There are lots of crazies in this world. Fortunately they do not represent the majority. In the past they did. Fifty years from now we may look back and think that today they do. When I look back 50 years now, I am very glad to live in a world that is less violent, less racist, less homophobic, less sexist and more able to have discussion, be friends with, live with and even marry people who are very different from us.
I like the fact that the crazies are allowed to speak. Free Speech is awesome. If someone is free to open their mouth and say, 'Look at me, I am a crazy.' that lets me avoid them. When someone posts a facebook status update that makes my jaw hit the floor, I can be grateful that I have a little insight into a person that allows me to artfully reduce the time in their company.
There is a fascinating story, I think from Freakonomics, which tells the story of how the response to 9/11 increased the circle around an airport where people would rather choose to drive. Driving is far more dangerous than flying. Road accidents are the 8th on the rankings of leading causes of death, not far behind HIV/AIDS. By increasing security the time it takes to fly from A to B increases. This means more people will choose to drive instead. So they choose the more dangerous method to save time. The increased security ironically leads to more deaths.
Like terrorism, sharks and tidal waves, certain stories scare us more. We aren't wired to look at the facts. I think the same is true with free speech and 'crazies'. Trolls on the internet use this approach to hijack conversations and provoke a response. I think the appropriate response when someone says something dodgy is to quietly suck the air out of the room. Secretly, you can be grateful to the troll for letting you know they are a moron. Trolls do not reflect the majority opinion. Increasing the policing of trolls will likely ironically lead to their opinions gaining more value than they deserve.
Megan asked some interesting questions about the consistency of our criticism of some forms of speech in her guest post 'We need to talk about Charlie'. Another issue that often gets brought up in teasing out difficult issues is the creation of 'Safe Spaces'. I find the idea of a safe space appealing in the sense of making even trolls feel comfortable saying what they want to say. That doesn't mean we need to feed them though. I mean comfortable in the sense of a lack of physical attack. They can feel free to say their stuff though. I would say universities and social media are awesome places to be safe spaces in this sense. I think they are terrible places to be safe spaces in terms of providing trigger free retreats for people who are trying to protect themselves as they recover from trauma.
I do think we can create little protected bubbles to protect holy stories. I don't think these places are the places where ideas change or develop though. They are respites. On Bloggingheads TV, Robert Wright and Judith Shulevitz discuss the ideas of safe spaces, free speech, political correctness and whether or not universities are creating a generation of people that are soft by protecting them too much.
Fighting trolls is feeding trolls.
See the talk at Bloggingheads