I've been pondering the very unwelcome news that the candidate running closest to Senator Dianne Feinstein in California's primary (which does not separate out Democratic and Republican candidates) is Patrick Little, an unabashed anti-Semite whose rhetoric would make Adolf Hitler purr in his grave. I'm trying to explain it to myself, since I don't believe either that a large number of Americans actively hate Jews or that Californians are significantly more inclined toward such hatred. I've had a few thoughts on what might be going on.
What came to mind first were some memories from my youth. I'm not ancient enough to have seen the movie Reefer Madness when it first came out (in 1936), but for much of my life, there have been teachers and government officials doing their best to convince young people that marijuana was highly addictive and wildly dangerous. And for much of my life, young people have looked around at their weed-smoking friends, or at their weed-smoking selves, and observed that these claims were largely invalid. Some of them almost certainly overgeneralized from this observation and concluded that all claims about the dangers of illegal drugs were just killjoy hokum. (Indeed, some of those other claims were grossly exaggerated -- but not all.) How much better young people would have been served by open, accurate discussion of the effects and qualities of various drugs.
Then there's the perennial problem of kids with insufficient accurate information about sex learning about sex from other kids. How many pregnancies and STDs have resulted?
Finally, and most controversially these days, we have the issues of ethnic, religious, and gender differences. It's a rare and brave soul who dares to discuss crime statistics concerning different ethnic groups and ask whether social and cultural factors have anything to do with those statistics. Or to point out that the male/female distinction, though far from all-encompassing and inadequate to describe some individuals and conditions, has a fundamental basis in Terran biology, and to ask whether such a fundamental distinction might indeed have some correlates in human psychology and behavior.
What difficulties might result from the prohibition on these last areas of discourse? Well, when open discussion is loudly declared to be taboo, and when well-informed, well-meaning, rational people yield to that prohibition, who's going to be left standing and talking? The haters, that's who. The actual haters, not those who for fear of that label have fallen silent. And who will be left listening? Those who resent political taboos but themselves know little about, e.g., ethnic groups outside their own acquaintance.
When speech is suppressed, many will admire anyone who defies that suppression, little as a particular defiant individual may deserve admiration. When people are berated or threatened for discussing such questions as whether a disproportionate percentage of Muslims embrace religiously motivated violence, some of those people will be more ready to believe slanderous claims about other religious groups, including Jews. And the woefully inadequate teaching of history in this country, lo these many years, fails to provide an antidote to such slanders.
It has always been a core American value that the answer to false speech is true speech, not suppression of speech -- even if laws and lawmakers have not always kept that in mind. And the consequences of suppressing speech show us the wisdom of that maxim. The candidacy of Patrick Little should provide a loud and alarming wake-up call.