Defending death threats

I believe in free speech. I mean — I really believe in free speech.

That doesn’t just mean that I support Andrew Bolt’s right to say whatever he likes about aboriginals, irrespective of who gets offended. And it doesn’t just mean that I oppose all censorship, such as the banning of Mein Kampf in some European countries. It also means I oppose defamation laws, and I believe you should be allowed to say anything about anybody, whether true or false, for whatever reason. It even means I believe that tobacco companies should be free to advertise.

I believe attempts to limit speech “for the public good” will mostly do more harm than good, and that messy and imperfect freedom is better than neat and tidy (but even more imperfect) government control.

Today I was discussing another of the controversial areas of free speech. Yesterday, that crazy old kook of the blogosphere grumpy-Graeme Bird wrote an eloquent rant aimed at me, where he said:

“He must die. John Humphreys must die so that this country can live.  He has betrayed this country too many times and he must no longer live … This is too important a subject to let John Humphreys live. Where does the lying end. I’m convinced that it only ends when John Humphreys is cold and stiff … HE MUST DIE, FOR THE LYING TO END. AND THIS IS A LIFE OR DEATH MATTER … I am accusing Humphreys of being a knowing traitor … SO MY NEW CLAIM IS THAT HUMPHREYS WILL NEVER STOP LYING. THAT HE WILL NEVER BE A SAFE PAIR OF HANDS. THAT HE WILL ALWAYS BE A TRAITOR. WHILE HE YET LIVES.”

My first death threat. Now I know that I’m important. A few friends have suggested I take it seriously, and one kindly offered to call his federal police friend who would call Graeme… but I nixed that idea. For his part, Graeme says that it is not a death threat because he doesn’t plan on doing any killing himself. That’s good to hear. But another friend pointed out that the above sentiments might still be considered incitement to violence… which got me thinking about free speech.

My conclusion, once again, is that death threats such as above should be allowed as free speech.

The moral reason to allow the above sort of rants is that Graeme hasn’t actually directly hurt anybody with his rant, nor has he tried to coerce anybody (by saying “do XYZ, or else”), and so he should be left alone. He has simply stated that he wants me dead. If somebody were to act on Graeme’s death wish, then in my opinion the responsible person is the killer, and not Graeme.

We are surrounded with advertising every time we turn on the TV or go outside. We are more subtly being influenced every time we read a newspaper or book or website, or when we talk with our friends. We are even being influenced when we simply watch strangers on the streets. But ultimately, I believe that each person needs to be held responsible for their own actions, and that responsibility can not be passed on to the people who have influenced the actor. If I say that a book is good, and you go and buy the book… then it is you (not I) who is responsible for your actions. Likewise, if grumpy-Graeme says he wants me dead, and mad-Doug (another freak with an unhealthy fixation on me) actually comes and kills me… then it is mad-Doug (not grumpy-Graeme) who is responsible for the murder.

The idea that advertisers or influential people are responsible for the actions of others undermines individual responsibility, and it sets a dangerous precedent for controlling who is allowed to say what to whom. And once we start controlling speech to only “good speech” we get into dangerous territory.

None of this is to say that all speech is equally ethical or nice. If you spread untrue and nasty rumours about someone, then you’re an asshole according to my view of ethics. If you incite people to violence, or say things with the intention of hurting others, or knowingly defame somebody, or encourage people to do something you think will likely be bad for them — then you’re not a nice person. This is why most people think Graeme & Doug are jerks. But I do not believe that the government should set laws that require us to be “nice”.

The idea that the government should enforce their “correct” ethics on everybody is problematic both because different people have different ethical systems (consider different religions) and also because to impose the “correct” ethics it is first necessary to have a perfect person who knows the divine truth. I doubt that the government is run by such divine perfect people. Indeed, I doubt such a person exists. The best way to encourage ethical behaviour is the natural approach of civil society, where nice people tend to have friends and assholes tend to be excluded, and where people with similar ethics tend to congregate together. This explains why grumpy-Graeme and mad-Doug are the only people who take each other seriously.

There is also a practical reason why the above sort of death threats should be legal. If there actually was some sort of plan to kill me, then it would be very helpful for me to know. Keeping such sentiments underground may protect some delicate sensitivities, but it will not necessarily reduce the sentiment. Now at least if I wake up dead everybody will know where to start the investigation.

P.S. Christopher Hitchens also has some choice words to add regarding free speech:

This was cross-posted at my personal website

11 thoughts on “Defending death threats

  1. This could be an extension of the John Humphreys obsessive habit for manipulating debate;

    He tends to wipe all posts that are excellent, and against his position, but he tends to always let the really bad posts through. I’d go along with Hitchens actually. With what he is saying here. Although as a practical matter, a society might have to have a short sunsetted law against some sort of specific incitement. Good on Hitchens for suggesting that David Irving ought not be in jail. Way too harsh a punishment.

  2. “There is also a practical reason why the above sort of death threats should be legal. If there actually was some sort of plan to kill me, then it would be very helpful for me to know. Keeping such sentiments underground may protect some delicate sensitivities, but it will not necessarily reduce the sentiment. Now at least if I wake up dead everybody will know where to start the investigation.”

    This is simply not practical. If you think for sure, that this could be a death threat, and supposing that you are not mucking about, you should see to it that it is withdrawn. Because anyone who allows two or three independent death threats to get out there, is giving the really bad people an alibi to do something nasty up front. Any of your readers who have children to look after, are going to have a visceral feeling that the above quote it not good and not right.

  3. “… Christopher Hitchens also has [emphasis added] some choice words to add regarding free speech …”.

    No, he hasn’t; in fact, he doesn’t have anything any more. That should be “had” – past tense, like Hitchens.

  4. John,

    Personally, I think at least SOME of what we’d currently call “defamation” could be legitimately considered a species of “fraud,” and thus I think there is at least a reasonable case from a libertarian perspective in favor of some defamation law (that said, I accept that many real-world defamation laws are exploited by the powerful to silence criticism and that any attempt to draft a real-world libertarian defamation law would be an extremely complicated matter which I lack sufficient legal experience to comment on).

    Needless to say, I support contractual Fractional Reserve Banking so I agree with your criticisms re. the anti-FRB types.

    I also read Graeme’s blog (the post you linked to has been deleted). Putting it charitably, I think some of what he says makes it quite clear that he is, proverbially speaking, off his meds.

  5. You stated “Now at least if I wake up dead “, well I doubt you can wake up dead! Once dead there is no waking up from it.
    Anyhow, recently I provided a DRAFT chapter of a forthcoming book to a lawfirm (making clear that as per federal court ruling in the Andrew Bolt case I provided a DRAFT for them to respond to any FACTUAL errors) who then argued SUBSEQUENTLY in court that this constituted CONTEMPT OF COURT.
    So, now providing a DRAFt of a Chapter to a lawfirm for them to consider if there are any FACTUAL errors somehow would constitute CONTEMPT OF COUR. Now, I follwed this up with another DRAFT Chapter making clear that in my view they were so to say a pack of idiots. This time they left me alone.

  6. I don’t agree it’s a death threat. Nor is it incitement. It’s a statement of aspiration, or wishful thinking.

    It’s equivalent to saying Julia Gillard must die so Australia can live.

    It’s merely stupid hyperbole.

  7. Always important to be reminded that the right is okay with censorship as long as it’s the right doing it.

  8. John said: “The moral reason to allow the above sort of rants is that Graeme hasn’t actually directly hurt anybody with his rant, nor has he tried to coerce anybody (by saying “do XYZ, or else””

    It’s very easy to conceive of a situation where speech could cause harm. eg/ Fraud.
    But John is being careful to say that causing harm while immoral, shouldn’t necessarily be illegal. Agreed? I too agree. Say I tell a perfectly sound of mind person to jump off a tall building and they go all crazy and actually do it with disastrous consequences – this does not mean I should have been censored by the law.

    However if the harm was effectively forced onto another without their consent, then it is no longer simply immoral, it should be illegal, eg/ if I pushed the person off the building. Agreed?

    John’s position appears to be that speech by it’s nature cannot be an initiation of force. Yes/No?

    Where we differ is demonstrated by the classic yelling “fire” in a crowded theater example right?
    I think this is an initiation of force and should be illegal – John doesn’t.
    Say a mother hears my shout of “fire”, picks up her baby and runs out the theater. But there’s a big crowd pushing and shoving at the door and she drops her baby and its arm breaks.
    I believe I have initiated force against the mother. Accordingly the law should make me pay the medical costs for that baby and that I should also be charged for threatening others. Whereas John wouldn’t agree. Perhaps John would argue that the mother shouldn’t believe everything she hears? Feel free to elaborate.
    Personally I suspect there’s a mind/body dichotomy here. After all the physical presence of sound waves in the air don’t in of themselves constitute an act of force.

    Ideas themselves and speech ie: spoken or written ideas, are linked to physical action. ie: The mind and the body are always interlinked in reality, even though we can separate them as different conceptual categories. Speech involves certain actions and ideas themselves also prompt actions. I think it’s easy to show that speech can effectively be an initiation of physical force.
    Eg/ A man approaches me in a dark alley and says, “give me your wallet or else I will kill you”. Say I can’t see if he’s got a weapon or not so as to keep this on a level of speech only. in John’s words, this man “hasn’t actually directly hurt anybody”.
    But I’m not going to wait and see if he means it or not. I must take his threat seriously because if I don’t I could be dead. This man has initiated force against me – and this death threat itself should be illegal. My life is the ultimate principle guiding the conditions of freedom, and the limits to free speech should be defined based on the fact that my right to my life the fundamental. Free speech is a necessary condition to a free society, but it is not the most fundamental principle to freedom and it has limits.

    It’s worth noting that the ability to speak freely presupposes the physical means and therefore property. If free speech is an absolute right, then logically some psycho should legally be allowed to force his way into my house and crap on about white supremacy for as long as he pleases.

    For example/ A noisy left-wing protest at a university which shuts down the talk of an invited guest who advocates capitalism. Say the protestors enter the lecture theater during the speech and start chanting and shouting so no one can hear the talk. Using speech they have shut this guy down.
    This would be a property rights violation by the protestors against the university. The protestors do not have the right to do what they please in buildings they do not own or without the owners permission. They have every right to speak publicly with the approval of property owners or to write their objections in publications willing to print their opinion or to start their own publication. They can preach whatever foul, twisted ideas they have which if followed could result in countless deaths – but using their property. Here I am agreeing with John. It would be ridiculous to think that a government is capable of or should control the spread of ideas themselves. This would violate a person’s right to their life because human beings are volitional. Knowledge is not by its nature a matter of authority or force, it is an impossible fantasy to think human beings would be better off with any level of censorship of ideas themselves. However it does not follow from this fact that speech cannot be used to initiate force.

    There’s a hierarchy of political principles here. I am saying Man’s life (which depending on context could mean a consideration of an individual’s life or the generalized concept of mankind) is the ultimate principle of freedom. Free speech isn’t absolute, it has limits like the vast majority of principles in all walks of life.

    Finally one more example. Say I own a store which has a big window on the the street frontage. This is a busy street (note the street is not my property of course) in the city and all sorts of people walk down this street as part of their daily lives. I think it should be illegal to put up a big poster of a naked, mutilated dead body in the window of my shop, or to have hard-core porn showing on a big TV in my shop window. Even though I should be allowed to purchase and watch this material myself and even though I am using my property to do this – anyone who walks past would have real difficulty in avoiding seeing my displays. I am effectively forcing my “speech” onto passers-by many of whom would be offended. This is a similar principle to justifying laws against making excessive noise forcibly disturbing others on property you don’t own like your neighbours.

    Incidentally, I have a brief comment specifically on the Bolt incident. Admittedly I didn’t look into this incident in any detail when it occurred. My understanding is that Bolt was ridiculing people who claim to be Aboriginal when they don’t look Aboriginal. He, like me probably hates the way Aboriginals are treated differently by the law. And I suspect that he thinks that if the law insists on this racism, then shouldn’t there be an objective standard of proof to show you are Aboriginal rather than being able to just assert you are an Aboriginal and receive extra welfare money or be favored in job applications? I don’t know the details or even care – my position is one law for all adult individuals. I think it is immoral and harmful to base legislation on any collective grouping of people above individuals ie: race, sex, class etc.
    From the very little information I saw, the result was a clear injustice towards Bolt. And I believe the Victorian Racial Vilification Act violates the right to free speech, and should probably be completely repealed.
    The government has failed in its role of protecting freedom and not surprisingly this legislation will and has resulted in immoral, unjust and impractical consequences.

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