So there was the thing over at Jim C Hines’ blog, where I made the mistake of reading comments and once again it made me wonder if we could claim that part of humanity is just something we found on the curb, like an unwanted couch. Jim canceled his Reddit Q&A because there was a really gross thread on Reddit where rapists were talking about the hows and whys of the awful things they’ve done; he gave an ultimatum that either that thread needed to go, or no Q&A from him.
Immediately, whining about freedom of speech ensued. This is not an uncommon reaction, I’ve noticed. Christian apologists for Chick-fil-a have been applying this juvenile argument as well, to tell us we’re all being mean for not buying their delicious hate chicken and thus tacitly endorsing their anti-gay agenda. Apparently, freedom of speech has been redefined on the internet as, “I have a right to say anything horrible I want and you’re not allowed to protest or try to stop me.”
No. That’s not how it works. And there’s no cognitive dissonance necessary to believe in free speech as a right (via the Constitution) and not wanting to let trolls shit all over your comments section.
This would be because while we all like to say we’re part of the government of the United States, this being a representative democracy and all, none of us are actually the government, and none of us are making laws. The power of the state (and now of large corporations) can be a horrible, chilling thing, and it should be kept well away from speech, even really reprehensible speech. (Because of nothing else, one man’s reprehensible speech is another man’s important point.)
But as I said, I’m not the state, Jim C. Hines isn’t the state, and any website with a commenting policy that keeps a terminal asshole buildup from occurring is also not the state. We’re administrators of our own blogs/websites, and whining at us about freedom of speech is equivalent to whining at your mom because she won’t let you say fuck in the house, and about as effective.
Is it hypocritical, though, to say you believe in free speech and at the same time police jerks on your own space? (Or refuse to share space with shameful people?) No, I don’t think so. I have just as much a right to express my opinion as the next person – and actually more, when it’s my personal space. I’m not obligated to let my obnoxious Ron-Paul-loving neighbor put a campaign sign on my lawn. Likewise, I’m not obligated to let words that are abhorrent or abusive stand on a space that is mine to control. Want to say awful things? Get your own space.
But what about Jim demanding Reddit take the thread down as a condition for him doing the Q&A?
In the world of emergency medicine, unconsciousness implies consent. In the world of speech, silence likewise implies consent, and agreement. Appearing quietly in the same space as something you find abhorrent implies that you are all right with the existence of that abhorrent thing.
And I think that’s an important part that often gets left off on these rants about free speech.
Outside of the realm of law (which obvious does not apply here because hey – not the government!) words have meaning, and consequence. When you run across something despicable, you have a very limited set of choices – you can ignore it, say nothing, move on, or you can protest. If you say nothing, if you do nothing, your silence provides your tacit agreement.
That’s why it’s important, for example, that Anonymous showed up to stand between the Westboro Baptist Church and the attendees of the memorial in Aurora, CO, even if WBC didn’t show up. Why it’s important that Chick-fil-a is facing a boycott for their anti-gay policies. Why when you hear someone say something racist, or sexist, or homophobic it’s important that you argue, even if it means making Christmas dinner kind of uncomfortable.
Some of the most important speech you will ever make is to stand up and say “No, this is wrong, and I refuse to be part of it.”
Related: Civility and free speech at Talking Philosophy. This also addresses why it’s not contrary to believe in free speech and simultaneously demand a minimum level of civility in your blog. And unlike my opinion, contains no swear words.