Monday, October 23, 2017

Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee (Slight Return)

As numerous people have warned, efforts to ban "hate speech" are going to backfire; indeed, they already have.  Today Glenn Greenwald linked to an article about a Canadian Muslim university student who's being disciplined by her school for "for supposedly 'hateful' FB post about Canadian history."  He added: "Lesson here for the left: implementing hate speech penalties will be used against you. For the right: much censorship is against the left."

According to the article Masuma Khan, a vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union, responded to a criticism of a DSU decision not to participate in Canadian 150th Anniversary celebrations by posting on Facebook that "white fragility can kiss my ass. Your white tears aren't sacred, this land is." The university investigated, and "Khan said she was given the option to undergo counselling and write a reflective essay after the Halifax-based school conducted an investigation into a complaint about her online comments, but she says she refused."
"It was really offensive, to be honest, for the university to tell me that they're going to teach me how to talk about racism in a more collaborative way, when racism is very harsh … there's no nice way to talk about it," the 22-year-old Muslim woman said.

"We're going to do everything we can to let Dalhousie know that this is not OK and it's not appropriate."
I'm not sure how far to believe Khan's account about the restorative justice measure offered to her; according to the article, it appears to have been a first, informal step before the university held a formal hearing.  And I don't think I do particularly trust her word.

The funny part is, by the criteria of those who want to suppress hate speech (probably including herself), Khan's post was hateful.  If someone had written a post addressing her in those terms, I can imagine the fuss that would have ensued.  Khan's complaint about her punishment sounds exactly like a whiny white guy complaining about Political Correctness running amok, right down to the claim that she was just telling it how it is, that's how she rolls.
​"I'm not apologetic for voicing my opinion and using free speech to tell my support systems on my own social media how I feel," Khan said.
"There's a lot of folks that feel that racism doesn't exist anymore, but I think I'm here to be frank and say, 'Hey, that's not reality.'"
As the article quotes her, she stopped just short of accusing the University of Political Correctness before reverting to Culture of Therapyspeak.
Khan said she doesn't regret the online post, but recognizes that it may have hurt some people. That wasn't her intention, she said; she was simply trying to reflect her own experiences dealing with racism.
Nor did it occur to her, evidently, that she herself is just one more Old World colonialist occupying "sacred" lands.

It's hard to decide where to come down on this story.  Like Greenwald, I think college students should be allowed to express their views without being punished for them.  The trouble is that so many college students (like their elders) believe that they should be allowed to express their views freely, but others, those they disagree with, should not.

Can Khan dish it out but not take it?  Would she insist that a white racist should be allowed to respond to her in the same terms she feels justified in using?  I'd bet she can't, and wouldn't.  But even if she can, and would, I would criticize her for her post.  Like so many of our supposedly Internet-savvy youth, she evidently thinks that what happens on Facebook stays here.  If her post were posted privately where only her "support system" could see it, she would have a case, but the article doesn't say, and I suspect the fact that it resulted in this disciplinary action indicates that it wasn't restricted.

But that's not really the issue.  I've addressed the question of civility around here numerous times, and in particular the significance of people venting on social media.  Replies to Greenwald's tweets took on the issue of what online speech should be regulated and suppressed.  Harassment and threats, for example.  The trouble here is that harassment is somewhat subjective, and stopping it requires that some third party adjudicate whether it took place.  Even threats.  Gamergate led to some discussion of the horrific threats directed to others online, and those are what I'd call clear cases.  But what about less clear cases, like the nice Christian liberals who said on Twitter that they wanted to commit violence (via) against Paul Ryan for his icky views about poor people?  I feel pretty sure that if Rethugs had declared the same desires about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, those same Christian liberals would have been infuriated.  In order to decide what constitutes a threat, or harassment, someone has to make a judgment, and not everyone will be happy with those judgments.  There is no way to delegate that job to computer software; there is no mechanical procedure for evaluating the complaints.  From what I see, Facebook's software produces plenty of false positives, that is, it finds harassment and threats and bad thoughts where human beings do not.  But the Internet is too big for human beings to monitor it.  And do you want Facebook employees -- probably overworked and underpaid to boot -- reading everything you post?

Since Khan's obnoxious post wasn't meant as a contribution to debate, let alone dialogue, I can't judge it or her too harshly.  But her attempts to dismiss, let alone justify it as if it were meant for her opponents' eyes suggest to me that she wouldn't do much better in a public forum.  "There's no nice way to talk about [racism]," she told the CBC.  I don't know about niceness, but in public debate one must restrain -- or better, redirect and channel -- one's anger and focus on what is being discussed.  In an important sense, that is what Khan is at a university to learn, and Dalhousie is not out of line in disciplining her to do it properly.  It's not easy, it's not always pleasant, and even many highly credentialed intellectuals fail to do it adequately.  But just throwing feces at one's opponents isn't rational debate.  I'm not saying Khan should be silenced: she is.