No, the Internet Isn’t Killing Free Speech

This seems to be the week for Internet-related existential anguish. First there was a New York Times op-ed wherein an NYU student by the name of Zachary Fine bemoaned the way pluralism has apparently left the millennial generation in a puddle of indecision and angst, and then Jon Lovett’s piece for The Atlantic about how everyone being nasty to one another on the Internet is undermining free speech. To some extent, these arguments seem to contradict one another, but when you look more closely, they’re both manifestations of the same basic premise: that the diversity of voices and opinions and views on the Internet are undermining our ability to get things done — and, if this is correct, then the question is whether the benefits of this diversity outweigh the detriments. I submit that they do. But let’s look at both arguments.

First, then, to Fine’s three-part piece of millennial philosophy. If we strip away the philosophical trappings of his argument, it goes something like this: there are too many choices these days, and every one of them is examined closely, so it’s hard to know what to do. For this he blames the “side effects” of pluralism, being an “ethical injunction” that “a cultural recognition of difference: individuals of varying race, gender, religious affiliation, politics and sexual preference, all exalted as equal.” The result is that it’s hard to know right from wrong: “Good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on.” (The last bit is a quote from French philosopher Bruno Latour.)

But c’mon, as (presumably) a student of philosophy, Fine must know that what he’s talking about here isn’t really pluralism. It’s relativism, which isn’t exactly a new idea; Eastern philosophers have embraced it for millennia, and post-structuralists like Derrida and Barthes were analyzing the subjectivity of language and perspective a good 60 years ago. The story of the Tower of Babel addresses this very same point as far as language goes, about 3,000 years before postmodernism became a thing.

As an idea, relativism tends to get a rough ride from laymen, largely because its dictates are clearly a pretty slippery slope — they immediately raise the question, “If everything is relative, how is anything certain?”, which is exactly what Fine is asking here. Part III of his essay finds him stumbling into the swamp of moral relativism, which is territory where all but the most adventurous philosophers fear to tread. Why? Because no one wants to sink into a quagmire composed largely of horseshit.

When Fine writes, “We anxiously avoid casting moral judgment. Because with absolute truths elusive, what claims do we have to insist that our moral positions are better than those of someone from a different nation or culture?”, he’s raising the classic question of cultural and/or moral relativism. Clearly, there’s a point here — the West, after all, has a pretty dismal record when it comes to imposing our views and values on other cultures, something that’s almost always been detrimental to the cultures in question. But equally, you can see how this sort of viewpoint can devolve into the endless privilege checking and finger pointing that characterizes Tumblr and Internet activism in general (which, in due course, will bring us to Lovett’s piece).

The answer, as ever, lies somewhere in the middle. Relativism does have some measure of utility — especially when you compare it to the moral absolutism dictated by religions and right-wing lunatics everywhere. (And in any case, those people are relativists when it suits them — abortion is always wrong, for instance, whereas shooting unarmed teenagers is perfectly OK so long as you feel kinda threatened, even though that particular rider clause doesn’t seem to appear after “Thou shalt not kill” in the Bible.) Anyway, relativism allows you to evaluate the context in which you’re making a decision, not to avoid making decisions entirely. If you’re somehow cowed at the prospect of criticizing anything or having an opinion on anything, you’re doing it wrong.

Pretty much any reasonable person would allow that virtually all moral proscriptions provide for exceptions — killing in self-defense, or running a red light on the way to the hospital because your wife’s about to have a baby, or a gazillion other articles. Does that mean everything is subjective and that we should let everything descend into Hobbesian anarchy? No. Of course it doesn’t. People tend to take this shit too far, and really, the whole point of relativist ideas is that they’re, well, relative. Moral absolutism breeds dogma, but moral relativism doesn’t have to breed paralysis. (Anyone who trumpets cultural/moral relativist theory as a reason why, for instance, we can’t unequivocally condemn female genital mutilation, is clearly tying their philosophical shoelaces together.)

What Fine finds himself mired in isn’t a philosophical quandary peculiar to millennials — it’s called “growing up.” And look, I say that without any measure of condescension or etc. The experience of looking at the world and feeling paralyzed, not knowing which way to turn, how to start, where to start, etc. — it’s characteristic of your early 20s, no matter what generation you’re part of. And it’s hard. I’m not that far removed from that period of life, and I remember it being awful. And at least when I was 24 the economy wasn’t completely fucked.

This stuff is hard, but it’s always been hard. I’m not really convinced that the Internet or pluralism or whatever else makes it any harder, despite what Fine argues: “Our tenuous claims to truth have not simply been learned in university classrooms or in reading theoretical texts but reinforced by the decentralized authority of the Internet. While trying to form our fundamental convictions in this dizzying digital and intellectual global landscape, some of us are finding it increasingly difficult to embrace qualitative judgments.”

Not all of us, though, apparently. This brings me to Jon Lovett’s article, which complains about people who are all too keen to make qualitative judgements. It’s hard to disagree with the contention of his article’s lede, or, at least not the premise: “Too many debates about important issues degenerate into manufactured and misplaced outrage.” Anyone who’s ever had any sort of argument on Tumblr will agree with this. But is this “chilling free speech,” as Lovett contends?

This contention is the flipside of Fine’s idea: that pluralism has bred an intellectual orthodoxy, wherein diverting from the “accepted” point of view tends to get you shouted at in all caps until you repent. (It’s interesting to note that Fine also touches on this, with the example of a professor who apparently accused a student of promoting “postcolonial oppression” by preferring Shakespeare over Edwidge Danticat.)

If this sounds awfully like conservatives stamping their feet about “political correctness” gone mad to you, well, yeah, you’re not the only one. Again, Lovett cites the Internet as the reason for the phenomenon he’s identifying, and uses similar language in doing so: “We are drowning in information. It’s no longer thrown on our doorstep each sunrise, or even just broadcast into our living rooms; it’s in our hands every waking hour; the endless stream of talking, as we spend all day moving our eyes from screen to screen to screen; it’s the first thing we see each morning and the last thing we see before we go to bed.”

It’s striking that these two arguments start from similar premises and come to similar conclusions. And again, I don’t buy it. You only need look around the Internet to see that diversity of opinion isn’t on the decline. Lovett’s argument is that it tends to be the shrillest voices from either end of the political spectrum that drown out the rest, but so has it ever been — demagogues and manipulators have always tried to shout down those in the middle, using a variety of arguments to do so, including those about free speech.

And these arguments are almost always self-serving. Take the bunch of degenerate racist lunatics conservatives running my home country of Australia at the moment — in the same week our Attorney General proposed repealing hate speech laws because “people have the right to be bigots,” the Department of Immigration threatened a refugee advocate for saying something nasty about them on Facebook.

Lovett is correct that discourse on the Internet could be more productive and civil, and that name-calling and polarization don’t benefit anyone. But equally, being able to tell someone that they’re saying something fucking stupid is as much free speech as anything else is. And really, let’s look at the people he cites as having been somehow oppressed by what he calls “Shut Up Culture”: Brendan Eich. Paula Deen. Alec Baldwin. Stephen Colbert. Mike Huckabee. Dylan Farrow. That dickhead from Duck Dynasty. Wholefoods CEO John Mackey. In fairness, Lovett concedes, “I am not comparing what these people were told to shut up about, or saying some of these examples aren’t offensive or stupid or vicious or wrong, often combinations of any or all of those things.”

But, he suggests, “there is a vast middle where our freedom of speech is protected by us — by our capacity to listen and accept that people disagree, often strongly, that there are fools, some of them columnists and elected officials and, yes, even reality-show patriarchs, that there are people who believe stupid, irrational, hateful things about other people and it’s okay to let those words in our ears sometimes without rolling out the guillotines.” In other words, people have the right to be bigots.

Let’s be clear, though — no one is stopping any of the people above from saying what they’re saying, notwithstanding that what pretty much all of them (save Dylan Farrow) had to say ranged from the unpleasant to the downright awful. No one chased Brendan Eich out of Mozilla — he resigned because the company eventually decided that having a CEO loathed by half his employees, who promotes views that appear to go against the company’s own philosophy, maybe wasn’t such a great idea.

Did he jump? Was he pushed? Who cares? He’ll be fine. He is still a rich white man who can say precisely what he likes — he doesn’t have to shut up, no matter what people say on the Internet. So has it ever been. If “Shut Up Culture” oppresses anyone, it’s those who’ve always been oppressed: those whose voices have never carried the weight of power and privilege. And honestly, on balance it’s hard to argue that the Internet hasn’t given a voice to those people.

In the end, both arguments come back to this point: that there is a sort of liberal orthodoxy whereby a flood of views make it impossible to get anything done, either because you can’t tell right from wrong, or because you get told what’s right and what’s wrong. But let’s just remember what the world was like before the advent of pluralism and “Shut Up Culture”: it was a world where those in power could do nefarious things with far less fear of being exposed, a world of racial and cultural homogeneity, a world where people Just Knew Things, a world where as an ordinary person, your options for being heard were far less widespread than they were today. It was a world with much narrower horizons that the world of 2014.

Clearly, pluralism isn’t any sort of cultural panacea, but it’s far superior to what came before — and ultimately, that’s a world that Fine and Lovett’s arguments both want us to embrace again. A world where you can be Sure About Things, and say silly things without a million people telling you you’re a dickhead, seems like a superficially pleasant place. But it doesn’t exist. It’s better to live with a realistic understanding of this fact than it is to embrace false certainties.