Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hooray Chomsky!

Reading Chomsky last night I actually found something to stand up and cheer about.

In essay 18, "The Treachery of the Intelligentsia: A French Travesty," Chomsky responds to a question about the Faurisson affair as follows:

The demand that the defense of civil rights requires and analysis and commentary on the views expressed would simply eliminate the defense of the rights of thse who express unpopular or horrendous views, the usual case where a serious issue arises.

Absolutely correct, and elloquently put. Rights, to be meaningful, cannot make reference to the context in which they are applied. A right to free speech, as in this case, cannot care about the content of the speech. If it does, it is not really a right to free speech. A right to property cannot care about how that property is disposed of. If it does, it is not a really a right to property. (I am thinking here, of course, about the evils of eminent domain - which hold that a person's property is only his own until such time as society decides to do something else with it -> which is the same as saying he doesn't really own his property).

I doubt Chomsky would extend his analysis to property and economic rights, self-defense, and so on. Though he calls himself a "libertarian socialist," I think the emphasis is firmly on the "socialist." There is very little we agree on, but on the matter of free speech, at least, we're unambiguously on the same page. In fact, I find myself in the odd position of being inspired by his example. Generally speaking, when I defend the free speech rights of Nazis and racists in debates, I qualify my statement by making sure that everyone knows I oppose their views. I think it's time to stop doing that. Chomsky's right - making that kind of qualification is a kind of cop-out. In a society that truly respects free speech, it should go without saying that you can defend a person's rights without supporting him personally. People routinely do this in the case of criminals, after all. We insist on due process even for people we're sure are guilty, and no one ever feels the need to apologize for this. I think there is some real sense in which giving the obligatory disclaimer before defending the speech rights of a Nazi damages public discourse, in fact. It's Maoist, when you think about it - bending to social pressure to say "correct" things in public, even though everyone knows (because they all know the drill) what you're going to say before you say it. Repeating this opinion endlessly does nothing but bolster the illusion that there's something extraordinary about defending the right of expression of a person you despise. But there shouldn't be anything extraordinary about it. It should be par for the course in free societies.

So if Noah gets to make a resolution, I wanna make one too. I hereby solemnly swear to make every attempt to stop qualifying my defense of the speech rights of people I disagree with by explaining my opposition to their views.

Hat tip (what a strange feeling) Noam Chomsky.


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