Black Identity in Kendrick Lamar’s “i” and “The Blacker the Berry” on To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar is a contemporary and prominent African American hip-hop artist. He was born in the city of Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles that is famous in hip-hop culture as being the birthplace of the group N.W.A. The men of N.W.A. were pioneers of gangster rap and the tradition that fathered modern hip-hop culture. Lamar, though his roots are steeped in the West Coast hip-hop tradition and aesthetic and he no doubt owes much to that tradition, is a pioneer in his own right. The West Coast hip-hop legacy which Lamar grew up with and runs with includes a rich and wide history. To name a few examples: Snoop Dogg’s honey-smoothly delivered lyrics concerned mainly with casual sex and currency, Ice Cube’s indignant and meticulously architected verse, and 2Pac’s revolutionarily heart-slamming (and rending) ballads glamorizing and burning-in harsh coals of reality of both his personal struggles and also the broader strife and conviction of (particularly urban) Black America. West Coast hip-hop has developed an impressive, unique and flavorful tradition and has established itself both in the physical place of Southern California and in the metaphysical realm of hip-hop via homages to and borrowings from the genre. However it is what an artist adds to the literary “conversation” that distinguishes them.

Each artist and indeed each human being is faced with the constantly adapting “problem” of life as humanity understands it, and the artist is tasked with constantly drafting possible solutions and fruitful breakthroughs and hypotheses toward improving society’s understanding of it. An artist’s endeavors ideally allow society to digest and confront disturbing truths about the world and also become aware of fleeting beauties in life that occur in unexpected forms. The way an artist understands their identity forms the way they approach their craft by determining the sorts of inflection that is inherent when one of a given social group addresses any particular audience. The Black artist in particular is faced with the added difficulty (or imposed asset) of needing to deal with the phenomenon W.E.B. DuBois called “double-consciousness” and its significance towards the sculpting of identity. Lamar clearly subscribes to the idea of double-consciousness as will be explicated later in the paper. The Black artist understands the necessity of defining and coloring this identity to the extent such that it is useful as a foundation from which to speak steadfastly to a broader society that has already defined the Black person/artist with stereotypes of being inferior, amusing, mentally-deficient beings incapable or unworthy of being fully understood.

Black artists have taken many different types of approaches to conquer this obstacle. Some find their calling to be to attempt to embrace individualism and reject the importance of the construct of race to its historical and present nature of being used to justify oppression and hate. Zora Neale Hurston perhaps often strived towards this as a means of transcending the issue as best as possible without denying racial culture and heritage. Others are inclined to accept DuBois’ vehement philosophical conclusion that “all art is propaganda and ever must be,” and find that art, this brutally delicate and uniquely human diversion and marvelous tool for social revelation, is best used when it directly addresses race and promotes individual encouragement, psychological empowerment and political change.

On To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar tackles the Black artist’s problem with an acuteness and urgency that can only be imitated by most of the rappers conscious enough to attempt to do so. His meditation on the theme of identity, and its implications for one’s responsibility to the group they identify with, that is baked into two different pictures of Black identity in the militaristically melodied and militantly messaged track “The Blacker the Berry,” and the racial self-affirming and hopefully existential track “i” is both profound and pounding. These works stand out among the rest of his work to emblazon Lamar’s place in the African American musical-literary tradition as a skilled propagandist and painter of America’s social ills (especially concerning racial identity and wealth inequality) as they corrupt the nation’s people. One of the affinities that makes Lamar unique in the hip-hop crowd is his ability to capitalize on the convention of creating single, poignant punchlines at the end of verses and songs that attack the listener’s philosophy and acceptance of Lamar’s premises in the verses and songs. For example in “The Blacker the Berry” Lamar emphasizes the insidiousness of the reality of the urban, working-class African American condition in a punchline that harmonizes with the theme of the song but is immediately preceded by a list of actions the narrator could take to show his support for one conception of blackness. This punchline problematizes ideas about Black identity and responsibility with a representation of reality as the narrator seems just as likely to, and capable of, being a credit to his race within the paradigm of stereotypes created by American society or of being someone who literally destroys the life of another Black person thereby symbolically reinforcing racial self-destruction and the inhibition of the race being all that it could or should be. These final two lines of the song that the audience is left to consider are “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/ When gangbanging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?/ Hypocrite” (Lamar “…Berry” 96-7). This mastery of the punchline is not, however the most obvious characteristic that stands out to the listener about Lamar’s album.

Lamar’s latest shtick and the musical idiosyncrasies he has adopted include a near rejection of the popular hip-hop practice of sampling pieces of older musical works to use as the cornerstone of the melody of rap songs. Sampling is indicative of hip-hop’s postmodernist bent, due to the fact that it is a, “patchwork music speech, vigorously quilted from fragments, granting it…a parodist’s attitude both toward the songs that are quoted and toward their traditions” (O’Meally 38). Lamar instead chooses the exact opposite direction when it comes to the melodies of his songs, more often enjoying the accompaniment of an actual flesh, bones, brass and wood band whose music sings the jazz tradition, as well as heavily using back-up singers and vocalists. Aside from its appeal due to its sheer peculiarity in this day of auto-tuned choruses, drum-machines, and technologically produced and manicured sounds, this decision demarks an existentialist theme around his music. Jazz music in particular lends itself to existentialist ideology because of its rejection of prescription and conventional timing and harmony and its emphasis on solos, improvisation, and spontaneity which mirror existentialism’s concept of the prominence of the individual and their capacity to “determine their own development through acts of [their own] will” (Google). This is just one weapon in Lamar’s musical-literary arsenal and “The Blacker the Berry” instead uses an interrogative tone surrounded by a relentless, snare-heavy beat.

His track, “The Blacker the Berry,” while it does rely on a more traditional, less improvisational, shorter-loop beat, the producer drops or alters this beat during given sections of the narrator’s rant against himself, Black America, and American society as a whole. This rant is prompted by the narrator’s sense that seemingly any response falls short and is inadequate to affront the contradictions, stereotypes, and pains created by racist American society. His catalogues of manifestations of the malicious understandings and goals of racist American society juxtaposed with the narrator’s own coming-to-understanding, reactions, destruction of a stereotype through the superficial significance of gaining wealth, reconciliation of Black-on-Black violence, and his and the Black community’s role in allowing itself to be formed by such malicious understandings, goals, and stereotypes represent an identity crisis and a sense of responsibility or culpability without direction or a clear solution. One line in the song that plays with the listener’s idea of blackness is “I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan” (Lamar “…Berry” 77). This line follows the problematic tradition of using the color black to describe something as evil, but also this description shows a deep degree of blackness, and it just as significantly depicts blackness as something powerful. Lamar treats blackness from both postmodern and existential perspectives.

“…Berry” appears two songs before “i” on …Butterfly which serves as a pleasing progression as its postmodernist, confused and distressed theme and tone yields to the more hopeful, existentialist theme and sound of “i.” The contradictory opening lines, “Everything black I don’t want black/ I want everything black I ain’t need black/ Some white some black I ain’t mean black/ I want everything black” creates a theme of disturbance and disorientation around the definition and significance of blackness (Lamar “…Berry” 1-4). This sense of confusion and ambiguity is enhanced by the seamless combination of declarations without line breaks which make it unclear whether a given word or phrase applies to the preceding thought or the following one. One example of this is “I get off watchin’ you die in vain/ It’s such a shame they may call me crazy” in which the ambiguity is whether the shame is that “[he] gets off watchin’ you die in vain” or that “they…call [him] crazy” (Lamar “…Berry” 11-12). The end of this brief opening verse proposes an aspect of one take on Black identity in “Black don’t crack, my n****,” suggesting that the Black community perhaps has a sense of pride derived from the consequences of maintaining a taboo against acknowledging (and/or suffering) mental illness (Lamar “…Berry” 14). This ambiguity occurs again when the narrator presumably addresses racist American society, “You hate my people your plan is to terminate my culture/ You’re fuckin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” Here the ambiguity is whether the narrator wants the addressee to recognize that “[They’re] fuckin’ evil” or that “[He’s] a proud monkey” (Lamar “…Berry” 24-5). Noting the fact that “proud monkey” is an extremely deprecating term and is probably used sarcastically or spitefully, the narrator’s necessity for the addressee to acknowledge this reality of pride speaks to identity being constructed in part by the way the person is perceived by others in congruence with DuBois’ idea of double-consciousness.

The repetition of the seemingly charming idiom, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” is the bridge between the verses and choruses of the song. These sections are bereft of the incorrigible snare drum that slaps home Lamar’s syllables on the rest of the track and are stated by a different vocalist whose male, matter-of-fact toned, echoing voice takes on a dream-like or brain-washed sounding effect. This clear auditory shift in the background in no subtle terms tells the listener, “Pay attention to what I’m doing here. Do not take this at face value.” The song and the idiom alike are centered around race, however, as suggested by the last line of the bridge, “The blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot” [emphasis added] (Lamar “…Berry” 35)[1] explains that the convenient, disarmingly harmful and not-so-subtly racist thinking fastened in people’s minds by such aphorisms can lead to a false sense of security that may be disrupted by an explosion of violence, the insatiable beast that knows no race or hue. In fact one theme of the song—illustrated in part by this corruption of the last half of this line—is that despite a legitimate enemy in the presence of racism and racists, circumstances, ignorance and confusion often lead to outbursts of violence missing the mark and instead harming this representation of a troubled Black community itself. Violence as a theme in Lamar’s songs, tends to be something unpredictable and more-or-less irrational, done out of desperation and reaction rather than careful, macabre planning and deliberation. This is most evident when comparing the two different versions of Lamar’s song “i.”

Kendrick Lamar’s “i” magnetizes towards Hurston’s idea of the development and nurturing of the individual as both an intrinsic good and an indispensable tool for raising up the entire Black race. The song appeared as a single, in a more harmonically-engineered and produced, politically correct version, and again as a rougher-cut, live and interrupted version on the album entitled To Pimp a Butterfly. The album title is obviously is a transformation of the title of Harper Lee’s canonical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lamar’s album is concerned with race and the machinations of racist American society just as Lee’s novel is. “i” is unique in the context of his last two albums in that it does sample the Isley Brothers’ “Who’s That Lady.” It is also unique in that it bears two markedly different versions.

Both versions of “i” carry two and a partially identical verses and similar choruses (see Table 1 below for a comparison of the choruses). The first lyrical discrepancy between the two versions is a minor, and perhaps innocuous or incidental one—trading “The Devil” for “Satan.” The subtle, and perhaps subconscious choice of preference of “The Devil” which is a more generic, secular term for the figure of Christian mythology also creates the consequence of softening and broadening the conceptual break between the two lines by simple virtue of the addition of the extra syllable via definite article, “the,” that in the single version suggests a sort of counterintuitive and perturbing connection between the Devil’s agenda and a believer’s knowledge of God, “I done been through a whole lot/ Trial tribulation but I know God/ Satan wanna put me in a bow tie” (Lamar single “i” 1-3). The …Butterfly version, while it may seem a departure from collective racial consciousness towards individuality from the single cut, actually diverges yet again halfway through the song into an unscripted (or at least an intended-to-appear-unscripted) moment when a disturbance in the crowd prompts Lamar to address the scuffle, tie the trivial event back to a theme of urgency, unity and pride, and improvise a lengthy verse of acapella rhymes that implicitly link the struggle of the individual to survive and thrive in ruinous circumstances to that of the broader Black society in the United States and maybe beyond. More examples of championing individuality and its place in the improvement of the confidence and status of the Black race abound in the song’s lyrics.

Table 1. Respective choruses of the two versions of “i”

Butterfly Version Chorus (minus “I love myself”) Single Version Chorus (minus “I love myself”)
When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see? The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs
Agh! I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police But it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants (and) I don’t mind
Illuminated by the hand of God boy don’t seem shy He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide
One day at a time, hunh! One day at a time, sun gon’ shine

 

The line, “When you’re lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 10) acknowledges society’s role in attempting to define an individual’s identity without any possibility of knowing the truth about that identity which it professes to understand. This line evokes DuBois’ concept of double-consciousness as he defined in The Souls of Black Folk, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (DuBois 689). The phrase “I love myself” is central to each version, and is a straight-forward assertion of self-love, self-affirmation, and celebration of the individual, but it is by no means exclusive to the narrator alone; indeed the “emcee” effect of the construction of the heroic and impressive narrator/persona in the hip-hop tradition requires that the narrator is someone to admire and emulate. Therefore this self-affirmation, love and celebration is to be adopted by the listener and Black society. The line that follows the first “I love myself” in the …Butterfly  version of the song, “Illuminated by the hand of God boy don’t seem shy” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 12), relies upon Lamar’s technique of using line-break placement to create fascinating ambiguities. The second half of the line can be taken as either a comment about the boy who is apparently the subject of the line, or conversely as a command of encouragement to some generic “boy.” The first interpretation, given the syntax of the line, seems the more likely intent or most common listening of the line, yet whether or not and how this boy is related to the narrator is unclear. The second, command interpretation lends to the somewhat Garvey-esque or Zionistic idea that the whole Black race has been chosen by the creator to be a special people, and the presence of an entreaty by the narrator to the Black masses to discard their insecurities and self-doubts and allow themselves to shine across the spectrum of all human activities, be these activities, journeys and achievements quantifiable or qualifiable.

Lamar draws the narrator’s struggle in “i” as an individual struggling against a maniacal society and the mental illness of depression as parallel to the Black individual’s, and by extension, the Black-race-in-general’s struggle against the inhibiting, belittling, bruising and frequently hostile environment of broader American society. Lamar’s narrator continuously directs his[2] rhymes at an undefined “you” as when he raps, “These days of frustration keep y’all on tuck and rotation” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 21), inviting this unknown group subject “you” (from y’all) to be an acting agent in the remainder of the verse or at the very least explaining how the nature of the flawed world that this “you” is living in impacts this group. This “you” appears again later, this time to be indignantly interrogated, “What do you want from me and my scars?” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 44). While there is no particular verbal emphasis on this line (though Lamar does make generous use of tonal variation in this version of the song—his singing rhyme-delivery swoops up to discordantly high pitches in the chorus in the words “see” and “police”) the structure and delivery of the line encourages a sense of surprise. The conjunctive addition “and my scars” is preceded by a brief pause which enhances its unexpectedness. This query about what society can reasonably expect for someone that it views as possessing the narrator’s identity, complete with his visible and recognizable scars, is pained and rhetorical. The next line beckons the audience to join in the narrative meditation, “Everybody lack confidence” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 45), then sharply turns, asking the audience questions about the narrator and ending the verse with a promise made ostensibly to the audience, “How many times the city makin’ me promises?/ So I promise this, n****/ (I love myself)” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 47-9). The promise of course is the vow of self-love, esteem, and pride in the face of the ugliness and rudeness of both the larger, impartial world as well as the echo-cage of racist American society.

The narrator of “i” is a larger-than-life warrior, but is still inadequate to take on alone an enemy as numerous and demonic as the negative spirituality of the world and the casual, sadistic racism of America. While the narrator “post[s] up fee-fie-foe-fum basis,” “Blow[s] steam in the face of the beast,” “[Goes] to war with an automatic weapon” and “deal[s] with depression ever since an adolescent,” it appears the war is a perpetual and losing one, as the narrator says he, “could never bob and weave/ From a negative and letting them annihilate me” (Lamar …Butterfly “i“ 21, 23, 61-2, 65, 67-8). However the narrator in this version doesn’t realize that he is not alone in the struggle until he is stirred onto a different path by a spontaneous event in the audience of the live recording, and this theme is carried through and built-upon within the acapella section of the song at its end.

While one would think that such an outburst in the audience would be edited out to preserve a polished, ideal version of the recording, Lamar opts instead to leave it in. The outburst itself is a vague dispute heard as a mosh of voices off-stage. Lamar is able to peace-make and put things in perspective for the inflamed parties like a practiced patriarch or street-preacher. This is a very meta-musical moment as Lamar presumably sheds the cloak of narrator and the audience hears the artist’s own spontaneous thought. The most notable aspect of this half-dialog is the change to the use of the pronouns “we” and “us.” This collective pronoun deposes the “I’s,” “My’s,” “You’s” and “Y’all’s” that have dominated the lyrics thus far, creating a union where there was formerly a separation. Lamar’s emcee/narrator now attacks an artery near the heart of historical Black identity as defined by language—the “N word.” The narrator uses his influence to “school” other artists and his audience about a majestic and elevating etymological origin of the prominent incarnation of the initially hateful American word from the Ethiopian word negus (pronounced /nee-guss/). What this rhetorical act makes clear is the narrator’s conception of the importance of Black America building its identity to one of strength, constitution, and pride to combat and repel the assaults of a society damaged with racism. His acapella verse culminates in a call-to-action punchline that simultaneously asks his audience to adopt his take and invocation of the word and directs them not to the historically problematic corruption of it, “N-E-G-U-S, say it with me/ Or say no more” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 90).

By examining the two versions of “i” side-by-side, one may probe the essential theme of the song as well as draw hypotheses regarding the significance of the differences. A commonality between the two versions that reinforces the theme of a fractured, hard-to-grasp identity is the line, “In front of a dirt double-mirror they found me” (Lamar {both versions} “i” 8). The lyrics state that the narrator’s reflection upon himself (which the listener can safely assume is a primarily metaphysical self-reflection due to its lack of context) is split and obscured, however the words “they found me” also must be accounted for. These words reveal the probability that others discovered the narrator perhaps in a sort of trance because the task of “cleaning the glass” of the mirror and choosing the right angle, lighting, and gaze from which to seize the core of their identity overloaded the narrator’s senses. That is, the task proved to be stymieing in magnitude and depth of implication. The first striking discrepancy between the versions comes in the “hook,” or chorus. The …Butterfly  version, instead of including, “The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs” (Lamar single “i” 10), substitutes “When you lookin’ at me, tell me what do you see?” (Lamar …Butterfly “i” 10). The single version’s creation of its universe as one in which the entire planet is dramatized as a “ghetto,” a dangerous, sad, and impoverished place complete with weapons-of-considerable-destruction and conflicting politics and personalities is explicitly absent from the more introspective …Butterfly version of the song. While the single version chorus’ first line represents the narrator’s view on the outer world, both versions are concerned with the outside world as a force acting upon their narrator’s construction of identity: the …Butterfly version’s narrator rhetorically questions the outside world’s perception of him while the single version’s narrator claims he has let go of his concern for what the outside world is doing and is focused on himself as Ellison’s invisible man in his cave of light.

Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” and both versions of “i” examine the nature of Black identity as a basis for influencing individual and community activity in a complex and assertive manner. His songs make clear the continued relevance of the questions of what it means to be Black, what the acceptance of Black identity asks of and means for the individual, and how seriously to take broader society’s sentiments about one’s self and one’s community. Good art always causes its audience to ask questions, but doesn’t answer these questions to a high degree of satisfaction. At the conclusion of one song the audience is left with a hypocritical figure with whom people may relate or perhaps better understand after listening to the song. At the conclusion of another the narrator recommends a fraction of a solution and a direction to the audience by which to fortify Black identity into something strong and to be proud of as a base for creating positive changes for the individual, the community and the society. And at the end of the alternate version of that song, the narrator sees his story—not only his personal overcoming of obstacles, but also his knowledge that counters the mythological omission and destruction of a Black legacy to be proud of—as a means of transmitting a message to the youth that will allow them to transcend the obstacles to a greater degree and more easily than the narrator himself has. Lamar’s songs draw on philosophical and musical-literary tradition to create new and powerful, original and contemporary statements about Black identity.

[1] Line citations are approximate because song lyrics are spoken or sung and not written. The system of citing line-numbers in this paper will skip non-lyrical spoken audible words and would-be “verses” on the tracks.

[2] While Lamar’s emcee persona is possibly an auto-biographical narrator, neither version of this song definitively marks the narrator as male, as many of Lamar’s songs do. For simplicity’s sake and because the lyricist sounds male, with some concession the author of this paper chooses to use masculine pronouns to refer to the narrators of both songs.

Should You Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils

(image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Le Penseur d’A. Rodin (MAMC, Strasbourg)

I will apply normative ethics to this situation. Normative ethics assumes that there is only one ultimate criterion on which moral conduct can be judged e.g. the “golden rule” i.e. “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The two major ethical schools of thought that I will apply to this dilemma are, utilitarianism, which bases ethical decisions on the consequences of the act, and deontology, which is concerned with the purity of the motive behind the action. I will be using the framework of the United States federal election system to address this question using the different ethical methods. What complicates this question is the fact that one has several choices and not one binary choice. One can choose to vote for the greater of two evils, the lesser of two evils, not vote at all, write someone in, or vote for a third party candidate. Obviously voting for the greater of two evils is unethical.

Consequentialism

act utilitarianism: a tallying of the pleasure versus pain an act produces.

Voting for the lesser of two evils would be morally correct under act utilitarianism, because if one does not vote for the lesser of the two evils, it is more likely that the greater of those two evils will win and everyone will suffer those consequences. Under this ethical method, one would be obligated to set aside their personal dislike of the candidate they find less objectionable and vote for that candidate in order to increase the overall happiness of society by preventing the election of the worse of the two.

The problem here is that this will never lead to better choices of candidates to vote for, because one is never voting based on who they really think would be best to lead the country–the choice is predetermined based on whichever two candidates run. If both candidates are awful and one cannot distinguish any significant advantage one has over the other, it would be morally correct to not vote, write someone in, or vote third party.

rule utilitarianism: would the action lead to more happiness if it became universal law?

If everyone voted for the lesser of two evils, the lesser of two evils would win every time. One problem here is that which candidate is the lesser of two evils is supposedly objective. So really, this would lead to what most people currently do. In 2016, according to a Pew study, the majority of voters chose their candidate primarily because they were the opponent of the other candidate.

The second problem with deciding who to vote for based on this criterion is that, again, it will never lead to achieving better candidates for office–better meaning candidates running on policies more in tune with the goals and dreams of the people. As a rule, it leads to worse outcomes in the long run. Now if everyone boycotted the election, wrote someone in or voted third party, either there would be no winner and the country would be in a state of turmoil–which could easily have negative consequences–or we could have the first third party candidate in decades which could only be a good thing due to the two-party gridlock that has been plaguing our political system. Therefore rule utilitarianism dictates that one should write-in or vote third party, provided they think that choice would be better for the country than the top democratic and republican candidates. Otherwise, there really is no ethical choice to be made, aside perhaps from not voting. If a large enough number of people don’t vote, the candidates should realize that they do not have the mandate of the people to govern as they see fit, but again if no one votes as is the circumstance rule utilitarianism would require, the consequences would be negative, so it would be most unethical not to vote.

Deontology

Kant’s categorical imperative: Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end.

The opposite of this is using someone as a tool to achieve something. This means one should vote for the candidate they actually believe would be the best leader. If one votes for the lesser of two evils, they are using their vote for one candidate as an instrument to keep another candidate out of office. Voting for someone you actually want to win, rather than against someone you want to lose, accounts for the intrinsic merit of the candidate. This of course could mean writing a candidate in or voting third party. The danger here in the federal election system of the U.S. is that, unless a large portion of the electorate happens not to vote for one of the top two candidates, which is highly unlikely, your vote is not helping the lesser of two evils win. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the same as helping the greater of two evils win. It is wrong to vote for one candidate who you believe to be the lesser of two evils because it would be using them to beat the candidate you are most afraid of which is morally unacceptable under the categorical imperative.

Questions? Comments? Disagreements? Click the speech bubble icon on the top right of the post to respond. Thanks for reading.

 

 

Freedom of Speech in the Free Market

Although many Americans don’t understand where it applies, almost every American cherishes the ideal of “freedom of speech.” The Supreme Court has heard many cases concerning what is protected speech and what isn’t–as in the famous Schenck v. United States case in which a ruling was made that decided that “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” is not constitutionally protected speech. More recently Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission had the court contemplating what “speech” even really is.

Controversy over freedom of speech sparked anew earlier this month when Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram banned such people as Louis Farrakhan, Alex Jones, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, Paul Nehlen, and Milo Yiannopoulos from their platforms. While a Facebook spokesperson told news outlets that “We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” questions remain. Questions such as “where the line is drawn for banning?” as well as “were the moves made due to a social obligation to clean up the platforms, fear of lawsuit, or just as a public relations reaction?” Being publicly traded companies, it seems most likely that these decisions are based in a responsibility to shareholders rather than the common person. Then perhaps in this case, the two parties share in the benefits of these bannings, or are they beneficial?

There are still platforms where these people’s content can be accessed e.g. their private websites and 8chan, but they are clearly on the “shoulder” of the information highway. Tech giants like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have all banned users and organizations from their platforms. What is these tech companies’ role when it comes to hate speech and incitement of violence on their platforms? Are they public forums or publishers? Publishers mediate and edit content. By censoring otherwise legal content, these companies are saying “we are publishers,” and therefore taking on the responsibility of trying to eliminate hate speech and incitement of violence on their platforms. They are already forced to uphold, yes even 8chan, copyright and child pornography laws. But by taking the moral step of trying to eliminate pornography and revenge porn, these companies thereby acknowledge a responsibility to the user of the platform. This responsibility seems to be to provide a less disturbing or agitating experience. Perhaps one of the most interesting questions is “are these companies censoring for their own benefit or for the common good?” The follow-up, “does it matter?” is an ethical question that I won’t address here.

The most prominent question, without a doubt is “should these platforms have banned these people and organizations?” While some are prone to believe the slippery slope fallacy when it comes to censorship, others would prefer a sterilized, if meaningless conversation. The question isn’t so much what do we want to hear, but what do we need to hear? Should we ignore people’s beliefs because they make us uncomfortable? Yes, hate speech is ugly, but knowing who is “drinking that Kool-Aid” is indispensable. Those erroneous and evil beliefs must be addressed, not pretended away. It is painful to be the subject of such speech, but in terms of survival, it is critical to know exactly what some people think about you. Life can often be disturbing and agitating, but we cannot punish everyone who offends us or, more importantly, ignore threats. There is a terrible consequence to not shouting “fire” in the theater when one is starting, as Holocaust survivors could tell you. Those who ally with the people being persecuted will also generate noise. Shouldn’t the good voices be given a chance to drown out the bad? There is a powerful message to be sent to the hateful people by letting that happen instead of banning them.

However, it could also easily turn into a shouting match and result in more physical violence from holders of each perspective. It is hard to say if internet disagreements often yield tangible violence or not. Those who do commit hate-crime violence also typically share what they are planning with other like-minded individuals before the fact. Law enforcement seems to already have access to this, as they have connected manifestos to shooters which were “published” on 8chan–a platform designed above all else to protect the users’ anonymity. This is a tough balance to find as well–when should law enforcement intervene, and at what point does it become more like Big Brother looking over everyone’s shoulders? Right now, it seems the interventions hit and miss as some terrorists have been prosecuted for their plans while others have successfully realized theirs. Though it must be a trying process to determine real threats from “mouth-running,” use of specific details in the manifestos and plans are damning. If only these shooters were prosecuted before they got the chance to carry out their heinous plans, the world would be a better place. However, In the many years since Schenck… the first amendment has been re-interpreted yet again, giving prosecutors new angles to work.

The “clear and present danger” test of Schenck… has since been replaced with the “imminent lawless action test” of Brandenburg v. Ohio. How would today’s Supreme Court handle the Schenck… case in which a man was prosecuted for handing out anti-draft posters in wartime, given the precedent of Brandenburg…? How would they handle the hypothetical case if, God forbid, the FCC or FBI took down infowars.com? Hopefully, the Court would preserve freedom of speech in these cases so long as the organizations’ speech did not cross the “imminent lawless action test.” One form of speech I haven’t addressed is the conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories may be horribly disturbing, as was the one that the Sandy Hook shooting was fake. But not knowing the extent of those who believe that is perhaps more dangerous than allowing the lie to be spoken. Conspiracy theories present another balance to find–does it legitimize or give credence to them when they are denied by the mainstream media, does working to disprove them actually work, or should they be gagged to prevent them from spreading? If one has any faith in people’s ability to be rational, they would err on the side of letting the facts convince the skeptics.

Again, the truth has the power to drown out the false, but instead of directly addressing the lie, silencing the “speaker” almost gives the lie more power and adds to the conspiracy mystique. This further alienates a subculture–a dangerous move. Communication is the key to educating and changing beliefs, however this key works on both the doors of truth and bullshit. People who believe conspiracy theories are thinking with their emotions rather than their rational mind. As the rise of the Trump regime has proven, the masses’ emotions are easily swayed and used to manipulate them. We cannot omit the lies no matter how hard we try. Our only logical recourse is to drown out the hate with compassion and the lies with truth. If truth and compassion, by their own virtues cannot win over the hateful and the ignorant, there is no hope for humanity. Truth and love do and can win, when they are allowed to compete with hate and lies.

Nearly all of humanity’s institutions and communities regard truth and love as essential. People go online to find community. Ultimately, no matter how much influence one allows others to hold over their beliefs, people can only decide for themselves what the truth is. The Supreme Court seeks to find the truths embedded in the United States Constitution, and as a national community, we agree to abide by the truths it determines. The Supreme Court’s rulings on this matter of freedom of speech are sage ones–and ones that the tech companies, though not legally bound to, should implement on their platforms, rather than banning bad actors.

Why I Refuse to Believe in God

I know this is a taboo subject, but I’ll engage it anyway. I intend this to be an explanation of my thinking, not something designed to persuade anyone else to believe the same.

THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

My reason for choosing not to believe in God is rooted in this morsel of knowledge from intro philosophy. If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, then why is there evil in the world? Is it some sort of sick experiment in which some are controls and others are tested by horrible experiences or just plain wiped out? No. I refuse to believe that life is any type of test. If it were, it would beg the question, a test towards what end? Deciding the fate of one’s afterlife?

THE VANITY OF THE CONCEPT OF THE AFTERLIFE

Look, I would love to play a harp on a cushy cloud with beautiful angels and kids playing and laughing once I’ve expired, or really have almost any experience at all–Hell notwithstanding. I would love for my consciousness to continue, however there is no reason for me to believe that it will, in fact all evidence points to the contrary. Some people will wonder what happens to the electricity in one’s heart and brain once they die, but this is no mystery. The energy simply dissipates as there is nothing to maintain it in the place of the body anymore. That’s not metaphysical, it’s physics.

PRIVILEGED OR PRIMAL SUPERSTITION

Of course believing in something more powerful than what people generally conceive of is totally rational. Believing in gravity is a very practical mindset. However, to believe that an intelligent being or sentient entity dictates the way certain things go is ridiculous. It all sounds rather like the tale of the Tooth Fairy when you think about it, doesn’t it? There is no Tooth Fairy, but there are loving parents and guardians, and there is love and generosity for that matter. These forces are quite powerful in themselves, and require no explanation for existing–this is another crucial tenant of my beliefs–nothing needs a reason to exist, it simply does or does not. No purpose? Sounds disturbing and existentialist, huh? The cool thing about rejecting the idea of one purpose for humanity is that each individual is then allowed to decide what their purpose and what they think the purpose of life is for themselves. Also, I do not believe that people are inherently good or bad, they have experiences, genes, and choices which impact their decisions and actions.

RELIGION IS NOT WORTHLESS TO ME, JUST A BIT MISGUIDED

I went to church this Sunday and the preacher said, “What we do reveals what we believe is true.” I loved this. It is a profound and concise statement–the best kind of statement. Religion does have a lot of beneficial philosophy to offer, love thy neighbor for instance. But here’s the thing. People go through things and need help coping. I believe that psychotherapy is better suited to help people cope with problems and losses than religion, because it’s real. Real changes to one’s behavior helps change their thinking to be more positive and more useful to themselves and others. Me, I’ll pass on the opiate of the idea that the most powerful being imaginable cares about me–especially in light of what this supposed being, if it were to exist, has put people through–and good and innocent people at that. That God is not worth worshipping, even if it were to exist–no thank you. Another boon of religion is the way it brings people together to form communities. Communities are magical things, forgive the pun, and leave everyone better off so long as they don’t decide to hate, damage or destroy another community or individual for that matter. A problem with religion is its focus on faith. Faith in goodness is not unimportant, but acting through that faith is infinitely more so. Acting through faith is being of service to others. This is what religious institutions need to focus on. I’m not saying they completely neglect this duty, but that it needs to be the focus and not the secondary duty it seems to be in most religious institutions that I’m familiar with. The focus on faith in a too-good-to-be-true being minimizes human love and goodness that is seen as cooperation and philanthropy and service.

FAITH AND MISCONCEPTIONS OF ATHEISM

Faith in the human spirit is the only faith I need. It is a tangible, beneficent thing. I don’t need to be intellectually lazy and give up on rational and scientific thought as to why things occur in order to have a working faith. I don’t need the threat of Hell or the reward of Heaven to know to try to do the morally right thing. Atheists don’t necessarily just do what they want when no one is looking, most people are instilled with moral values from their life experiences derived from living in society. To think of an insecure God that needs people to believe in it for it to help them is another absurd thought. Even if there were a God, if it were worthy of belief or worship, it would not care whether a person believed in it or not. Atheists are not faithless people, they just put their faith in more tangible things–atheists are practical people. Also not all atheists scoff at others’ beliefs, they simply choose not to share them. Love thy neighbor, be of service, and don’t worry so much about what a hypothetical being may want from you. Worry about what you want from you and ensuring that what that is is humble and reasonable.