I’m for Debating Anything

Stephen Hopkins: “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything. Rhode Island says yea!”  1776 Musical.

This line from the musical 1776 came back to me as I’ve been reading about the uproar over the appearance of Ann Coulter at Berkley and the subsequent cancellation of her speech over outrage from some parties and security concerns on the part of the university.

Look, I despise Ann Coulter.  I think she’s a grifter making money off outraging liberals and delighting conservatives.  Yes, much of what she says is hateful, but I’m with Hopkins on this one.  Hell yeah, let her speak, let her be condemned by her own vile words.  Debate her passionately.  Offer a better alternative.  Bring in a speaker to counter her.  Try to educate people and change their minds.  Demonstrate that her positions are wrong and dangerous in a civil society.  All this has accomplished is to make her a martyr and make liberals seem intolerant instead of the woman who is truly intolerant as evidenced by her statements about immigrants, liberals, environmentalists, feminists, etc.

The general public thinks that the First Amendment applies to all speech.  It doesn’t.  It’s designed to prevent the government from curtailing speech. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (Emphasis added.)

And of course the right is not absolute even if the government isn’t involved.  Everyone has heard the old “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater”, and this is probably the rational for worries over Coulter’s talk — that her appearance would lead to violence.  And those are real and valid concerns, but it’s a hard line to draw.  When does unpleasant speech tip over into hate speech? Is this another instance as with pornography where Justice Stewart wrote in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,” The problem is that people’s sensitivities vary based on their life experiences.  What might merely anger me might be devastating to another individual and vice versa, but law is about setting societal standards not guaranteeing that no one is ever offended or made to feel uncomfortable.

We also have the added dilemma of fake news or alternative facts with which to contend.  It’s hard for truth to be heard when the air is filled with the dust and chaff of untruths.   A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.  But I guess I’m an eternal optimist and I want to think that Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes was right when he wrote in his dissent in Abrams v. United States —

“But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

Are the Ann Coulters and Milo Yiannopouloses and Alex Joneses an imminent threat to country?  That’s what we have to decide.  Overall I think it’s better that we allow them to show their faces, rip away the mask, turn over the rocks to reveal the neo-Nazis and racists that inhabit our country.  I’d rather have them out in the open where I can keep an eye on them, and counter their dangerous beliefs then have them plotting in secret and manipulating behind the scenes.

So let’s bring the gentleman from Rhodes Island another rum (you’ll understand if you’ve seen the play), get one for ourselves and be ready to defend our beliefs and values.

3 Responses to I’m for Debating Anything

  • Susan MacDonald says:

    Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

  • Mac says:

    Really appreciate your thoughtful writings on the rather unfortunate political landscape these days. Frenzied and knee jerk reactions everywhere, over the top backlash that only emboldens the others. Calm and reason and, as you suggest, letting them speak so that they are identified for what they are.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      Thank you. I try to find the balance between outrage — and god knows there is reason for outrage right now — and honoring our Constitution and our traditions and what we believe to be fundamental American values. Those of us on the liberal side of politics have to be careful lest we become what we resist.

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