Social norms are part of free speech

This is going to be a bit different from my normal posts, but it’s been bothering me, and I want to write about it, and, you know, it’s my blog, so there.  Trigger warnings for a bunch of discussions about white supremacy groups, particularly the Nazi and the Klan.  Also just a general warning that I’m going to try to convince liberals and moderates that they shouldn’t defend these groups’ right to free speech.

Controversial, I know.  Stick with me, though.

I feel like one of the major divisions that has emerged in the last couple of years has emerged because we’ve sort of forgotten that social norms exist.  This comes across most often in how we talk about information – on the one hand, you have people saying that everyone is too sensitive and takes everything personally, and on the other side, you have people saying that everyone is getting taken in by misinformation and are choosing to believe opinions instead of facts.  However, I think that within these concerns, the thing both side are trying to reach for is the very large grey area that lies between opinion and fact, and that’s social norms.  They’re not just opinions because you have perform them socially and publicly, but they’re also not set in stone or naturally occurring like facts, and they by necessity need to change over time.

Social norms often get a bad rap, and with good reason, as they’ve routinely been used to maintain discriminatory standards – social norms are the reason people expect women to provide the majority of emotional labor in relationships and be ‘naturally better’ at caring for children, why people think African Americans and Southerns sound stupid when they speak with their normal, regional accent and dialect, and why white people generally don’t notice when the majority of characters in a movie or TV show are white.  However, social norms aren’t naturally discriminatory, and they are absolutely necessary for forming social structures – in sociological terms, they allows us as humans to identify ‘our tribe,’ the community we want to belong to, and to communicate back to that community that we want to belong to it.  Without them, we struggle to understand and express our own identity, something a lot of people struggle with now.

So why are social norm part of free speech?  Well, let’s start with a thought exercise.  Let’s pretend I just founded a club called the “people who like to punch Steve” club.  I go to the city and ask for a permit to have a rally for my new club.  They’re probably going to ask me a lot of questions, like – is this club about punching people?  Is there a risk of violence at your rally?  What do you have against people named Steve?  And I could tell them that no, there’s no risk of violence because my club isn’t for people who are going to actually punch people – we’re just a collection of people who like the idea of punching people named Steve, and we’re exercising our freedom of speech and assembly to get together and celebrate that idea.

Now, let’s say the city gives me the permit, and we have our rally, and later that day, some guy name Steve gets punched.  Our group gets blamed, and it turns out the perpetrator was a member, but I defend us, saying that, again, our group doesn’t advocate actually punching people.  And of course the perpetrator was going to be a member because our group is made up of people who like punching people named Steve, but that doesn’t make the group responsible.  You shouldn’t limit the rights of all of us to celebrate our love of punching people named Steve just because one guy took it too far.

Should the “people who like to punch Steve” club to banned?  The answer is yes.

Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are massively important to the function of our democracy, but they only work if they have limits.  Otherwise, it’s pandemonium.  One of those limits is incitement (nicely summed up by this comic).  It’s the reason you can’t claim freedom of speech to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.  Weirdly enough, despite Americans reticence to limit the far right’s freedom, we’re more than happy to limit leftist speech under the principle of incitement.  In the 1940s and 50s, at the same time that the American Nazi Party was gaining traction in the US (despite us having just fought a war against them), people routinely lost their jobs, were forced out of government positions, lost military commissions, were forced out of elected office, or (somewhat weirdly) were banned from making or starring in movies because they were found to be, or even just suspected of being Communists or Socialists.  In theory, this blacklisting was due to the imminent danger of these leftists being spies for the USSR, but the US government had very little evidence to back that up, seeing how 1. there had already been a US Communist party in the US before the Bolshevik revolution; 2. Communism and Socialism are NOT the same thing, and 3. as we now know from declassified documents on both sides, the USSR was mostly interested in targeting ordinary Americans as potential spies – they didn’t want to use American Communists because they were too obviously potential spies.  Even when America stopped openly discrediting the far left, the US government still found ways to criminalize it – in 2016, Harper magazine ran a 22-year-old interview with President Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman, where he admitted that they pursued the war on drugs as a way to essentially criminalize participation in the civil rights and anti-war movements.  More recently, the FBI has admitted to planting agents in mosques to ‘observe’ them for likely threats, whether or not they have any reason to suspect anyone in that community, sometimes actively trying to provoke threatening behavior, including one hilarious case in Orange County, CA in 2010 when the FBI plant was asked to leave by the rest of the community for being too extreme (and not in the cool, California way).

So why has the far right been so successful at convincing the rest of America that their rights need protecting?  Well, two things.  One is a (fairly weak) philosophical argument, and the other is a straight up con.

The philosophical argument goes back to my thought experiment.  It is the case that the “people who like to punch Steve” club isn’t responsible for violence, but that’s not by the nature of what the club does, it’s by the nature of what the club is – namely, an abstract concept.  Clubs and social organizations are never responsible for anything because people are responsible for things.  However, there’s a belief that the far right has become great at propagating that within a free society, there’s an overriding need to preserve freedoms, and that that somehow even overrides the actions of individual people.  This claim usually comes in the form of a slippery slope argument – if you stop us from assembling and shouting about how we’d like to murder Jewish people, the next thing you know, you’ll be stopping everyone who disagrees with you from assembling and shouting anything.  

This simply isn’t the case.  The theory of a free society works like this – we all collectively agree to form a society, and by doing so, we enter into an agreement that everyone gets to contribute to about what we want that society to look like.  This is called “the social contract” and freedoms arise out of it, and generally, there will be overlap between them.  For example, we may want people to have the freedom to speak their mind, but we may also want them to have the freedom to occupy public spaces without feeling threatened (by, for example, someone shouting about killing everyone of their religious and ethnic background).  We therefore define the freedoms to exist only insofar as they don’t overlap – you have freedom of speech, but only up to the point where you’re making someone else feel unsafe in public.  We then all agree to this social contract, and once we have, it is legally binding.  That’s where laws come from.  Anyone who breaks it has broken the law, and either gets punished, or gets kicked out of the state.

There’s always going to be a little bit of grey area, and that’s what the court system is for, to make sure people get a fair hearing (in a court of their peers) about whether they knowingly crossed the line into another person’s freedom, or whether it was an accident or an unavoidable circumstance, but if you’re standing in a public place shouting about murder, you probably know you’re crossing a line.

So that brings us to the con, which I really think more Americans need to know about, and here the rest of white supremacy owes their debt to the Klan.  For much of its nineteenth and twentieth century history, the KKK systematically recruited members in positions of authority – on city councils, in the court systems, in state legislatures, and in law enforcement.  These members helped keep other members from facing prosecution for their crimes, but they also served as ‘inside men,’ acting as sympathetic voices for the Klan.  They worked just like a plant in the audience for a medium or a psychic, chiming in at opportune times or acting sufficiently swayed by a Klansman’s arguments to help sway the rest of the crowd.  That’s why the Klan wore hoods – it wasn’t that members were embarrassed for people to know that they were in the KKK – they desperately needed to maintain the anonymity of their plants in order for the con to work.  The problem is that it did – many white Americans still believe that there’s something else going on at Klan rallies (and by association, with other white supremacy groups), despite the fact that almost the only thing anyone knows about them is that they’re responsible for burning crosses and lynching innocent Americans.  Think about how crazy that is – imagine if a bunch of people were showing up at Senate hearings today, asking us to look past the acts of terrorism and ask ourselves, what is ISIS really about?

So that brings me back to social norms.  White supremacy shouldn’t be protected because it’s violating the social contract – it’s essentially tied to a history of violence against American citizens, and having people expressing it in public spaces makes people feel threatened.  We need to be comfortable expressing the social norm that it’s not okay to be a white supremacist in public because it shouldn’t ever be okay to express ideas violating our social contract in public – it’s what the whole system is based on.  You can have the opinion, because the inside of your head is your own business, but when it comes to public spaces, you are automatically overlapping on someone else’s ability to exist in this community simply by expressing these ideas, as much as I would be with my “people who like to punch Steve” club.  White Americans also need to know that we’ve been conned and there isn’t anything else here.  There isn’t a whole other, nicer Klan that’s going to lose their cool social club.  People have lost their careers and social standing for publicly declaring ideologies in the US before, people who weren’t encouraging violence, when there was much less justification for doing so.  That doing so would exert a new social norm isn’t automatically a bad thing; it’s actually something we desperately need in order to form a functional community.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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