Francois Tremblay has a post up about what it really means to tell somebody what they can or can’t do.
Nobody would really deny that we can demand some limits on other people’s behaviour. My right not to be murdered in my sleep trumps anybody else’s right to break into my house at 3am and stab me in the face. But the line isn’t always so obvious, and it’s possible to get quite confusingly tangled up in deciding just when such rules are preserving more freedom than they’re inhibiting.
It’s common to hear complaints about fine upstanding citizens having gay rights shoved down their throats, as if their own person were somehow being violated and assaulted by the presence and free expression of gay people. People who don’t want to endorse any kind of homosexual behaviour often paint themselves as the victims for being “forced” to exist on the same landmass as such perversity.
Of course, “You’re oppressing my right to dislike gay people” is markedly different from “You’re oppressing my right to physically assault anyone whose sexuality upsets me”, and it’s easy enough to identify a position on these which actually supports freedom. But it’s not always obvious where something like “You’re oppressing my right to misrepresent reality to support my claim that all gays are an unnatural abomination” falls in between the two.
Francois rightly highlights the problems with looking at individual actions in a vacuum, and deciding on a moral standpoint without considering the broader context. From his closing paragraph (emphasis mine):
What people do is their own business. But having a healthy functioning society demands that we try to stop people from hurting each other, be it directly (through acts of violence, threats of violence, or hierarchical control) or indirectly (through acts of racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred).
So, while physical assault might be obviously unconscionable, actions that cause indirect harm tend to be seen as acceptable free expression. And yet, certain kinds of hate speech can perpetuate and exacerbate a social environment in which such assaults are common, even if the single act of speaking can be argued not to infringe on anybody else’s freedom.
Denying people the “freedom” to murder or assault others is sensible and important. But denying them the freedom to publicly say words and express opinions is something we should be much more reluctant to do, even when the opinions are repugnant and the words incite violence. Can it be justified by the same reasoning?
This is where I’m not really convinced. It’s true that the less proximal effects of one’s actions are certainly real, and too often forgotten about. But even a well-intentioned insistence that we have the right to restrict other people’s actions, based solely on the indirect harm they may do down the line in a way that’s impossible to precisely measure, is a step down a dangerous road.
I’ve written before about why I’m against banning the burqa. This oppressive religious garb is symptomatic of a serious problem, and the illiberal, extremist values behind such clothing do merit a proactive response.
But Francois seems to be arguing that allowing women to continue wearing the burqa amounts to a tacit endorsement of an oppressive religious regime that subjugates women.
I would say that not allowing women to wear the burqa is a far more explicit endorsement of the idea that we have the right to tell women what they may or may not wear, in the name of fighting sexism, because we know what’s best.
Like I say, it’s tricky to untangle sometimes. But claiming that actions should be suppressed only because they’re known to spur other people to cause direct harm seems shaky to me. Some people are always going to be hateful, but in a free society their ability to harm others should be no more than that of empty words.