Thursday, August 17, 2017

Does the Constitution Protect "Hate Speech?"

When discussing the idea of "hate speech" the terms get more tricky that many are willing to admit. It's one of those terms that everyone thinks everyone else knows what it means so it can be used without qualification. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The meaning remains a moving target, so its use is less unhelpful to a decent conversation than many are also willing to admit. What exactly do you mean when you label something "hate speech," and to what it end have you chosen to label it that?

I recently heard the question posed as to whether the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "protects hate speech." It's a question worth dissecting. The text of the 1st Amendment is:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Full disclosure: I am by no means a constitutional scholar or legally trained in any way. I only cite the 1st Amendment at the level of popular culture having to traffic in these terms as part of conversation. Just from my limited understanding though, a few clauses stand out that I'll discuss in the following paragraphs.

"CONGRESS shall make no law" suggests that this amendment is targeted at the limitations of government. It goes on to prohibit restricting the speech of its citizens. Interestingly, within the same clause is the restriction of government not to abridge the "freedom of the press." Certainly these are linked such that should one go away, the other is sure to follow. It would seem the authors were concerned that abridging speech or press is both a governmental temptation and tendency, such that disallowing that abridgment was the first of the amendments to the new Constitution. Absent from the clause is specificity concerning what types of speech or what outlets of the "press" are protected by this amendment. At the scholarly level, most likely untold volumes have been written on what restrictions can be left to the states since this amendment applies to the U.S. Congress, and I am by no means aware of all of those. This rudimentary review, though, is helpful for discussion.

In addition, "Congress shall make no law... abridging...the right of the people peaceably to assemble."  Of course, the operative term here is "peaceably." In fact, it's not just an operative term; it's a linchpin. When people no longer are "peaceably" assembling, then they're assembling NOT peaceably; meaning assembling in a manner that disturbs the peace, causing injury to person and property. Thus the big difference must be held forth of peaceable assemblies from non-peaceful assemblies. I'm digressing a little from the "hate speech" discussion, but I think the point is relevant to the conversation.

The "peaceably" qualifier appears to be the primary exception to the "free speech" protection. So long as a group assembles "peaceably" to express grievances (misguided or valid), Congress shall make no law to abridge that speech. Stepping away from the nuanced "weeds" of Federal vs State issues, and accepting that the 1st Amendment should serve as a guide to lower laws as well, it would seem that the abridging of peaceable speech by any legislative body holds dangers that the Constitutional writers sought to avoid. There is a way around that though: "hate speech."

The popular term of "hate speech" is nebulous enough to include both things that everyone can agree on and those things than no one can. Obviously it relates to more than speech that any one person hates. Even that is an argument that most don't employ. However, it seems that speech that is perceived as "promoting hate" can be labeled as "hate speech." Clearly I'd agree that speech in which someone actually says that they "hate" another because of color, country of origin, sex, religion, etc. can be labeled "hate speech," and is appropriately denounced as reprehensible. If only the term could be kept to that arena. Because the term has such potency, however, it has become an effective tool in attempts by some to silence those whose speech they simply don't like, or opposes their political philosophy. I've called this "power-shaming" in other writing.

The 1st Amendment, and by extension even lower legislative bodies, are restricted from abridging speech that peaceably assembles to air their grievances. Therefore the way around this, if dissatisfied with this protection regarding speech one does not like, is to ensure that those expressing such cannot peaceably assemble. This can be done by gathering where they do and making certain that the assembly is never peaceful. However, in doing so you run the risk of bringing greater attention to the speech you wish to restrict than they would have otherwise garnered, but the risk is worth the achievement by possibly attracting more support for the cause of restricting that speech. After all, if indeed the assembly is gathered to express speech that enough people hate, there will be little to no condemnation of the tactic needed to restrict the expression of "hate speech."

Thus the 1st Amendment can be made irrelevant to the question as to whether it "protects hate speech," since the "court of public opinion" will not pass judgment on those that can ensure that the assemblies for some speech is never peaceable. I consider it irrelevant whether I also hate the speech of some that assemble because I agree with the Founders that the dangers of restricting peaceably assembled speech are greater than speech itself. On the contrary, better to have "hate speech" addressed with competing speech that deconstructs and discredits it rather than to embolden it with delusions of "martyrdom." If "hate speech" is to mean anything more than "speech you hate" (which alarmingly and arbitrarily could include even MY speech), then the popular response should be to heed the warnings inherent in the 1st Amendment and overcome that speech with higher, more enlightened, more educated and better argued speech; not attempt restricting it in some "strong arm" fashion.

There is indeed some speech that I "hate" (i.e. prejudices based on racial categories), but I agree with the Constitutional writers that trying to silence it holds dangers we would rather not face either. Defeat them with your speech, for the first to result to force has lost the argument. I'm no pacifist. Meeting force with force has certainly been not only necessary, but a moral imperative throughout history. But when "hate speech" arises (1) make sure you know how to define the term, not assuming everyone knows what you mean, and (2) defeat the ideas in the manner it manifests (speech vs speech).

What is "hate speech?" No one - and everyone - knows, but it cannot merely mean speech that you hate, or speech that you don't want spoken. The definition is too fluid. Therefore the 1st Amendment has to protect it, so long as it can peaceably assemble. The government does NOT have to endorse it, but it cannot abridge it. The arguments that allowance makes government complicit in it must be discarded as transparently immature. Is there speech that I hate that is popularly defined as "hate speech?" Of course. But I'd hate the government more that was in the business of abridging speech it deemed unprotected based on movable categories.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Power-shaming and other weaknesses

The American cultural phenomenon of feeling perpetually insecure, and needing validation from others has become so commonplace as to rise to proverbial status. We're a nation wherein the most vocal need the most approval. Since they seem unable to self-validate, the strategy for gaining feelings of significance is too shame others over "low-hanging fruit" topics wherein the shamed will do backflips for absolution.

Polarizing events often generate binary thinking wherein someone must be vocally against it or else suffer the "power-shaming" of seeming for it. Seldom is this more visible that events concerning racial tensions that still exist. The many reasons for those tensions' perpetuity can be debated at another time, but among those is most certainly that: Those that benefit from power-shaming have no interest in seeing racial strife ever subside.

There is power to be gained and maintained in shaming others over matters they will labor tirelessly to escape shame over. Those that know me know that I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I have decried his "Trumpkin" followers on many occasions; however, following the recent events in Charlottesville, VA. news commentators have echoed repeatedly the dissatisfaction with Trump's denunciation of the "white lives matter" groups (I'm summarizing all the racist groups that gathered to protest the removal of a statue to Robert E. Lee). As much as I have been a critic of POTUS, I must sympathize with him in this regard. The power-shamers smell "blood in the water" now, and will never be satisfied with any level of denunciation he speaks against WLM groups. I've learned that the power-shamers have no vested interest in ever granting absolution and declaring you contrite enough to be forgiven for someone else's sins. Quite the contrary, Democrats, Republicans, and political activists yearning to gain advantage will continue nibbling away like mythic Piranha in a jungle river.

I see this on social media where binary thinking manifests in demands for greater and louder condemnations of something bad, or else risk being labeled as tolerating that bad thing. The "if you're not for us, you're against us" message was most on display during the 2016 election where Trumpkins on social media were demanding loyalty to Captain Hairdo or risk being labeled a "Hillary supporter." The assertion that any vote not for Trump was a vote for Clinton was heard with such rapid-fire regularity as to become something I never thought I'd ever experience: actual political disagreement with my own father(!). To be fair, my father is no Trumpkin (not in the crude, rally attendee sense), but that binary thinking of "it's either A or B...nothing else" invaded our discussions at the time and I really disliked it.

Now comes the binary thinking as part of the power-shamers' arsenal. You're either AGAINST allowing such WLM groups their free speech rights, or you're for them in some unspoken way. I even read some suggest that "free speech" is a white man's invention, as though "liberty" is just a white-privilege code term for condoning oppression. Full disclosure: one of my favorite archaeologists was made famous killing Nazis, and I'm prone to feel satisfied doing the same. BUT I also realize that the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a messy thing, and "liberty" means that people can do and say things you don't like. That government empowered to restrict speech I DON'T like today may use that power to restrict speech I DO like tomorrow.

But those that seek power by shaming others cannot be bothered with discussions of the value of liberty regarding "free speech" or freedom of assembly. The good that is maintained by enforcing the 1st Amendment (even when it allows speech we find horrific) outweighs the evil spewed by those saying things we hate. Thus the power-shamers MUST be ignored. They have little concept of liberty and freedom, having never matured in their thinking to the level of appreciating what can transpire in its absence. I once told someone at an inner city college "I don't subscribe to white guilt theory." The horror on their face was telling. I had taken away their power to manipulate me into jumping through hoops seeking absolution that they will never grant.

Regarding the WLM groups in Charlottesville, their freedom of speech and freedom of assembly can be defended while denouncing what they assemble to say. This will not be enough for the power-shamers, who essentially have become the new "bullies" that want to dominate the playground. Unwillingness to play their game just seems to hasten their aneurism, but I'll just sit back, light up the cigar and watch the fireworks anyway.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Struggling with What about Faith?

In this millennial malaise of spirituality gobbledygook, one is not considered a "deep" person unless they have, at some point, "struggled with their faith in God." In response to that, I must quote the most frequent and annoying refrain from my old theology professor at Dallas Theological Seminary:

"What does that even mean?"

Dr. Glenn Kreider often found me flustered with his incessant demand that I be more specific and define the popular and ambiguous terms I threw out, thinking they had legitimacy simply because I had heard them so much. Evangelical rhetoric gets imbedded in our psyche and vocabulary sometimes, and extricating it from those mental burrows can be like a Cesarean Section without the glorious payoff. Phrases like "God has a plan for you," or "all things work together for good" prove as empty as they sound when crashing against the breakwater barrier of life's rough experiences. Responding to such platitudes with "I don't know what that means," may have got me wondering at the time Is this guy an idiot?, but after a while it was clear I was the idiot than needed to start thinking about what I was saying before I said it.

Struggled with faith?
...I don't know what that means.

What do you mean when you say "struggle." It seems that the post-modern, sexy, accepted definition is to have "struggled" with whether or not there is a God at all. Somehow life gets in the way of the faith claims of their youth, so they dabble in the "Ring" of atheism and return from Mordor with a customized version of their personal spirituality. This is seen as credible faith because it not only is post-struggle, but also reflects the triumph of western individualism. The "first world problems" of "finding my own voice" is among the new spiritual disciplines that ranks up there with fasting and alms-giving. So in the quest for inventing my own spiritual identity (complete with Café Press customized t-shirt slogan), it seems necessary to pass through the crucible of thinking that God does not exist. This is what it means to "struggle" with one's faith in many circles.

This meaning must be rejected though, for the same reasons that many postmoderns reject other aspects of western societal evolution. The triumph of individualism has done us no favors in the faith community. All other expressions of the human condition hold a necessary communal component, but with matters of faith we declare it a "private matter." This has not worked to our benefit. The "struggle" should not be to, having been "baptized" in the waters of atheism (or at best agnosticism), emerge "clean" from inherited assumptions, clothed only in new ones that I can invent. Instead this "struggle" should be to learn and grow within the arena of faith; not assuming that growth is possible outside of it.

Instead of "struggle" meaning whether or not to believe in God, it instead should be whether or not to believe certain people.

From someone that has undergone considerable "struggle," I can tell you that it never occurred to me to doubt whether God existed. It never even occurred to me doubt whether the God of the Bible was the God who is. Josh McDowell's "evidence" and Lee Strobel's "case" were never persuasive with me. I simply didn't need convincing. What I learned over time, though, is that the bull$#!% peddled by many religious entrepreneurs is as hevel as it is harmful. God might always be true and constant, but people can be full of crap!

Nothing about life's experiences suggested that God might not exist. After all, I've had many conversations in which people ask, "How can you believe in God with so much ugliness in the world?" To which I almost always respond, "Indeed with so much ugliness in the world, how do you explain the existence of beauty without Him?" Life's experiences, did however, illuminate a path whereby I became skeptical of much that people say about God. I've learned that many thrive in the religious industry (particularly American Evangelicalism) by asserting things about God and our interaction with him that the Bible does not explicitly teach. God is true, but people can be full of it.

When "faith is shaken," it's not required that faith itself topple over; only that those things that are indeed shakable be shaken off. When disappointing events of 2009 (a.k.a long story about almost becoming U.S. Navy chaplain) rocked the tectonic plates under my faith assumptions, I was asked by a colleague what I believed anymore; to this day I'm glad I answered:

"I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried.
He descended into hell and on the third day rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
from where he will come to judge the quick and dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting...

...all else seems like meaningless speculation."

My faith has since been brought back to some greater sophistication, though I still find recitation of the full Athanasian Creed a challenge. Nevertheless, the faith "struggle" was never whether to believe in God, but instead whether to believe in the lines fed to me by people; lines about "God's will" for my life, or lines about how "prayer works," crap about how if I'd just "surrender to God's will," pray a certain way, or discover the "special" words of the Scriptures (I swear a lot these Bible "secret" peddlers learned their methodology from B-movie clichés depicting witches with their books of spells!). The faith "struggle" was not about belief in God; but belief in people.

Outlining more of the life experiences here that have served as tough spiritual "earthquakes" would be neither appropriate nor brief (something about brevity as the soul of wit), but sufficient are they for making a credible case that, having listened to them all, my therapist might now have a drinking problem. Again, I assert that when faith is shaken, what remains is the faith that cannot be shaken. It is not necessary, no matter how expected it might be by millennial peers, to lose faith in God altogether. On the contrary, the analogy of the dross scraped away from molten metal applies. Those "impurities" can take the form of spirituality slogans fed to the faithful in youth camp, or memes perpetuated on social media, but metallurgy is not about discarding the molten material altogether, but refining and making it stronger.

Struggle with faith? What does that even mean?

How about a "struggle" to refine faith one's into something that keeps standing when all else is shaking lose and toppling over. That's what I mean when I say it. After all, my first world problems don't really compare to the challenges faced by those saints of the past that maintained The Faith in spite of real losses and heartbreaks that can't even relate to the present spirituality culture.