Some time ago I wrote a blog post called Of Fists And Noses. It referred to a phrase often repeated in Portugal (at least in my school) after the revolution. It was “your right to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose.”
Like every other of those pseudo-profound pronouncements of the seventies, like “we’re all naked under our clothes” and “People weren’t born with scissors to cut their hair” it sounds like the result of long and deep thought, but it really isn’t. In fact, it’s the sort of sentence that would only convince someone who has been toking all day and it should automatically be ended in “man.” As in “We’re all naked under our clothes, man.”
Looked at one way that sort of pronouncement is obvious. Yep, we’re naked under our clothes, duh. And yep, for whatever reason our primitive ancestors must have had really long hair, duh. And yep, your right to swing your fist is not the right to run around punching people, duh.
But looked at from the practical point, all of those declarations are completely beside the point and the only appropriate answer to it is “And what?”
Because we’re naked under our clothes doesn’t mean it’s a jolly good idea to expose yourself to children, make restaurant chairs unsanitary and scare the horses by removing those clothes obscuring your nudity. And if our distant ancestors went about with hair to their waist, and tangled and matted and full of lice (they also weren’t born with soap and/or combs) it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a public health hazard for you to go around that way now.
Now, if you wish to keep your hair long and clean, (or dirty, provided I’m not forced to socialize with you) or go around naked, it’s none of my business, but the sentence used to justify it doesn’t, has nothing to do with it and taken to its extreme would set all sorts of crazy precedents. Like, you know, “Humans weren’t born in houses, man.” (No construction is needed) And “We’re all hungry before we eat” (So, why mitigate hunger.)
However, the fist and nose thing is possibly the worst ever. If your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose, what if I move my nose and rest it on your fist, so you can’t move.
Oh, come on, Sarah, now you’re just being silly!
Well, if you had told me that objection when I was eleven or twelve, and though that a perfectly reasonable pronouncement, I’d have told you that the objection was silly.
It’s just that over the last thirty years I’ve seen that objection playing up.
In effect what it means is that no right is absolute.
Just yesterday I was talking to mom, whose house got broken into, thank heavens while no one was home (home invasion is rife in Portugal) and talking about the right to your property, which involves the right of defense.
She was appalled at my statement that if anyone breaks into your house in Colorado you can shoot them and not be tried for murder. Apparently a neighbor, tired of having his business broken into, constructed an elaborate trap to catch the burglar. Part of the trap was a noose. It somehow mis-fired and got the burglar around the neck, killing him.
Keep in mind this was the same burglar that had cleaned out this small craftsman TWICE before. The business owner was arrested, tried and convicted of murder.
His right to protect his livelihood ended at the end of the burglar’s nose. And the burglar brought his nose right into the craftsman’s property.
What right do you have to your property when anyone can break in and you can do nothing, lest you hurt them?
In the same way, take the right of owning guns for said self defense. Even in the US, arguably one of the most free gun-owning country in the world, we keep getting hemmed in with regulations demanded by loud people who imagine their nose is being touched by our fist (I.e. they imagine we want guns for offense, not defense, and it never occurs to them that those who do want guns for offense are not law abiding and get them anyway) so that depending on the area of the country you can’t own guns at all; you must lock them up so securely you can’t access them in an emergency; you can only own the guns the say you can own, etc.
Or let’s go with the most basic of all rights, the right of free speech. This is the one where touching someone’s “nose” is all the easiest. As two luminaries of science fiction found out when they used the word “ladies” to refer to women they admired, it’s always easy for the perpetually inflamed noses of those seeking to take offense at something, anything, to claim to have been punched.
As we found out in Sad Puppies, when we tried to break the stranglehold of a small clique on what was until two weeks ago claimed to be the most prestigious award in the field, the perpetually offended can claim you are racist, sexist and homophobic, because they “feel” you punched those noses, not even theirs. They can claim this even if it’s completely countered by the reality of the slate proposed. They can claim this because who is to judge whether their nose felt a punch except themselves? How can you counter it?
We’ve seen way too much of this, including that famous case in which a statue of a sleep walking male terrorized a whole college full of supposedly rational women; and the sad fact that literature professors now have to give trigger warnings before advocating the reading of anything even vaguely controversial.
And just recently, the Honey Badgers, the same nice people who interviewed Brad and Mike and I last week, got kicked out of a con in Calgary for “engaging in harassment of panelists.” Their recording of the panel is here and here. Judge for yourselves.
It reminded me of that quote of Moshe Feder over the Sad Puppies thing, you know: “starve them out: stop inviting them and theirs to conventions. That means authors, editors, cover artists, even whole publishers. ”
This because the perpetually offended can’t help but feel they’ve been punched when someone disagrees with them. Note that Larry Correia called for NOT punishing all of Tor for the actions of some of their editors. The other side, though? Yeah. Their feelings have been hurt. And they have no morals. Mostly because their right to hurt others has never been questioned, and when it is they try to shut down the questioners. (And, oh, Moshe, darling, you guys have been trying to do that to us for … my entire career. The only difference now is that we’re not afraid anymore. I don’t think it will be easier for you at this point than when we cowered in fear of losing our livelihood. There’s Amazon, there’s indie, and I’d like you to contemplate my middle fingers.)
In fact, when it comes to the right of free speech, it should be the most patently obvious that the whole noses and fists thing is insane. Because speech is not a physical action.
Sure it can have a physical consequence. Entertainment Weekly, the Grauniad, and lately the New Republic knew very well what they were doing when they painted Sad Puppies as racist, homophobic and sexist. They were trying to get the aggrieved-nose brigades to take action on their behalf. The fact that the articles were easily proven lies doesn’t matter unless people who read those outlets check the facts, something that so far they’ve proven notoriously averse to doing.
Now those three might have/probably have crossed the line into libel. I don’t know where the consideration is on legal action at the moment. It’s more difficult than it seems. Those are big publications, with legal teams, and we’re a rag tag of normal people with … normal to small resources.
The power to stop libelous or lying or hurtful speech is always a theoretical one. The power to stop your speech-fist by claiming it hurts my “nose” whether it really does or not is a power vested in those that already have societal power.
It requires amplification in the media, an ability to play the victim, and the approval of the ruling “elite.” Stopping speech, no matter who does it, supposed private parties or the government, is always a tool of power, an act of punching down. It requires the approval of the powers that be.
The entire libel against Sad Puppies is an act of the clique, allied to a larger cultural self-proclaimed “elite” to keep power. They deny the right of free speech of those who paid $40 for the right to vote on the best novel/short story/movie/associated post, etc. of the year, by claiming that speech is somehow “wrong speech.”
In the same way the bureaucracy in charge of the largest association of writers of sf/f punched down by declaring that “ladies” was somehow hateful and hurt people.
We won’t even go into the other craziness from that association.
And now of course, it’s wrong and evil for our side of things to defend itself and to set the record straight on attempts to suppress us. Having been self-defined from above as haters, our speech touches everyone’s metaphorical noses, even when it doesn’t.
The right of free speech is meaningless when you only have the right to say that which society approves of.
No one has ever tried to ban speech that lauds mother and apple pie (well, maybe now, but that’s a long story.) No one has ever had a fit over your complimenting their lawn.
The right of free speech is by necessity a protection for unpleasant, unpalatable speech. It is the right to call someone in power a right son of a b*tch. It is the right to say things that are hurtful, whether they’re true or not. It is the right to proclaim that the king goes naked, even if it hurts the self esteem of everyone who has been lying to herself and telling herself he wears clothes of the finest silk.
Sometimes the metaphorical nose of the listener needs to be pounded with the metaphorical fist of mean words. Because it’s the only thing that can stop tyrannical actions or misguided but widely accepted ones.
Absent the right to say what hurts others, a society can careen head first into an abyss. Because it’s always easy to claim you’re offended at something you don’t want to hear, and that therefore the speaker shouldn’t be allowed to say it.
And that speech-stopping power is never evenly distributed. It’s always higher on the part of those who have connections in the press, friends in the bureaucracy, and who can amplify their teary cries and stop what they want stopped.
The right to stop speech you don’t like is ALWAYS an act of punching down, an act of speaking power to truth. (Or lies, but it’s amazing how often it is the truth that those self-selected, connected elites want stopped.)
Which is why the idea that my right to speak is stopped by your right to take offense is an open door to totalitarianism and censorship. If claiming that speech “offends” someone is enough to stop it, you’re giving those who already have the power to defame, destroy and character-assassinate more power and preventing those who would talk against them from speaking.
Yes, words can hurt you, despite the old ditty. But the only way to equalize your ability to hurt with words is to remove all penalty for “wrong words” and “wrong thought.”
If I can’t tell you when your nose is pushing into my fist, how will you know you’ve become overbearing.
If you take away a civil society’s way to correct wrongs, you leave only an uncivil way. That way lies war, real violence, and far more things getting hurt than feelings.
Take your nose out of my fist, pull your pants up. Learn to interact in civil society. Before you lose it.
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