Panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, is Juvenal’s now common idiom for the means to appease the people. Full bellies and something obnoxiously loud -yet meaningless- will keep the vulgar masses quiet, and in this glorious 21st century, neither are in short supply. But a populace distracted by loud but tolerable circuses is not concerned with true free speech, they are concerned with those trolls that defy the majority. Recent examples abound. The Westboro Baptist Church, the film the Innocence of Muslims, and atheists and antitheists in general, who so annoyingly scrutinize our religious opinions. It takes sober thought to realize the importance of defending these aggravating examples of free speech. In the next few days I’ll argue for the defense of the right to be heard for each of these groups, beginning with the least redeemable; Westboro.
People do not have the right to prevent others from offending them. If someone insults you in public, no moral person would defend your right to use violence in any fashion to . Yet this is exactly what we would have our government do. If we restrict the marketplace of ideas we enforce the majorities’ views with force, rather than reason. Any proposition that denies the right to speak to the Westboro is something that must be opposed as a matter of principle.
Westboro attracts attention by saying outrageous things. They are, in the intertubes lingua franca, trolling. They certainly believe the things they say, as they can be backed up by scripture, but that doesn’t detract from the only reason they make the news; they are hitting America’s soft spots. It is tempting to silence these fools with the weight of the law, as that is the easiest solution. A simple majority shows up for an election and then our police force recovers our peace of mind. But in doing so we have extended our government’s reach, albeit slightly, on the only area of free speech that matters, that is, the controversial part.
The ease of a legal solution to this problem does not make in the best solution; and there are alternatives. The Patriot Guard Riders will counter-protest quietly and respectfully anywhere the Westboro dares to show up, and without any legal ramifications. There was a similar result at the funeral of a fellow former resident of Holland, a Navy Seal named Daniel Price, thousands lined the streets with flags in a touching, if slightly jingoistic, display of solidarity.* The turnout was helped in part by the foreknowledge of Westboro’s presence, and any harmful effect they could have had on the family of the deceased was negated.
I hope I have made a case against legally doing away with unscrupulous opinions. Everyone entertains unpopular opinions. People on this blog are likely to have one of the most hated of them: that of the nontheist. But this kind of independent persuasion makes discussions and life more interesting. Allowing dissent will create, by the process of argument, new opinions that are a closer approximation of observable evidence. And anyone who questions the popular theistic conceptions of the godhead appreciates closer approximations of reality. But unfortunately, the government is not the only entity capable of suppressing unpopular opinions, and I will come back to that in the next essay.
* The local report on Daniel Price’s funeral can be found here.