Free speech warriors should stop whining, get up, and do something useful to counter censorship.
This idea of free speech warrior weakness is a strange idea for me to be playing with, maybe even dangerous, since I fear that I’m edging ever closer to hypocrisy. But with the last few days’ news of Gavin McInnes getting the boot from YouTube only a few months after losing his Twitter and Facebook privileges, I’ve been hearing the usual harping from what’s become the at-least-formerly-interesting anti-social justice warrior cottage industry about free speech. I started wondering what kind of value comes from this pathetic social protest that’s sounding increasingly similar to the pathetic social protest of aforementioned social justice warriors. Whether it’s about a charmingly nihilistic provocateur who let his Irony Club spin out of control into an alt-right pseudo-cult, or an attention-seeking Marxist vlogger whining that no one magically knows their imaginary pronoun, it’s all starting to sound the same to me. And this might sound strange for me to say, but I’ll explain why.
I’m one of those guys who unironically has a “Je Suis Charlie” cartoon as his desktop background. I’m not, however, a free speech absolutist. I’m kind of what you would call free speech near-absolutist because as soon as I step outside of the American context, I completely sympathise with certain types of censorship, depending on the culture. For example, I think that criminalising Holocaust denial in Germany makes pretty good rational and moral sense. It would also make sense if Turkey would do the same about the Armenian Genocide, but first, they have to admit that was something they did.
However: the United States of America is different. Not better, mind you; we are just different. We are an experiment in progress — remember that phrase, “the American Experiment”? — I think for that experiment to not only be valuable and worth everyone’s time, it needs to have near-absolute free speech in the mix, something that has never, ever been tried before, at least not on this scale and for this long written into its code of laws. Freedom of speech is, therefore, a moral imperative for us, at least if we believe in the experiment. Perhaps not for the world since forcing the rest of the world into our little sociopolitical experiment might be a bit too much to ask. But it’s not an experiment I want to abandon, and I don’t think, in their heart of hearts, most Americans want to either.
However, we reach a conundrum here (or at least I do). Because of my views on freedom of speech, I do believe that private companies have every right to have freedom of association. But here’s the rub: I also refuse to pretend that 1.) the lefties who support the banning of Alex Jones or Gavin McInnes but who also hee-ed and haw-ed about corporate power thanks to Citizens United aren’t being woefully pedantic hypocrites, or 2.) that this hasn’t become an increasingly grey issue — and not just morally, but politically and legally — thanks to the near monopoly that these companies hold on public expression. What we’re seeing is a small group of private corporations realising that they have been giving their millions and millions of American users the impression that they’re creating the futurist version of the public square without really intending to do so once they realise what responsibility that might entail. If any of these cultishly diversity-trained engineers, managers, and CEOs thought that internet toxicity would stay confined to 4chan, it’s safe to say that all of this moral confusion is a form of the chickens coming home to roost for them.
Let’s Learn From History
So what do we do? I don’t like the idea that private corporations are now the ones holding a referendum on the future of free speech and no one else with a brain does either (at least not when it involves one of their political darlings). And yet, with every outraged Intellectual Dark Web-tangential tweet about how Gavin McInnes or Sargon of Akkad or even Alex Jones getting banned is terrible and what that “means” for the “marketplace of ideas”, I cringe evermore. These fellow appreciators of free speech have been feeling less like a community of like-minded concerned citizens of various nations and ideologies, all understandably worried about the abuse of corporate power, and a lot more like just a bunch of whiners.
This isn’t to say that what those who fit into this possibly unfair generalisation are whining about stuff that doesn’t matter. This stuff most certainly matters. But it’s still whining. Like, a lot of whining. And I get it: whining keeps the lights on, especially if your business model is essentially “opinion on the internet”. It’s been keeping the lights on at some of the most irritating pseudo-leftist blogs out there, some for nearly two decades now. But as those of us who saw Kony 2012 or the “checking in at Standing Rock on Facebook” nonsense for what they were, it’s pretty apparent that this whole-lotta-whining thing coming out of the free speech warriors of the internet is just as low-investment and noncommittal as those previously mentioned slacktivist efforts were.
There have been a LOT of examples of censorship, mostly all from church and state, throughout history. And while there are innumerable examples of it succeeding — whether you’re talking about the poisoning of Socrates or any Chinese dissident who’s mysteriously disappeared in the last couple of decades — I prefer to look at the stories of rebellious free speech succeeding for inspiration, especially when the stakes are still so relatively low compared to a lot of these tales.
There is, of course, the famous tale of the trial and imprisonment of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei who dared to defy Catholic doctrine in the 17th century, by claiming that the Earth rotated around the sun instead of the other way around. The story has a pretty unpleasant ending, involving Galileo recanting his claims under the threat of torture by the Church in 1633. However, there is something of a folkloric tale — one that has never been confirmed, but is so good that I choose to believe it, especially for the purposes of this whole argument of mine. Supposedly, he uttered the following words after admitting the Earth did not, in fact, move around the sun: “E pur si muove”, which, when translated means “And yet, it moves.”
There was also the illegal press run by thousands of dissident Norwegians during the Second World War — totalling a whopping 444 publications — that managed to hire professional journalists and writers as well as thousands of regular men, women, and teenagers to expose the totalitarian nightmare of the Nazi occupation, while also keeping the public informed with non-state-approved information. You can run this story in parallel with the illegal press and video production rackets that occurred in Soviet-occupied Romania that allowed the subjugated Romanians to watch American films they would otherwise have never seen until after the overthrow and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989.
Or, for a lighter example, we have the cinematic master of circumventing censorious rules, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who got away with going way over the 3-second-kiss standard put into place by the puritanical Hays Code. He did this in his 1946 film Notorious by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman give each other little smooches for three seconds each in between lines of dialogue (not to mention the constant sexual innuendo he accomplished with cutaway gags, including the train zooming into a tunnel in North by Northwest or the exploding fireworks in To Catch a Thief).
But in my view, there is no finer example of overcoming censorship laws and standards, forced patriotism, and just overall prudish B.S. than a certain “patriotic” poem written by Oliver St. John Gogarty. Writing into a conservative Anglo-Irish journal called Irish Society in the year 1900, Gogarty decided to get past the censors and sensibilities of the stuffy intelligentsia and pull a little prank. This was at the end of the Boer War, and a number of young Irish men were returning victorious. I doubt you’ll be surprised when I tell you that lots of, we’ll say, “raucous” things tend to happen when a big group of young men high on victory who haven’t seen a woman in god-knows-how-long return home. Gogarty understood this too when he penned the following poem (which I’ve helpfully formatted):
“Ode of Welcome”
The Gallant Irish yeoman
Home from the war has come
Each victory gained o’er foeman
Why should our bards be dumb.
How shall we sing their praises
Our glory in their deeds
Renowned their worth amazes
Empire their prowess needs.
So to Old Ireland’s hearts and homes
We welcome now our own brave boys
In cot and Hall; neath lordly domes
Love’s heroes share once more our joys.
Love is the Lord of all just now
Be he the husband, lover, son,
Each dauntless soul recalls the vow
By which not fame, but love was won.
United now in fond embrace
Salute with joy each well-loved face
Yeoman: in women’s hearts you hold the place.
Gogarty, in case you couldn’t tell, was not the biggest fan of the Boer War. He was a young writer, full of passion and wit (neither of which he ever really lost during his 79 years), and living at a time when there was a bit of a stranglehold on free speech in his home country of Ireland. But did he whine about it? Did he wax poetic about the “battle of ideas” or whine about what was “necessary for a free society” or kvetch half a billion times about how “the left is no longer liberal”?
Take a look at this acrostic poem again if you don’t know the answer to that question.
By the time this conservative pro-war journal realised what Gogarty had done, it was too late. Hundreds of copies of the issue had already been shipped around Dublin, and countless Dubliners no doubt got a good, scandalous laugh throughout the day. Not only had Gogarty beaten the legal and social system of censorship that held Ireland in its talons, but he’d made it look foolish for even trying.
These people — even the ones like Galileo who were caught, or who even fled their countries of origin for greener, freer pastures like Gogarty — all have one thing in common: the system took a massive dump on their freedom of expression, but they didn’t just sit there and whine about it. They found a way to get around it by using the tools and talents they had developed and that were being suppressed by the forces of silence. They became more creative and rebellious than they ever would have been if they had maximised free speech. Their censorship was an opportunity.
I understand full well that times are different. We are indeed in uncharted territory, so it’s very hard to say how serious or not serious this growing wave of social media censorship will ultimately become. Yes, corporations have something of a stranglehold on internet expression. And yet here’s the thing: as odd as it might sound, it seems to me that these bans of folks like Alex Jones or Gavin McInnes are likely not that easy for these companies to deal with, despite whatever dumb, unintentionally ironic, painfully middlebrow bromides that come out of Tim Cook’s mouth when he’s being given what basically amounts to a participation trophy by the Anti-Defamation League. They are experiencing a PR nightmare. And while this PR nightmare is confined to their more right-leaning customers, please trust me on this: a corporation knows no political loyalty. All it takes is a cultural shift and ironically, the more willy-nilly the scrubbing of politically-“misaligned” users becomes, the less the public will be okay with what these platforms are doing and — hopefully — they will course-correct to meet the shrinking demand.
But I’ll close with a mea culpa to the free speech warrior types, to paraphrase a Jordan Peterson-ism: let’s say they don’t course-correct and nothing can stop them and everything you’ve fearfully prognosticated comes to pass. Let’s say that somehow these social media networks DO become more of a totalitarian corporatist-leftist nightmare. Let’s say they have gotten suppressing edgy, nonconformist thoughts down to a science. A scenario in which the terms of service have become the dystopian cyberpunk law of the land. I can see that happening, sure, so let’s say this comes to pass.
What are you gonna do then? Just keep whining about it?