Why "Yes, But-ers" Have Any Traction

Monday, January 19, 2015

Writing at the New York Post, Nicole Gelinas directly takes on the "They had it coming," post-Charlie Hebdo crowd, ending with the following:

Blaming the dead for their own murders is dangerous in another way, too.

Nobody with power likes free speech. If you write for a living, you learn that important people will try almost anything to get things in print or keep them out of print.

Today, it's maybe irresponsible -- and therefore should be illegal? -- to print a Mohammed cartoon. Tomorrow, maybe it'll be irresponsible to criticize a wartime president or prime minister.

To get an idea of how tempting it is for power to censor, consider that more than half of American colleges restrict campus speech, vaguely prohibiting things like "inappropriate expression."

The dead cartoonists, in the end, were right. If you can't put pen to paper without risking death, you can't do anything freely.

To make one exception means to make them all.

Now let’s see how many supposed defenders of speech will just stop there ... instead of adding the "but, but, but" that shows they don't believe in free expression when it really counts -- when people just died for it. [minor format edits, links in original]
Gelinas is completely right.

That said, as I thought about her rebuttal of the "yes, but-ers", I was reminded of a nagging doubt I have had about her response and others like it that I have seen. Thanks to this, I believe I can now address it.

One can, without being a cad, suggest that someone should take reasonable precautions against rape -- or any other crime. While it is unreasonable to suggest that a woman walking alone at night in a dangerous area "had it coming", it isn't to suggest that it might be imprudent to do so. This is the cover that false defenders of free speech and the jihdists alike crave. 

But what makes it cover? In other words, how do freedom of speech and other actions, like walking about, differ? Quite simply, there is no hiding what one has said once one has said it. One can choose to walk in safe areas at night, or not go out at all. One can lock the doors to his home at night or install a car alarm. And one can, say, insult the mother of a thug like the Pope, when one is out of arm's reach.

But speech can't be contained or revoked. Once you go out for your walk, or drive home, or wake up at home in safety in the morning, you're done. But once you say something, it's out there. And saying something that displeases a thug may well be used as an excuse by the thug to retaliate. Nevertheless, suggesting that the bounds of prudence include not just avoiding speaking with thugs in one's immediate vicinity, but what one can say would be analogous to suggesting that, say, a woman who wants to walk outside treat all neighborhoods as equally dangerous at all times; or that homeowners who lock their doors are skimping if those doors aren't made of steel; or that an alarm isn't enough when he could hire an armed guard for his car. That is, the nature of speech, which is the expression of one's thoughts, puts limits on saying what those thoughts are beyond the realm of the prudent and into the realm of surrendering to one's enemies.

The thugs and their appeasers, well aware of how different and powerful speech is, hope that we will forget that difference and that power as they liken speaking one's mind to daring some criminal to harm them.

Ironically, there is truth in the idea that, if we wish to speak our minds, we must take precautions to protect our lives: But the precaution is, in fact, to take exactly the opposite of their advice and use our freedom of speech to resist these thugs and to insist on our governments doing their job, which above all includes ensuring that we remain free to speak. For, as Gelinas points out, if we can't say anything freely, we can't do anything freely, either. One cannot live a life proper to man, the rational animal, when one is forced -- by a dictatorial government or by thugs in a de facto anarchy -- to pretend that one doesn't have a mind of his own.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

‘…it isn't to suggest that it might be imprudent to do so…’
…is an argument I’ve made before, namely that:
Responsibility is not a zero sum game and this is a case of comparing apples and oranges. Assuming the woman did not take reasonable precautions against being raped, she’s morally guilty of an unsafe practice. That in no way mitigates the moral responsibility of the perpetrator for the crime; not one iota. Nor does it change the fact that she shouldn’t have to live in the type of world where she has to take so many precautions. (A world where there is no chance of being raped is probably impossible.)
The Charlie Hebdo situation is a little different, since they knowingly took both the risk and precautions. They simply were not prepared for the amount of force that would be levelled against them.
I was interested in her point about how tempting censorship is. I think the cause is in human psychology as much as the material effects of censorship. This may be the next great cultural/philosophical battle of Western Civilization, perhaps the last one if the advocates of free speech do not win.

Steve D said...

Another point occurred to me when I reread the last part of my previous comment. For that hypothetical woman, there is a big difference between taking a reasonable precaution such as carrying a gun or a can of mace and the ‘precaution’ of not going out for walk at all. One is fulfilling your responsibility for your own safety; the other is surrender. The same goes for those who draw cartoons of psychotic warlords. The correct response (metaphorically) is pen AND sword.
And the best part is that you don’t have to worry about whether the pen is more powerful than the sword; you’re covered either way.

Borrow919 said...

Something else occurs to me. If it's true that the cartoons provoked the jihadist violence, is it not also true that religious texts like the Quran incite that very violence? If the power to censor applies to Charlie Hebdo on the grounds that it will prevent the violence then why don't these 'yes butters' conclude that the Quran, with it's call to holy war and it's hatred of infidels, is also an proper object of censorship for the same reason? What's good for the goose..

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for your comments, particularly on both parties potentially bearing responsibility in the case of a crime.

I think this has been a big part of what has bugged me when I have read pieces like Gelinas's. "She had it coming" is wrong, but it is just as wrong to pretend that a world with no rape is possible. I don't think many in favor of free speech are aware that, by not admitting that some prudence is necessary, they risk their arguments sounding like those of out-of-touch feminists who advocate drunkenness at college parties.

Government protection of freedom of speech isn't impractical pie-in-the-sky; It's a necessity.


Gus Van Horn said...


While I'm not a fan of arguing from premises I disagree with -- in this case, the idea that censorship is a proper government function -- you do make a good point. There is a double standard being applied here between these cartoons and the Koran.