Who's watching the watchers?
This post is free for everyone. It’s that important.
Freedom of speech is not only our fundamental right—It’s critical to the existence of a prosperous people. And it’s being whittled away.
The importance of free speech, a cornerstone of our society, cannot be overestimated. Considering opposing views with thoughtful discussion and debate rather than censorship and punishment is emblematic of liberty—And so it follows that free speech is perhaps the most important building block in the foundation supporting our democracy. How we deal with differing opinions is a big part of what separates a self-directing people from those living under authoritarian rule.
There’s Gold in Them There Hills
I think of considering new ideas as sifting for gold—When we first come upon them, we don’t know if they’re worthless grains of sand or golden nuggets. Only under the spotlight of open debate—what I compare to sifting—can the merit of such thoughts be established. The sand gets washed away, whereas the precious bits that are proven worthy can ultimately change society for the better. But if we don’t have our pans in the water, we never have the chance to stumble upon these essential engines of change.
And there’s another risk from not having our pans in the water—We don’t get the chance to sift through bad ideas. Meritless, and sometimes even harmful beliefs, end up thriving like mushrooms in the shade, hidden from the harsh light of public discussion. Have you ever wondered how some ridiculous ideas could have ever taken root? This is what happens when worthless notions are bounced around in the echo chamber of yes-people for a bit—Then they’re ready for prime time and accepted as gospel by the masses. To question them once ensconced is to be a heretic—But it’s only by walking this thorny path of inquiry that we come to the truth of things.
What Binds Us, Blinds Us
Critical thinking isn’t easy—It takes a nuanced balance that doesn’t come naturally, whereas we are hardwired for bias. Many are uncomfortable with ideas that don’t conform to our personal narratives—It’s easy to forget that so much of established orthodoxy was once taboo.
For example, women having the right to vote was anathema in the US in the early 1800’s. In Saudi Arabia, women only recently got the right to vote—It’s also a nation which has engaged in censorship and has delivered punishment for speaking freely. And many countries that have not afforded equal rights to women have also had less than stellar records when it comes to free speech. I don’t think it’s coincidence—It’s clear to me that freedom of expression is a necessary enzyme to catalyze the formation of a more enlightened civilization.
Universities in Crisis
I was speaking to my college-age nephew the other day about an article in Forbes:
“More than half of college students regularly hold back on expressing their views on campus for fear of the potential consequences.”
He told me that those holding certain political views on campus were frequently “screamed down” by other students. The screamers would then think themselves victorious when the screamed at person walked away—How did we get here?
Back in 2018, already years into what has been a developing crisis of censorship in academia, constitutional law scholar Howard Gillman delivered an excellent talk about the importance of free speech at universities.
“…universities exist to generate and transmit knowledge, and this mission cannot be performed successfully unless all ideas can be expressed and assessed…If you are in the knowledge-creation business you must be willing to listen to anyone who is willing to explain why they think you are wrong about the world. Speech that challenges conventional wisdom has been a driving force for progress.”
Gillman commented that students, despite the history of well-documented harms that come from restricting free speech, were clamoring for its suppression.
“In the 1960s campuses such as Berkeley tried to prevent students from using campus spaces to engage in civil rights organizing…steps that triggered the vitally important Free Speech Movement at Berkeley…What is most noteworthy about today’s debates is that it is often students who are demanding that campus administrators become censors.”
A lot of pain and suffering went into securing freedom of expression for all. Have students forgotten the hard-won lessons from the past? Or don’t they teach this anymore?
“Education is Not the Filling of a Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire.”
I’m concerned about how kids are being taught to regard free speech if the action taken by the National Education Association (NEA) is a rubric for what the educational system thinks about this fundamental right. NEA, an organization composed of 3 million members, which according to their website, champions “justice and excellence in public education,” wrote a letter to social media tech leaders:
“Dear Tech Leaders:…Your companies have both the power and responsibility to stamp out disinformation …we’re demanding that your companies make a public pledge to students, educators, and their families to regulate lies…”
This is a such a slippery slope. As anyone who’s followed the disgrace we call politics can attest, what we call truth and lies are subject to debate. Without the crucible of transparent discourse, we can only remain ignorant.
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”—George Washington
I personally believe that kids should be taught how to think critically, not what to think. To do otherwise means that we can precisely define misinformation—Can we? Who decides? Who’s checking the fact-checkers?
“At the end of the day, it is clear that before we rush to place fact checking organizations like Snopes in charge of arbitrating what is “truth” on Facebook, we need to have a lot more understanding of how they function internally and much greater transparency into their work.”
Canceling Cancel Culture
If externally-generated censorship is one side of the coin, self-censorship is the other. Nowadays, Americans are three times more likely to feel hesitant about expressing their personal views compared to those living in the heyday of McCarthyism. Back then, there was a desire to not be labeled a communist. Today, not only do we fear a variety of labels, the individual repercussions of being canceled can include losing your job—For a company, it could mean a loss of revenue.
“Cancel culture — the phenomenon of promoting the “canceling” of people, brands and even shows and movies due to what some consider to be offensive or problematic remarks or ideologies…”
I’ve personally witnessed self-censorship in action. When interviewing experts for the Covid chapter of Chronic, several thought that Covid was most likely made in a lab—And that was only a few months into the pandemic. Nobody would go on record saying so back then—It was still considered a conspiracy theory at the time, so they self-censored, even though they thought that the information supporting a lab origin for the virus was compelling. Over the next year, both Twitter and Facebook continued to censor countless users who spread insights that Covid might have been made in a lab, due to claims that this was misinformation. Now it’s no longer considered misinformation—The potential lab-leak origins of Covid are being taken seriously. But for a year, we were deprived of the ability to think critically and make decisions for ourselves.
It’s strikes me as similarly presumptuous when speakers are cancelled and uninvited due to politics, as in the case of Amber Rudd, former high level British politician. She was slated to give a talk at UN Women Oxford UK society encouraging women to enter politics. Her invitation to speak was pulled thirty minutes before her planned talk due to her potential role in the Windrush deportation scandal, of which she had denied knowledge. So much controversy followed, that UN Women Oxford UK society was disbanded.
I have no personal knowledge of how much Amber Rudd knew, or didn’t know, about the Windrush scandal, so I don’t have an opinion. But I do feel that I might have been able to form an opinion, or at least the beginnings of one, if I’d had the opportunity to hear what she had to say. But that public forum never happened. I also think of the young women in the audience who might have been inspired to enter politics after hearing her speech, if not for the myopic actions of group think.
We The People
The ability to speak without fear of censorship or repercussion is inextricably connected to the enrichment of society. Innovation will always be a deviation from the norm—Without it, we are lost. New ideas would wither on the vine.
“One of the founding principles of the United States that Americans cherish is the right to freedom of speech. Enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of speech grants all Americans the liberty to criticize the government and speak their minds without fear of being censored or persecuted.”
But do we cherish it? Clearly some of us do not:
Content moderation is a euphemism for censorship—This gentleman is frightened by the prospect of free speech if Elon Musk were to acquire Twitter and claims that censorship is required for democracy to survive.
The irony that Mr. Boot was born in Russia, and immigrated to the US as a young child along with his parents, is not lost on me. I wonder if his fondness for censorship would have persisted had he grown up in the nation of his birth, without the luxury of free speech.
We have certain rights vested to us by the First Amendment:
“Government agencies and government officials are forbidden from regulating or restricting speech or other expression based on its content or viewpoint…The categories of unprotected speech include obscenity, child pornography, defamatory speech, false advertising, true threats, and fighting words. Deciding what is and is not protected speech is reserved to courts of law.
The First Amendment only prevents government restrictions on speech. It does not prevent restrictions on speech imposed by private individuals or businesses. Facebook and other social media can regulate or restrict speech hosted on their platforms because they are private entities.”
But what happens when the government interacts with private companies such as Facebook to direct censorship?
“White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration is “in regular touch” with the platform to ensure correct “narratives” are promoted…”
Both the White House and the Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy have been taking part:
“White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday the Biden administration is identifying “problematic” posts for Facebook to censor because they contain “misinformation” about COVID-19.
Murthy said “we’re asking [social media companies] to consistently take action against misinformation superspreaders on their platforms.”
Civil liberties groups have taken notice:
“The Surgeon General does not have the authority to issue this demand. The statute only gives him the authority to implement measures to stem spread of communicable disease. The statute cannot reasonably be interpreted to allow him to order tech companies to censor individuals with whom he disagrees on Covid policy…”
My two cents: I want to see all the information and make up my own mind. I don’t need some tech company employee doing that for me. Not every idea is going to be a home run—Some will be foul balls. But they all deserve a chance at bat.
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