Their Threat Is Your Threat
He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.
– Thomas Paine
We Ally with the Different, yet Closely Related…
As I’ve discussed previously, people tend to form collective groups and then campaign only for the interests of those groups. But an interesting thing happens when these groups, though separate, recognize a common threat. They ally.
Consider all of the people who attend a gay rights parade who are not actually gay. At these gatherings you will find practitioners of all kinds of unconventional sexual behavior: polyamory, transvestitism, BDSM, and fetishism. We see different groups of people united out of the recognition of a common threat: people who would forcefully limit the sexual behavior of consenting adults. They correctly recognize that successful forceful action against any of these groups sets a precedent. That precedent says that it is okay to use force to limit private consensual behavior that some people do not like. And once that precedent is set, these different groups know that they could be targeted next.
Consider the Baptists and Presbyterians—two very distinct Protestant Christian denominations—who unite in protest against a despotic government that imprisons people for practicing Judaism. These Baptists and Presbyterians are not Jews. They don’t agree with Jewish beliefs. They don’t even agree with each other’s beliefs. But nonetheless, they unite out of recognition of a common threat: people who would forcefully limit peaceful religious practice. They correctly recognize that successful forceful action against any of these groups sets a precedent. That precedent says that it is okay to use force to limit private religious behavior that some people do not like. And once that precedent is set, these different groups know that they could be targeted next.
…But Not with the Distant
Rushing to the defense of another threatened group is a good thing, but if we were to take this concept all the way, it would be an excellent thing. See, we champion our personal cause with greatest priority, and even the cause of closely related groups with just slightly lower priority. But what about everyone else? Well, they’re on their own. And so we allow dangerous precedents to arise while not recognizing that the stage is set for those precedents to be used against us.
Consider a group of astrologers adamant in their belief that the world will end in cataclysm in 2012. These people publish a website on which they not only defend this assertion, they provide detailed steps for accessing an alternative safe-haven world through a wormhole. They call themselves The Lifeboat Project. Let’s assume that none of this is true and that these Lifeboaters merely inspire irrational fear followed up with irrational hope (a not uncommon scenario).
Due to the concern that this group will be successful in persuading others, it is proposed that this group’s speech be restrained with government force. A measure based on this proposal is enacted, and the The Lifeboat Project website is shut down.
You read about this in the news. What is your reaction?
Most people will simply roll their eyes at the silliness of the The Lifeboat Project and move on to the next article. Because they cannot relate to the Lifeboaters, the oppression they experience strikes no nerve—but it should.
If we do not take seriously this forceful action against the Lifeboaters then we are allowing a dangerous precedent to arise while not recognizing that it can be used against us. The precedent here is that some speech is bad and that bad speech should be forcefully curtailed.
Once this precedent is made, the question is no longer: should speech be limited? By our own apathy we implicitly accept that it should be limited, and so the question becomes: what speech should be limited? And now that the question has changed, the door becomes open to some group that says your speech should be limited.
The Threat is The Same
It is good to recognize threats to specific people regarding specific freedom (homosexuals and sexual freedom, Jews and religious freedom, or Lifeboaters and speech freedom). But it is excellent to recognize that each of these freedoms is merely a specific example of a greater and more general freedom: freedom from forceful action when we conduct ourselves peacefully and engage each other on a basis of consent.
So with all of these examples, the threat is the same. To prioritize one expression of freedom over another, merely because it hits a little closer to home for us, misses the point: allowing anyone to use force against a peaceful person for any reason sets a precedent that threatens every one of us.
People ally with their own groups. They ally with closely associated groups. This is all very good stuff. But they need to expand that thinking to be inclusive of humanity in general. Whether or not you relate to or like the targeted individuals, force against the peaceful is always bad.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.