Thursday, July 4, 2013

A few thoughts about freedom of speech

It's Independence Day in the US. And so I'd especially like to honor the US Bill of Rights today, with particular attention to the first and fourth amendments, which (like the fifth, sixth, and eight amendments) are under increasingly serious threat.

Amendment I
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.

 Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

 And yet, drawing attention to these amendments, I feel compelled to make certain that I'm not misunderstood in our little corner of the blogosphere by neglecting to assert that certain people who are claiming they are being censored when their disrespectful speech, whether thoughtless or hate-driven, is scrutinized and condemned. Censorship is something governments and government-directed agencies (which corporations sometimes behave as) do. Professional organizations, publishers, and editors are not agents of the government. They have limited powers. And they have responsibilities to their members and readers respectively. One of the responsibilities of a professional organization is upholding the ethical standards of its members.

 In her recent, four-part post, Liz Bourke sums up the current situation in the sf/f sphere with elegant succinctness:
The month of June 2013 saw sexism (and bigotry in several forms) bubble to the surface of the SFF genre conversation. Not fictional sexism, but the real-life kind: the Resnick/Malzburg dialogues (liberal fascism! censorship!) were followed by repugnant white supremacist and ex-SFWA presidential candidate Vox Day’s vile rhetorical attack on award-winning author N.K. Jemisin. And then we were faced with the news that Elise Matthesen had made the first formal report against Tor editor James Frenkel, long rumoured to be a man with whom one should avoid getting into an elevator.
I hope you have all read, at the very least, N.K. Jemisin's excellent speech, Elise Matthesen's courageous post, Amar El-Mohtar's righteous post insisting that SFWA needs to abide by standards of professionalism. Liz Bourke quotes from and links to other posts, too. By examining the outrageous, ridiculous post made by Rod Rees on his publisher's blog, she arrives at this significant, critical point:
In the last month, “freedom of speech” has been seized upon as a cri de coeur in the face of criticism in the SFF genre community. The response of Resnick and Malzburg to legitimate criticism was not to say, “Hey, you might have a point, we’ll think about it,” or even, “I think you’re wrong, but we’ll have to agree to disagree,” but to talk about “censorship” and “liberal fascism.” Likewise, calls to expel Theodore Beale from SFWA for, essentially, bringing the organisation into disrepute, were met with but you can’t punish him for exercising his freedom of speech!
(The right to freedom of speech is not the right to a platform, or to a megaphone. Nor is it freedom from the consequence of speech – which can be criticism, in the form of more speech.)
In other words, the claim that freedom of speech has been endangered by criticism of that speech is a red herring. The crucial question people should be asking themselves is this: what behavior is appropriate in professional situations, and what speech is appropriate in professional venues? Do we (I mean SFWA) have no professional standards at all (beyond, of course, the three-professional-sales qualification)? That, really, is the question. How professional is it to call a fellow (more talented and successful) writer an “ignorant half-savage” and proclaim that “self-defense laws have been put in place to let whites defend their lives and their property from people, like her, who are half-savages engaged in attacking them,” as Beale did? To me, such talk sounds like nothing more than vile hate speech (and a thinly veiled threat). Beale availed himself of a SFWA twitter feed to spew his vitriol: in other words, he used his professional status to amplify his bandwidth for what any reasonable person would call an unprofessional utterance.

So let me ask again: what ought the standards of sf/f's professional organization to be? We've recently begun demanding certain minimal standards for sf cons.

Liz Bourke sees these rhetorical assaults and the excuses made for them as signs of "systemic failure." And so they are. We've had exposure after exposure. Clarity must follow, right? 


Liz Bourke said...

In other words, the claim that freedom of speech has been endangered by criticism of that speech is a red herring. The crucial question people should be asking themselves is this: what behavior is appropriate in professional situations, and what speech is appropriate in professional venues?

Yes! This is it exactly.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Definitely questions worth discussing.

Here's a quote from Michael Shermer:
"The price of liberty is, in addition to eternal vigilance, eternal patience with the vacuous blather occasionally expressed from behind the shield of free speech.

"It is a cost worth bearing, but it does become exasperating."

Timmi Duchamp said...

Geoff-- let me reiterate that "liberty" pertains to government censorship, not to the choices we collectively make about discursive parameters within, say, particular professional or social spheres determined by their membership. I'd also note that I couldn't possibly characterize Beale's toxic speech as merely vacuous blather. The context for your quote from Shermer is a ridiculous Fox Broadcasting show arguing that the moon mission was a fake (which is, indeed, an excellent example of vacuous blather). Hate speech laced with either implicit or explicit death threats is something else entirely.