If you don’t get it, here’s a good place to start.
I would consider myself a free speech absolutist, but I rarely use that term because most “free speech absolutists” don’t actually care about free speech — what they want is to stop hearing criticism from others for the things they say, which is the opposite of free speech.
When you are a worldwide celebrity with more money than god, accusing everyday Twitter users of “canceling” you — and worse, quote-tweeting them so your legions of fans will descend on them with death threats and harassment — is not defending your own free speech. It’s silencing others.
Three days ago, Indiana governor Mike Pence admitted that he “didn’t anticipate the hostility” that would result from passing the state’s new anti-gay “Religious Freedom” law. Speaking to the press on Sunday and Monday, he emphatically denied that the new law was about anti-gay discrimination. All this, despite abundant warnings from legal experts about the nature of the law, warnings and examples from gay rights groups about the potential backlash, and the fact that three professional homophobes stood behind the governor when he signed the bill.
How could this be?
There are those who assume Pence is being obtuse, that he’s adopting ignorance as a defense against the “unforeseen” backlash, but there is another possibility: The governor of Indiana might honestly have been this out of touch with reality–as out of touch as Mitt Romney before the 2012 election, when he ordered celebratory fireworks and neglected to write a concession speech.
Cognitive dissonance is a fascinating thing, and April 1 is the perfect day to discuss it. As companies across the Internet post their best April Fools joke–from Southwest’s crazy new bag fee system to CERN’s announcement that the Force really is with you–they rely on cognitive dissonance to help you get the joke. When the human mind is confronted with new information that conflicts with what previous experience would lead it to expect, one way to reconcile that conflict is to recognize humor.
There are other responses to cognitive dissonance, however. One of the most fascinating is what researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler termed the backfire effect: the tendency of a person to reject new information when it contradicts that person’s belief or understanding, and double-down on that commitment. Continue Reading
In October, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the “Revictimization Relief Act,” which allows crime victims to police the actions of perpetrators for life with almost no limits. The inspiration was a recorded commencement speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal played at a Vermont college earlier that month; Pennsylvania legislators said the speech re-victimized the widow and family of Daniel Faulkner, the Philly cop Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing.
Faulkner’s widow was not forced to hear the speech. Her trauma and mental anguish came only from the knowledge that Abu-Jamal would deliver it. “How could they allow him to speak when Danny no longer has a voice,” she asked in an official statement. “It is my opinion that all murderers should forfeit their right to free speech when they take the life of an innocent person.”
A majority of Pennsylvania legislators agreed. They gave Maureen Faulkner, and other victims, the legal right to stop convicted people like Abu-Jamal from doing almost anything. The law, as written and passed, allows victims to prevent any “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim,” with such conduct defined as that which “causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”
To many, the idea that one person’s subjective emotional experience trumps another’s constitutional rights is an affront, and the ACLU has already sued to strike down the Pennsylvania law. But the elevation of emotion is emerging as a disturbing theme of 21st century law. [pullquote position=”right”]As more Americans seek to protect people’s feelings, they sometimes find themselves in conflict with the foundation principles of justice.[/pullquote]
This year the Supreme Court will rule on Elonis v. United States, a complicated case in which a Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, was convicted after posting graphic and horrifying Facebook statuses obviously directed as his ex-wife. Elonis’s defense claims he was writing rap lyrics, expressing his darker urges in the style of Eminem, and that the First Amendment protects him. Prosecutors say his messages constitute a true threat, and are not constitutionally protected. The case reached the high court partly because of a question over jury instructions: While the First Amendment and prior case law rely on the speaker’s intent to threaten, jurors who convicted Elonis were told to consider his speech a threat “if a reasonable person would have felt threatened.” [Emphasis added]
In other words, the difference between free speech and a federal crime hinges not on what was written or how, but rather on the emotional response of the person doing the reading. Continue Reading