All posts filed under: Free Speech

Does Free Speech Need Boundaries to Survive?

 “Opinions,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “are to the gigantic apparatus of social life what oil is to machines. No one goes up to an engine and douses it in machine oil; one applies a little to the hidden spindles and joints one has to know.” Those defending free speech today may recoil from this advice. The idea of society as a machine, which came naturally to the Marxist Benjamin, is a long way from the ideal of free and creative individuals that many of them cherish. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a useful metaphor, if only because of the image it brings to mind of the era we’ve now entered: an engine drowning in so much oil that it has begun violently shaking, sputtering and threatening to collapse. It wouldn’t be misleading to say that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from free speech itself. In particular, it comes from the sheer volume and chaotic nature of that speech. The current polarization of politics is rooted in an endless, sprawling argument about values taking …

Sarah Haider on Normalizing Dissent: A Conversation

After a couple of false starts, Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) finally kicked off its Normalizing Dissent Tour at the University of Colorado Boulder. On the evening of Thursday, October 5, more than 90 people assembled to hear a panel of three Ex-Muslim women – EXMNA co-founder Sarah Haider, Saudi activist Ghada, and writer and editor Hiba Krisht – discuss “Islam, Modesty, and Feminism.” At the request of Secular Students and Skeptics Society (SSaSS), the student organization that invited EXMNA, campus security took the unusual precaution of searching all bags for weapons as the audience filed into the lecture hall where the event took place. Fortunately the event, which included an hour-long Q&A, proceeded civilly. Krisht, who was raised as a Shi’a Muslim in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, said in her opening statement: “I felt I was lying with every movement, lying with what I was wearing, lying with my actions because I would pray in front of them [her family] even though I didn’t believe in God.” Ghada described an upbringing nearly as harsh. When as …

The Pragmatic Case for Understanding Neurodiversity

I live in a Himalayan village. Today, I woke up to a mountain dog chewing my shoes and pulling the strings of my bamboo chair. He was glad I was up early. He wanted to take me out to show me his friends in the valley. I wasn’t mad, but this is not because dogs are cute. If a cute girl had done this, I wouldn’t have seen this as a charming eccentricity. I don’t overestimate the cognitive sophistication of dogs. I know this is stereotyping, but sometimes stereotyping can make us tolerant. I’m an Aspie. Hill people are unusually tolerant of my social ineptitude, unlike in the cities where I grew up and worked. They attribute my social faux pas to cultural differences. We tolerate the “social ineptitude” of foreigners because we know cultural differences are a great source of misunderstanding. We expect them to become culturally assimilated, but we won’t set the bar too high if they’ve limitations. I don’t expect my dog to be good at writing anytime soon. Similarly, I think people …

A Policy of Censorship More Extreme Than Google

By now, we’ve all heard about James Damore, the software engineer who authored a memo suggesting that the tendency of more men than women tend to pursue careers in technology may be explained at least in part by biological differences. Qualified scientists have confirmed that the scientific facts cited by Damore are accurate to the best of our knowledge at this time, but Google nonetheless fired Damore for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes,” raising concerns from many that the company is inhospitable to those who do not conform to a very narrow, politically correct ideology.1,2 From my own experience as a software engineer who has worked at several companies and holds degrees from two universities, I can attest that this problem is not unique to Google but is widespread in both industry and academia. In response to the Google memo, one company saw it necessary to lay down the law for its own employees, setting out a policy that is even more censorious than Google itself. That company is MongoDB, a New York-based database startup employing …

Fake News is Old News

“Fake news,” disinformation, and propaganda is saturating social media and driving the content of important political conversations among citizens in otherwise enlightened democracies. News and information thus become weaponized and aimed against the very institutions and values that free speech was supposed to protect. That, at least, is the fear among many politicians and pundits. These fears have been given impetus by the role of alternative and social media in the 2016 American Presidential election and by a number of studies exploring the “eco-system” of alternative media and the misinformation sown, grown, and distributed by such outlets. This scenario has precipitated a collapse of public trust in democratic institutions, and governments fearful of populist nationalism have scrambled to find policies aimed at combatting fake news. Germany recently adopted legislation obliging social media companies to pay fines up to EUR 50 million if they fail to delete illegal content within 24 hours. While ostensibly aimed at hate speech and defamatory slander, German minister of Justice Heiko Maas has blurred the lines between these categories and the ill-defined concept of “fake news.” Italy introduced a bill aimed at “preventing the manipulation …

Mental Health ‘Disabilities’ as Legal Superpowers

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or a disability rights expert, and I am not offering legal advice. I’m just a psychology professor offering one possible strategy that neurominorities could use to stand up for our free speech rights at American universities. In an earlier article for Quillette.com, I outlined how campus speech codes discriminate against people who show various forms of ‘neurodiversity’ such as Asperger’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, or ADHD. I promised a follow-up article on how neurodivergent people might be able to use the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 to fight these discriminatory speech codes at U.S. universities. This is that follow-up article. I’ll get much more specific about what you can do, at your university, if you have a genuine diagnosable ‘mental disorder’, to advocate for your free speech rights. Mental disorders are highly stigmatized conditions, but they have a hidden upside: they can give you legal super-powers, including a surprisingly formidable set of rights under the ADA. If enough neurodivergent students, staff, and faculty use the ‘ADA strategy’ that …

Richard Dawkins Celebrated by Activists and Ex-Muslims at London Conference for Free Expression

When ex-Muslim Bonya Ahmed reached out her hand to accept an award in London on Sunday, it was missing her thumb. Islamists hacked it off in Bangladesh, 2015. She had thrown her arms in front of her husband Avijit Roy to shield him from machetes as a mob cut the life out of him for criticising Islam. The attack happened in a crowded public street but the people – including police – stood by and did nothing. The ceremony that recognised this brave woman had to be held in a secret location because London is no longer safe for ex-Muslims, atheists or even secular Muslim believers who dare to say that Islam should not be implemented as a system of laws. Let that sink in: these people had to gather in an undisclosed location.. Not in Bangladesh, but in Britain. The room was filled with free thinkers from around the world: Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran, Tunisia, France, Poland, Turkey. They came from everywhere to attend the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression. Many …