Monday, April 25, 2011
Freedom of Speech On the Run
Freedom of speech is governed by legal restrictions and public mores. And what most of us have discovered is that a multicultural society means more 'mores' and more people to offend. That has taken us from one general set of social speech codes that governed such things as obscenity and public abuse, to a thousand fiefdoms of speech in which every group strives to impose its own speech codes in public forums. The Constitution still protects some forms of political speech for now, but it is a weak and fitful defense in a society where it is not the content of speech that matters, but who is offended by it. In Postmodern America, censorship has become one form of political clout. The ability to suppress a word, is bona fide power. Municipalities, corporations and public figures are constantly pressured to neuter their vocabulary. The groups that do the pressuring count coup for each successful act of linguistic castration. This battlefield of the dictionary leads to a colonization of grammar. The group that can force a word substitution claims credit for controlling how people think. And there is a certain amount of truth to that, but not a great deal of it. Neutering language only spreads euphemisms. The more we try to stamp out a meaning, the more it slithers into new words, subverting the meanings of even words specifically constructed to be inoffensive.
The Bill of Rights tried to protect freedom of speech from the government, and accordingly today it is the government that directly threatens freedom of speech the least. Indirectly is another matter. The government cannot clap you in irons for saying the wrong thing, unless you're standing in an airport, but it can mandate that companies fire you for saying the wrong thing, or be held accountable for failing to do so. Such indirectly direct censorship is repressive, but not actionable. When government controls the business environment, it also controls the speech of the workers.
In such an environment, the less you say, the safer you are. When you need to speak, it's best to use meaningless words. Corporate language has already achieved a high water mark of emptiness with pages and pages that mean nothing. And that language is spreading to the general public, as students learn from a young age to use the appropriate words to express the hollow phrases that are mandatory in a politically correct society. The formal pieties of political correctness lead to hollow sloganeering, an elite that knows the right answer for every question, but doesn't understand the question itself.
We have not become more tolerant, but we have become more cautious. The more the taboos are broken in private, the more they are hypocritically upheld in public. Popular culture upholds liberal taboos and then violently lashes out at those same protected groups anyway. Repression breeds hypocrisy. The more empty public speech becomes, the more authentic taboo breaking speech comes to seem. Liberal artists walk a curious line between conformity and abuse, trading in the forbidden bigotries, while agitating against them. The best productions do both at once, displaying the garish spectacle of bigotry in order to formally condemn it, much as epics depicted lavish displays of prurient sin as cautionary examples, All in the Family and South Park are obvious examples. The bigotry is always more glaring and more colorful than its pious denunciation.
It is not mere multiculturalism that is to blame, but the dissolution of any single moral code, putting the ball in the hands of countless political and religious factions, all intent on imposing their own form of control. Some merely want to control the portrayal of their own people. Others aim for grander things. Government imposes sanctions on behalf of some groups, but not others. The clash of priorities between different groups can only be resolved by valuing one identity over another, sexual freedom over religious freedom, or racial privilege over gender equality. In such a clash one group must be degraded and the other elevated. The false victims distinguished from the true victims. And which are the true and which are the false is not only a matter of perspective, but of a political value system.
The marketplace of ideas that some talk of has never really evolved into any debates anything worth mentioning. Instead there are dividing lines, mutual exchanges of slogans, preaching to the choir, and actions ranging from boycotts and harassment to state and federal intervention. There can be no final resolution to any of it because almost everyone supports some form of censorship and some form of free speech. What varies are what they want censored and what they want free. And the means they will use to do it.
The true impact of multiculturalism is the addition of insecurity to the mix. As identity has come to equal rights, the affirmation of group identity has come to be equated with maintaining identity rights. As every identity group scrambles for position in a country losing its own identity, insecurity becomes the underlying theme of identity. And everyone is afraid of losing theirs. Controlling language, media depictions of the group, permitted language, slur suppression and all the rest are forms of group insecurity. And the leader class that feeds those insecurities shows its political clout through repression.
The grass is always greener on the other side. So is the privilege. Most of the outraged groups are too busy imagining how good the other half has it, to consider how good they have it. The common theme of identity insecurity is "You Just Don't Understand", it's the cry of everyone who feels put upon looking for an ombudsman. And the government willingly plays ombudsman, or licenses those who do. The chorus is, "It's Only Your Sense of Privilege That Prevents You From Seeing How Much Better Off You Are Than Me". But who is better off? Everyone is if you're dissatisfied enough to think so.
In a society where everyone is angry, those who complain the loudest get heard. The battle of grievances is won by the enforcement of a new set of mores. From now on thou shalt not offend the outraged. Parse such logic and banning Koran burning makes sense. What are race riots compared to using planes as guided missiles. When there is no speech code, but those created by the escalation of grievances, the team willing to kill thousands to express their anger wins by default.
A multicultural society strives to be inoffensive, and winds up offending and censoring most everyone anyway. Even inoffensiveness can be offensive when it leaves a vacuum of meaning. And it becomes easy enough to read the most offensive meanings into that vacuum. "What did you say?" "I know what you said, but what did you really mean?" Such very human misunderstandings become elevated to matters of public policy when the dividing line between the personal and the political fractures across identity lines. There is no "We" anymore, only mutually resentful identity groups who don't trust anyone to say what they mean. They know the bigotry is still there, which it is, only now more so.
We live in a time with more free speech and less censorship than ever, and with less free speech and more censorship than ever. Much of the censorship has been outsourced, embedded in corporate and academic groupthink and in the budding minds of the youth, for whom the political taboos and their violation have become second nature. The government spends less time censoring individual speech and more time censuring institutions. It is less concerned with what you say, and more concerned with what the company you work for, the school you attend or the group you are part of permits you to say. It is a fine and finely ugly distinction. Oceania outsourced. 1984 subcontracted to the highest bidder.
So much censorship is required, because we no longer know who we are, and the authorities are no longer sure who we are either. Mutual resentments lead to divide and conquer governments. Cries of "What Have You Done For Me Lately" are answered with new restrictions. Societies are melting down into puddles of bureaucracy, their only identity expressed through charts and regulations. The insecure grasp for power. "This nation belongs to us", they cry, because they do not know whom it belongs to. Only that they feel it does not belong to them. And freedom of speech goes on the run from them as the frightened sew their lips shut and call it tolerance. The outraged raise their megaphones high and cry for justice, when what they really mean is revenge. And the silenced wait for it all to end.