Culture Freedom of Speech Media Politics

The Trouble(s) With Advocating for Free Speech

I was sorely tempted to call this post “I’m a free speech advocate, everyone is an idiot.” After reading it, you’ll understand why, though ultimately that sentence is more of a reflection of my mood at the moment than of what’s going on.

What’s going on, you see, is that suddenly, full-grown adults seem confused as to why a free speech advocate would not be thrilled with Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric. They’re confused as to why, in Germany (and everywhere), I align myself with the Antifa. They’re absolutely fucking perplexed as to how I could possibly suggest that Breitbart is closer to Stormfront than to the New York Times. Yesterday, an actual journalist suggested that a joke I made (see below) was somehow a violation of the First Amendment.

This person calls himself a journalist.
This person calls himself a journalist.

Mr. Raile has the misfortune of being scapegoated here, but I want to be clear: He’s only the most recent in a long, long line of grown-ass adults who have, in recent months, suggested that a free speech advocate cannot also rage against the machine, or what have you. So let’s use this as a teachable moment and talk about why that’s so, so wrong.

Not all speech is created equal

One constant and often vile misconception is the “principle” that all speech is equally valuable. Mark Zuckerberg himself has suggested this recently; fighting back last year against the German state’s attempts to more carefully regulate anti-refugee speech on Facebook, Zuckerberg said that platforms shouldn’t be made to decide what constitutes “legitimate debate.” The content that Germany wanted taken down, however, was not what I would call “legitimate debate” but vile, racist, and hateful speech that sometimes veered into incitement.

That said, I agree with Zuckerberg that a platform as a large as Facebook should not be a gatekeeper. The problem with what he said isn’t that Facebook shouldn’t regulate speech, but that the speech taking place there is inherently “legitimate debate.” Zuckerberg could just as easily have said that Facebook can’t effectively regulate speech on scale, or that he doesn’t believe that powerful entities (be they states or corporations) should be in the business of doing so. Had he done that, he would have effectively toed the line between protecting free speech and condemning hate.

This selective free speech advocate sees my criticism of her as incompatible with principles of free speech (because of course she does).
This selective free speech advocate sees my criticism of her as incompatible with principles of free speech.

The good folks who crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights understood this. Yes, they included the right of states to put some limitations on harmful speech (limitations the U.S. does not implement), but more importantly, they included the right to freedom of thought and expression while also protecting individuals from arbitrary arrest and detention (ahem, Trump), discrimination (ahem, Republican queer/transphobes), and to the right of movement (ahem, Europe).

Criticism is not censorship

This one goes out to Mr. Raile.

Yesterday, I made a common Twitter joke, saying “Delete your account” in response to something stupid that someone else said. In this case, that someone else was The Next Web (TNW), a French publication that often publishes very techno-utopian ideas. They’ve also taken to favoring national security over the fundamental rights to free expression and privacy, which I find troubling (but not surprising given France’s moves over the past decade). Therefore, when they published a piece condemning Twitter for not wanting intelligence agencies using their API, I shorthanded my criticism to “delete your account,” a very common phrase on Twitter, for the sake of 140 characters.

But let’s say that I had meant that precisely, and that my desire was for TNW to shut down. That still wouldn’t be out of line with my principles as a free speech advocate. You see, I’m a person. I’m not the state. I’m not even Facebook or Twitter, social media entities with state-like capacities for speech regulation. I’m an individual, and if I tell someone or something to shut up, that is not censorship.

Perhaps Mr. Raile understands that, though, and simply thinks that my criticizing a publication is out of line with the spirit of my job or my self-styled identity of “free speech advocate.” He’d still be dead wrong, and frankly, it’s pretty creepy to suggest that a person can’t contain multitudes, or should act robotically toward all speech because of what they do for a living.

The truth is, I am sometimes deeply torn about free speech. Like when Donald Trump suggests putting Muslims in camps, or when Pamela Geller defends Radovan Karadzic. Which brings me to my last point…

I am a free speech advocate because…

I am a free speech advocate primarily because I do not believe that it is possible to institute fair gatekeepers. I am a free speech advocate because I am fundamentally opposed to the concept of centralized power.

In my dream world, there wouldn’t be any hate speech. In an ideal world, we would use our words to build each other up, not tear each other down. But that world is impossible, I know, because in order to eradicate hate speech, those in power would have to fine people, or lock them up, censor them, “disappear” the leaders and scare their followers into submission. These are horrible things, things that authoritarians do. And I am, at my core, against authoritarianism.

There are some on the left who suggest that censoring, or censuring those who promote hate speech is worth the cost. The collateral damage, they claim, is minimal, and anyone toeing the gray area probably deserves what’s coming to them. I can’t agree. I’ve seen what happens when borderline speech is punished, when states are given absolute authority to decide who is or isn’t a terrorist, based on speech and not actions. I’ve seen what happens when states pick and choose which speech is worthy of defending. It isn’t pretty.

And frankly, look at the world. Hillary Clinton can make pithy jokes about her government’s involvement in the murder of a head of state, but a citizen of her government goes to prison for seventeen years just for translating the texts of the enemy.

We are not equal. We are created so, but power has divided us, and supporting that power to man the gates of expression will only divide us further. That is why I’m a free speech advocate.

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