Good People Can Disagree

Some Confederate memorials and monuments should be relocated to museums. Also, we should rename some of our public buildings. I know people who disagree with my opinion on this topic. Most of them are very fine people. They are good people who disagree with me. We can disagree with each other and not believe the other person is a bad or evil person. Indeed, I am not here to argue the Confederate monument issue. I am here to argue for the freedom of speech and against the attitude of zealotry in politics.

Consider the problem of Islam. According to Islamic doctrine, a man named Muhammad held conversations with an angel named Gabriel who transmitted to him God’s word. The word is patriarchal, heterosexist, and intolerant. The world would be better off without Islam (religion altogether). Are there no fine Muslims? Would it be appropriate to disrupt a public gathering of Muslims in which Islamic opinion was being expressed? Is it appropriate when Muslims use violence and intimidation to protest expressions with which they disagree? Are Muslims justified in murdering cartoonists who depict Muhammad in their satire?

The practices of reducing those with whom you disagree to very bad people and disrupting their public and permitted events is the attitude of the zealot. Zealots hear contrary speech as if it were blasphemy. Zealots treat disagreeable people as if they were heretics. Operating according to a rigid doctrine that comes with a license to dehumanize others and lord your beliefs over them is the mark of an intolerant attitude. Politics organized in this fashion undermines the conditions of a free and open society.

The free speech right means that holding and expressing opinions with which others disagree is protected by the state. Attempts to shut down public and permitted speech using violence and intimidation is a violation of that right. Recently, I posted an example of white supremacists disrupting speech critical of white supremacy. Those disrupting the speech have a right to their opinion, but they do not have a right to prevent others from expressing theirs. They left voluntarily. But forcible removal from the location would have been justified. Likewise, antifascist action that disrupts the public and permitted expression of opinions with which the antifascist disagrees moves beyond the free speech right. It is not an expression of the free speech right to disrupt public and permitted expression of opinion by others. (I am not suggesting that everybody who supports keeping Confederate monuments and memorials is a white supremacist.) 

I hear the objection: Are you saying that white supremacist and antifascist opinions are equivalent? The question is irrelevant. Opinions don’t have to be equivalent in moral worth to recognize that the right to express them is possessed equally among all persons. If the right to free speech was only reserved for those whose opinions were agreeable no such right would be necessary. You would, in fact, live in a totalitarian society. In as free society, however, white supremacists and antifascists (and Muslims) have an equal right to express opinions in the proper places at the proper times. 

The moral worth of opinions has no bearing on equal access to the free speech right. The state cannot determine speech on the basis of its content either by interfering with it or by allowing others to interfere with it. Interfering with that right without justification – and disagreeing with an opinion is not a justification for interfering with that right – justifiably draws criticism. And good people can disagree.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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