I’ve been sitting on this submission for a little while now for a couple of reasons. Jim Wilson gave it to me after one of our Desert AIR Podcast recording sessions. He makes valid points in the article but I was reluctant to post it due to the fact that I felt it was a personal rebuke of an offhand comment I had made. We were talking about Brother Jed’s pending visit to the campus of U of A and I joked that wouldn’t it be great if we could get one of those speech jamming devices. It was a joke of course not to be taken seriously but unfortunately sometimes jokes are taken more seriously than intended. Now, Jed is gone and by his own reports he doesn’t have any complaints about how he was treated by the Atheists at the University of Arizona.
Here’s Jim Wilson’s article:
Years ago I worked in a call center environment doing some of the most monotonous work the white collar service sector had to offer. I often found that most irritating calls were not those from people who were angry with the company but those of people whose phones caused me to hear an echo of my own voice while working with them. The echo would quickly derail my train of thought and leave me fumbling for words. Recently in Japan, scientists have taken experiences such as mine and turned them into a marketable device. It’s a speech-jamming gun that causes unsuspecting loudmouths to hear an echo of their own words, delayed at .02 seconds. The echo completely throws their brain for a loop, silencing their speech (More information on this device can be found here: http://phys.org/news/2012-03-speechjammer-gun-quash-human-utterances.html).
Most of us have had times when we wished we had such a device to point at some obnoxious individual in our vicinity. Maybe it’s someone who won’t stop chatting in a movie theater or family member who won’t stop going on about the playoffs. Then again maybe it’s some full-time professional or semi-professional nuisance, like the professional conspiracy theorist, the lying politician, the dishonest salesman, or the racist bigots holding a rally down the street that you would like to point this device at. Some people are simply jerks and morons who say horrible mean-spirited things. Some may do it just for the attention, while others may truly be trying to promote their own nasty world view. The Phelps family, which is famous for protesting the funerals of fallen American soldiers, think that “God hates America” for its tolerance of homosexuality is an excellent example.
The temptation to stifle their speech with a speech-jamming device or even government action, is very strong but it is the wrong approach. We need to allow people to say whatever hate-filled, bigoted, and crazy moronic things they wish. Silencing people only legitimizes their cause. Many of the most hate-filled people out there fancy themselves as victims of persecution. Doing anything to validate their claims will only make them stronger. For example, I recently heard it argued that the Bible must be an accurate depiction of reality because it is banned in multiple countries. This argument makes absolutely no sense but it is a great example of how silencing someone allows them to play the victim card. In another example, countless people flocked to show support for the bigoted management of Chic-Fil-A after some cities threatened to forbid the restaurant chain from operating within their limits. In short, silencing people turns them into martyrs to rally around.
It can also lead to the individuals or points of view that one is attempting to silence getting even more attention than they otherwise would. Attempts to ban the Phelps from protesting in various locations inevitably results in the group getting free publicity and more of the attention they so desperately wanted in the first place. This greatly parallels the phenomenon known as the “Streisand Effect” in which an individual or group’s attempt to suppress information leads to that information gaining greater circulation and publicity. The phenomenon is named for Barbara Streisand who tried to prevent pictures of her home from circulating which ultimately led to a greater circulation of the photos. More information on this can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect.
Silencing ideas also makes these ideas more interesting to those who are unfamiliar with them. As children many of us were fascinated with R-rated movies or gangster rap music because our parents forbade it. Some developed an interest in doing illegal drugs largely because they are forbidden. Removing the mystique that surrounds the forbidden makes it more mundane. It also opens it up to criticism. When racists and neo-Nazis are allowed to publicly share what they believe it allows the rest of us to respond by pointing out just how stupid and harmful such ideas really are.
Sometimes the jerks may actually have a point or two or contribute to the conversation. I know a few people today who years ago would like to have silenced the speech of Atheists and yet they are now Atheists themselves. Allowing one’s beliefs to be scrutinized by people who disagree makes it possible for one to purge incorrect ideas and to form a more accurate and mature worldview. Sometimes the most irritating people do have a valid point or two which often makes them even more irritating. Even the most despicable people may bring some useful insight to the conversation or at the very least they may serve as a useful example of what is wrong with their way of thinking. Either way, the market place of ideas is enriched when more a diverse array of people participate in it.
Free speech is meaningless when we only apply it to those we agree with. That is why all ideas should be allowed to compete without the threat of being silenced or without government support or favoritism. I support free speech at all levels of society. That is why I will resist the temptation to buy the Japanese speech jamming device.