The Dartmouth’s Zach Traynor Is Dead Wrong on Freedom Of Speech


Venerable college newspaper The Dartmouth recently published an execrable column by Zach Traynor calling on the US to ban “offensive” kinds of speech like all other developed nations have already done. While the column was heavily criticized, it nonetheless reflects a very dangerous mindset which is extremely widespread in other countries and which is growing increasingly common in the United States as well.  The article states that the US needs to pass laws against “hate speech” because “this country is supposedly built on freedom and equality, not on the right to say whatever you want without significant consequences.”  Like all pro-censorship arguments, the article is entirely based around appeal to emotion and, like most censorship advocates, Traynor makes heavy use of Orwellian newspeak and doublethink to describe how censorship “protects freedom” and is a fundamental aspect of “democracy”.  “How does America benefit from allowing speech that many other developed and democratic countries have wisely deemed to be against their modern values?”, Traynor asks.

Zach Traynor’s argument is an argument based on the ultra-Orwellian “human rights” doctrine. The doctrine of “human rights” is based heavily on the ideology of the Soviet Union, which is the country responsible for the creation of “hate speech” laws worldwide. As opposed to natural rights – which aimed to limit the power of the government – “human rights” aims to expand the powers of the government as much as possible in order to supposedly protect extremely vague and undefinable “rights” like “dignity” and “honor” and “respect”. And one of the core aspects of the “human rights” ideology is that any idea which opposes “human rights” – whether it’s bigotry or “propaganda for war” – must be aggressively prosecuted by the government. This is because, like all other tyrannical ideologies, the “human rights” ideology sincerely believes that it is driven by a core, unique “goodness” and that this “goodness” therefore must not ever be questioned. “Human rights activists” see themselves as elite, enlightened angels tasked with protecting the savage, plebeian masses from their baser instincts.  Not only that, but dictatorships like Saudi Arabia see “human rights” as a powerful weapon that they can use to influence other countries to, for example, institute blasphemy laws. I would go as far as to say that “human rights” is the single biggest threat to democracy and liberty that we currently face.

In places like Europe and the Commonwealth, “hate speech” laws are some of the most cherished “human rights protections” in existence, and nobody would ever propose getting rid of them (even proposing to slightly weaken them would provoke massive backlash). In a column for The Guardian decrying “censorship”, Dorian Lynskey states the following: “Freedom of expression always has exceptions, for example legally proscribed hate speech, but allow too many and it suffers death by a thousand cuts. While many ideas are offensive, only a few should be deemed so unacceptable that they can’t be heard.” In Europe, this is absolutely as anti-censorship as you can possibly get. Indeed, the people in the comments felt that Lynskey was going way too far in his defense of free speech. This is because, in Europe, most people believe that any opinion that they don’t like should be outlawed, while the “hardcore free speech absolutists” believe that only “dangerous” and/or “offensive” speech – like “hate speech” – should be outlawed. European politicians and “free speech activists” will very regularly speak about the importance of freedom of speech and the evils of censorship – and, the next minute, they will speak about the importance of ensuring that the government aggressively prosecutes “hate speech” and other speech which allegedly poses a threat to “freedom” and “democracy”. They genuinely do not consider banning “hate speech” to be a form of censorship at all. To a typical European, the idea that freedom of speech protects “hate speech” is downright absurd. Ask just about any European – or just about anyone outside of the US, for that matter – and they will tell you with the utmost certainty that “hate speech is not free speech”.

But there is absolutely no objective criteria for determining what constitutes “hate speech”. It is entirely dependent on mob rule. And anyone who has taken even a casual look at history knows that the opinion of the majority is not always right – in fact, it is frequently dead wrong. Right now, most people believe that racism is “dangerous”. But there was a time not so long ago when most people believed that speaking out against racism was “dangerous” and posed a threat to society. If not for the robust protections afforded by the First Amendment, the US government could have very easily banned Martin Luther King, Jr. from speaking on the grounds that his speech was “hateful” and “dangerous” and “inciting violence”. It is precisely because we have such strong freedom of speech that people like anti-racist activists, feminists, and gay rights activists were able to speak out openly when so many people (the majority of people, in fact) wanted them to be silenced. There was also a time when most people – particularly those in power – believed that speech which opposed slavery was hateful and dangerous and needed to be censored.

And, when you pass laws against “hate speech”, that’s who you’re giving the censorship power to: those in power. The argument is often made that freedom of speech is something which only serves “old, rich white men”, who “already have too much power”. Laws against “hate speech” are necessary, they will say, to protect “vulnerable minorities” in a society where they are “marginalized”. But who actually gets to wield the power of the law? The people in power – the very same people that people like Traynor claim are oppressing minorities. Those laws against “hate speech” will not be wielded by “vulnerable minorities”. They will be wielded by the very same “old, rich white men” who you claim are oppressing minorities. It requires an immense amount of blind, naive trust in the government to give them the power to legally regulate thoughts and ideas. Genocide is often used as an argument for outlawing “hate speech”, but who actually commits genocides? The government does. The government has been the number one oppressor of minorities throughout all of history, yet you trust the government to regulate speech in order to allegedly “protect minorities?”

By giving more censorship power to the government, you are effectively giving them more power to oppress minorities with. The government is the one that will decide what constitutes “hate speech”, and that power will inevitably be used to silence voices that the government deems to be a threat (like those aforementioned minority voices that you claim are already “marginalized”). Just ask the pro-Palestinian activists that Israel regularly censors with “hate speech” and “incitement” laws. Ask the people all over the world who are prevented from criticizing their governments by laws against “incitement”.  Even laws against things as simple as “genocide ideology” have been used to silence criticism of the government. The same thing applies to US colleges, where campus speech codes have been used to shut down, for example, anti-NSA speech. People who argue for censorship always manage to convince themselves that the censorship powers that they want will only be used against things that they want to be censored, but that is simply never how censorship actually works.  “Human rights activists” will regularly campaign to have far-right political demonstrations banned, then they will be absolutely outraged when the government uses its banning powers to ban an LGBT pride parade or something else that they approve of.  They simply cannot grasp the fact, when you give the government the power to ban any speech, that power will always be used against speech that you approve of at some point.

Zach Traynor’s article is very European in another way: “hate speech”, he says, should be banned because it is “not acceptable”. This is a very European way of thinking. Europeans – generally speaking – genuinely cannot fathom how a person can disapprove of something without wanting it to be outlawed. In Europe, if you support someone’s right to say something, then you automatically agree with what they’re saying. For example, I recently saw Europeans online who were absolutely baffled by how Obama supports gay rights, but doesn’t imprison anti-gay preachers. The European mind simply cannot process the idea that someone could defend freedom of speech for people that they profoundly disagree with. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Europe. It’s beyond their comprehension. Every single gay activist and gay interest group in Europe (and outside of the US in general) vehemently supports imprisoning people for homophobic speech. Every politician and activist in Europe firmly believes that speech that they consider “not acceptable” should be outlawed.

But, ultimately, what is “not acceptable” is entirely subjective. As I have already stated, there was a time not so long ago when advocating for gay rights was considered to be “not acceptable” by the overwhelming majority of people. What drives people to advocate for censorship laws like these is the foolish belief that attitudes will never change and that the majority opinion will always be on their side. That is simply not the case and never has been. In the Weimar Republic, homosexuality and transsexuality were widely accepted. Then the Nazis came to power and all that radically changed in an instant. In Europe today, the same thing is happening again. If the government gets to outlaw ideas that the majority deems to be “not acceptable”, then what’s to stop the government from outlawing pro-gay speech when the majority of people decide that being gay is “not acceptable”? That’s exactly what Russia and other countries are doing right now, after all.  If freedom of speech only protects popular speech, then it is not free speech at all.  Freedom of speech is intended to protect the most unpopular and irresponsible forms of speech – the only kinds of speech that people would actually want to be censored.

Another one of the most widely-used arguments for censoring speech is that certain speech is likely to “incite violence”. In America, “inciting violence” – from a legal standpoint – is an immediate, direct, and imminent thing, such as handing someone a gun and saying “SHOOT!”. In Europe and the rest of the world, however, “inciting violence” refers to any speech which could possibly lead someone to believe that the use of force could ever be justified. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “a riot is the language of the unheard” could easily be prosecuted in Europe for “inciting violence”, and Denis Diderot’s statement that “man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” could very well be prosecuted for “inciting murder”. In Europe, saying things like “Hitler was right” and “Hitler did nothing wrong” would not only be considered “incitement to hatred”, but also “incitement to violence”.  Once again, what is likely to “incite violence” is entirely subjective and it’s something that the government determines. When the Qatari government sentenced a poet to life imprisonment, it was because they believed that his poem was “inciting violence” by glorifying revolutions against governments. Had the very same poet written a poem glorifying anti-Israel jihadists or people who butcher gays, however, he certainly wouldn’t have been prosecuted – because the government of Qatar decides what kind of “incitement” should be legally punishable, and it’s entirely subjective.

Likewise, if a pastor saying that gays should be executed can be prosecuted for “inciting murder” – as so many Europeans said that he should be – then what about all of the people saying that homophobes should be executed? Couldn’t those people also be prosecuted for “inciting murder”? The only real difference is which particular group of people you’re saying should be executed – in other words, it’s a mere difference of opinion.  When you give that kind of censorship power to the government, don’t be the least bit surprised when you find it being used against you.  Even prohibitions on speech which advocates breaking the law can be easily abused – for example, such laws could very well be used to shut down pro-marijuana advocacy and they could certainly be used to shut down much of the discussion regarding recent riots in Ferguson and Berkeley as “inciting violence.”

The idea behind “incitement” is an idea with its roots in collectivism. Essentially, it is saying that people are not responsible for their own actions since everyone is a collective and personal responsibility does not exist. The idea is nothing new. During the Victorian era, music was often censored because many believed that it would “incite violence”, just as modern-day “human rights activists” try to get reggae music banned for “inciting violence” against gays and modern-day feminists try to get songs like “Blurred Lines” banned for “inciting rape”. Throughout history, any opinion that was deemed to be a threat to state power has been prosecuted out of fear that it would “incite” the masses against government authority. If speech can “incite” someone to commit murder – necessitating the need for certain speech to be outlawed – then couldn’t it just as easily be argued that a woman wearing provocative clothing can “incite” someone to rape, therefore meaning that provocative clothing should be outlawed? This is essentially the exact same logic that people who argue for censorship are using. True freedom of speech is not subject to analysis of outcomes and all censorship campaigns are based on fear-mongering about the supposedly adverse consequences that certain speech could have if not censored.

Censorship of speech always starts with the most offensive and outrageous speech. Pro-censorship advocates will point to this speech and ask, “how could anyone possibly defend this?” They’ll use the most disgusting and repulsive speech as an excuse to institute censorship since nobody would ever want to defend that speech – and, if someone did defend that speech, then that person would be equated with whatever the disgusting speech was. This slimy, underhanded tactic must be called out wherever it occurs. First off, the most offensive and outrageous speech is the speech that would never actually appeal to any sensible person and, in actuality, would only make the speaker (and their ideas) look bad. Second, the most offensive and outrageous speech is the speech that needs the most protection, since nobody wants to outlaw popular and “acceptable” speech. And third, when the government starts to regulate any kind of speech, it never stops there. The censorship always continues to expand and expand – and that censorship will eventually find its way to you.

Zach Traynor’s article – like a similar moronic article from clickbait cesspool Cracked (perfectly debunked by Greg Lukianoff here) – brings up the case of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul to fraudulently claim that burning a cross in someone’s yard is protected by the First Amendment. This is not the case at all. The case of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul involved a particular law that was used to indict a cross-burner – this particular law was ruled to be unconstitutional, but there are other laws which can be used to stop cross-burnings on people’s lawns. Traynor’s article also brings up the Westboro Baptist Church, which is often used as an example by pro-censorship advocates as to why the First Amendment supposedly goes too far. But, if anything, the Westboro Baptist Church is an argument against censorship. By making homophobes look completely insane and unreasonable, the Westboro Baptist Church has actually done more to advance the cause of gay rights and to unite people against homophobia than anyone else. The more offensive and outrageous a bigot is, the less chance that anyone will take them seriously and the more damage they do to the cause of bigotry.  By passing laws against “hate speech”, you are effectively forcing bigots to make themselves appear reasonable, which can only work in the bigots’ favor.  In addition, you are sweeping bigotry under the rug, which allows people to simply pretend that it doesn’t exist rather than being forced to confront it and deal with it head-on.

H.L. Mencken once said: “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.” Jihadists, neo-Nazis, and other scoundrels provide a powerful boogeyman that the government can use as an excuse to regulate speech. The people who defend freedom of speech – even for scoundrels – will inevitably be maligned and vilified as supporting whoever they are defending. But, in actuality, those people are the only ones with true principles. I’ll use another quote here, this one from Thomas Paine: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” When the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through a town filled with Holocaust survivors, they used the same arguments that they had used when they defended the civil rights marchers of the 1960s – and the people trying to censor the neo-Nazis also used the same arguments that the people trying to censor the civil rights marchers had used. If neo-Nazis can be censored by the government, then so can anti-racism activists. This is why a true defender of freedom of speech has to defend freedom of speech for everyone, including for the most vile and disgusting and despicable individuals.

Ultimately, this is a lesson that people like Zach Traynor will never be able to understand. People who advocate for censorship laws are not capable of responding to logical arguments – emotion is the only thing that they understand. They think to themselves, “bigotry is bad, so we need to ban bigotry”. They sincerely believe that if you ban something then that thing will magically cease to exist.  They don’t even consider the numerous unintended consequences and ramifications that result from allowing the government to regulate ideas and opinions. They don’t consider the fact that, when you give the government the power to censor speech, that power will inevitably be abused.  The European mindset held by people like Zach Traynor has now found its way to Japan, with “human rights activists” like Yoshifu Arita even describing insulting speech about politicians as “hate speech” and politicians who campaigned for “hate speech” laws in Japan now wanting to use those laws to stop people from protesting against the government. It is sadly inevitable that, sooner or later, the European mindset will come to the US as well. We already see a wide range of opinions being labeled “hate speech” in the US, from right-wing talk radio to abstinence campaigners.

“Hate speech” is an extremely Orwellian term used to shut down all debate, and it can easily be applied to almost anything. Canada, Australia, and Sweden are among the countries which have ruled that even completely true and factual statements can be outlawed as “hate speech” if they are likely to stir up “hatred” and/or offend certain groups. Other countries sincerely believe that government regulation of “offensive” or “insulting” speech is crucial to protect “rights” and “freedoms”. They genuinely believe that outlawing certain political parties, organizations, and ideologies is essential in order to protect “civil and political rights” along with “democracy”.  This is because, in the culture of “human rights”, rights are privileges granted from the government and can only be exercised in a manner that the government deems to be in line with its own goals. And this is the culture that people like Zach Traynor want to bring to the US.

Well, personally, I’m not going to allow people like Zach Traynor to prevail in America. So long as I am alive, I will continue to fight against the wretched tyranny of “human rights”and government censorship. By itself, the First Amendment means nothing. For example, China’s constitution has a similar passage: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Almost every single country in the world supposedly guarantees “freedom of speech”, but the United States is the only country that actually takes it seriously. The First Amendment has only grown so strong due to repeated tests and court precedents. We must not allow pressure from the international community, from the “human rights” lobby, and from “academics” like Zach Traynor to change that.  Unfettered freedom of speech is a uniquely American value that crosses political lines, and it absolutely must stay that way.  Nothing that anyone could possibly say could ever be worse than a law preventing them from saying it, and allowing the government to regulate speech is infinitely more dangerous than any speech could ever possibly be.

featured image – Ari Moore

This post originally appeared at MoonMetropolis.