We was rotten ‘fore we started

Among all the tweets on the subject of the March for Life which took place across the US last weekend, with a handful of carefully-selected Parkland schoolkids headlining the event, this one caught my eye:

I got exactly the same feeling a few days before when I heard that some Scottish imbecile going by the name of Count Dankula had been found guilty of hate crimes for teaching his dog to do a Nazi salute and uploading a video of the same. He’ll be sentenced in April, and will probably serve time in prison.

Although a number of people spoke out in defence of Mark Meechan’s (his real name) right to free speech, most remained silent. Disappointingly, several prominent people came out and said that folk should be banned by the government from saying certain things, or that speech should be restricted in various ways (this radio conversation between James Delingpole and James Whale is illuminating).

Now I have run the topic of free speech and “hate speech” restrictions past various people over the past couple of years, and have found that almost all believe the government should prosecute those who say things which are “obviously racist”. Most have been middle-class and middle-aged or younger, and I’ve found the women are unanimous in their views that speech should not be wholly free and expressing certain views should be punished. A few men thought speech should be absolutely free, but not many.

I believe the problem is most people don’t realise how we got to here from there. I think a lot of people reckon a few blokes sat down and made arbitrary decisions about how society should be run, and that was that (actually, that’s what the Founding Fathers did, more or less). They then, with all the hubris which modern folk seem to have in abundance, declare these decisions “outdated”. One phrase that comes up a lot when I talk to others about free speech is that “times change”. Which they do, but alas human nature doesn’t.

What they don’t understand is that society evolved to where it is now only after centuries of painful, bloody, and brutal lessons were learned, over and over, the hard way. The Founding Fathers, possessing between them more wisdom than an entire generation of modern politicians, understood this all too well and captured those lessons learned in the Constitution (and its amendments) so the citizens of their new republic didn’t have to go through the pain their forebears did.

Somewhere back in the midst of time two men trying to hack each other to death using swords decided between them there is probably a better method of solving whatever disagreement they had, and politics was born. As they say, politics is war by any other means. Later, someone got the bright idea of allowing certain people to have a say in how they were governed having worked out this causes a lot less bloodshed and suffering. Around the same time, people realised that putting constraints on what rulers may do to their people works out better for everyone in the long run. Later still, people realised that free speech was a good thing and demanded it; they had seen first-hand the inevitable results of a government which decides who says what, and they weren’t pretty. Ordinary folk knew the ruling classes didn’t want the masses having free speech, and understood why. This was as obvious to them as the sun in the sky. Far from being a lofty ideal, it was a freedom they wanted and didn’t want to lose. They knew if they did, things would get a lot tougher down the road.

Those painful lessons of the past appear to have been lost, and now – if I look around me – few understand why we should have freedom of speech. They think rights are something akin to a corporate policy, dreamed up last week in a workshop by some dimwit in HR and signed off by a CEO who will quit next month. Now I don’t believe rights exist in a vacuum, they are a product of the society which adopts them, and they can be changed or removed by that same society as they please. But any society that chooses to do so would do well to look at the reasons why these rights exist in the first place, and consider the worst that could happen once they’re gone.

People who today believe the government should ban “racist speech” don’t seem to have considered how simple it would be for a future government to widen that definition, and that future governments may not be so benign. After all, it’s only a matter of getting a big enough show of hands to get elected and then quietly update a document or two. There’s no need for them to breach any principle, or make a step-change in how we are governed; that ship sailed a long time ago. They don’t even need to consult with anyone, once they’re in power. It’s merely a matter of administration, rather like increasing the overseas aid budget, or changing the criteria for obtaining a shotgun licence.

There was a time when everyone knew the importance of the right to free speech, and were taught it in school. That time now seems to have passed. I believe it will return, but only once people have found out the hard way, and re-learned the lessons they should never have allowed themselves to forget in the first place. That might be a long time in the future, with much pain and suffering in the meantime.

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28 thoughts on “We was rotten ‘fore we started

  1. “times change”

    They do, and these people will shortly learn what happens when they do, by when it will be too late.

  2. I fear that the battle for free speech is lost in the short term at least. I have found myself a fairly lone voice among acquaintances in speaking up for Meechan but frankly it is too late. I ought to have been standing up against all hate speech laws when they were passed, not now oppression of free speech has reached ridiculous levels.

  3. “What they don’t understand is that society evolved to where it is now”

    And most societies have not. Which, btw, suggests that if you were a government keen on ending free speech, mass influx from such societies would be a useful tool. But perhaps it is just human nature not to appreciate all that much something that you personally got for free, even if your forebears have shed much sweat and blood for it.

  4. There’s actually only one country where free speech is a thing.

    Everywhere else had a brief moment in the 20th century where they played with the concept and are now reverting the the historical mean.

  5. This is, I think, one of the best and most powerful things you have written. Thank you.

    It is interesting to speculate on why we have lost what used to be a collective faith in free speech. Doubtless, there have been some very determined left-wingers who have taken over institutions and procedures, and subverted useful ideals that most people didn’t think about too deeply. A small well-organised group can usually prevail over the interests of those who are too preoccupied or lazy to protect those interests.

    There is also the issue of the changing nature of debate, probably driven by the internet and social media. People see that most “debates” are aggressive slanging matches which allow people to blow off steam, but in the vast majority of cases go nowhere. Debates on social media are usually about stridently presenting one’s position, while rubbishing and attempting to discredit and humiliate anyone who disagrees. Mill’s idea that debate strengthens understanding of one’s own position, and helps in the formation and refinement of one’s views, is unsupported by what people see on Facebook, Twitter, and in chat rooms. There doesn’t seem to be any value in what the other guy thinks; it’s just irrelevant, a nuisance. So why not just ban stuff we don’t like?

    This is also supported by the “all must have prizes” culture of education in much of the West. If children are taught that whatever they say is valuable, is a point of view which cannot be wrong, then again, an unpleasant contrary position is a mere irrelevance. It annoys me…so ban it…get rid of it…

  6. You never hear anyone say “It’s a free country” anymore, either.

    I think the left takeover of education has been a stunning success, we now have to live with a country full of young[er] people who have no idea what is at stake.

  7. ‘The eighteenth-century theories of the social contract have been exposed to much clumsy criticism in our time; in so far as they meant that there is at the back of all historic government an idea of content and co-operation, they were demonstrably right. But they really were wrong, in so far as they suggested that men had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, “I will not hit you if you do not hit me”; there is no trace of such a transaction. There IS a trace of both men having said, “We must not hit each other in the holy place.” They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. ‘

    G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

  8. This is, I think, one of the best and most powerful things you have written. Thank you.

    Even more than my stuff on polyamory and carrier bags? Why, thank you! 🙂

    It is interesting to speculate on why we have lost what used to be a collective faith in free speech.

    My guess is because we’ve never had to earn it, and not experienced life without it (yet). It’s no different from the 3rd generation heir of the family fortune pissing it all away in a manner his father and grandfather would never have done. People are kicking away the foundations of society having no idea what they’re for and why they were built.

    There doesn’t seem to be any value in what the other guy thinks; it’s just irrelevant, a nuisance. So why not just ban stuff we don’t like?

    I agree with this, and wrote about it here.

  9. While utterly nonsensical, one thing is true about this march: this generation will be voting soon and they are driven by an ideological determination to cure the ills of society through any means necessary and they do not respect the concept of inherent rights.

    Couldn’t you have said the same thing about the hippies in the sixties, though?

    Two things to remember:

    (1) Children are stupid. They (or most of them, anyway) get less stupid as they grow up. This may yet happen.

    (2) ‘This generation’ is used very broadly there. But to move from Chesterton to Burke: ‘Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.’

  10. It is quite a dangerous situation when the political opportunists can mobilise the youth on mass to do their bidding. Mao Tse Tung perfected this during the cultural revolution when he incited the students to rebel against and exterminate their capitalist elders.

  11. I think the left takeover of education has been a stunning success

    I blame Gaius and Titius and their ilk. The chestless are now bringing up others in their image.

  12. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure,”

  13. “People are kicking away the foundations of society having no idea what they’re for and why they were built”

    “The building has always stood, and if we knock that foundation away it’ll no longer be in the way and we can build a brilliant carport!”

  14. People who today believe the government should ban “racist speech” don’t seem to have considered how simple it would be for a future government to widen that definition, and that future governments may not be so benign.

    Case in point, as an American I may be wrong in this but I was living in London when it happened and I’m reasonably sure I remember reading the details in the Times…

    Didn’t Blair’s government use some emergency powers act to push through the ban on fox hunting? Which act had been passed in the dark day of WWII to allow the government to pass legislation that might be needed to fend off a totalitarian dictatorship? And which hadn’t been used until the fox hunting ban?

    Never pass a law you wouldn’t want your worst enemy to be able to use against you.

    Couldn’t you have said the same thing about the hippies in the sixties, though?

    Not really. In the sixties politicians, and I know this may be hard to believe, still had some sense of doing things that were for the benefit of the country as a whole and not cravenly beneficial to them politically. If you could tell the parliament of the 40s which passed the emergency powers act how it would be used in the 90s they’d never believe that anyone would be so childish. Likewise the politicians in the sixties who started the ball rolling downhill could never have imagined how far down was the bottom of the hill.

    Well, now I’ve depressed myself.

  15. “There was a time when everyone knew the importance of the right to free speech, and were taught it in school.” Taught in school? When was that then?

  16. Didn’t Blair’s government use some emergency powers act to push through the ban on fox hunting? […] And which hadn’t been used until the fox hunting ban?

    Are you thinking of the Parliament Act? Which isn’t an emergency measure but is a perfectly normal part of the constitution — the fact that it is rarely invoked is more to do with the fact that it is its very existence which keeps the Lords from trying to overrule the Commons, so in that sense it is ‘used’ during every Parliamentary session.

  17. Taught in school? When was that then?

    Civics classes in the US. They used to be a thing, apparently.

  18. S:’Two things to remember:

    (1) Children are stupid. They (or most of them, anyway) get less stupid as they grow up. This may yet happen.’

    You have seen what passes for ‘adult’ these days, haven’t you, S..?

  19. This is, I think, one of the best and most powerful things you have written. Thank you.

    Agreed.

    But up until today, definitely the carrier bags.

  20. Are you thinking of the Parliament Act?

    Apparently I was, and I was off by several years as the ban was passed in 2004, not the late 90s as my faulty memory believed.

    Which isn’t an emergency measure but is a perfectly normal part of the constitution…

    Well, to be fair it wasn’t part of the constitution until 1911 so the UK seems to have done fine without it for some time.

    I do like the recursive nature of using the Act of 1911 to create the Act of 1949 which amended the Act of 1911 – if Wikipedia has that correct.

  21. Well, to be fair it wasn’t part of the constitution until 1911 so the UK seems to have done fine without it for some time

    True, but once the supremacy of the Commons was established, something like it was inevitable; see also the Salisbury convention.

    I do like the recursive nature of using the Act of 1911 to create the Act of 1949 which amended the Act of 1911 – if Wikipedia has that correct.

    That was in fact the basis of a legal challenge to the hunting ban; a doomed one, of course, for no court is going to strike down an Act of Parliament. We leave that kind of nonsense to the Yankees and their Supreme Court.

  22. Pedant alert! The ‘March for Life’ is the annual march protesting Roe vs. Wade. These idiot tools of the gun-grabbers used a ‘March for Our Lives’ slogan.

  23. “After all, it’s only a matter of getting a big enough show of hands to get elected and then quietly update a document or two. ”

    I think no vote will prove to be necessary. The scope will slowly be expanded by judicial fiat. The boundaries of ‘grossly offensive speech’, the utterance of which is now a crime, are sufficiently nebulous. And the gestalt of the times demands that a definition be found, because everyone agrees that hate speech ought to be banned, but the politicians cannot agree on a definition. So each successive ruling will grope towards a consistent definition by slowly expanding the boundaries.

    I think there is a very strong parallel to the development of the crime of Maiestas in the early Roman Empire. Maiestas was a crime against the majesty of the emperor. Republican Rome knew no such crime. The first Emperor (Augustus) knew no such crime. But in the reign of Tiberius, one Marcus Scribonius Libo was brought to trial on this charge. What he did, exactly, was not clear – an act of magic, or divination. A few bad precedents were set during his trial – including permission to torture a man’s slaves to extract testimony against him – and within two generations men were being executed for going to the privy with a coin in their pocket.

    Why a coin? Why, it bears the likeness of the previous emperor, who has now been deified. And the public privies are an impure place. Sacrilege! Off with his head.

    The parallels are rather striking. Tacitus describes Libo as “a short-sighted youth, who had a foible for absurdities” – as good a description as any for Count Dankula. And in 16 AD, the idea of the emperor as a deity was new (Augustus had been deified in 14 AD upon his death). The temper of the times demanded that the new-found sanctity of the emperor find some suitable expression. And in our day, the elites and media have discovered this new idea, that some speech is hate speech and ought to be stopped by legal means, and it is the duty of all virtuous men to support this. So I expect the rulings on free speech to follow a similar pattern, unless something is done. Tacitus’ Annales makes for grim reading as prophecy.
    http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/Annals/2B*.html

    As for Count Dankula, I think a suitable reaction would be to clearly assert that it is a miscarriage of justice for him to be jailed for ‘grossly offensive speech’ – and at the same time to denounce his idiocy in terms that no-one could fail to find grossly offensive.

  24. I think no vote will prove to be necessary. The scope will slowly be expanded by judicial fiat.

    I agree, no vote is necessary to change the definition, just to obtain power.

    Why a coin? Why, it bears the likeness of the previous emperor, who has now been deified. And the public privies are an impure place. Sacrilege! Off with his head.

    Heh! That slope was quite slippery, then?

  25. I’m sure it didn’t seem so at first 🙂

    I now realize I should have posted this on the more recent blog post on this subject. Guess I’m just not quick enough to keep up with your blogging… 😉

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