What Good is the First Amendment if it Protects White Supremacists?
Contrary to popular belief, not every opinion or belief should be respected nor protected.
America was founded on great principles such as freedom of speech, representative government, and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For those of us who aren’t white, male, or in the 38% tax bracket, I’m sure these things will trickle down to us eventually. I mean, if literal neo-Nazis are being given platforms on mainstream news outlets and on popular social media sites, who’s to say the marginalized aren’t next?
Sarcasm aside, America has had a borderline unhealthy obsession with “freedom of speech” for decades now, which is perfectly understandable. Freedom of speech is the hallmark of any functioning democracy. It is the mortar that holds our great union together, the inalienable right that serves as a first line of defense against government over-encroachment and authoritarian tendencies, both in the public and private sphere. Its promotion and protection allows for arguments to synthesize and for cooler heads to prevail, allowing for battles to be fought with the pen rather than the sword.
One of the biggest issues, however, is that people have consistently placed the principle of freedom of speech over the practicalities of freedom of speech. Conservatives, who are often the greatest champions of the First Amendment, see any sort of effort to limit what a person can say and express in the public forum as the first step in establishing an authoritarian government. Liberals, in their obsessive quest to treat everyone and everything “equally,” don’t realize that their hardline egalitarianism helps to legitimize fringe ideologies through false equivalency—opinions are not equal to facts and beliefs that advocate for violence on cultural/socioeconomic grounds are not valid intellectual arguments. However, the idea of the government deciding what is the ultimate arbiter of what a “good” idea is and what a “bad” idea is remains a bitter point of contention for both sides of the aisle.
The argument is more philosophical than anything; why should the government be allowed to judge what is good to say or think? Shouldn’t the general population and the court of public opinion be left to deliver the verdict?
The Founding Fathers didn’t seem to think so, at least when it came to framing the representative democracy we all love to complain about today. Their biggest concern was “mobocracy” and a “tyranny of the majority,” which more or less entailed a minority of the population’s rights and concerns being steamrolled by the majority. James Madison explicitly mentioned these concerns in Federalist 10. Alexander Hamilton expressed his concerns to Thomas Jefferson of a demagogue seizing power through mobocracy. So, in the crudest terms possible, the Founding Fathers, at best, didn’t trust the general public to always vote in their own best interests, and at worst, thought they were idiots that needed to be protected from their own stupidity.
So why aren’t these same principles being applied to freedom of speech? It’s clear to see that there are ideas out there that are objectively bad, like trying to pick a fight with someone twice your size or trying to convince your SO to “start hitting the gym” in the presence of company. Why are we still acting like the idea of increased border security deserves the same attention and analysis as expelling all Latinx populations? Why do we insist on looking at feminism with the same level of skepticism as we do the incel movement?
Free speech in America is consistently seen as a hallmark that needs to be defended at all costs, as it truly is the stalwart defender of all things democratic and good. Free speech is supposed to foster difficult conversations and the potential answers these discussions bring up. Free speech is supposed to serve as a check and balance against government tyranny and corporate corruption. Free speech is supposed to give each and every citizen a voice, and therefore an opportunity, to engage in the public forum and influence policy, all the way from Washington, D.C., to Washington, Georgia.
But what are you supposed to do when these justifications have been perverted to protect Neo-Nazis and white supremacists?
Historically speaking, the US has always protected hate speech under the First Amendment. Across the span of a dozen administrations a number of courts, and Supreme Court has been reluctant to classify hate speech as unconstitutional, instead choosing to explicitly outline that speech that serves to incite violence was not protected speech, among other forms of related speech. This “incitement test” was later overruled by the “clear and present danger” test. Everything that falls outside of this scope, however, is fair game. Want to say that Jews aren’t people? Go ahead. Think that all Muslims are terrorists? Shout away. Wanna share that you think women are scum and shouldn’t be equal to men? Hit SEND on that blog post buddy, you’re good!
So what exactly is the problem with fighting fascism by to thrive and not pushing governmental oversight on ideologies that are inherently violent and bigoted? Why can’t these ideas be engaged in the marketplace of ideas, where everyone can see how shitty they are and come to their own conclusions?
The problem, dear reader, is that, aside from the Founding Fathers’ (relatively correct) assumption that general population is full of dumbasses, these ideologies are really fucking good at radicalizing people. Does this mean that the government should receiving sweeping oversight to declare what is hateful and what isn’t? Not necessarily. But I think it’s safe to say that people who pride themselves on practicing the politics of a movement that threw Europe into one of the most destructive wars in human history—not to mention murdering countless innocents based on flawed eugenics and good ‘ole-fashioned racism—shouldn’t deserve an opportunity to espouse their beliefs.
Or have rights. But apparently arguing Nazis don’t deserve rights is somehow a point of contention in the year 2019.
All extremist ideology is predicated on victimhood and a call to return to golden ages that never existed. They prey on the insecurities of their members and potential converts, weaponizing existential anxiety into expressions of hatred and violence. They romanticize toxic behaviors and beliefs by attempting to take the moral high ground, or more often than not, by demonizing critics and their sources of anxiety. In a sort of poetic way, these ideologies take the things that scare their supporters (being “replaced,” being outsourced, losing their social status and inherent privileges that came with it, maybe even social change itself) and use them as a call to arms: fear and anxiety are replaced by grim determination to protect the status quo, their driving motivation being the very same things that once kept them up at night.
These beliefs can seduce anyone, from the stereotypical internet recluse to the upstanding kindergarten teacher, by offering them a sense of community and belonging. People aren’t radicalized overnight. It takes months and years of desensitization to these beliefs, during which people will most likely have built significant relationships with strangers they’ve met on the internet. How can you tell that you’re a massive bigot when everyone you hang out with also ends up being a massive bigot? The members of these cultures and subcultures enable one one another; people are never called out for being shitty people because that’s what everyone else believes. Accountability can’t take place when no one sees what they’re doing as wrong. No one new wants to speak up and “ruin the joke” and risk being ostracized.
4chan and 8chan have been the poster children of internet radicalization for over a decade now; any time spent in /pol/ or /b/ will explain why. These sites have been at the crux of internet spawned controversy for years now, whether it be from a relatively harmless troll campaign about the latest iOS update to more insidious deigns on how to discredit the LGBTQ+ movement. Aside from “edgy satire” designed to thinly veil outright racism and transphobia, 4chan and similar sites from the fedora tipping part of the internet are mostly harmless.
Until they aren’t.
An incel butchered 6 people and injured 14 others before finally killing himself on May 23rd, 2014. He left behind a 137 page manifesto that has received widespread praise throughout the incel community.
Shit, you don’t even need me to tell you where this is going. Google will.
So where are we supposed to go next? Are private companies supposed to step up and hold their community members accountable if the government refuses to step in? How are governments and companies alike supposed to enforce these regulations on free speech if the communities they’re targeting don’t even live in their country? What code of law should be applied, if any? The company’s terms of service? The host country’s laws on hate speech?
These questions demand difficult answers, but all of them require a clear line to be drawn between hate speech and other forms of speech. Whatever the answers may be, at least one thing is clear:
It is both impossible and unnecessary to engage with beliefs and ideologies that are predicated on genocide and racial superiority in the marketplace of ideas. The same “respect” and “civility” you have reserved for these people and their ideas will not be reserved for you, unless you look like or think like them.