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The Danger of Intolerance in Public Fora

We've had an interesting, though sadly disparaging, thread on the cisspforum this week. I can't post any direct quotes for you, since that would be a violation of the forum guidelines, but I can talk about the issues in a generalized sense. I wish to do this because I find it indicative of some larger problems within the security industry, and in fact within American society at large.

The core point of contention in this thread was whether or not so-called "off-topic" posts were appropriate. The forum guidelines clearly prohibit content that is not related to security. A couple people argued quite vehemently that anything that diverged from that rule should be strictly omitted. This stance seems reasonable, perhaps, at first glance, but it begged a larger question: given the extremely broad subject that is security, how does one gauge whether or not a post is relevant? Moreover, who's opinion holds more weight in answering that question.

This question was summarily rejected and left unanswered by the complainants. I find this quite interesting; that those complaining about off-topic posts would, first, continue to rant and argue about it, but that they would not try to define what is within the defined scope of the forum. Instead, they pointed to extreme examples of superfluous posts - a point that had already been conceded - as proof that they were right. Unfortunately, the argument itself seemed specious and prejudicial. It belied an underlying tone that they believed that their own definitions of "on-topic" and "off-topic" were superior to broader definitions.

This discussion thread has brought around a vexing concern that I cannot shake; that these individuals with such strongly dissenting opinions were representative of American society and the closed-mindedness that seems to reign supreme today. In asking for a definition of what is on- and off-topic, I posited that security was so broad a subject that it warranted greater tolerance and forbearance than was being advocated in their dissension. Is it not better to tolerate some superfluous banter than to potentially censor or oppress discussions that some people might find of value (even if it's not universally valued)?

It strikes me as deeply disturbing that the alternatives offered by the complainants was that their definition of scope should be accepted as right, and that the guidelines should be enforced strictly, without flexibility or tolerance for alternative opinions. Dissension is valuable, up until it advocates excluding alternative opinions, and thus undermines the very foundation that allows for dissenting opinions. I'm far more afraid of homogenized discourse than of being made to look the fool in a public discussion forum.

Regrettably, this perspective that we should only allow free speech as long as it's never offensive to anybody is downright scary, and seems to be a hallmark of the present administration and many baby boomers in the US. Indeed, I find great irony in the fact that this group of rebels has swung so far to the other extreme (the only explanation I can find is that they went so far to the left extreme that they've in fact wrapped back around to the right extreme on the political continuum).

The Founding Fathers were really quite insightful in codifying the right to free speech within the Constitution. In ye dayes of old, prior to the First Amendment, not everyone was afforded a right to responsibly speak their mind. All this changed with the Constitution, and has been adamantly protected ever since. This freedom - to engage in open, responsible discourse - is, in fact, one of the key foundational elements of a democracy and free society. To limit the speech of one group is to undermine the very society that affords us the ability to act with such draconian impertinence.

Perhaps more troubling than the desire to limit speech in these contexts is what is being said. It says that one person believes their views to be superior to others. In the case of the cisspforum, it suggests that one person's reading of the forum guidelines and their personal definition of the scope of "security" is superior to another's that may be more broad. In the case of society, we've seen a sharp up-tick in intolerance. The talking heads on the 24-hour cable stations are a perfect example. Whether you think the media is too liberal or too conservative is irrelevant. It's whether or not you believe that those news sources with which you disagree should be quashed that concerns me. The Fox news channels have been notorious for promulgating this view; that only certain perspectives should be given voice. The Bush administration has also demonstrated such intolerance, abusing their opposition in the name of national security, when they are in fact threatened by any opposition.

One thing that I've noticed over the years is that those who argue from the weakest position seem to voice the strongest opposition to allowing dissension. In the case of the cisspforum, rather than engaging in discourse on a reasonable definition of "on-topic," the complainants instead devolved their arguments into personal attacks (largely against me) in which they misrepresented the question, claiming that I was trying to suppress their right to dissension. I must admit to being completely baffled by this conclusion; that asking for a clear definition of scope could be construed as trying to cut them off entirely. In society, we see this played out in all sorts of debates between extremes, whether it be over abortion, or stem cell research, or the Iraqi occupation, or any number of issues. It's a perspective that I grew up with, having been raised in a fundamental conservative Christian household where we heard other religions characterized as "cults" and where we were told things like "be not unequally yoked" (meaning, don't marry someone who doesn't believe exactly the same as you), and so on.

The problem is this: if we start telling people that certain things cannot be said, then where does it stop? Today it's complaints about "obviously off-topic" content. Tomorrow, it's complaints about comments that are on-topic, but not seen as such because the complainant doesn't understand the context or see the connection. After that, we suddenly devolve into a homogenized (and boring!) community.

What was most annoying about this entire thread was the insistence by the complainants that the forum could become one of the best "technical security" forums on the Internet. First off, I don't believe that for a minute. Second, the comment is itself prejudicial because it suggests that the forum is not already superior to others. Third, security is not a technical discipline. It's a hybrid discipline that spans all aspects of the business. Yes, there are technical components, but that's true of almost every subject area today (e.g. accountants rely on accounting software). Fourth, the forum was working quite well, thank you very much. Three people vocalized complaints about the number of off-topic posts, but their advocated solution was to shutdown what was, again in their opinion, all off-topic discussion, based on their unstated definition of what is and is not related to security. At least one of the complainants indicated that a couple dozen people had voiced support offline, but that's unverifiable. And, if people are really that fed up with things, why aren't they voicing it in the forum? Change cannot come about if people don't exercise their right to free speech.

In the grand scheme of things, my concerns can be summed up as such: Is it not more damaging to society to impose censorship and oppression, than to exercise tolerance for free speech, even if we as individuals may occasionally find certain speech to be frivolous or offensive? Put another way: maybe you agree fully with the views of the current administration and thus have no problem with them broadly censoring speech. What happens when you are not in full agreement with the administration? What happens if those same censorship activities begin to limit _your_ speech? Is it not better to avoid the whole issue by allowing free speech and exercising tolerance and a little judgment?

Remember: personally controlling and censoring what you read or see is one thing. Trying to force your own personal filters onto everyone else is where you begin to cross the line to infringement upon the rights of others.

Moreover, think about the broader repercussions on society should free speech be suppressed. To quote Yoda: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." We clearly live in a time where a certain segment of the political leadership prefer to promote fear and suppress dissension than to accept that they're full of themselves.

To close, a few quotes that I hope you'll find interesting:

"The First Amendment is often inconvenient. But that is besides the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech."
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."
Mark Twain

"Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech."
Benjamin Franklin

"If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."
George Washington

“Above all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. To permit the continued building of our politics and culture, and to assure self-fulfillment for each individual, our people are guaranteed the right to express any thought, free from government censorship.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
John Milton


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