Bill Maher has always championed liberal values–though not the mooshy kind of people that are afraid to have their feelings hurt–and has always been an outspoken free-speech fundamentalist. True to his values, Maher had troll Milo Yiannopoulos as a guest on his show recently.
This IGD piece criticizes Maher for giving Milo a platform to spew his hatred, and in my view the criticism is fair. It is one thing to argue that Milo has the right or freedom to express himself, and he certainly does have that right, and it’s guaranteed by the constitution. But that is NOT at stake here. On his agenda is the normalization of white supremacist discourse, and by allowing Milo a platform as public as Maher’s show, without really subjecting him to the criticism that we have come to expect from such a liberal space in media, this advances said agenda.
By the way, the page calls Milo a white nationalist, but I’m not sure that applies to him, as he’s an immigrant from Britain and not an American citizen–he’s not a white “nationalist”, he’s just a self-loathing gay, an ultra-conservative troll, and an attention whore who has apparently bought into the near entirety of the paranoid alt-right discourse without qualifying the excesses of religious privilege and the many other incoherent and degrading bits, even those bits that de-legitimize his own life, his own right to exist and to be healthy and happy as a gay man.
At the core of the confusion in values that Milo challenges us to confront, is the question of what we Epicureans know as parrhesia (frank criticism) and its needed role in society. According to Philodemus of Gadara in his On Frank Criticism (Peri Parrhesias), there are two forms of frank criticism: private and public. Here, we are not concerned with the private form. In the public sphere, free speech should be applied to correct the false views and the traditions that are in error.
The philosopher must speak frankly and openly to outside society in order to help emancipate others from ignorance or from tradition, and from the forms of suffering that ignorance and tradition generate.
Confucius, for instance, confronted the ancient Chinese custom of burial of live slaves with their master with great moral stamina before a local ruler, and with his eloquence and intelligence, (he) single-handedly ended the practice. Siddhartha Buddha confronted the caste system and the Vedic practices of animal sacrifice. Ancient Greek atomists confronted false healers with the theory that germs produce illness and assuaged people’s fears about the gods, prophecy, heavenly bodies, and earthquakes by teaching that natural laws govern the way things are.
Now, while Milo certainly has a constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech, and in spite of how much he wishes to dignify his freedom of speech and make himself out to be a victim of the so-called “free speech police”, he is not applying parrhesia. While refusing to call transgender persons by their gender identity, he argued with insistence that transgender people are “vastly disproportionaly involved in sex crime“, without citing specific statistics or sources. This is false. In fact–just as I suspected before looking for legitimate data–transgender people are FAR more likely to be victimized than to be the aggressors. According to this page that gathers national statistics (which can be acquired via a google search in seconds):
Most studies reveal that approximately 50% of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.
One in ten transgender individuals have been sexually assaulted in a healthcare setting.
My blog is not (usually) about politics, and I’m not (usually) about fact-checking mass media in this post-fact era. That would be too exhausting and would take too much time away from my true passions, but I feel that parrhesia is a fundamental human value and that, when the tendency to hold as sacred our freedom of speech degenerates into the dignification of trolling and lying, it’s time to go back to the basics about why freedom of speech matters. Again: no one may question anyone else’s right to free speech. That is not at issue here: we are not only free to speak. We are also responsible for the content of our words and, when we lie in such a public forum and our words do real damage, we are liable to be exposed to public correction, and perhaps even shame and humiliation. Let’s hope that, in the future, Bill Maher can better discern the difference.