by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the enemies of free speech have been worming their way up through the floorboard. They range from religious fanatics openly supporting murder, to those who say–nudge, nudge, wink, wink–that those who exercise free speech should expect consequences. They range from PC multiculturalists, to Fox News commentators, to the pope. His comments were typical. He likened insults to religion to insults to his mother, and balling his fist said that those who make such comments should “expect to be hit.” He added that free speech doesn’t extend to ridicule of religion.
These remarks are very similar to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s famous aphorism about yelling fire in a crowded theater, which he used as justification to restrict free speech in Schenck v. United States (1919), which upheld the Espionage Act. That Act had nothing to do with espionage, but was instead designed and used to suppress opposition to World War I. Under it, thousands were prosecuted and jailed, often for years, for exercising the supposedly sacred right of free speech.
But do Holmes, the pope, et al., have a point? No, they don’t. They’re using argument by analogy, the weakest form of argument. Its weakness lies in that argument by analogy treats two dissimilar things as if they were identical, and then prescribes the “remedy” for one as if it were the “remedy” for the other. This only holds if those making the analogy can demonstrate that the two things are identical, or so similar that the differences between them are trivial. But they never do this, because they can’t. They’re attempting to arouse an emotional response, and hoping that listeners will be caught up in the emotion and will overlook the obvious fallacious nature of their argument.
If you doubt this, please notice that both Holmes and the pope used two of the most inflammatory, emotion-rousing analogies imaginable.
Also please notice that they don’t even attempt to demonstrate that “yelling fire in a crowded theater,” insults to one’s mother, and critical political and religious speech are the same, and so should be treated the same. Again, they simply can’t do this, so they rely on assertion and the inattention and emotionality of their listeners.
If they want to outlaw yelling fire in a crowded theater, fine. Let them say so. And if they want to outlaw critical political and religious speech, fine. Let them say so, and let’s see them produce some actual justification for doing that rather than hiding behind false analogies.
If they want to outlaw certain types of speech, they need to demonstrate that those types of speech are threats to the public. But they can’t, and they don’t want to be open about what they’re up to, so they rely on weak arguments and emotional manipulation.
There are only two reasons why people advance the “yelling fire” fallacy. There are only two reasons why they advance this tired half-witticism: 1) They’re too dumb to know what they’re doing; or 2) They’re deliberately trying to manipulate and mislead.
Finally, regarding the pope’s comments: once past grade school, most people do not respond to comments about their mothers with physical violence. That’s called growing up, acting like an adult.