When Should We Punch Nazis?

If you only read the headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking that large majorities of Americans oppose free speech. With Trump tweeting against NFL protests and college students blocking offensively conservative speakers, we might think most Americans agreed that free speech was a dangerous thing. According to new survey data, though, that’s not the case. In The Atlantic recently, Conor Friedersdorf reviewed the survey findings and found some surprising results. For one thing, most Americans want to let even the most offensive speakers have their say.

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Punch him? Or protect him?

Should an executive be fired for harboring racist ideas? A majority (53%) said no. Even a slim majority (51%) of African Americans said no.

Should Nazis be violently blocked from expressing their hateful views? Large majorities of minorities said no. Eighty percent of Latinos and almost three-quarters of African Americans wanted to let Nazis speak their piece.

What about on campus? It seems that large majorities of respondents agree that some forms of speech deserve to be blocked. If someone calls for violence, for example, 81% of respondents think their speech should not be protected. Saying the Holocaust never happened? 57% of people think such ideas should be blocked. “Outing” illegal immigrants on campus? 65% said no.

If someone pulls a James Damore, though, 60% of people think his speech should be protected. And small minorities even want to protect other sorts of offensive speech, including accusations that all Christians are “brainwashed” (51%) or even that some racial minorities have lower IQs (52%).

It seems as if there is a lot more agreement about free speech than one might think. Americans in general often don’t know the rules—for example, significant numbers of respondents thought it was already illegal to make racist comments. Overall, however, Americans seem to agree that most speech should be protected, even offensive and possible dangerous speech. If it becomes TOO dangerous, however, we agree it must be stopped. We just don’t agree on where or how to draw that line.

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  1. Not knowing where to draw the line means not knowing when someone is shouting fire in a crowded room and there is no fire — and when there is. If your commitment to “civil liberties” are so high you’re willing to leave the door open to aggressive anti-democratic minorities developing an outside influence or even a high degree of hegemony, well that looks like you’ve made your neoliberal idea of tolerance into a suicide pact, as the reactionary right alleges. As distinguished insurgent reactionaries of the past have noted, all one has to do to take power is declare a state of emergency, tell the people they are being attacked, and accuse the dissenters and critics of being mother-loving, wimpy and treasonous nancy boys.

    There is no such thing as free speech in anything close to a pure sense. Try organizing and speaking against the truly dominant ideologies of the billionaire class. (Try running as a Democrat who does this!) Our business elites include men we know are rapists, racists, antisemites, theocrats, neofascists, Christians and atheists, but none are remotely critical of capitalism as an inefficient and morally problematic system of extracting and distributing resources. I wonder why.

    American history is completely co-extensive with the enshrinement and protection of predominantly white male elites and will tolerate political speech and change-oriented movements that serve or do not threaten those interests. Fascism always operates as a minority insurgency that makes a deal with the business class. Personal wealth is the one thing that Trumps everything else in the land whose business is business — no matter how immoral, unpopular, and incompetent one may be it is the talisman of American “meritocracy.”

    Next up: Zuckerman, a Hollywood celebrity, and other friends of Peter Thiel, etc. This is the American response to increasing fear of scarcity, wealth concentration, and upward migration of social power. These are the late stages of a drain-circling neocolonial empire whose outer provinces are boiling water and living in tents. You’re darn right there’s nothing education, public or private, can do about it.

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