Maybe free speech is less popular than I thought

February 3, 2012 – 11:28 am by John

I had a bizarre experience yesterday: I encountered two people who were wrong on the internet who asserted that words can harm people and so their (mis)use should be punishable by law. I don’t mean using libel or slander to harm someone’s reputation, which should not be considered crimes anyway. I mean simple ignorant, insulting, insensitive, verifiably wrong or inflammatory speech.

This occurred at a relatively unlikely place, the language-focused blag Lingua Franca. Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics and prolific language blagger, wrote:

The 1897 session of the Indiana General Assembly passed “A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth.” It asserted that (i) the ratio of the chord and arc of a 90-degree segment of a circle was 7/8; (ii) the ratio of said chord to the circle’s diameter (hence to the diagonal of a square inscribed in the circle) was 7/10; and (iii) the ratio of the diameter to the circumference was (5/4)/4. Pi must be equal to 3.2 for these things to be true. Yet the bill nearly made it through committee in the Senate, until one senator pointed out that it was ultra vires for the Assembly to define mathematical truth.

…when you assemble a few hundred ambitious people who managed to win elections and let them vote on proposed laws, you occasionally get silliness. Possibly about mathematical truth, or even linguistic truth.

The latter came up this past week when the French Senate passed a bill (already passed by the National Assembly in December) criminalizing a specific linguistic act: asserting that the slaughter of Armenians in Turkey during 1915 does not satisfy the definition of the word genocide.

This law (which President Sarkozy is widely expected to sign into law) makes it a crime to deny or “outrageously minimize” the number and motivation of the mass killings of Armenians. To assert the view “What happened in 1915 was not genocide” would be a prosecutable offense. The bill legislatively insists that a certain set of contingent historical events meet the criteria for use of the term genocide, and forbids asserting the opposite. If a document were found proving that all the killings of Armenians in 1915 were unintended side effects of a hyperspace bypass construction operation by extra-terrestrials, it would apparently be illegal for historians to discuss the document at a conference in France. This is legislative idiocy.
I have not expressed any opinion about the history. Since Armenian-Turkish journalist and editor Hrant Dink was murdered in broad daylight for treating the topic, I’m not exactly eager to. And my ignorance of early 20th-century Anatolian history is profound, so perhaps it’s just as well. But Mark Liberman noted on Language Log that The New York Times, after decades of demurral, reportedly decided in 2004 that “genocide” was and is an appropriate word for the events in question. (And you don’t turn the Gray Lady around easily—The New York Times still requires clause-initial whom, for heaven’s sake).

Mass killings of Armenians in Turkey as the Ottoman Empire collapsed appear to be copiously documented. My reasons for calling the French legislation crazy do not lie in any disagreement about the documentation. And I don’t care for wacky historical contrarians—nobody despises Holocaust deniers more than I do. I just think that it would be a monumental blunder to enact a law stipulating a point of lexical denotation. Insisting that you have to count the events as meeting the definition of genocide is as silly as trying to legislate the area of a square inscribed in a circle of diameter n.

The right way to handle thought crimes (or mathematical contradictions) is the American way: We grit our teeth and let people utter their loony ideas. We don’t use the criminal law to define their lexical denotations as erroneous or to forbid their ideas from being uttered.

Sarkozy isn’t Satan, and the fanatical Turkish denialism about 1915 is not virtuous or even sensible; but passing a law stipulating anything about how the word genocide is to be applied would be a stupid legislative mistake.

A commenter going by beedhamm wrote the following comment:

The main piece of support for your argument (something to the effect of it’s “legislative idiocy”) is stated here:

“The right way to handle thought crimes (or mathematical contradictions) is the American way: We grit our teeth and let people utter their loony ideas. We don’t use the criminal law to define their lexical denotations as erroneous or to forbid their ideas from being uttered.”
Now ask, what proof is there for this statement in the rest of your article? You’ve taken a serious, complex, nuanced situation and attempted to treat it in a lighthearted fashion, primarily by repeating something to the effect of it’s “a stupid legislative mistake.”

Perhaps a cognitive linguist, like Lakoff, would be better suited to comment on this issue?

I didn’t reply to this comment because I didn’t even know where to begin, perhaps largely because beedhamm failed to even make a point or state a single opinion, other than insinuating that Dr. Pullum’s conclusion is wrong and that a more detailed, in-depth, scholarly treatment of the proposed French law would lead to a different conclusion. Such a weak stance and absurdly heinous implication (that such laws aren’t mistakes and punishing speech can be desirable) were about par for the course for this morally questionable and intellectually bankrupt individual, as I discovered later.

Below that, an Armenian fellow whose name I will not paste because it was written in Armenian script, wrote:

Sound like you (the author) are one of the extremely uneducated (although have the opportunity to study whatever desired), wrongly self-confident Midwesterns that I’ve seen for years while studying there, that are no different from the uneducated (mainly cause they don’t have the choice to study), extremely ignorant immigrants whom I see every day now at the East Coast.

Please note that the language barrier has nothing to do with this Armenian’s misunderstanding of the principle of freedom of speech, as seen by the ensuing exchange. I responded:

Geoffrey Pullum: “Governments have no business legislating word definitions, any more than they have legislating mathematical relationships. We also shouldn’t silence, censor, fine, imprison, threaten, or otherwise punish people for the words they say and write that harm no one, however wrong or insulting they are.”

You: “You must be an uneducated, ignorant, privileged, out-of-touch moron.”

Nice job. You made your case really well, except I thought your Concluding Statement could have used a few more baseless insults.

This Armenian responded,

For your knowledge (since you need some): A word is the most powerful weapon existing on this planet (that is the same as religion, propaganda, etc.). So you agreeing with the thought “We also shouldn’t silence, censor, fine, imprison, threaten, or otherwise punish people for the words they say and write that harm no one, however wrong or insulting they are.” (by the way, see how it’s done? I mean the quotation) is another indicator of your low level education.

I ended my interaction with him with:

Just to clarify, you’re basically saying that it is ignorant (uneducated, stupid, wrong, unenlightened) to object to the idea that a government should define certain speech as harmful and punish users of such speech in proportion to the harm their words cause? Maybe you don’t realize how ridiculous that sounds to the English-speaking world. I didn’t think there was anyone outside of totalitarian governments who thought that way anymore. It is clear that nothing can be gained from interacting with such a sorry excuse for a human. Have a good life, and I hope you find your authoritarian police state someday.

(There was another brief exchange between us that was definitely hampered by the language barrier, but that’s not vital here.) Language barrier or no, this person’s intent is perfectly clear: The State should define certain speech or (mis)uses of words as harmful, should outlaw them, and should punish transgressors with the full force of the law.

I don’t care where you’re from, who you’re descended from, what your family or country has gone through, what your native language is, how fluent you are in the language you’re writing in, or what type of government you have lived under, there is NO EXCUSE for advocating the use of the police power of the State to punish people’s words or ideas. Boycotts, fine. Retaliatory slander, fine. Peaceful protests, fine. But this Armenian would lock you and your family in a cage for years for saying the wrong words in the wrong context. Those are monstrous thoughts written by a monstrous person, plain and simple. We (well, especially I) use all kinds of colorful language to describe people whose ideas and actions are abhorrent, so perhaps some of their meanings or effects get watered down on the internet. Well, here we have as clear-cut an example of a fascist, authoritarian, hateful, uncivilized, Statolatrist barbarian as I have ever had the displeasure of interacting with. Over the last couple years, spurred mainly by my own regret at how I responded to some people in internet discussions and the unpleasantness I felt when people were assholes to me, I have committed myself to responding politely and respectfully to others at all times, much to my and their mutual benefit, I’m happy to say. (You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, right?) However, I have no sympathy for anyone who would ever even consider taking such an anti–free speech position, and such a pathetic excuse for a human being deserves no respect, politeness, benefit of the doubt, or moderation in our condemnation of his opinions or exposure of his depraved, wretched character. As Professor Farnsworth would say, I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.

beedhamm responded to my first comment as well:

When did we agree that the deniers of genocide use “words … that harm no one”?

I suspect that we have to be a bit more careful to make sure that when we write “no one” we don’t just mean “me and the people like me.”

Again, he fails to really even make a point, other than to imply that words do, in fact, harm people, and by failing to qualify his statements with at least an admission that censorship laws can be a bad idea, he implies that they are good ideas, specifically the French genocide law. Therefore, I decided to take him behind the woodshed:

Of course words themselves harm no one, except emotionally and psychologically to the extent that the victim lets them. I guess you should be arrested and charged with a crime for harming my emotional state? Should I be arrested and charged with a crime for insulting you and the Armenian person above? How about if I said these things in the wrong locations:

The Holocaust never happened. Hitler was a great guy. No events in or around 1915 could be considered genocide, especially as concerns Armenians.

Those are all false statements and terribly offensive and ignorant, but no one was harmed by them. Yet according to German law and soon-to-be French law, I could be punished by law for typing them within their borders. That is absurd. If you disagree, I doubt either one of us will gain much by continuing this discussion.

Do you think it’s morally unjust right now, i.e., an attack that should be punishable or defensible by force, to deny that Armenians were the victims of genocide? Or is it only wrong after a government outlaws it? If it has always been harmful since 1915, then what action or recourse should victims of such denial have been taking all these years? Surely they are right to strike out in self-defense in response to such offenses. What compensation are they due? If it has always been morally wrong, then surely it is wrong everywhere, not just France or Turkey or Armenia. Plenty of Armenians live in the U.S. What punishment should the New York Times be subject to for refusing to acknowledge it as a genocide? Surely if it’s wrong, period, regardless of law or geography, then I should be put in jail or fined heavily (or retaliated against in self-defense by all my victims) for typing it to prove a point.

Furthermore, surely there is not just one word in all of the French language that the government should determine the definition of. What other words fit the criterion of requiring definition by the government? What words in the English language fit the bill?

Is denying that Armenians were the victims of genocide a punishable offense if any human sees or hears it? Or just Armenians? Should the severity of the punishment be proportional to the number of humans or specifically Armenians who are exposed to it? What about someone who copies and spreads a speech or writing with such denials? Should this person be commended for alerting the Armenians (or all humans) to such offenses, or should they be punished similarly to the original perpetrator for spreading such lies? The words themselves do harm, remember, so it can’t matter why that person was motivated to spread the offending speech or what context it was done in or what commentary the spreader appended to the genocide denial. (You can’t rob someone and say “Theft is wrong” to avoid punishment. If the words do harm, the offender must be punished, right?) If someone wrote it in a private, personal journal and it was discovered happenstance by a visitor, should that offense also become punishable? After all, the words themselves are harmful. What if no Armenians actually saw it? What if only a single half-Armenian saw it? Should the fine be reduced by half?

How about implicit denial? Is that an aggression against person or property that should be punishable by force of law? For instance, someone talks about Armenians or Turks in or around 1915 but simply fails to mention the word “genocide”. What if they use all kinds of other words, like massacre or slaughter or travesty or injustice, but implicitly deny that it was genocide by avoiding this specific word? Surely that must also be wrong, not just after Sarkozy signs the bill but every day since the genocide ended (or even during it). What if future books about genocide are published that do not mention anything about Armenians? How about any current books about ethnic cleansing or genocide that might not mention the Armenian genocide and thereby implicitly deny it? By your logic, such books must necessarily be banned in France, and unless you’d say that right and wrong depend only on the law, such books should be banned everywhere, forever, in self-defense to prevent further harm being done by the words on their pages. If anyone’s definition of right and wrong depends on what laws politicians write and pass, then they can’t carry on an intelligent conversation with me.

The reason Dr. Pullum did not offer a detailed or academic defense of his contention that this French law is the wrong way to deal with offensive speech is probably partly because none is needed. It is self-evident. One’s innate right to free speech is not bound by anyone’s sensibilities or any laws, and certainly not math or history. If you agree with such censorship and dismissal of free speech, then, well, I would certainly want nothing to do with authoritarians of your ilk. Denying someone of a part of their property and liberty for typing or saying something offensive or insulting would be a far worse crime than any the offender supposedly committed. The words themselves are not harmful, not in any way that falls under the purview of law. And to re-state Dr. Pullum’s point, it is simply self-evidently absurd to suggest that any government can or should define words and punish people for their misuse.

I could have gone much farther than this reductio ad absurdum, but I doubt he got very far into my rant or understood how the absurdities that would result from censorship laws expose the inconsistency and untenability of his position. It is not possible to retain any semblance of a principled moral or political philosophy or even to put on a show of being a civilized, respectable, intelligent human being while asserting—even failing to deny—that words and ideas inflict harm upon others in ways that should be punishable by the State.

I am saddened to learn that many European and Asian countries already have laws against genocide denial, not just Germany. You might say, “Oh, now that you see how widespread genocide denial laws are and how acceptable they are to hundreds of millions of people, do you want to tone down your attack of the supporters of such laws?” Quite the contrary. They are all objectively, verifiably, undeniably wrong, just as all murder, rape, taxation, conscription, and all other free speech–abridging laws are wrong. It is quite possible that Holocaust deniers deserve for bad things to happen to them, but I’m thinking more in a karma-driven way, not through the police power of government.

If I had to guess, based on spelling and (lack of) opinions on the merits of free speech, I would guess beedhamm is from somewhere in the Eastern hemisphere, perhaps Germany (“hamm”?) or somewhere farther east, where the innate right of free speech is less universally acknowledged than it is in North America. Therefore, it might be far past noon where beedhamm sits and longs for the kidnapping, beating, and imprisonment of people who misuse the word “genocide”, so I will take his current silence as an admission of defeat and acknowledgment of the beatdown I handed him (or her).

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  1. One Response to “Maybe free speech is less popular than I thought”

  2. THAT is a beatdown.

    By Jason M on Feb 4, 2012

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