OPINIONS

The Case against Civility

The Israeli government could be days away from criminalizing the derogatory use of the word “Nazi” and other words and symbols associated with the Holocaust. Predictably and appropriately, this has elicited near-universal shock and disapproval from opinion-makers on this side of the Atlantic, who have typically made two distinct arguments against the legislation.

The first argument is that a ban on words will almost certainly be ineffective. A Brown linguist predicted a proliferation of “overt attempts to resist the law” if it passes, and Commentary Magazine’s Tom Wilson speculated that “perhaps Israel’s politicians can look forward to being compared to Pol Pot and Ceausescu from now on.” Resistance will no doubt be amplified by the irony at the heart of the endeavor: Israeli politicians resent being compared to totalitarians – and are responding by literally banning words.

The second argument is that the use of Nazi-related slurs might not always be beyond the pale. The New Republic’s Marc Tracy argued that while many Nazi comparisons are vile and offensive, “the Holocaust’s uniqueness should actually make it an extremely useful heuristic for understanding the world” in certain contexts. A widely circulated op-ed made the case that “sometimes ‘Nazi’ is the right word.”

These two criticisms of the law are persuasive, but they are far too feeble. They leave room for a ban if only it could be applied (a) without unintended consequences and (b) only in instances where ‘Nazi’ is used purely to demean and offend. In other words, they tacitly accept the idea that purging uncivil language from our discourse is a worthy goal, and merely submit that censorship is the wrong way to go about it.

The New York Times’ education blog displayed this reasoning when it earnestly asked students to send in replies to the question: “Which do you think is more effective in combating offensive language: government censorship or public education, or both?”

But the fact is that offensive and even hateful speech plays a crucial role in a free society, and Israel’s ‘Nazi’ law would be immensely harmful even if there were no legitimate uses for the word. History’s most eloquent defender of free expression, John Stuart Mill, observed in On Liberty that even if an opinion is wrong, society is deprived of the “livelier impression of the truth, produced by its collision with error” if it is censored. The existence of hateful viewpoints serves the vital purpose of reminding us why we don’t share them.

Mill insisted that unless an idea is “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as dead dogma, not a living truth.” If citizens have no exposure to viewpoints that are hateful and false – including anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas – they cannot possibly understand ideas that are good and true in any meaningful way.

The notion that uncivil speech serves no legitimate purpose and ought to be eradicated is not, of course, confined to Israel. In fact, it has become conventional wisdom on American college campuses. Hundreds of universities across the United States maintain unconstitutional speech codes that make punishable offensive language. The Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights only recently backed off an astonishing speech mandate that would have banned any “unwelcome” discussions of sex at U.S. colleges and universities.

Like the Israeli legislation, these ill-conceived attempts to control students’ expression likely injure the very people they are trying to protect. Noted gay rights advocate Jonathan Rauch has shown that movements for equality for minority groups have been made possible by America’s system of intellectual competition. “Not long ago,” Rauch writes, “gays were pariahs. We had no real political power, only the force of our arguments. But in a society where free exchange was the rule, that was enough.”

Of course, I’m not advocating for rudeness, insensitivity, or bigotry. But these things cannot be eliminated without threatening the benefits we get from genuine intellectual pluralism. Better to live in a society with a rowdy and sometimes offensive public discourse than a society of dead dogmas and hollow truths.

Contact Jason Willick at willick@stanford.edu.