The Right to Free Speech Doesn’t Include Immunity from Criticism

The Right to Free Speech Doesn’t Include Immunity from Criticism April 8, 2018

The latest controversy to wend its way around pro-life and Catholic circles is the “coming out” of Kristen Hatten, who is a former VP of the the excellent pro-life group New Wave Feminists.

Hatten didn’t come out as LGBT, though. She came out as a “ethno-nationalist” (which is the new fancy term for a white nationalist or white supremacist), an avowed member of the alt-right, and a racist. (She told me via private Facebook message that she is “not afraid” of that latter term being used to describe her views.)

Several other Patheos bloggers have described the controversy (see here, here, and here), so I won’t waste time recapping the saga.

As a (now former) Facebook friend of Hatten’s, I was shaken to realize how hateful her rhetoric had grown. I tend to scroll past political posts on Facebook these days — I simply don’t have the time or mental energy to engage — so I hadn’t seen several of the questionable posts on that platform. I didn’t follow her on Twitter (and I’m not on Twitter much, anyway) so I hadn’t seen her posts there.

Once I was alerted to them by mutual friends, I did go and look. And I was appalled. I even sent a private Facebook message to Hatten, asking if she really believed the things she was retweeting — and she confirmed that she did.

I was both sad and disturbed. However, in the wake of the controversy, I find myself even more sad and disturbed by how many people who otherwise identify themselves as pro-life, and/or faithful Christians are defending her hateful rhetoric.

I was particularly aggrieved by this comment on a post on Hatten’s blog’s public Facebook page.

[Note: The commenter’s name is redacted because I’m more interested in replying to the substance of the comment rather than directing ire at the person who made it. In other words, I ask you not to go to the site for the purpose of responding to or harassing this commenter. It likely won’t help and, to them, will be more evidence that anyone who is remotely bothered by Hatten’s views are just big ol’ bullies and should be ignored.]

This commenter is engaging in a strawman fallacy. Her argument is that Hatten’s critics are making the claim that Hatten should not be allowed to express her views.

However, that isn’t true. Hatten absolutely has the right to express her views, and she does so quite frequently and ably via Facebook, Twitter, and her blog. She is not being suppressed by me or anyone else from doing so.

What we argue is that she should not be immune to or protected from criticism of her views, nor should she be immune to or protected from the consequences of expressing her views.

Her views are far more than mere “political differences.” Political differences are when you and your friend can’t agree on how much the government should spend on education funding. Hatten’s views, however, are hate speech. They encourage hatred, ugliness, violence, and forced deportation of minorities simply for being minorities. Yes, her views are being roundly criticized. They are not logical, not moral, and are based on fear and bigotry instead of logic, reason, and faith in Christ.

The consequences of hateful, racist views may be and usually are public criticism, loss of friendships, and a damaged reputation. Hatten is not immune from those consequences, nor is anyone who makes the choice to broadcast views that advocate the superiority of the so-called “white race” over another, or that deny the Holocaust.

(As evidence of Hatten’s latter view, her Facebook profile recommends the book The Myth of German Villainy, which is “about the mischaracterization of Germany as history’s ultimate ‘villain'” and posits that the United States should have allied with Germany in WWII. Because killing Jews was the right thing to do, I guess…?)

Yes, a lot of people have defriended and/or blocked Hatten because of her views. However, that isn’t because her views are dangerous; it’s because the alt-right are notorious for using social media to troll, harass, and bully the people they deem inferior — people of color, Jewish people, or anyone they identify as an “SJW,” which has become the alt-right pejorative of choice.

This means that if you stay Facebook friends with Hatten, and you participate in her comment threads, any of her fellow alt-right readers who decide you are a “Jew” or an “SJW” could decide to target you, your friends, your family, or anyone else connected to you.

It’s frankly dangerous to remain Facebook friends with her.

For the record, I unfriended Hatten on Facebook, but I did not block her. However, she later chose to block me — which makes it ironic that her supporter above is criticizing others for what Hatten herself has done.

Also, that G.K. Chesterton quote referenced above? It is this one:

The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.

Let’s put apply this quote to Hatten’s situation.

Kristen Hatten owns herself. She can damage herself with either hate speech or Holocaust denial; she can ruin herself with racism. If she does she is certainly a damn fool, and she might possibly be a damned soul; but if she may not, she is not a free [wo]man any more than a dog.”

Well, I’ll give the commenter one thing — it is awfully appropriate, although not perhaps for the reasons she was thinking.

Speaking of Chesterton, here’s another quote of his that also applies to this situation. In fact, it’s one of my favorites.

To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.

Hatten has the right to espouse and express racist views, but that does not mean she is right to do so, and it does not mean that she should be immune from the consequences of doing so, which include criticism of her views and loss of friendships and blog readers. (To be clear, harassment, doxxing, death threats, et al are NEVER appropriate responses and I wholeheartedly condemn any such action taken against her.)

While I wish her well with her pregnancy, her status as an expectant mother also does not make her immune from the consequences of her actions, nor is it a reason to stop speaking out against her hate speech and racism.

And while I am glad that Hatten professes that she is still anti-abortion, I do wonder how much longer that position will last, given that the leaders of the alt-right — including Richard Spencer, whom Hatten enthusiastically retweets — condone and promote abortion for eugenics purposes. In short order, she may also decide to embrace that view as well, which would be a sin and a shame given the excellent work she used to do for the pro-life cause.

In sum, I propose that we pray for Hatten and those who share her views — the Sisters of Providence have a lovely Prayer for Dismantling Racism — and continue to speak out against racism, white nationalism, ethno-nationalism, and other hateful and harmful ideologies whenever we encounter them.

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  • Ancalagon

    Would you consider differences over the abortion issue to be political differences?

    Do you have any friends with whom you remain in contact who are pro-abortion?

  • Actually, it’s the other way around — most of my pro-choice/pro-abortion friends have either unfriended or unfollowed me because they are tired of how I constantly would truth-bomb their pro-choice posts. My own sister, and several other relatives, have actually blocked me on FB because they didn’t want my truth and logic to get in the way of their pro-abortion rhetoric.

    Abortion is a political issue in part, but it’s largely a human rights issue, which transcends politics. The only time I would unfriend or block a pro-choicer is if they were harassing me or threatening my family.

  • james warren

    Children grow up ignorant about giving respectful criticism as well as accepting criticism.

    Reality shows on TV present characters who have not the slightest awareness of what constitutes adult criticism, negotiation and effective communication skills.

    I guess most of us like to see a train wreck.

  • Good_Samaritan

    Hi Joanna,
    I am pretty sure we have disagreed before, but I just wanted to say that I really appreciated this post, and i agree with you whole heatedly. Free speech doesn’t mean consequence free speech, it means one is allowed to put any thought they have into the marketplace of ideas. What the marketplace does with that idea, whether it lauds and elevates it or crushes it and the speaker under an avalanche of criticism, is the whole point of free speech: to ferret out bad ideas, and come to a consensus about the good ones.

    Milton said it better than I ever could:

    “Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary…. They are not skillful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin. For … it is a huge heap increasing under the very act of diminishing…. Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably…. It was from out of the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into this world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is, of knowing good by evil.”

    Thanks for this post.