I was going to retweet a link to this article critical of skeptic attacks on anti-vaccine loons, saying that we should be careful not to step beyond reiterating “these ideas are dangerous, stupid, and wrong” into outright harassment or censorship. Then I realised, first, that was too long to fit into a tweet; and second, that I was still kind of conflicted and needed to make a more nuanced statement.
As someone who has plenty of idiosyncratic ideas myself, I don’t want to be harassed or censored. But I am also pretty far along the free speech continuum. I don’t have any problem with ‘behead those who insult Islam’, for instance. Because I am pretty far along this free speech continuum, I also don’t have any problem with the techniques labelled ‘Disruption of Discussions’ and ‘Verbal Abuse’ in Brian Martin’s article. I have been on both ends of these techniques on numerous issues in the past, and think the Internet would be a dull and listless place without them.
Boycotting advertisers, and applying moral pressure to venues and media outlets that provide platforms for your opponents. are also time-honoured methods of grass-roots protest. These techniques are disingenuously shoehorned in Brian Martin’s article into the categories ‘Threats’ (together with some actions that are truly vile and beyond the pale) and ‘Censorship’ (I don’t think that word means what you think it does). I think it is well and good that you just have to be prepared to suck these up if you are in the public arena.
Where I am conflicted is the technique ‘Complaints’. On the one hand, trying to use the power of the state to silence your opponents is something I find repugnant. On the other hand, lives are at stake. Someone you know is far more likely to die due to the activities of an anti-vaccine activist than a terrorist. If we are justified in using the power of the state to nip potential terrorists in the bud while they are still probably just wannabes and haven’t actually blown anything up, why shouldn’t we use the state to stop anti-vaccine loons from gaining traction before their actions lead to mass casualties? On balance, I don’t think we should, and would disavow the techniques described under ‘Complaints’; but I think this is mostly for the selfish reason that I wouldn’t like to have them used against me, and because I have an ideological aversion to government meddling, rather than on any proper moral calculus about the public good.