When I was a renter, I had a decidedly mixed experience with landlords.
Some were excellent.
Some, however, were awful, regularly failing to fix heating or AC units when they went out.
Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar or worse?
Now imagine you had, and suppose you were to tell me about it.
And imagine that, in response, I were to say, “The answer to bad landlords is more good landlords.”
You’d probably think, well, sure, that would be nice.
But meanwhile, the bad ones need to be held accountable for their irresponsibility.
No one would assume the housing marketplace would work itself out in terms of quality just by adding some more conscientious property owners to the mix.
So too, no one would say, “The answer to bad medicine (or doctors or hospitals) is more good medicine, doctors or hospitals.”
Not because it wouldn’t be nice to have more good ones of each. But because within the marketplace for health care, the bad ones need to be dealt with.
Yet, when it comes to the marketplace of ideas, many insist there can be no regulation of expression — and not merely for reasons of Constitutional principle, but because unrestricted speech is best, consequentially.
As they explain it, only with the maximum expression of ideas can the good ones drive out the bad in a never-ending search for truth.
But why would we expect this magical process to work when it comes to ideas, any more so than housing, medicine, or any other market?
Markets are distorted by several forces that prevent them from operating as claimed, like power imbalances, lack of information, or barriers to entry.
And just as these things necessitate regulation in other markets — so as to help those markets function more smoothly — so should reasonable people see the need for them in the marketplace of ideas.
And yet, suggest this, and the Elon Musk fan club pours forth to call you a creeping authoritarian, bent on trampling freedom.
. . .
I believe in free speech.
I make my living running my mouth or expressing my thoughts in writing, so I don’t need to be lectured about the importance of the principle.
Unlike lawmakers in dozens of states who are censoring classroom discussions of systemic racism or conversations about the mere existence of LGBTQ folks.
Unlike officials with the Stafford County, Virginia schools, who just banned dozens of books, including one of mine (Dear White America), from school libraries there.
That said, the idea that there can be no carefully crafted regulations on expression — that the marketplace of ideas should be a free-for-all, where a person can say anything they wish — is absurd.
First, it’s never been the way things work.
We do have regulations on speech, and no reasonable person disagrees with them.
We have rules against libel, slander, false advertising, threats of imminent bodily harm, or breach of the peace, among others.
And while we might disagree about what constitutes those things, we allow for bona fide examples of each to be sanctioned.
As well we should.
Where the issue becomes trickier is in determining the acceptability of speech when connected in some way to a political or ideological viewpoint.
There, the Courts have taken a very dim view of restrictions on speech.
As well they should.
But just because people shouldn’t be legally punished for their views — and even if social media, though not bound by the First Amendment, should defer to it on principle — that doesn’t mean those platforms should permit people to say anything they wish without consequence.
It certainly does not suggest that Elon Musk should let people say whatever they want on Twitter if and when his purchase goes through.
Sure, people should be able to post conservative and right-wing thoughts.
They already do.
Those ideas are easy to find on Twitter now. At no point have such views been banned or censored.
At no point has anyone been booted from Twitter simply for being a right-winger or a Trump supporter.
Hell, even blatantly racist and sexist views are rampant on Twitter — views proclaiming the inherent superiority of white people, men, heterosexuals, or Christians. None of these views have been prohibited.
Nor are they illegal. Nor should they be.
Because they are viewpoints, however grotesque.
But viewpoints are not what the trolls are fighting for.
What they want to make acceptable — because these are the only things that currently aren’t — are:
- The right to call people slurs;
- The right to wish death or harm on others so long as you aren’t threatening to do it imminently; and
- The right to publish people’s private information — to dox them.
How do we know this is what they want? Because they’ll tell you as much.
. . .
A few weeks ago, when I critiqued Musk’s digital Wild West vision for Twitter, e-mails from the bottom-feeders at 4chan started coming in within the hour.
And what were the messages I received?
Were the losers who populate the image boards challenging any of my views or promising to do so with detailed rebuttals once their Emperor God took over Twitter?
Of course not. If they wanted to do that, they could do it now.
No one gets booted off Twitter for making an actual argument.
What they said was this:
Not bad for some incel edgelord binge-watching Hentai, rocking back and forth, and typing with one hand.
But still, not exactly a deep or meaningful reflection.
And not what the framers of the Bill of Rights had in mind when they crafted the First Amendment.
Let me say this clearly:
Slurs are not a viewpoint. Neither are threats or expressing your desire for someone to be harmed.
There is no rebuttal to being called the n-word.
Or for a woman who is called the b-word.
Or for the slinging of heterosexist and transphobic slurs.
Slurs are not indispensable to, or even a part of, the search for truth — the utilitarian rationale most commonly offered for maximum free expression.
Likewise, deliberately spreading false information is not the sharing of a viewpoint either, in any substantive sense. It’s fraud — deception.
And it’s the kind that would be disallowed if the fraudster were a commercial entity pushing some product.
So why should it be allowed when coming from someone on social media pushing a provably false political or social claim?
Especially when those claims are often monetized by those making them — like QAnon influencers or fake-COVID cure peddlers — and thus, are functionally no different than false advertising in a television commercial.
If you insist Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles, you are not engaged in a claim that can be examined by rational persons.
The claim itself is a group libel that furthers no logical political position.
It poisons the well of social discourse, providing no information that assists in determining truth because it was fabricated by deranged people.
There is a difference, for instance, between saying schools should remain open despite COVID and saying that the deep state wishes to depopulate the planet with vaccines.
One is a viewpoint that is debated even among experts and well-informed specialists in virology.
The other is batshit lunacy for which there is no rebuttal other than a Thorazine drip and a tattoo on one’s forehead saying, “Stay away from me. I’m a fucking moron.”
What is the probative value of allowing obvious lunacy to be spread?
Especially when it defames officials and slanders them as genocidal monsters?
. . .
How does any of that assist in the search for truth?
It is about rendering truth an irrelevance in political discourse. Who cares what’s true? All that matters is power.
And if that means knowingly deceiving people — not in the typical politician way of fudging budget numbers, but by concocting conspiratorial lunacy out of one’s ass — so be it.
That is not what the First Amendment was intended to protect.
And to allow such absurdity in an age where one can spread it globally with a click of a button while fact-checkers are still booting up their hard drives is to say that free speech is a suicide pact for democracy.
It shouldn’t be.
But if we can’t agree that the marketplace of ideas, as with any market, requires sensible regulation — and that disallowing slurs, threats, publishing of private information, and knowingly false information is a legitimate exercise of that regulatory power — we’re saying it is precisely that.
We’re saying maximum free speech outweighs everything, even if it shuts down speech by running people off social media who would rather not be subjected to abuse.
Even if it turns every platform into 4chan.
That’s the price we have to pay for freedom?
That rent is too damned high.
This post was previously published on Tim Wise’s blog.
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