Criticism and Policing

From Jack Shafer’s diatribe against “The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting.”

Any call to cool “inflammatory” speech is a call to police all speech, and I can’t think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper’s in 1995, “The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say.”

I think there’s a mighty quick logical slippage here. Far from a call to police all speech, I think most calls to cool inflammatory speech aren’t calls to police anything or anyone at all. The idea that upholding important basic liberties requires us to refrain from moral criticism of misconduct is wildly misguided. And I think this form of libertarianism does more to undermine political liberty than to blame it. There’s something wrong, ethically speaking, with suggesting that your political opponents are orders of magnitude more monstrous than they really are. People who don’t want formal rules policing conduct have an especially strong interest in demonstrating that the absence of rules doesn’t mean a society in which there are no norms of conduct that encourage sociability, cooperation, etc.