On February 22, I sat down to write an article for Miguk Minute. In discussing free speech, I created a “Hitler/Mister Rodgers” spectrum to illustrate the extremes of social acceptability. I never got around to finishing the article. On October 8, John Oliver proposed a similar spectrum, except he used Tom Hanks instead of Mister Rodgers. Since John Oliver beat me to the punch, the article will never be officially published; the first draft of it can be found below.
Free speech, protected by the First Amendment in the United States, restricts the government’s ability to censor speech that some might find objectionable. It does not guarantee a popular platform for every kook’s controversial opinions; it solely prevents the government from stopping them from expressing these views, no matter how offensive.
Yet, just because someone has a legal right to speak does not mean that every horrid viewpoint is free from criticism. Far from it — fight hate speech with more speech, says the ACLU. Legally-permitted speech can still have incredible impact. While debate and dissent is healthy for any society, socially-imposed limits are also healthy. However, this is where things get a little tricky: what is too controversial?
Experiment: imagine a line being drawn on a piece of paper. On one end, you write down the name of beloved television host Mister Rogers. On the other, you write the name of genocidal despot Adolf Hitler. It might be hard to find anyone more palatable or less controversial than Mister Rogers to host. Likewise, it would be difficult indeed to find someone less appropriate or more controversial than Adolf Hitler.
While someone might be able to find noted public figures better suited for those extremes, let us just accept these parameters for the sake of argument. Most people would accept the argument that Hitler, or even a Hitler sympathizer, would have no place speaking in a well-respected publication. To do so, of course, would shed some degree of legitimacy on these unacceptable views. However, once you accept this, you do not believe that all ideas deserve equal representation.
That’s where the Rogers-Hitler spectrum comes in. Whose views push them too far to the unacceptable (“Hitler”) side of the spectrum, and thus are not worthy of mainstream representation? Whose views are acceptable enough (closer to the “Rogers” side)?
Was Bill Maher wrong to have Milo Yiannopoulos on his television program? Was Bill Nye wrong to publicly debate Ken Hamm about evolution? Was Trevor Noah wrong to argue with Tomi Lahren on his show? I won’t wade into these waters of these arguments here, but [I never got around to completing this sentence.]
Here’s the bottom line: once you accept that some viewpoints are truly unacceptable (even if legal), then this changes from a discussion of “free speech” into one that concerns where the line should be drawn. Unless the government is involved, this is not a First Amendment issue; it’s an issue of defining what the social acceptability of our society is. That’s a valid fight to have.