Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Exploiting Dr. King and What He Stood For for the War on Free Speech

I recently engaged in a Facebook discussion on the occasion of Martin Luther King Day. It’s a personal experience but it shows the deteriorating state of freedom of speech in America. The post included this political cartoon:

The owner of the Facebook page in which this cartoon appeared I will go unnamed, out of respect for this person’s privacy. [I will refer to this person simply as “the person”.] Likewise, in the interests of privacy, I won’t provide links. And to be fair, I will state that the person’s interpretation of the poster is that “it's a request for a pause and consideration of spoken words and actions.” I agree that people should think before speaking and acting. So this post should not be construed as criticizing the person’s belief, which I agree with.

However, I disagree with the person’s interpretation of the poster. My interpretation is what this post is about.

Along with that political cartoon, which led off the post, the person cited these quotes from Dr. King:

  • Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
  • I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
  • Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
  • Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
  • The time is always right to do what is right.
  • The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.
      ~Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Do you see any contradictions between the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the political poster? To start, here is the comment I posted on the person’s Facebook page, slightly edited for clarity:

The political cartoon above implies that King would have met disagreeable ideas with censorship rather than rational rebuttal. This flies in the face of the American ideals he not only exercised but openly championed. Freedom of speech allowed King to fight Jim Crow oppression and win political equality for black Americans. Why would he oppose freedom of expression, even of ideas he considered offensive or “hateful”? I believe he wouldn’t. Instead, he would seek to educate and persuade—to meet the darkness of racism and bigotry with enlightenment.

The cartoon showing King shutting Trump up is a false, unjustified, and wholly unwarranted attack on King’s integrity. As proof, I can point to the series of inspirational quotes presented by [the person] above. Does censorship jibe with the sentiment that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that”? Censorship, by definition, is darkness.

In one respect King was a deeply conflicted man, in that his politics clashed with his Americanist ideals. I had serious disagreement with King’s politics, especially his turn toward socialistic “solutions” to the problems of government-caused black economic struggles, which would in effect replace one form of political repression with another.

But in any clash between a man’s ideals and his politics, a man’s ideals hold sway. He sought to improve things by working within the American system, rather than overturn it, because in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, he saw Americanism as the solution rather than the problem—a fact for which I will be forever grateful. Here is my tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., published in The Objective Standard in 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fundamental Principle of America.

I replied to others’ comments, as well. Others’ comments are indented. My replies are in italics. Once again, no names or links will be provided. Referring to the slam at Trump, my wife Kathy posted this comment.

Unfortunately, this post can be applied to both sides.

Another rebutted:

These are Dr. King's words, beautiful and timely, and I think it serves us well to sit with them reflectively instead of needing to respond defensively. I feel that the biggest problem we have is the very fact of seeing two sides, instead of one humanity.

Two others agreed with this rebuttal. Kathy replied:

I do think we all need to see both sides. That is why I responded as I did.

I left this comment in support of Kathy:

"Humanity" is an abstraction, not an entity. The view of "one humanity" is the tool of utopians who have inflicted great harm on mankind through efforts to improve or perfect this “one humanity”. The result has been rivers of blood and massive misery. “Humanity” is really the individuals who inhabit the Earth—each with his own mind, convictions, and ideas which should always be open to debate and truth-seeking. As King once said, “Communism forgets that life is individual.” I agree with Kathy. There are different sides and views. Let’s debate them. If you seek change, you seek to persuade one mind at a time, not “one humanity”.

Another correspondent commented elsewhere:
I look at that photo as silencing hate.

I replied, King would disagree, as do I. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that."

And another correspondent commented:

That photo to me represents non violent silencing of hate.

I replied, Non-violent? The picture portrays King physically clamping his hand over a man’s mouth, stopping him from speaking his mind. It’s physical force; an incitement to violence. Would King ever resort to physical force in this aggressive manner against another human being? I think not. King’s mission was a philosophical fight for political equality for blacks, not a street fight.

The poster, in my view, is a smear of King: We’re told we should “reflect on Dr. King’s words. Very well. I agree. So let’s reflect:

  • Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. 

What can be more ignorant and stupid than silencing others? The path away from ignorance and stupidity is to listen and understand. Does that jibe with the cartoon that led off the person’s post?

  • I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

A key window into a person’s character is what he says and the ideas he holds—and expresses. If you shut him up, no matter how objectionable his ideas may be to you—and let’s be honest; The poster is about shutting up, not “pausing”—you close that window. If you close that window, you shut yourself off from knowledge necessary to ascertain the content of a person’s character. What, then, is left by which to judge a person?

  • Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 
What can be darker than censorship? What can be more hateful than denying the other person the inalienable individual moral right to speak his mind, or to speak his mind in a forum that clearly invited it, no matter how objectionable the person’s viewpoint may be?

  • Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

What is shutting out others’ ideas without rebuttal, if not an admission of one’s desire to keep silent about things that matter to one?

  • The time is always right to do what is right.

What, exactly, is “right” about silencing what one considers “hateful” ideas, thus driving them into the darkness of the intellectual underground where they can’t be beaten by better ideas?

  • The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.

This is the most telling: Where is the intelligence plus character in silencing Donald Trump—or anyone? By burying the expression by others of ideas one disagrees with, one is in effect burying one’s own intensive and critical thinking—assuming one is even capable of thinking.

The person deleted my comments. If the person didn’t want to be challenged, the person should not have put out a challenge to others’ deeply held beliefs and convictions. This cartoon hit too close to home for me. Martin Luther King is a hero of mine and I believe a true American hero. That cartoon is deeply offensive to my wife and I. We could not, and should not be expected to, let it go. And we didn’t. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised.

There are basically only two ways for human beings to deal with one another; by reason and persuasion, of which the freedom to speak unfettered is integral, or by force, of which violence—the very thing King stood up against—is integral. Freedom of speech is integral to the intellectual freedom to think. The expression of one’s thoughts leads to debate, which leads to knowledge, intelligence, truth-seeking, and character, which is in turn integral to a civil society of peaceful coexistence—the very things King urged. Thinking and civility end where force begins. The cartoon urges force. There is no other way to interpret it, in my view.

Yet, here we have a poster of Martin Luther King being used to make a statement against freedom of speech, thus using the intellectual stamina a man who stood for reason, education, and non-violence being exploited to advocate ignorance, intolerance, and ultimately violence. And when I try to point out the contradiction in the poster, I get no answer, no reply, no challenge. Not a word of what I said was refuted. It was wiped out as if it didn’t exist.

But it did and does exist. I said what I said, no matter who tries to pretend otherwise. That’s the reason for writing this blog post. I can handle challenge and dissent. That’s why I have the saying “Home of the Free, Because of the Brave” prominently displayed in my home. Sadly, not everyone values freedom, or values it as I do and as it should be by every American. Thus, it takes bravery to fight for freedom. (It shouldn't. But, sadly in America today, it does.) But how do you fight for freedom of speech when the enemies of freedom of speech won’t even listen to you, let alone debate the issue?

Indeed, the person and those who agreed on the person’s post and other like-minded folks may not even realize the anti-free of speech implications of their position, or of the poster. But that makes it even more egregious that I was summarily cut from the discussion. It shows they don’t even want to listen—“to think intensively and to think critically”—and to learn. But then, here’s the question I would pose to them. They obviously don’t like Donald Trump, his ideas, or what he says. So I ask the person, do you really think that the ideas that lie behind his words will go away if you silence him—or anybody else you may disagree with? They will not, no matter how far into the sand you bury your head.

If your impulse is to run from opposing opinions is counter-productive. Prohibition doesn’t work. It didn’t work for alcohol. It doesn't work with drugs. And above all, it won’t work with ideas. You won’t kill them. They’ll just go underground, where they’ll fester in the underworld of ideas you helped create. Bismarck tried to outlaw the socialists. They resurfaced as national socialism (Nazism). The Weimers tried to outlaw the Nazis. The Nazis rose to power—democratically*. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” By silencing those with whom you disagree, you will just be depriving yourself of the chance to defeat the ideas you abhor in the light of open discussion, thus feeding the growth of the very “hate” you want to eradicate.

Contrary to the urge to silence ideas you abhor, you should want those holding these ideas to express themselves as often and as loudly as they like. Not only do you then give yourself the opportunity to defeat these ideas. There is an added bonus: You will open up the chance of learning that can come with vigorous exchange of viewpoints. It’s always possible that you may find that the person opining those “hateful” ideas actually has a point you hadn’t considered, in which case you’ve expanded your knowledge and perspective. Listening and understanding: That’s called thinking intensively and critically leading to intelligence plus character.

As we can see, the poster of Dr. King shoving his hand against President Trump’s mouth runs contrary to everything the person believes he stood for and which she condones. Every single MLK quote the person posted is a refutation of what the picture of King and Trump implies and condones. But how would the person ever learn, if the person’s response is to shove a hand against my mouth, or the mouths of any other dissenter the person can’t or won’t handle intellectually?

It is said that America is politically polarized. This is true in the sense that there is a battle between two fundamentally opposed philosophical ideas underlying every issue—individualism versus collectivism. That’s ok—as long as people are willing to listen and understand each other. As long as all people are free to express themselves as much as they like, the good and the truth and the right and the light have a chance to win in the end.

I don’t need to be reminded that the person has every right to delete comments from the Facebook page. It’s the person’s private page, and Facebook allows users to manage the content. So why make such a “big deal” out of the shabby treatment that my contribution to the conversation the person started received? Because of what it says about the level of respect for freedom of speech in the culture. Unfortunately, the person is not alone. As Kathy said, the urge to shut people up is true to some extent on both political sides. The state of freedom of speech is precarious in America today precisely because so many people are willing to scurry for the cover of self-censorship rather than listen and debate. President Trump himself has proposed to make it much easier to sue journalists who criticize politicians. Campaign finance reform and the proposed Democracy for All Amendment follow from Trump’s viewpoint. Calls for laws to fight “fake news” and laws against “hate speech” are a palm across the mouths of others. On college campuses, over-schooled, undereducated children in adult bodies demand “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and the “right” to ban certain speakers so they can run for cover from “offensive” ideas—ideas they are intellectually afraid of and/or incapable of answering.

This rising tide of intellectual intolerance in the culture can and will have dangerous repercussions. Politics follows culture, reflecting the most commonly held beliefs. Get enough people who are comfortable with shutting people up in their private lives, and soon enough you’ll get politicians rising to power by catering to these cultural censors. A person who would delete opposing viewpoints from a private Facebook page will likely vote for politicians who would legally restrict freedom of speech in the public domain.

No. Freedom of speech won’t disappear overnight because the person deleted my comments. But it is a warning sign. This personal experience I’ve recounted here is a strong indication of the dark place we’re headed toward in America. That’s why I take my treatment by the person, and that poster, so seriously.


* [Flemming Rose covers the importance of unfettered free speech in Chapter 4 of his great book The Tyranny of Silence, in which he highlights the counterproductive attempts by the German Weimar government to silence the Nazis in the 1920s. “The widely touted claim that hate speech against the Jews was a primary cause of the Holocaust [or that] forbidding evil words will lead to fewer evil deeds . . . has no empirical support,” Rose writes. Just the opposite, in fact:

Leading Nazis, such as Joseph Goebbels, Theodor Fritsch, and Julius Streicher were prosecuted by the Weimar Republic for their anti-Semitic speech. Streicher served two prison sentences. But those court cases served as an effective public-relations machinery for his efforts. The more charges he faced, the greater became the admiration of his supporters.
In 1925, Adolf Hitler was prohibited by Bavarian authorities from speaking in public. The Nazis reacted by producing a poster of Hitler, with his lips sealed with tape on which was written, “Alone among 2 billion people of the world, he is not allowed to speak in Germany.” The propaganda poster so enhanced Hitler’s popularity that the authorities felt obliged to lift the ban.

The Hitler poster has a striking similarity to the poster of King silencing Trump! And these anti-free speech attempts to silence the Nazis backfired big time. As R.C. Hicks documents in Nietzsche and the Nazis,
By 1928, the Nazis had twelve seats in the Reichstag. In 1930 they increased that to 107. And in 1932 they increased that to 230. In the March 1933 election they garnered 288 seats, "more seats than their next three competitors combined".

Once in power, the Nazis set out to consolidate their gains and increase their grip on the machinery of the state. First they purged dissident elements within the party. And by purge, we mean murder. "Forty-three conspirators and rivals were executed."

In 1934, President Hindenburg died and the Nazis combined the position of chancellor and president with Hitler filling the role, a move endorsed by 90 percent of the electorate in a plebiscite. The Nazis were now in "firm control".]

Related Reading:

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. For His Moral Ideals Rather Than His Politics

Martin Luther King: An 'Authentic American Hero'—or Not?

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fundamental Principle of America

“I Have a Dream”: Martin Luther King Urges Consistency to Founding Principles

On This Constitution Day, Remember the Declaration of Independence

The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty—Timothy Sandefur

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal—Ayn Rand

Martin Luther King: Right On Racial Justice, Wrong On ‘Economic Justice’

Racism—Ayn Rand

1 comment:

SteveD said...

I agree. Had the poster merely depicting MLK with his finger over his own mouth, then perhaps both interpretations might be plausible. But with his hand over DTs mouth, I can't how that can be interpreted as a pause or even as a polite request for silence.