This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #406, on the subject of Internet Racism.
I have previously written quite a bit about discrimination and racism, and about freedom of speech. I deplore any expression of racism–but I have a lot of trouble with efforts to curtail it by stifling the right to express opinions. Having read Ray Bradbury’s excellent book Fahrenheit 451 and assuming that all reasonably intelligent well-educated individuals have if not read it at least understood the message it conveyed, I assumed that at least among such people it would be recognized that any effort to stifle speech led directly to dystopian results.
Yet it seems I was mistaken in this.
I recognized my mistake watching the British morning light news and talk show Good Morning Britain for July 13th, 2021. Among the top stories was the unfortunate fact that when England had lost in a major soccer tournament (and I do not follow any sports and care little enough about them that I did not research many of the details) supposed fans went to major social media outlets and posted racist comments about some of the players who had missed critical shots. The uproar is not exactly because they were criticized for missing shots, but because the criticism suggested that their failures were because they were persons of color.
O.K., that’s plainly stupid. Maybe it’s an American thing, but blacks dominate many of our sports. It would be racist to claim that they are naturally better at them (and actually the evidence suggests that it has more to do with their devotion to play at a young age). Whoever these players are, they are good enough to have gotten on the British national team, and frankly they are inarguably better than any of their critics. They missed a few shots; that happens. The critics are displaying their own stupidity through their posts.
However, at least two social media platforms made a concerted effort to remove any posts containing racial slurs about the players as quickly as possible. Yet the British media thinks this is not enough. They want those who posted such statements identified and brought up on criminal charges. They want it to be a crime to express an opinion that includes a negative attitude about race.
Let me turn your attention to Bradbury’s aforementioned book.
The story focuses on a near-term future world and a man who works for the fire department. It is almost impossible for homes in the future to burn without some kind of accelerant, so there isn’t actually any work putting out fires. That’s not their job. Their job is to burn books, and since book lovers can be very devious in hiding books, they burn down the homes of anyone suspected of possessing such contraband.
What is significant for us, though, is how Bradbury imagines the world came to be that way. The fact is, it is impossible to write anything meaningful that does not offend someone. Recently books like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings have been accused of racism. As Bradbury suggests, if you write about mobsters you offend the Italians, if you write about cowboys you offend the Native Americans, if you write about Americans in space you offend the Russians (indeed, the second season of the original Star Trek television series added Pavel Chekov precisely because the Russians were offended that the entire multi-racial crew of The Enterprise had no Russians aboard). Yet if everything offends someone, and we decide no one is to be offended by anyone, it becomes impossible to write anything beyond the palest pablum.
And so books become illegal because everything is offensive to someone.
Yet the British population wants to make it criminal to say anything via the internet that is offensive, at least to black athletes. What, though, about offending Italians, or Spaniards, or whoever it was who beat the British team? That’s also racist. Offending white players is just as racist. And before we know it, offending anyone becomes a criminal offense, and none of us can express an opinion about anything for fear that someone else might be offended. If I say that a particular television show is trash which should insult the intelligence of two-year-olds (and I have said this), I have offended not only the creators of that show but its undoubtedly many fans who enjoy the show. Yet if I say that a particular show is excellent and worth watching, I have offended those who find the show offensive for some reason.
The opinions of people who irrationally disdain persons who are different from themselves are not worth entertaining–but they are not worth suppressing, either. They are not worth suppressing because once we do that we give someone power to decide what we are allowed to say. Who do we want for our thought police? The wealthy owners of the major social media networks? Already I know people who have left Facebook and Twitter for MeWe, because the latter promises not to censor their posts. Already I had a link to an article deleted from my Facebook page because someone (whom I suspect did not read the article) thought it was potentially offensive.
Remember the words of Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, 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….” Remember, too, the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If you don’t want the thought police coming to arrest you for expressing your disagreement with someone, don’t empower them to do that now.
Let me provide a few links to previous articles on the subject:
- Freedom of Expression, a compilation of several previously published articles covering free speech, hate speech, racism, prejudice, and other related issues.
- #135: What Racism Is, an examination of the meaning of the word and how it is applied and misapplied.
- #156: A New Slant on Offensive Trademarks, anticipating the Supreme Court decision regarding whether an Asian-American band could trademark a name that was considered a derogatory moniker for Asians.
- #194: Slanting in Favor of Free Speech, sequel to that, giving the outcome and its implications, and also having much that is relevant to the question of free speech on the internet in connection with a related case.