In 1978, the ACLU took a controversial stand for free speech by defending a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie , where many Holocaust survivors lived. The notoriety of the case caused some ACLU members to resign, but to many others the case has come to represent the ACLU’s unwavering commitment to principle.
It was this sort of thing that riled me, much more than his stance on the Chick-Fil-A saga that the column more directly concerns. In fact, I think Greenwald’s stance on the latter is spot on. But there is, I believe, a large step between defending the right of a corporation’s chief to publicly oppose same sex marriage and supporting the right of racists to manufacture the most overtly hostile of social environments.
And it’s not that I think the correct stance to take on this issue is obvious. Far from it. I am deeply torn and undecided myself. But what I objected to was the cocksure attitude of Greenwald; the alleged certainty that free speech means banning nothing, and anyone sensitive to concerns about the impact of hate speech is necessarily in bed with Stalin. That sort of attitude, it seems to me, reflects precisely the lack of intellectual openness and sympathy that Greenwald so often in other contexts rightly attacks.
Whether as a society, in the name of liberty, we should allow bigots to distribute literature leaving victimised groups feeling inferior, is a dilemma begging for humility. It’s easy to caricature it as an example of imprisoning people for saying things some people trivially ‘dislike’. But when we know speech has historically been used to systematically force upon people the perception that they constitute a subhuman underclass, the debate feels somewhat deeper than that.
But not according to Greenwald. As I live in a country that criminalises hate speech, I definitely suffer an injustice and sit under a semi-tyrannical state. To question that is to invite insult. The case should be cut and closed.
In which case, as I wrote initially, I want him and all the other devout First Amendment lovers to write the words: “I believe the government has no role in stopping people putting signs outside their shops saying ‘We hate Jews’, and I believe sports fans should be allowed to shout racist chants at black players throughout games.” That is a difficult but defensible conclusion following from some basic and reasonable philosophical premises. But if you think that bullet should ultimately be bitten then you should bite it openly, uncloaked, certainly not hidden between your lines.