By Jon Cogburn
If we had to vote for the The Onion's most successfully philosophically biting story, I would nominate ACLU Defends Nazis' Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters. It works as humor in part because it's just a little bit of an exaggeration of the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union has over and over again successfully defended the Ku Klux Klan's and other Nazi groups' right to march and make speeches, which, were they politically successful, actually would entail burning down ACLU headquarters and much worse. And the broader philosophical point is raised concerning how one should react to speech one finds harmful.
The ACLU approach embodies the quote we usually misattribute to Voltaire, "“I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And by defending the right to say it, they don't just mean saying things in the privacy of one's own home without fear of government eavesdropping and punishment, but the right to say things in the public square and be heard doing so.
There are many ways of silencing people that are far short of government censure. "Doxing" refers to publishing people's private information on the public internet without their consent, usually as part of an attempt to get a mob to harass that person into silence. I wrote a post yesterday about a new conservative philosophy blog where some of the posters have been uploading screen shots from people's non-public facebook posts and comments, and since that time some of the accounts have come down because of the level of harassment has become unbearable. The right does not have a monopoly on this kind of silencing. A few years ago at newapps there was a serious discussion about collective shunning (in the forms of neither hiring, nor inviting to speak) people whose online speech was understood to be harmful to various groups of people. The author of the post didn't name anyone, but what he wrote was interpreted by many to refer to an offensive post I'd written while reflecting on some pretty serious difficulties my four year old son was having, including a recent diagnosis of him as being on the autism spectrum. Among other things, I was thrown off of the blog, something like five people cancelled meals with me at a conference, and I was disinvited from the editorial board of book series.* Ironically, the newapps proposal to shun people was framed in terms of shunning people who silence others, though the effect of shunning people (not employing them and not inviting them to speak) is silencing them.
The newapps post to which I linked above has the virtue of making explicit something that surely goes on implicitly. We use public spaces to sort of together decide who is worthy of moral censure and then contribute to the piling on. Since the publication of Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed we are all a little more aware of how dangerous and damaging these kinds of dynamic are.
All of the very public hullabaloo surrounding our own J. Ed Hackett's impassioned response to Richard Swinburne's lecture on Christian morality has brought much of this to the fore again, and was the occasion both of the doxing in question, something of an inquisitorial process by which conservative philosophers are being asked if they have anything to do with the blog that is doing the doxing, and personal insults back and forth.
There is no easy solution to things like this. I knew two egregiously bullied gay kids who killed themselves, one in high school and one early in college, and until my dying day will overflow with regret that I did not do more to befriend them and try to help. Whether you know it or not you have gay or trans family members and friends who have been through hell because of the way we collectively enforce gender roles. Those of us who are aware of this understandably get very upset and defensive when we hear people say things that strike us as dehumanizing gay people. Likewise with disability issues and issues concerning race. I would not have been so truculent with my fellow newapps co-bloggers if I hadn't felt so powerless during that time to help my son suffer less and be able to attend a school with other kids.** The vast majority of us, no matter our political views, are relatively powerless yet desperately want to do something to help and so lashing out angrily across the internet is in the end probably the easiest thing to do. So we do it. And it feels pretty good, and maybe it does change public norms sometimes. I don't know. On the other hand, in addition to what it puts people on the receiving end of the abuse through, it does a lot of damage as well.