Regarding Lucien Greave’s “Free Speech” Essay

Regarding Lucien Greave’s “Free Speech” Essay June 19, 2018

I was glad that The Satanic Temple’s (TST) co-founder and spokesperson Lucien Greaves reached out to this blog to republish his free speech essay to a wider audience (read here). The mandate of Patheos is, after all, to “engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality, and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs”, so such discussion finds a comfortable home here. There can be no dialog on beliefs and the effects of those beliefs without the conceit that all ideas, provided they do not threaten or seek to impinge on the right of others to do the same, must be expressed if they are to be grappled with.

That said, there are a few points Lucien discussed that I would like to highlight and elaborate on from my own perspective.

Image Credit: Flickr user k_donovan11 (CC by 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Hate Festers in Darkness

In his discussion on TST’s 2014 attempt to perform a black mass re-enactment at Harvard, Greaves pointed out that the Catholic backlash against it garnered far more attention for the event than it ever would have received had they simply allowed the presentation to go on. This is equally true of TST’s Arizona chapter’s attempt to give an invocation at Phoenix’s City Council meeting. The resultant uproar in these cases brought far more attention to the campaigns than if detractors had simply allowed the invocation to occur without making a fuss. The media attention in such cases has, in many ways, done more to spur the revival of interest in Satanism than anything else.

However, I’d like to note another benefit of allowing unpopular speech to engage in open platforms: a lack of anonymity. In a way we can consider it analogous to the problem of dark money in the political realm. The issue there is not what is being said, but that we have no way of knowing who is the one saying it, so we cannot address them directly. It is the same with controversial speech by speakers in public venues. By allowing them to present their ideas in a public forum they are compelled to ascribe their identity to them. Whereas, if such speech is suppressed it is driven into the shadows and distributed anonymously, shielding the speaker from appropriate criticism.

We often lament the effect of ideological echo chambers in today’s culture, where people avoid ideas critical of their own and surround themselves with media that only encourages instead of challenges their preconceived notions. We find ourselves equally upset by those online who engage in hateful rhetoric behind the safety of screen names and avatars. Yet, to curtail their ability to bring those ideas into the public sphere denies us the opportunity to see which of these ideas they believe in strongly enough to put their real-life reputations on the line for. It also denies us the ability to confront those bad ideas with better ones. The end result of deplatforming a controversial speaker in one venue ultimately just means they will find a platform in another venue that is shielded from view, where their ideas fall on sympathetic ears unchallenged.

To Suppress Speech is to Give it Power

When we engage in campaigns to restrict or curtail speech that is offensive but otherwise benign (that is to say, it does not threaten, advocate violence or harm, nor carry the force of law) we are granting it power. By that I mean if one says that an idea is so terrible that to merely hear it is dangerous, then we are tacitly admitting that the idea has power. If we truly believe the idea is wrongheaded and obviously bad, where is there reason to fear it? In the wider discourse such attempts to stop, instead of malign or counter such ideas, suggests that we have no counter-argument, or at least that the threat the idea poses is so imminent that we don’t have time to offer such an argument. If we truly believe in the rightness of our own ideas, then why should we fear the wrong ones? If we feel that the challenge posed by such an idea is insurmountable through civil discourse, then perhaps our own ideas need to be questioned.

For example, let’s go back to the 1980’s and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) controversy. The PMRC, lead by Tipper Gore (the now estranged wife of then Senator Al Gore) sought to suppress music that they deemed too offensive, violent, sexual, or controversial for youth. The resultant uproar, of course, resulted in booming popularity, a phenomenon perhaps best expressed in 1990 by the band Aerosmith in an award acceptance speech on MTV.

“Thank you Tipper (Gore) and Jesse (Helms),” said singer Steven Tyler, “for making sure that as long as there are a few four-letter words on the album, it’ll sell an extra million copies.”

We see, time and time again, how attempts to suppress controversial speech only leads to it’s propagation and growth. And after all, who do any of us trust enough to determine what is and is not offensive? For what happens if we give someone that power and then they decide something we say or think has crossed their line in the sand?

Read Lucien Greaves’ post here.

About Jack Matirko
Jack Matirko is an activist, blogger, and podcaster focussing on issues of church and state separation. He runs Patheos' Satanic Blog For Infernal Use Only (patheos.com/blogs/infernal), co-hosts the Naked Diner Podcast (patreon.com/nakeddiner), and is a member of The Satanic Temple-Arizona Chapter. His opinions are his own. To contribute to his work please consider becoming a patron of his podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Stephen Self

    Wow, talk about convergence! Tipper Gore and her PMRC made an appearance in the newest blog on The Devil’s Fane published today as well! https://devilsfane.com/2018/06/19/save-the-children/

  • Frank

    My commitment to free speech is absolute, but not because that’s the best way to counter bad ideas. It isn’t. Bad ideas beat out good ideas in the public marketplace all the time. Letting some idiot spout off in public about racial superiority isn’t going to hurt the racist cause by exposing it as ridiculous, as some people seem to think. Whether an idea is right or wrong, brilliant or stupid, rational or nonsense, has nothing to do with how that idea is received. People will hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe for their own reasons (usually having to do with whichever idea lets them feel good about themselves), and no idea is so self-evidently wrong, immoral, or nonsensical that people who are predisposed to buy it won’t buy it.

    Free speech is a great thing, but not for that reason. The effectiveness of sunlight as a disinfectant has been hugely overstated.

  • Eh … I mean yes, you still have to package and market your ideas effectively to the audience, sure. Many have failed going headlong into an idea and assuming that it’s rightness alone will prevail only to be undone by a charismatic huckster. But it certainly helps to be right. Overall, in a broad sense, things get better. It’s just a slow process with a lot of false starts and cul-de-sacs.

  • Jim Jones

    > We see, time and time again, how attempts to suppress controversial speech only leads to it’s propagation and growth.

    A variation of “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up”?

  • TheBookOfDavid

    Appeals to fear and aggression are far easier to craft than any rational critique, and because they leverage the target’s baser survival instincts and fit on a bumper sticker, they make a more lasting impression. Something about a lie zipping around the world before the truth getting its boots on comes to mind.

  • ORigel

    Your argument that bad ideas will inevitably lose in the light of day is flawed. History teaches us that humans are not rational, and can be fooled or fool themselves. Like how in The Revolt of the Angels Christianity spread. Some fell for the idea of Jesus dying for their sins.

    But bad ideas can also thrive in darkness. I agree with that. I find Greave’s point about “Who judges what is hateful?” That what keeps me on the side of free speech.

  • Jim Jones

    Tipper helped sales a lot. Her label let people know which was the good stuff to buy – like Adults Only on a movie.