How Bigoted Speech Advances Equality

In a splendidly written essay in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch makes the case for protecting “hate speech” in the context of a proposed boycott by some gay-rights advocates of the movie Ender’s Game (released Nov. 1).  The movie is not itself said to be homophobic but, they urge, it should be boycotted because it is based on a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card, who has suggested that enacting gay marriage might lead to the recruitment of children into homosexuality.  Rauch notes that anti-gay speech has had a critical role in advancing gay rights by requiring advocates to calmly and reasonably rebut opposing claims, allowing the public to assess the factual correctness and moral persuasiveness of the competing claims.  It’s a classic Holmesian marketplace-of-ideas theory of free speech:

Our great blessing was to live in a society that understands where knowledge comes from: not from political authority or personal revelation, but from a public process of open-ended debate and discussion, in which every day millions of people venture and test billions of hypotheses. All but a few of those theories are found wanting, but some survive and flourish over time, and those comprise our knowledge. . . .

America’s transformation on gay rights over the past few years is a triumph of the open society. Not long ago, gays were pariahs. We had no real political power, only the force of our arguments. But in a society where free exchange is the rule, that was enough. We had the coercive power of truth.

History shows that the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do. We learn empirically that women are as intelligent and capable as men; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of gender equality. We learn from social experience that laws permitting religious pluralism make societies more governable; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of religious liberty. We learn from critical argument that the notion that some races are fit to be enslaved by others is impossible to defend without recourse to hypocrisy and mendacity; this knowledge strengthens the moral claims of inherent human dignity. To make social learning possible, we need to criticize our adversaries, of course. But no less do we need them to criticize us.

As a matter of history, Rauch is certainly right that gay-rights advocates and opponents have met repeatedly on the battlefield of ideas, and that the former have consistently bested the latter.  Rauch’s case directly and powerfully supports the view that government should not ban hate speech.

Supporters of the boycott might respond that nobody is advocating that the government ban Ender’s Game, or censor the works of homophobic writers.  The argument is that we should not, as a personal moral matter, privately support the projects of homophobic writers.  Here the lines are morally, though not constitutionally, fuzzier.  Rauch notes the collateral consequences of such a blunt instrument, like the harmful effects on an industry and on specific employees that fully endorse gay rights.  But Rauch suggests that the freedom of speech requires a spirit of toleration of dissenting viewpoints, in addition to formal legal protection for them.  You can imagine morally justifiable boycotts of truly horrific works, like a film endorsing racist genocide, even though a government ban on those works would not be constitutional.  The proposed Ender’s Game boycott, however, is not based on reprehensible material in the boycotted work itself.  It’s based on what Rauch rightly calls the “preposterous” anti-gay statements an author has made in other contexts in the past.  In that circumstance, we should “boycott” the movie only if it looks like it’s not very good.

It’s hard to pick out one excerpt from Rauch’s essay, so I recommend that you read the whole thing (it’s pretty short).