Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pet Peeve: Defenders of Private Censorship

I've talked about this before, but it's something that comes up again and again, so I think I'm justified in complaining about it again. Let's start with this comic.

Now, I'm a huge fan of xkcd, but just because Randall Munroe made a comic about something doesn't mean that it's beyond criticism.

I consider myself a progressive. I also consider myself to be liberal - but in the sense of being in support of liberty, not in the sense of belonging to the liberal hivemind. There are a lot of things that mainstream political progressives have got wrong. One of those is their single-minded dedication to political correctness. It comes from a good place - compassion for one's fellow man, and a desire to oppose bigots and bullies. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and this approach all too frequently positions itself in opposition to the freedom of speech.

If you know anything about me, you probably know that I'm a pretty staunch defender of free speech. Now, it's a nice fantasy to believe that free speech can be absolute, but even I am willing to make certain concessions. But there's an important distinction here between singling out specific subjects of speech to be disallowed, and specific ways that speech can be used, almost like a weapon. The fact that you can't shout "fire!" in a crowded movie theater (unless there's really a fire) doesn't concern me - because the subject of fire is not being made into a taboo. You and I can still sit down in a movie theater and discuss fire, we just can't use our speech about fire to create unnecessary panic that could likely lead to distress or injury.

Similarly, I sympathize with the goal of progressives in stamping out hate speech, because when people talk shit about other kinds of people, it's pretty ugly. But the same principle applies. If two people want to get together on an internet forum and discuss the reasons white people should be exterminated, for example, I believe they should have that freedom. It's only when they start using that speech to harass other people, by bullying and directing slurs against specific individuals, that it reaches a point where the impact is wholly negative, and retaliation is deserved.

Now, you might have a hard time figuring the positive impact of letting people speak in support of prejudice (in a non-directly harassing context), but that's built into the very concept of free speech. Either you support that concept or you don't. And if you don't, that's okay - it's a perfectly valid opinion to have. But if that's the case, I would appreciate it if you didn't erode the very concept of free speech by claiming you believe in it when you clearly don't. It makes it harder for everyone else to understand just what constitutes free speech after all. If you support free speech, then you support the idea that people should be able to say things that are offensive. Not because you don't care about people's feelings getting hurt, but because you think the freedom of people to think and say things that might be unpopular is more valuable than creating a sanitized, baby-proof society in which nobody is allowed to do or say anything that carries the remote possibility of offending anyone else.

I know, it's hard to justify the merit of certain subjects like racism, and sexism. In my previous post on this topic, the issue was tumblr's exclusion of speech supporting self-harm and eating disorders. This time, the forum that brought the issue to my mind is reddit, and while I don't know the specific details, I think that it may be related to a similar subject - body shaming. Hell, I'm a staunch opponent of a similar form of hate speech - slut shaming - but I'm not saying that people shouldn't be allowed to vocalize sex negative opinions. I'm merely saying that I think people who do are misguided and insensitive. I may suggest they change their tune (because that's pretty much the whole point of debate), but you don't see me advocating for passing new laws to restrict that kind of speech. It's an important distinction.

In the end, the more exceptions we carve out from the carcass of free speech, the more legitimate the act of carving out exceptions appears to be. And the more exceptions there are, the greater the chilling effect that occurs, and the fewer daring thoughts that fewer daring rebels are willing to express. (Consider the vague and odious - yet nearly ubiquitous - restriction against the "sexualization of minors". It would seem that authorities want to restrict you from even suggesting the possibility that a 17 year old could be sexy, and that's not just ridiculous, it's terrifying! Like, fascist regime terrifying). This is dangerous, because it's exactly what free speech protections were designed to prevent. If you want to harass someone - for any reason, whether it's because of their body or their race or their sex or what have you - then I support you being punished for it. But making any of those subjects taboo means we can't even talk about these issues in anything but black or white terms. And that's completely in opposition to truth and reality. I believe in being free to talk about things as they are, even if sometimes the truth hurts people's feelings. You know, that's kind of a characteristic of truth - and I value truth more than I value people's feelings. That doesn't make me insensitive, because I'm actually a highly sensitive person, it just means I have priorities.

Getting back to the xkcd comic I linked. What's being described in that comic - being shown the door - is what I envision as being a reaction to harassment. Also, I agree with the part about the First Amendment not shielding you from criticism or consequences. But none of this is an excuse for making any topics taboo, which is exactly what these arguments are frequently used for. Also, there's this sticking point about state versus private censorship. Free speech detractors just love to harp on this point - if it's not the government, then it's not an infringement on your free speech. Like as if the government has a monopoly over censorship. The fact that free speech appears in the Constitution means that the government's not allowed to make laws promoting censorship (not that it's ever stopped them). But that doesn't mean that private companies can't have a commitment to free speech, nor that private citizens can't have the belief that a commitment to free speech entails private as well as public forums.

Now, this gets particularly muddy when we talk about semi-public forums - like popular internet forums (also, when private corporations become nearly as powerful as the state, but that's another discussion). If you own some obscure backweb discussion group - e.g., eating disorder haters united - then sure, you can practice a regime of censorship and silence anyone who speaks out in support of eating disorders (the law certainly doesn't prevent you from doing that). But when we're talking about massive, major public forums, like reddit, or tumblr, or YouTube, or what have you, then I think the fact that you're privately owned doesn't exclude you from having certain responsibilities to the public. And I guess we have different ideas of what those responsibilities are - I believe they include a defense of free speech, but the people in charge of these forums seem to have latched on to the progressive idea that sanitizing the public forum so as to avoid offending anybody is a greater priority.

Now, at the end of the day, they may have every right to make that decision themselves - and I will go on exercising my free speech right to criticize them - but the one thing that really sticks in my craw is how frequently these places pay lip service by including in their principles a support of free speech. You cannot support free speech by imposing a regime of censorship. If you don't believe in free speech - that's your right. But please, own up to that belief, and stop going around pretending otherwise. Because the result is just more and more confused people who don't understand what free speech is really about, and who start making a bunch of arguments like the one in that comic, and like the ones that are all over reddit right now.

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