Bully pulpits and the abuse thereof

Chez Scalzi the last couple of days has been host to a discussion about the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Long story short, for those unaware: It was discovered he made a large donation to a Prop 8 campaign, OK Cupid then decided to cut ties with Mozilla in protest, and that led to Eich’s resignation.

The chatter in the wake of that has centered on free speech rights, and, predictably, there are the usual people making the following errors:

1. Not understanding that the First Amendment covers only speech-silencing actions by government, not by individuals and private entities, and that it also doesn’t protect all speech, nor guarantee a rapt audience, a soap box, and an enforcer squad keeping your opposition from speaking up.

2. Not understanding that, going beyond constitutional protections and into the philosophy of free speech, people are STILL guaranteed the right to dissenting opinions on the speech of others.

3. Not understanding that calling for a boycott is a free speech right, and it’s one that everyone has equally. The boycotts of some groups may have more power than others due to that group having larger numbers, or economic or political power, but calling for the boycott itself is still something everyone has an equal right to do. People can call for a boycott of OK Cupid for their initial action, for instance. Yay, freedom.

4. A whole heapin’ helpin’ of false equivalence and misunderstanding the difference between speech and action. This is, of course, being muddied by Scalia and his dipshit cronies in SCOTUS deciding that political donations are speech rather than action. (And really, if that’s so, then why not classify paying someone to commit a murder the same way as we classify saying you’re going to murder someone? Money speaks far louder than words and has way more power to initiate subsequent action; the two cannot be considered equivalent.)

I pointed out the above things over there, but there was something else going on that made me a lot angrier: Something that boiled down to the belief that calling for help when you’re being abused is somehow equally as bad as the act of abuse in the first place; the belief, in short, that gathering allies to oneself in order to have strength in numbers against a foe is somehow inherently morally wrong. This is actually a problem underlying a lot of conservative-leaning libertarian thought, so I’d like to dig into that a little more.

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, principles in modern libertarian thought is that the government is inherently abusive in that it has considerably more power than individuals. In some respects, this isn’t entirely wrong. While in a true representative republic, such as the one with its design in the U.S. Constitution, everyone has equal power because everyone only gets one vote, the reality of 21st-century politics is that people with more money have more power. Between lobbying and campaign financing, people who don’t have the means to pay elected officials to do their bidding have effectively considerably less power than those who do.

Yet there is still power that can be had in such a situation, if only it’s used: numbers. People who don’t want their disproportionate power challenged do everything they can to divide and distract their opposition so they can never unite in numbers large enough to upset the balance. They take our mind off the real issues by dangling shiny outrage at us, and frame justice as a limited commodity that different oppressed groups must fight over, and thus we do, while our mutual enemy sits back and laughs at our squabbles.

This principle–strength in numbers–is what underlies our system of government. While individual rights are protected from the possibility of mob rule (see: the amendments), everything else is still subject to majority vote. One of the benefits, in a painful way, of money and power being concentrated in an ever-smaller percentage of a population is that the people on the other side have the ability to form one hell of a resistance army. We are, after all, the 99%. Build the barricades and vive la révolution!

Where modern libertarians go wrong, therefore, is in misunderstanding the role of government in this process. While we do have an awful lot of corruption to clean up to make government actually fit this properly, this system is still designed to be by, for, and OF the people. Organizing diverse groups well enough to take on a powerful enemy is incredibly hard; citizen-controlled government is one of the best, most streamlined (really!) ways in which to do this. It is a tool that individuals can use to organize themselves to take on foes too powerful to take on as an individual. It’s a way to build an army, in other words.

Now, some libertarians, operating under the incorrect belief that every individual has exactly equal power, may consider this sort of thing to be an unfair “ganging up” on people. Ehm. No. Even the principle of equal power assumes that every individual may use whatever tools they have at their disposal to prevail in a conflict. That’s why people want the right to own guns, after all. They feel as though they are underpowered compared to others who wish them harm, and they believe owning a lethal weapon will put them back on equal footing. The same logic is used to defend claiming and abusing disproportionate economic power.

What they don’t get, though, is that individuals also have the right to claim another tool to even the odds: allies. If a kid’s being bullied by someone twice his size, he has no hope of defending himself … unless he has friends come back him up. (Whereupon the bully, when faced with an army that his size cannot match, starts complaining that he’s the one being bullied. Nevermind that he was picking on someone weaker to begin with.) That principle is what’s our government is all about. It’s a way we can gather allies to ourselves to face foes with far greater power than we would have as individuals. This is NOT unfair. This is how democracy works.

What this means is that actions by a citizen-directed government can never be tyranny unless they violate one of the basic guaranteed rights. They are not a faceless plutocracy stomping on the little guy. They are a bunch of little guys who banded together to rein in a couple of other little guys who were being assholes. Understanding exactly what the basic guaranteed rights are and how they’re applied is crucial to any discussion of abuse of collective power, and that understanding is sorely lacking among modern conservative libertarians.

I’m not going to touch the whole 2nd Amendment aspect of this (though I personally think the thing needs to be repealed or amended, to reflect its actual original purpose in having a standing citizen army to fight off invading forces), so let’s go into another right that’s not actually a right that libertarians think they have, but which they do not actually have: the right to discriminate against someone in hiring, public accommodations, etc., if based in sincerely held religious beliefs. While anti-discrimination laws do not require that people associate intimately with people they dislike, they do require that they accept the existence of such people in general, and accept the right of those people to have jobs, housing, etc. Such laws don’t violate freedom of association or religion. They are merely a reiteration of the rights that exist in the 14th Amendment (and when even a conservative-leaning SCOTUS backs this up, really, there’s no leg to stand on.) The exercise of association and religious rights cannot happen in a way that deprives others of their own basic rights. It’s the simple principle: my right to move my fist ends where your face begins. In this case, the right to practice one’s religion ends when it requires the unwilling participation of others. We don’t allow human sacrifice, after all, no matter how sincerely a given person may hold such a ritual as a sacred part of their faith. (I’d also argue we should disallow practices that cause harm to children who cannot give informed consent to them, under the notion that one’s religion should be freely chosen as an adult and not imposed, but that’s a big can o’ worms since it covers things like circumcision.)

Steering this runaway train back toward the original topic:

Someone Chez Scalzi was arguing that the boycotts against Mozilla were an unethical use of disproportionate power, and had the effect of silencing someone’s free speech. Even aside from the fact that LGBTs don’t have anywhere near the same power as those who oppose their rights, this is false on its face. EVERYONE has the right–the free-speech right–to complain and to call for aid when being abused by someone else. If some dude comes up and punches you in the face, you are within your rights to call out for help, in the hopes that those around you will help fix your bloody nose, keep the dude from punching you any more, and hold him accountable for his actions. Some idjit who tried to commit an anti-gay hate crime in the middle of a leather bar isn’t being denied his rights when a squad of muscle-bound bears gets in his face and tells him to GTFO. Moreover, even if the initial act really is a matter of speech, it’s STILL not depriving someone of rights to ask for a whole host of friends and allies to back you up when someone starts throwing verbal bombs at you. The right to rally others to your cause is, I should think is obvious, the very foundation of American freedom. If someone makes a comment to this post insisting that I’m a festering boil on the butt of a flea, I’m within my rights to ask a few dozen of my friends to come in and make posts to the contrary. I’m ALSO well within my rights to simply delete that comment, because this is a private space, and I’m not required to give pixels to someone who pisses me off. If they want a platform equal to mine from which to declare their views, they are perfectly welcome to start their own blog; they are not entitled to space on mine.

There is, of course, such a thing as mob rule and the tyranny of the majority. But again, that comes in cases in which someone’s basic rights are being violated. Citizens banding together to enact anti-gay laws aren’t doing democracy right because they’re attempting to violate someone else’s basic rights. Laws designed to ignore the constitution and restrict someone anyway are invalid on their face, and continuing to try to pass them is an enormous waste of time and money (and you’d think people who claim to be fiscally responsible would know better. Guess not.)

So, in short, absolutely people were entitled to speak up about someone in a position of power attempting to deprive them of their basic rights. They were also entitled to rally other people to their cause and try to use strength in numbers to defend themselves. That they prevailed was not evidence of abuse of disproportionate power, but of democracy in action.

 

 

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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