for that matter the atheist, militarist, communist, or pro-gay speakers the GSS asked about in addition to racists.

Sure, a lot of librarians would prefer defending children’s books about how great gay penguins are, but books by Neo-Nazis should be in the collection, too, although hopefully in separate sections.

I could make the typical absolutist free speech argument like the ALA does, talking about intellectual freedom, the marketplace of ideas, fighting bad speech with good speech and stuff like that.

Instead I’ll make a contextual argument not about the value of intellectual freedom as such, but about the value of encouraging and supporting curiosity, which is one of the many reasons intellectual freedom is important in the first place.

It seems to be the case that a lot of young men, and it’s almost always young men, are radicalized in some way by stuff they read on the internet. They’re sad, lonely losers and read about how black people or women or Jews or hedonistic westerners are the reason their lives aren’t perfect and sometimes they decide to go kill some of those people.

There are such things as dangerous books and ideas, sort of. But context is everything.

The internet is a suckhole for the simple minded. They get sucked into a little corner of the internet and think that’s the whole world, because they never find an escape from that corner.

One page links to another page links to another page and pretty soon all the information they’ve consumed for years comes from other simple minded people who are also trying to escape the complexity of life.

On the internet, the simple minded find their one simple answer to explain what’s wrong with their world, and they never have to see anything that challenges that answer. Curiosity is stifled as much as possible, because curious people start to think for themselves sometimes.

Libraries aren’t like that. Unless you’re at a very large library with a comprehensive collection on Neo-Nazis or ISIS or the KKK, you won’t encounter a section of the library with nothing but books on those topics, and once you’re in the library you’ll see books on those topics from different perspectives.

A book by a Neo-Nazi will likely be surrounded by other books about Neo-Nazis, and few of those books will be flattering. They might be just as one-sided as the book by the Neo-Nazi, but at least then there are competing views: Nazis are good and Nazis are bad.

That’s what you don’t find on the internet without looking for it. You also don’t find that in a library without going to the library to look for information, and that’s another big difference.

People rarely visit the dark underbelly of the internet just because they want to learn about a particular point of view, but they do visit libraries for that reason. Removing books by ISIS supporters isn’t censorship, but it is a suppression of curiosity.

If the library doesn’t offer such books, then the only alternative for the curious is to go on the internet and be sucked into the worldview of the simple minded for a while.

There’s a choice: a suckhole for the simple minded that eradicates curiosity, or a place that encourages and supports curiosity.

“Would you rather have a public library that had books by Neo-Nazis and also against Neo-Nazis where curious people could find a variety of views in the same place, or would you rather people find information about Neo-Nazis only from Neo-Nazi websites that promote only one point of view and link only to other websites supporting that point of view, thereby making it much harder to find alternative views?”

Ask that question on a poll and the response might be very different.



  1. anonymous coward says:

    “The problem is arming yourself before you go marching around and speaking. That’s a threat, and people should treat it like a threat. “I’m going to speak and then maybe shoot some people” isn’t acceptable to anyone worth listening to.”

    One feels the need to remind AL, and the ALCU, that all rights protected in the Bill of Rights are equal. The second amendment does not, when magically mixed with the first amendment, nullify the first amendment. Neither do they, in conjunction, nullify the 4th, etc.

  2. I know plenty of people who aren’t Trump supporters who advocate free speech and would allow a KKK speaker etc. etc. etc… Regardless, the first amendment doesn’t magically not apply to someone if they have an opinion you don’t agree with. That’s what bothers me so much about Antifa and BLM movements. They tend to mostly shut down any speech opposing them. What happens when the tables turn and their speech is deemed hate speech? It’s a slippery slope. If you start censoring one group, where does it stop? Yeah I don’t like what they’re saying, but so long as they do it peacefully let them do it.

    • The difference with this view is the idea that one independent group silences another by forcing the other to go silent. What’s happening is that one group is, by and large, allowing the other group to speak, they are just choosing to drown out the first group with their own, larger numbers. Everyone is free to speak, and that means counter-protesting protesters. Basically, no independent group can actually stop another from doing something, only a government entity can. An independent group can overwhelm a government entity with opinion, clogging their phone lines and gathering tens of thousands of people to protest, but that doesn’t mean that THEY did it. If the alt-right has enough supporters, they can counter-protest and overwhelm government entities too; it’s all the same freedom of speech.

  3. Antifa jerks hide their faces. If they are truly against fascism, then be proud and come out from behind that mask. Antifa are troublemakers not allowing any speech but their own to be heard. They are actually the fascists. Hate groups don’t scare me. Hate groups who wear masks scare me. I don’t see any difference between antifa, the KKK, ISIS etc. They all only allow one point of view and for the most part hid behind masks because they have violent intentions.

  4. Kell Brigan says:

    “Libraries aren’t like that. Unless you’re at a very large library with a comprehensive collection on Neo-Nazis or ISIS or the KKK, you won’t encounter a section of the library with nothing but books on those topics, and once you’re in the library you’ll see books on those topics from different perspectives.”

    Not in “my” library. If it’s not approved by the DNC, the Greens or the CPUSA, it doesn’t get in. Forget about “different perspectives.”

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