Wednesday, August 16, 2006

All Things Are In Flux:

Changing Realities Bring Unavoidable Disagreement Among Friends

I knew re-posting the piece about protecting children against the predations of adults who hide behind the language of rights would be controversial and I’m glad it is. It is good that leftists’ attention is aroused because speech rights are always under attack. I am glad to see that my statement about being willing to give up D.H. Lawrence’s book didn’t go unchallenged. Even if I suspect it was not entirely understood. Maybe I could have been clearer. But this presents more than an occasion to argue the traditional position of free speech absolutism.

Our usual thinking about the speech issue is mostly a reaction to attacks by conservatives on free speech. But the actions of conservatives shouldn’t determine or limit our thinking and actions. We are fully able to look at the situation in ways that are more than just a reaction to them.

We are so used to thinking about freedom of speech in terms of absolute defense and slippery slopes that an attempt at a nuanced discussion can easily be misunderstood. The issues are more complex than one person can even define. But it is because the issue is so complex, the conflicts of different rights so frequent and serious that the discussion can’t be avoided. The political right will not stop in their attempts to destroy personal freedom while using the language of rights to give more privileges to the powerful. I’d rather have us come up with decisions on free speech than them. At least our mistakes will be made out of good will.
Let me tell you that I not only value freedom of speech but am so jealous of it I think it should be restored as a People only right. To extend it to corporate entities has greatly endangered it. Our courts were not only stupid to have done so but I belive that some of the judges have intentionally used this “extension of liberty” to curtail the rights of real people. If the free speech rights of people have to contend with the rights of corporate entities, many of them with enormous financial resources, the rights of real people are diminished.

Short of impinging on the rights of other people the right of free speech is absolute and equal. No one individual person has more than anyone else. Equality of any right is at least as important as its being absolute. The Supreme Court has financially conditioned freedom of speech with the support of much of the professional civil liberties lobby. I don’t accept that corporations have equal rights of speech, I don’t believe that someone with more money has more of a right than someone with no money.

But even given that, I have to point out that free speech is not the only right, in some contexts it isn’t even the most important right.
Rights don’t exist outside of people. Every person is born with intrinsic rights. I think it was the philosopher Paul Weiss who once defined a person as a “locus of rights”, a politically interesting way to say it but not nearly adequate. Rights exist for people not the other way around. Rights don’t exist in the absence of people. Rights aren’t abstract they aren’t merely an expression, they are the actions and protections essential for the individual to live a free and full life. Rights are an exertion of needs even more than they are an expression of desires. I will say in passing that I believe animals have rights too.

People don’t live in solitude, they live in societies and communities and their lives impinge on the lives of others. The interactions between people involve conflicts of the rights that those people have. A person, if they are at all decent, will consider the rights of other people. Decent people don’t unnecessarily deprive other people of their rights. There are rights based in need and rights based on desire, there isn’t a bright line separating the two but I feel confident that distinction is an important one. People have a right to insist that their needs are met, they don’t have a right to insist that their non-vital desires over-ride other peoples’ needs.

Realizing that it’s just another rough metaphor, what is called the slippery slope is real. We live on it and there is no way to gain an absolutely secure foothold. People are entirely right to question my assertions because in bringing up the limits of freedom of speech I am bringing up dangerous stuff. But our lives are dangerous, the dangers to our rights and freedoms are just one of the areas of life needing constant attention and adjustment. We can’t avoid it. If we turn any part of our thinking about rights into an automatic response we are in danger of not seeing and taking into account changing conditions and newly discovered aspects of the situation. If we don’t hold our actions against real life we will find it is impossible to retain our rights. To ignore that there are limits that have and will be imposed while insisting on an absolutism that has never existed is unrealistic.

To confuse a discussion of the inevitable clash of rights, needs, and desires with the dangers intentionally posed to them by the enemies of freedom is too common on the left. But, again, we can’t avoid the clashes, they happen as a result of humans coming into contact with each other and those clashes will have to be resolved. They have and will result in modifications of the exercise of rights, the courts have done so in the past and they’re not about to stop now. Quite plainly I would rather have us making the necessary distinctions and drawing the conclusions than the Republicans. I trust us to at least make mistakes out of good will, I know they will use the language of rights as a tool to destroy them and enslave people. There is no better proof than hearing Bush use the word “democracy”.

I am just about as confident as I can be, based on the history of the past thirty or so years, that to pretend that free speech is always the most important right and that it isn’t conditioned by different situations is unrealistic and dangerous. The power free speech absolutism gives to corporations and the wealthy under prevailing conditions is the greatest danger we face today. I don’t accept for a second that corporations or individuals who violate the rights of people - most brutally those of people without power - have a free speech right that is more important than the lives and rights of their victims.

I absolutely reject the idea, stated or tacitly accepted, that the vital rights of children, workers in sweat shops, third world women, or of many other groups and individuals are not more important than the right of a large corporation or freelance pimps to lie about their activities. I am at a loss to understand how anyone cannot see that is the case. Children, other people who are powerless aren’t just sliding down a slope, they’re being thrown off a cliff.

NOTE: When using the word’s people, person, individual and their plurals, I like any other honest person am referring to a living member of the species H sapiens. Anyone who can mistake the results of a contract as a “person” shouldn’t be allowed to carry money, nevermind writing the law of the land.

Well, shoot, sir. I'm beginning to think we were separated at birth ... or something. I just kept nodding my head and breathing soto voce right-ons.

Then I went and read the comments at Echidne's . . . and. well. um. Looks like I should have thought about it some more. On a broader scale, so to speak.

Well, you did say, repeatedly, how much you value free speech and one only needs read a few posts here to know where you're coming from.

I sure as f*** don't have any answers but I couldn't agree more about toxic consumerism ... been rattling on about that for years myself.

BG, it is complicated and it won't be easy to both protect free speech and prevent its use to deprive other people of their rights.

In discussions on the internet it is always the "child porn" issue, used as a ruse by the right to attack all speech issues, that is the focus. It is true that the issue is a stalking horse of fascism, but it is also true that there are children being exploited and destroyed in pornography and prostitution. I believe that the first piece was written after hearing a corporate spokesperson covering up the enslavement of children in sweat shops, however.

I don't see any reason that people who expolit children for prostitution and in other ways can't be shut down and the free speech of people who don't use speech to destroy others for their own profit even more fully protected than it is now. Most speech doesn't impinge on the rights or other people, though it might their feelings (and I'm not exactly free from that charge myself).
A lot of the speech that gets drowned out of our media, the most effective speech, is speech that promotes and enhances freedom and the common good. Girls Gone Wild is advertised about a million times more often than you will hear an actual leftist defending the truth about Iraq on cable, for example.

It is the rigid absolutism of people like Nat Hentoff that I think is damaging to rights. That kind of absolutism divorced by the reality it creates both discredits civil liberties while ignoring some of the worst abuses of other peoples' rights. It might be second only to those legal rulings making corporations "persons" in endangering the freedoms of actual people.

I'm not under any illusion that I've got answers to the many questions on this issue. I guess my primary motivation in the several pieces was to promote discussion that wasn't just a restatement of the pat positions we almost always hear on the issue. We need to exercise more freedom of speech and thought on these issues too.
That should read, ....divorced from the reality it...
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