Roundtable – Free Speech and Nazis on TV

The Roundtable is a conversation about the news among Torchlight’s writers and editors. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and all citations and links were  added after the fact. The conversation happened May 6.

 

Tom Rich

Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s weekly discussion of news and events. With us this week are Senior Managing Editor Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Politics Editor Christopher Dahlin, Junior Managing Editor David Schmitz, legal counsel Jay Imhoff, Trump supporter Sam Dieffenwierth and myself, Editor-in-Chief Tom Rich. The big news this week was the AHCA’s passage of the house, and boy howdy do we have articles about it; we thought a little breather in the Roundtable was in order. Instead, we’re talking free speech today. CNN host W. Kamau Bell recently had actual white supremacist Richard Spencer on his show for an interview, under the thinking that light is the best disinfectant, and the answer to vile speech is to confront it head on. Related are the cases of conservative speakers having to cancel campus appearances over security concerns. Our discussion today concerns the limits and boundaries of free speech and how best to respond to speech we find outright vile. Let’s start with Bell’s interview: was it a good idea to bring Spencer on his show?

 

Sam Dieffenwierth

Yes. Hosting viewpoints that normal people find offensive or inaccurate in order to give them a platform and then pick it apart is a good thing. Just think about all the anti-vaxxers and homeopathy nuts that get taken down on science programs.

 

Jay Imhoff

I’m very torn about this. On a personal level, i don’t think guys like Spencer on Yiannopoulos should be given public platforms. They’re not conservatives, they’re not pundits, they are hate mongers.

 

Christopher Dahlin

Frankly, no. There is a point where sunlight does not disinfect, but disseminates. Where spreading the idea is worse than arguing against it. There’s a difference between disagreement and having outright abhorrent ideas. The trick is to figure out where the line is, and who gets to set that line.

 

Jay

But if you look at the history of free speech in this country, we actually have a lot of the freedom to speak out against the government because of people like Spencer.

So I don’t think it’s a good idea, but then again, I don’t know who gets to make the call of “Oh, we can’t show that, that’s evil”

 

David Schmitz

I feel like Bell could have done more to actually confront Spencer, rather than just kind of chuckling at Spencer’s assertions and moving on to the next despicable viewpoint they agreed to cover. I also think Spencer has had his chances already, there’s really no reason to continue to give him space because he never brings anything new. If you’re interested in his ideas, look him up, it hasn’t evolved over time.

 

Jay

First Amendment case law is the story of assholes getting to say whatever they want.

 

Christopher

I think the difference is that these people are not interested in discussion.

 

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

No, it was a bad thing to do. This is the laissez faire approach to speech, the idea that we have a free and open marketplace of ideas and the best ideas rise to the top through careful evaluation by reasoning, logical people. But the market of speech, like the real markets, have many distortions. Spencer going on CNN gives him legitimacy and makes him one half of an argument. His ideas appeal to people on an emotional level, not a logical one. So you can’t defeat him with an equal debate; on the contrary, he draws strength from being legitimized and his views disseminated to more people, some of whom will be infected by the memetic virus of hate.

 

Christopher

But trying to find that line is precarious, so you err on the side of letting them, because the other way leads to greater unpleasantness.

 

David

I don’t think there is much discussion on whether it should be allowed or not, it is and it should be lest every voice be silenced. But I just don’t think there was any illumination that took place from any side here.

 

Josh

It’s worth noting that we’re not talking about speech from a legal perspective of who the government should allow to say what; we’re talking about it from a social perspective, of what kind of speech should be socially acceptable.

 

Christopher

Okay, then from that perspective it was a bad idea.

 

Josh

Few people say “free speech requires we all use the n-word” because it’s simply not socially acceptable to talk like that.

 

Sam

All speech? Again, it’s the free marketplace of ideas, like you said. If you don’t like it or agree with it, just don’t watch CNN.

 

Jay

Sure but i think our social construction of free speech has a lot to do with the culture of speech in this country, which stems from the Constitution, which stems from the law.

 

Tom

So Josh, if I follow you correctly the mechanism for keeping Spencer off of CNN is, first, CNN thinking it’s a bad idea because people will be angry, and, second, people getting angry at CNN if they go ahead and do it?

 

David

Exactly, and Bell didn’t really confront Spencer. He just let him say his thing, laugh at it a bit, then move on. Thereby just giving a platform for the viewpoint that I would have assumed he would be fired up about being prepared to take apart on a moment’s notice.

 

Josh

There’s nothing wrong with society deciding that polite society, conversations on public television forums included, does not allow for certain viewpoints, so long as that can be defended in the instance by its merits.

 

Jay

A lot of countries limit speech, in significant ways. We barely do anything, and the people prefer it that way. that’s a legal thing.

 

Christopher

Yeah, part of the problem is that this format isn’t about confrontation.

 

Josh

Well, ideally the mechanism is that CNN thinks about the impact of their television in a different way.

 

Christopher

Bell isn’t going to tell Spencer that he is bad and wrong to his face, because that’s not how these shows go.

 

Josh

They did this because Bell thought he could change more minds by talking to Spencer, and he’s wrong.

 

Tom

Ok, so, lot to unpack there. We’ve raised up the idea that Spencer speaking on TV potentially puts hateful ideas in the heads of people vulnerable to them; think Dylan Roof getting radicalized on white supremacist forums, but instead we’re talking about national TV. Sam, you came out strong for bringing Spencer on and debating him; what do you think about the hate-meme argument?

 

Sam

I think it’s pretty silly. This isn’t a situation where someone’s watching TV and then they get “infected” by white supremacist ideas. Usually this sort of thing is economic- someone who’s doing well for themselves, who has a good job and a spouse and something to look forward to in life, they don’t get involved in this sort of thing. Usually it’s the people who have “lost” in some way and then gets jealous of other races’ success- which is why the stereotypical white supremacists lives in a shack in the woods.

I also have a big problem with “society” deciding what speech to allow and what not to allow. It gives an enormous amount of power over discourse to traditional news media (television, newspapers) which are mostly owned by corporations and billionaires. It’s easy to see the benefits of censorship when it’s something awful like race hatred, but I’m very afraid of it being applied to things the billionaires wouldn’t like- for example, not allowing Socialist proponents on talk shows or publishing their editorials. Getting rid of equal time to both sides was a big mistake. Let the people decide.

 

Josh

Nobody is born racist. You hear racist ideology and you go “oh hey that makes sense to me.” Sometimes that includes outright lies about, say, crime statistics. Sometimes it’s just faulty thinking. But it really is an idea you have to be exposed to.

We don’t just have conversations with no goal in mind, particularly when it comes to people we disagree with. Free speech is a treasured value because speech generally has value. But hate speech does not have value. We should be open to extreme viewpoints because they might be correct and it’s worth considering something you haven’t thought about before you reject it outright. But there’s no two sides to Nazism and white supremacy. We had all these arguments in the public sphere 150 years ago, it’s settled. Spencer is not going to say anything of value, and he might say something that will harm somebody who’s listening by influencing them to believe in his views. So you make that socially unacceptable.

Which is not just about CNN, it’s about our conversations in the world. If somebody starts spouting Nazism you walk away, or maybe punch him in the face and walk away. You don’t have to be a billionaire to do that.

 

Christopher

The problem with airing this sort of opinion and not fighting against it is that it gives a buffer of acceptability. Heck, there’s that problem when you air it and do fight it. It sends a message that both are points to be argued, and the solution is in the middle somewhere.

And you have to fight this stuff with everything. You have to acknowledge where the damage is, and you have to disclaim it.  You have to treat it as completely unacceptable. Otherwise it will fester and grow, and people will be hurt. Because they don’t want a discussion, they want the fester and growth, until they are powerful enough to erase the argument against them. They are not interested in others having those rights.

The problem is, as Sam noted, who you get to make that call.  Who gets to say what is acceptable and what isn’t? Now, that is a difficult problem, but it needs to be addressed, not elided over.  We are talking about white supremacy, and simply ineffectually calling it out doesn’t make it go away.

 

Tom

So it looks like nobody here is wild about Richard Spencer, which is fantastic. But we’re a little torn about how to react to him. One of the arguments I’ve read in favor of engaging the Spencers of the world is that it keeps people sharp in how to talk down white supremacist rhetoric; if you never have to argue against fascism, or white supremacy, you might feel that it’s wrong on a gut level but won’t have the intellectual tools to make your case effectively. The analogy I’ve toyed around with is that a modern person encountering white supremacist rhetoric is like an immune system encountering a disease it thought eradicated; we lack antibodies against it.  

Dave, I think it was you who pointed out that Bell didn’t make a hard attack on Spencer in his interview; if he’d forcefully, and thoroughly, rebutted Spencer, would there have been value there? Or is his mere presence the problem?

 

David

Yes, I feel like if you are blessed to have a platform for someone to speak, and you invite someone that you disagree with, you had better be prepared yourself or have another guest that is prepared to present that disagreement fully. When you ask someone their opinion, receive such opinion, laugh, move on, what exactly have you accomplished? Seems to me you’ve just given them exactly what they wanted, to spew their hateful messages without recourse or combat.

 

Josh

What we’ve done as a society is basically invent a heuristic so that nobody has to specifically argue against the white supremacist Gish Gallop. If it smells like white supremacy, we know it’s bad and so we can say “no no you’re a fucking racist” instead of having to look up like, “Okay, how does the black on black crime rate compare to the black on white crime rate in Chicago 2003-2007 again? Let me boot up Lexus Nexus.” Now that process has to be justified, because we can have bad heuristics (“you’re a crazy socialist we shouldn’t listen to you, you’re a woman you have nothing to say about Star Wars”) but in this case it’s a very excellent and useful thing to have in our pocket. And it works better than a debate, especially in today’s polarized environment. Right now there are two big political sides to global warming, even though it’s fact, because we’ve allowed that debate to exist; but there are not two big political sides to whether or not the Earth is flat because when flat earthers try to talk to us we laugh at them and we don’t have them on our shows.

 

Tom

And, to be sure I’m following you, Josh, you’re pointing to a broad social consensus to enforce that sort of thing, rather than any individual actor? CNN doesn’t put Richard Spencer on TV because it knows that’s bad, and it also knows that viewers will be super mad if it does that?

 

Josh

Ideally social pressure is maintained by social pressure, yes. CNN knows that if they put Spencer on TV they will generate false equivalency and give him exposure and legitimacy to impressionable people, and they also know that if they had on a flat earther people would be angry and mock them.

It’s important to note too that this is exactly what Spencer wants is legitimacy in the public eye. That’s why he doesn’t wear an SS uniform or a white hood and why he talks in a more reasoned way–CNN wouldn’t have somebody on who said “We’ve got to get all the kikes and coons out of America so the white man can rise again” because there’s social pressure against that. Spencer is trying to sneak around the anti-racism heuristic. And CNN got fooled.

 

Christopher

I don’t know if CNN got fooled so much as they don’t care. Their paradigm is different, racist money is still money to them. Which is why you have the pressure. You make it in their interest to care.  Because Josh is exactly right. This lends legitimacy to their position, which should be anathema. We need to confront it, otherwise there’s a bit of a dithering, which is basically what white supremacists want in this day and age. If we are arguing about whether this should be allowed, we aren’t arguing with them, and we aren’t block them.

If we don’t confront it when we see it, it looks terrible. Arguing about what technically constitutes Naziism, rather than calling out Nazis for what they are, is exactly how Nazis win. It lends them legitimacy. Again, where we draw the line is a difficult problem, but avoiding it has even worse consequences

 

Tom

So far we all seem to generally agree that we don’t, ideally, WANT neo-Nazis talking on TV, and that social pressure and societal norms are one way to keep them off. But other countries have sharper speech laws; you can’t deny the Holocaust in Germany, for instance. Jay, you brought up earlier that the history of free speech in America is the history of awful people being allowed to say awful things; do you think there’s a place for government action in keeping guys like Spencer out of the public debate?

 

Jay

There’s plenty of history of limited speech working in other countries. The german government is extremely careful about Nazi rhetoric for example. They really limit what people can say or even do or sell with that kind of information. Will it work here? I dunno. My inclination is that it won’t. From a legal perspective it won’t happen, even the liberal wing of the court is not inclined to limit hate speech like Spencer’s without some other extreme factor with it.

But more practically, we really value our ability to say whatever we want here and let the “marketplace of ideas” determine what we think is worthwhile and socially acceptable. Me, i don’t want people like Spencer or Yiannopoulos or even Coulter on my tv. They are trolls at best, hate mongers at worst. But i think that is a problem we have to tackle culturally rather than legally.

Josh

Agreed. Social pressure is a very powerful tool, that I’m comfortable wielding against Nazism and white supremacy because of the dangers of those specific ideologies entering the public sphere and their lack of any redeeming value or merit. Government censorship is a much more powerful tool than that, because there’s a lot less recourse and a lot more room for a small group of people to unduly influence what can be said at all. Social pressure doesn’t stop Spencer from having a blog but the government might, so it’s not something we should unleash, particularly in an era where, say, the FCC is investigating Stephen Colbert for insulting the President and a woman got convicted for laughing at Jeff Sessions.

 

Sam

As far as government censorship goes I think that’s an even worse idea than societal censorship. Like Josh said, it’d be a bad thing under this administration (at least for leftists) but the same would go for a left-wing administration and right-wing views. Ann Coulter’s just the right-wing version of Samantha Bee. I think that if the government censors white supremacy then it’d be incredibly tempting to just ban a little more of this, and a little more of that, and all of a sudden you’re living in a society where if you’re the minority you can’t say what you like.

 

Josh

Ann Coulter isn’t the right wing version of Sam Bee because Ann Coulter is a troll, not a comedian.

 

Tom

Mentioning Ann Coulter leads us nicely into the last topic for today. There have been a fair few incidents in the last few years of controversial speakers being invited to campuses and having to cancel their speeches due to protests; the three that come to mind are Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Some of these were canceled because the university couldn’t guarantee the speaker’s safety; most if not all of them, as I understand it, were sponsored by student groups. How do these speeches fit into the construct we’re discussing? How should universities, as places of learning and ideas, decide which speakers are ok to bring to campus and which aren’t?

Christopher

We need to separate people like Coulter, who, while they say stupid outrageous things to offend people and take a check, are essentially trolling,  and Yiannopoulos, who outs people and basically encourages violence upon them, Trump rally style.  Coulter is awful, and says hurtful things. If students want to hear her speak, then they’re assholes, but I don’t think a school should necessarily categorically ban such a person from campus. Personally, I think she has no value as a speaker, but it’s not my call.

Milo specifically targets vulnerable and minority students, and campuses have an obligation to protect their students.  He can go straight to hell.  Especially since he basically wants the controversy, because it ups his visibility, especially since his twitter ban.

Essentially, safety of students comes before safety of speakers and “I don’t know what their speeches are like” is not an appropriate defense for a college. It’s a difference of speaking against a group, and actually targeting people on campus, I think.

 

Josh

Milo is also trolling, just to make that clear. He’s just doing so by saying violent things as well as controversial ones.

 

Christopher

But he is targeting specific students.

 

Josh

Yes, that’s what I mean. He’s basically inciting violence and that’s part of how he gets people riled up so he can get banned or protested and ride the hate wave all the way to the bank.

 

David

The argument that I hear sometimes that the government should withhold funding from colleges that are unable or unwilling to host controversial speakers always falls short in my mind. First, a college is under no obligation to give any speaker a platform. Second, government funding is not contingent on whether a college has scheduled, rescheduled, canceled, or outright barred certain speakers from their campus. Additionally, if that contingent were true, then for every Coulter or Yiannopoulos, the college would need to have Bill Maher or some such ginning up similar reactions. But they don’t seem to have that issue, either with providing the platform for varying views or with dealing with violence which is the reason the choice is made to not have a specific guest speaker on campus.

 

Tom

Ann Coulter actually came to my campus when I was an undergrad (Northern Michigan University class of ’09; go Wildcats!). As I remember it, she was invited by the College Republicans, and a bunch of other students organizations got together and organized a counter-presentation outside of the arena where she was speaking, as well as other programs and presentations in the weeks leading up to it. By all accounts it had some great speeches from professors and was a positive and effective response. The same thing happened when Ted Nugent came to play a concert. So there’s some real-world precedent for good, non-violent reactions to these things. It takes some coordination and forethought, but it can work.

 

Josh

When I talked before about how the free market of ideas has some distortions in it, colleges are really the place where the playing field should be more even, where the discussion should be more intellectually rigorous. It’s disappointing to me that these trolls are basically just used as pawns in this political game, rather than there being a real and honest discussion of ideas. Don’t invite people to campus just because you think it’ll make somebody else mad. Do it because you legitimately believe in their viewpoint and you’re ready to hear it critiqued and explored by meaningful opposition.

 

Sam

There’s no meaningful opposition though [to Murray]. The thing that all the protesters took away from [The Bell Curve] was “he’s a racist!” and then they stormed into the auditorium like the S.A. breaking up a Communist meeting in Wiemar Berlin. They tried to beat him! And Middlebury’s average yearly tuition is something like $64,000 a year, these weren’t poor kids who were doing this.

 

Tom

I think we’re on the same page that the protests at Middlebury that got violent weren’t the right way to respond to speakers you disagree with, and that campuses need to be physically safe places for people to engage with ideas. That’s all the time we have today; thanks for a lively conversation, everyone!

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