Purging a Blogger Who Offends Sets a Very Dangerous Precedent

Freedom of speech applies even to Holocaust deniers.

Posted May 20, 2011


When I was a doctoral student at Cornell, a big debate raged on campus about whether an infamous Holocaust denier should be permitted to speak at our institution. The decision at numerous elite schools was to offer this clown a forum in which he could spew his horrifying anti-semitism. I would hope that most readers might agree that to publicly deny the brutal and inhumane extermination of six million human beings is more offensive than Kanazawa's latest post. Guess what? Many Jews (myself included) reluctantly support his right to make a fool of himself although it is unclear that denying blatant historical facts should be "debated." Let his words come back to haunt him.

Last August, a fellow blogger started a thread in the Green Room (the private chat room for bloggers), as well as wrote a post (see here), in which he vigorously attacked me for having written a post on a study (conducted by a French psychologist) on the links between a woman's breast size and the likelihood of her being picked up as a hitchhiker (see here). Numerous fellow bloggers joined in the attacks. However, I defended myself vigorously and eventually the issue died down (I wish that I could share some of the moralizing grandstanding and personal attacks that were levied at me but it is a confidential space reserved for bloggers). The blogger in question criticized me for the manner in which I had reported the findings of the study even though I reported them in exactly the same way as originally done in the paper (in a peer-reviewed journal). Numerous people came to my defense, most notably Robert Kurzban (one of the editors of Evolution and Human Behavior and fellow PT blogger), to reiterate that I had been utterly accurate (and proper) in the way that I had reported the findings (see here).

However, the real gist of the attack was much deeper than a data analytic one. I was accused of engaging in "pornography peddling" not only for discussing such a "sexist" topic but also for using a teaser image of an attractive woman (with large breasts) in the passenger seat of a car (i.e., the teaser image was perfectly congruent with the topic of the post). The blogger who started the personal attack was clear in stating that such topics should not be allowed on the Psychology Today blog (even though I was discussing a paper that had been published in a peer-reviewed journal). The attack was jarring, emotionally draining, and hurtful. On one other occasion, a few bloggers were "offended" that I had used a teaser image of an attractive woman covered in chocolate for a post on the links between women's sexuality and chocolate consumption (see here). Of course, I have also discussed issues wherein I used photos of sexy scantly clad men (see here and the teaser image for this post here) but in those instances I never heard any complaints. The moral and thought police was on vacation.

I am readdressing these personal examples here to demonstrate the dangers of acquiescing to perceived offenses. I repeatedly criticize religion in my posts. What if someone now proclaims that my anti-religion analyses are offensive to their spiritual sensibilities?  In a recent post, I called into question religious organizations that seek to argue that homosexuality could be changed via religious "interventions" (see here).  My position is certainly very offensive to those who truly believe that praying to some instantiation of God will make someone "turn away" from their otherwise "sinful" sexual orientation.

In his blogging career, Satoshi Kanawaza has generated much offense. There is no question about that. However, I would offer a different solution to purging him from this forum (as several bloggers have suggested). Let his words be available for public consumption, and permit people to evaluate his writings and shred them to pieces (when warranted). With that in mind, bloggers should perhaps not be allowed to disable their comments section, as has been the practice of Kanazawa (although I can appreciate that this is an attempt by some bloggers to protect themselves from at times unwarranted venom and nastiness, as generated more often than not by anonymous readers).

Bottom line: The collective (and perhaps understandable) reflex is to purge Kanazawa from this forum. Remove the offending party and life will return to normal. However, this sets an extraordinarily dangerous precedent for very obvious reasons. I am well aware that this is an issue of editorial discretion and not government censorship. That distinction notwithstanding, we all lose whenever any outfit restricts or delimits what can or cannot be said or debated.

Please understand that I am not dismissing the obvious hurt that Kanazawa's post has engendered. This however is not the point of this post. If we genuinely believe in free speech then we must defend the right of those who offer opinions, ideas, and analyses that are grossly offensive to us (e.g., a Jewish person defending the right of a Holocaust denier to share his/her views at leading world-renowned universities).  Short of speech that seeks to incite violence or the proverbial shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater, we should be very careful about quelling our most inalienable right, namely the free exchange of ideas.  We do not have the inherent right to be protected from offensive, idiotic, hurtful, or silly speech.  Ignore it.  Debate it.  Attack it.  Don't suppress it.

Thank you for taking the time to entertain my thoughts on the matter. I wish everyone a good weekend.

Addendum (May 22):

Yesterday, Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman put up a post wherein he (along with Dr. Jelte Wicherts) analyzed the Add Health data and refuted the conclusions arrived at by Dr. Kanazawa.  In other words, by allowing ideas to be debated, criticized, and attacked (even offensive ones), the truth has a way of finding the light of day (I originally wrote these exact words as a response to a reader who recently experienced prejudice in her romantic life, and who was understandably offended by Kanazawa's post).

Source for Image: