Friday, November 29, 2013

Hate Speech - The TIme Has Come to Regulate It

Hate speech is defined as “speech that attacks and is an incitement to hatred of a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”  Hate speech is not a rational discussion of the pros and cons of a group’s values or actions.  It is targeted solely at the listener’s emotions.

There has always been a lot of hate speech in this country, but over the past few decades, it seems to be getting worse.  As in the past, hate speech is directed against various groups ... gays and lesbians, people of color, immigrants, pro-choice women and their doctors, Muslims ... with the object of either inciting the public to act against these groups, often through legislative action but also often through violence, or just denigrating their value as human beings.

Such speech has been deemed protected by the 1st Amendment’s right of free speech.  While that right is not absolute, the only limitations on speech approved by the U.S. Supreme Court have been incitement that created a clear and present danger of violence or illegal action, libel and slander, obscenity, “gag” orders to insure justice, or protecting consumers from false advertising, for example.

In each of these cases, someone was being harmed in a way that could not be practically countered in the “marketplace of ideas,” which is the function of free speech in a democracy.  While most European countries, and some others, banned hate speech after WWII because of the Nazi experience, the United States has not seen fit to do that.  The reasoning being that unless there was a clear and present danger, the hateful speech could be countered in the marketplace of ideas by other speech.

This reasoning may have had some validity in the pre-internet, pre-cable TV era.  But now it is a specious argument.  We live in an era where many people lead very polarized, insular lives.  Because of the advent of the internet and cable television, people now can and do listen only to news and pundits that agree with their point of view.  If they hear an opposing viewpoint, they dismiss it out of hand as being biased or ill-informed.

We also live in an age where information goes viral, which is to say that like a virus, the information spreads very quickly.  Given these two factors, together with the fact that guns are readily available and there seems to be less inhibition to using them against people, hate speech has a heightened  ability to cause a clear and present danger to the physical or mental well-being of an individual or group of individuals.  And it therefore should be banned.

Interestingly, the loudest opponents of such a law would be liberals, for whom the right of free speech is sacrosanct.  But as discussed, the right is not absolute, and such a law would not be a “slippery slope” leading to further restrictions on free speech.

Regarding those who create hate speech, they should not be able to disingenuously claim the protection of free speech.  The court has made clear that people are to be protected from a clear and present danger of violence.  In the case of much hate speech, it is clearly the intent of the speaker or writer to foment violence against individuals or groups based on an emotional hatred.  That one has no way of knowing whether someone will act on that incitement should not protect such speech.  By the time someone acts, it is too late.

And for those many instances in which hate speech deals with a legislative agenda, it should also be banned.  While there is certainly time for opposing viewpoints to be aired, the marketplace of ideas is not functioning very well in our current polarized internet/cable TV environment.  

But more fundamentally, hate speech has no place in a civilized society.  Just as a society has the right to protect consumers from false advertising and children from obscenity, society has the right and I would say the duty to protect people from hate speech.  Both the haters and those who are the object of hate suffer as a result of such speech.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Self-Help Scam

The self-help industry is huge.  Although numbers are hard to come by, in 2008 Nielsen Bookscan reported that 13.5 millions self-help books were sold in the U.S.  The self-help industry is said to be worth around $11 billion annually, including seminars, DVDs, etc.

Obviously, lots of people are crying out for help.  They feel miserable or frustrated about their lives in various ways, whether it’s their relationships, work, family, or personal development.

And it’s no small wonder because we live in a culture which is extremely competitive and which is constantly sending us messages, whether through the media or through family and peers, that we need to be more than we are, we need to have more than we have.  We live in a culture which creates feelings of insecurity from almost day 1 after birth.  As insecure people, we cannot develop and maintain good relationships.  And we cannot be satisfied with anything we achieve; regardless how successful or powerful, we always want more in order to remain happy.  Our culture has created a collective monster.

This is the context within which the self-help industry thrives.  And it is the context in which it ultimately fails the people it supposedly is trying to help.  The problem is that as soon as you fall into the trap of feeling there is something about yourself that needs “fixing” or “improving,” there is no hope because you are buying into the culture’s hype.

And that is why, despite the tens of millions of people who read and are otherwise drawn to the advice of self-help gurus, nothing really changes in their lives or in the world.  Yes, a few “make it.”  But the vast majority get nowhere even if they faithfully follow the advice given.  If these books worked as advertised, the world would become far less dysfunctional and vast numbers of people would feel better about their lives.

No, the problem lies not with individuals, it lies with the culture and the way it impacts everyone in it.  No one can escape it.  We are all a product of our learned experience ... whether from family, peers, or the larger culture.  But it all comes back to the culture.

Our ego is the repository and protector of these learned experiences.  It drives our lives and controls our actions based on these learned experiences which at their core are based on insecurity.  As such it is the font of our neuroses that cause us so much fear, anxiety, anger, and general suffering.  It is the reason why few of us ever feel at peace or find true happiness.

Since you can’t change the culture, we have two options.  The one is to change ourselves in a way so that we have a better fit with the culture and thus do better in our interactions with it.  Succeed on its terms.  That is the basic tact of self-help books.  And it doesn’t work because our culture feeds upon and manipulates everyone in it.  And thus we can never find real happiness or peace going that route.

The other option is to change the way we interact with the culture ... to interact with it on our terms.  To realize with great clarity what it is and how it operates, how our learned experiences have impacted us and caused us endless suffering, and how we can step back from this manufactured ego and find our true selves ... strong, secure, happy, and at peace. Freeing ourselves from the cravings that our learned experience promotes ... that is the source of peace and contentment, happiness and yes, even joy.

And that, my friends, is the Buddhist path.  Ending our suffering not through the process of psychoanalysis or self-help improvement, but by understanding how our feelings and perceptions, while feeling very real, actually have no inherent reality and are just a product of our learned experience ... and learning that by freeing ourselves from this known, from our ego, we can discover again our true selves and see ourselves and the world around us as we and it really are, without the distorting filter of our learned experiences, our thinking mind.