Is Speech Preserved by More Speech Alone? – Part I

“The more speech the merrier,” was the central argument made by Justice Scalia in writing the majority opinion on Citizens United, but that case suggests, at least to many of us, that the mechanism of the speech matters a great deal. Yes, in many ways, money can be speech; but at the same time, I think Scalia conjured an illusion of more, which obscures the practical reality that the SCOTUS ruling ultimately provides a bigger voice for a privileged minority.  So, what about speech delivered via the mechanisms of social media and other networked communications? Nobody can argue that there is more of it. But does placing too much emphasis on volume alone risk overlooking the complex, even occasionally painful, ways in which speech, as we define it in the U.S., is preserved?

“The value of intellectual freedom is far from self-evident,” writes George Packer in his New Yorker editorial Speech Crisis.  “It’s hardly natural to defend the rights of one person over the feelings of a group; to put up with all the trouble that comes with free minds and free expression; to stand beside the very people who repel you.” Even among free nations, the United States is unique in policy and in its sustained public support for the absoluteness of speech.  But as networked communications alter our relationship to speech, new social dynamics emerge that can produce as many new forms of censorship as new forms of expression.  Quoting Packer again, he cites Joel Simon thus:

“Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues in his book ‘The New Censorship’ that the explosion of data in digital media keeps us from seeing how extensively information is controlled. ‘Repression and violence against journalists is at record levels,’ he writes, ‘and press freedom is in decline.’”

Interestingly, Packer begins his article with the description of a brutal murder of a Bangladeshi blogger, but his main thesis is a warning against the pitfalls of self-censorship, even here in the tolerant United States. Quoting Packer again:

“But, in some ways, an even greater danger than violence or jail is the internal mute button known as self-censorship. Once it’s activated, governments and armed groups don’t have to bother with threats. Here self-censorship is on the rise out of people’s fear of being pilloried on social media. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been masterful at creating an atmosphere in which there are no clear rules, so that intellectuals and artists stifle themselves in order not to run afoul of vague laws and even vaguer social pressure.”

Packer’s assertion that self-censorship is “on the rise out of people’s fear of being pilloried on social media” exemplifies why I would caution against overemphasizing volume of speech in order to insure its universality as a right.  Personally, I believe that only when we uphold the right of the minority speaker above the majority’s capacity to silence that speaker, is speech as a right actually sustained.  Yes, this means American Nazis were given permission to march through the Jewish Village of Skokie, and it means Fred Phelps repeatedly made a public performance out of disrespect for grieving military families.  But such examples, when filtered through populist media like Twitter, seem to confuse support of the minority voice with unwavering tolerance of the offensive; the two are not necessarily intertwined. The offensive can also be the silencing mob.

Take the chronic occurrence of rape and death themes that flare up like herpes on Twitter when a woman says something a particular group of men doesn’t like. Setting aside actual threats, which are already criminal, wishing for sexual assault upon someone is offensive yet protected speech.  We the majority of ordinary citizens must, in the name of speech, tolerate the minority of apes, who have nothing better to do than tweet “I hope somebody rapes you,” to Ashley Judd because she dissed their basketball team or Emma Watson because she commented on women’s rights. But while speech defendants rush to make this point clear in these instances, we don’t seem to pay much attention to the potential or actual self-censorship of the original speaker.   Naturally, if the speaker is a celebrity, she has resources that inoculate and empower her to speak back, but not every individual with something to say is so blessed; and one consequence of this round-the-clock, global speech-a-thon we call the Internet is that it can certainly make almost anyone famous or infamous for a day.  Thus, one of the pitfalls of placing too much faith in more speech as a preservative of speech istelf is that both the dynamics and the economics of social media foster new types of crowds and new types of minority speakers. And the only real difference between a crowd and a mob is whether you’re with it or against it.

Meanwhile, the notion of tolerance itself, the basic idea that the health of speech depends on allowing or even embracing unpalatable ideas, seems to be changing online and in our national dialogue.  Paradoxically, from quarters like academia, one hears the refrain of what sounds like a new orthodoxy of “tolerance,” which is of course a form of censorship.  More on that in Part II.

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