On Free Speech: IV. Grounding Movement Control

Click here to read Pt. III Craft Displacement

On Free Speech: IV. Grounding Movement Control

“I think what we’re learning is that, particularly when they get a choice, a lot of people decide to believe what’s more comfortable for them, even if it’s not the truth.”

– Ellis Cose

We’ve always lived with both truth and lies. Concern today, arising directly from how ubiquitous they are, truth and lies, is how competitive they are. And how rapidly they spread.

I’ve sometimes thought “social media” should be renamed social immediatesocial’s a bit generous, I think, altruistic, but of course it’s media and immediate, sharing common etymology, that are more than just clever word-play. On-line life began like any new relationship… a little mysterious, a little enchanted. Since those early days, we live so much of our lives on screens… how are we coping with the reach and pace of this on-line world, its arbitrary spread of content that people decide to believe, that “gives the illusion of consensual validation”? How are we affording ourselves “sufficient time to avert the evil consequences of noxious doctrine by argument and education”? How are we reckoning with the access and clout marshalled to special advantage by a privileged few? By how, I mean intentionally how?

These are hardly questions to be glossed over, especially when we use the very same lightspeed reach and pace for argument and education. We seem to be building the plane while learning to be the pilot while also issuing boarding passes and studying for our tower badge while flying. On top of all this, what the tower calls a landing strip some pilots believe is a mirage, if not flat-out deception.

It’s very difficult to say on what grounds something is hate speech and who should make that decision because some people find Zionism hate speech. Some people find Black Lives Matter hate speech. It’s easy to use the phrase ‘hate speech,’ but it means different things to different people, even people who think they know what it is when they see it.

Ellis Cose

By the way, if you’re thinking just now, “Yes, it’s awful how quickly lies spread,” well, it’s possible the liars are thinking the same thing. Maybe you’re now spotting the same problem as me… two wrongs don’t make a right, and yes, it’s a different way to think of the two wrongs, owned one each per ‘side’ – just to clarify, this would be both sets of ‘liars’ sharing responsibility to connect, or else clash. So yes, it’s a bit different, and it’s definitely no cause for censorious scorn or sanctimonious virtue-signalling – I mean, unless everyone wants the fighting to continue. And if that redoubles your indignation, well, very likely it’s doubled theirs, too, and here we all are, equal by at least one measure.

We all lay claim to weighty title-deeds; but as any physicist will tell you, weight is commonly misapprehended, and the question, really, is over whose voices bear sufficient persuasive mass to tamp the rest of us down within their gravity well, and whose would have us believe we’re defying gravity.

And here is the heart of Cose’s counsel: truth is not driving out lies.

“Pass me that screwdriver, will ya… huh? Alright, how about a hammer?”

As I say, it’s competing with them. Cose takes himself to be justified on the ‘side’ of truth – fair enough, we all have our convictions; for the record, I agree with him. In this post, however, I’m trying more clinically just to observe the conflict, which seems as protracted for a liar as for anyone since driving out lies with truth precludes no truth that any ‘side’ might wield. If that’s not a debate toward persuasion, it can still be a battle to the death.

Yes, “speech may be fought with speech,” but how effective is it when people’s beliefs on the same planet have become separate world ideologies? And when government, for the public, has no claim to control what somebody, in private, decides they want silenced, just who gets to say who gets to say? From having earlier considered the speaker, and the speech they profess, we’re now unquestionably trolling the realm of the audience.

And that audience has a setting, whether a venue or some medium, which itself is part of a larger culture, etc etc, blah blah blah… and if appreciating all this ‘in context’ seems obvious, then ask yourself why we still dispute free speech? To borrow an earlier phrase, it’s hard to blame the craft when it’s the artisan.

Free speech per se is a concept, and it’s one thing to aspire to values. But it’s quite another to assume them, and we don’t live in a Land of Should, where the statues talk and live among us, and concepts send us greeting cards embossed with dogma. As we’re now considering audience, we’re no longer considering only the person who speaks, or only their speech, or only the venue in which they speak. We’re also beyond one audience’s concerns, or one cultural setting, or even cultures colliding: free speech enacted is all of the above. Like loose strands in a weave, pulling one means the rest come with it. To do it any justice obliges us to consider free speech not in the immediacy of one person’s freedom but as an ongoing social gathering, or convergence. Free speech per se is one thing; free speech enacted is quite another.

Spot the regulatory influence: as we fly by Instrument Flight Rules or Visual Flight Rules, so we speak in the public sphere and the private sphere.

At issue is not free speech per se but our e-tech immediacy, so vastly more efficient than ever before, with a widespread audience to match.

At issue are the people in that audience, and their coping strategies: discernment, tolerance, critical thinking, an ability to hold in mind two contradictory ideas, or at least more than one comfortable idea.

At issue are ideology and the “immediate interests [that] exercise a kind of hydraulic pressure which makes what previously was clear seem doubtful”… all the ‘should’ that wants to last and grow and protect and endure by carving a comfortable niche.

At issue is our patience, and our willingness to distinguish nuance, and our susceptibility to emotion, as part or separate from reason – that’s on you and me both, and sorry for getting in your face about it, but while we’re on you, what exactly do you make of the speaker’s character? Because that’s no longer just you; that’s both you and the speaker. Cyclical, mutual, together. This is a joint effort.

I consider the nuances of free speech with the three rhetorical appeals and wonder at some error in the sonorous formula by which one appeal, like one person, is raised to matter above all else. In the so-called digital age, what lies between the echo chambers is less a public forum than the contested battleground of a fight that is less about some freely spoken topic than who shall freely speak. When I hear people invoke “free speech” as targeting anticipated outcomes or effects of speech rather than addressing the catalyst or cause of speech, I wonder if their judgment has already been passed. I wonder if the speaker’s credibility is simply ad hominem in waiting – it’s not always so, but I wonder at the possibility, at the sure traction we seek on the slippery slopes we grade.

I wonder if an entire audience has had its capacity assumed, in lieu of their involvement, by a few of its more vigilant assertive presumptive strident zealous clamorous… – by ideologues… – by a few of its members. In fairness, what one may call advocacy another might call oppression; just as what one may call disinterest, another might call complicity; or as differently educated, ignorant or uninformed. Yet no impasse need be permanent unless we’re willing – is it obstinacy that makes you so parochial, or integrity? When is refusal a sign of conviction, and when is it just being lazy?

We possess no freedom – neither active freedom to nor passive freedom from – that is not without corresponding cost; we live alongside others whose freedoms, like our own, ought not to be denied.

And we bear no right that does not oblige concomitant responsibility to others; apart from others, what stipulation of freedoms or rights is even necessary?

All well and good, but when are principled statements ever more than mere words? And if you say, “Rule of law…” I’ll reply, “… yes, and lawbreakers.” High statements about rights and freedoms are symbolic, nothing more. Respect for the rule of law is realised behaviour, enacted decisions, and real consequences; words, like statues and sculptures, only depict and describe. True, there’s yet to say “self-discipline,” “community,” and “education,” or how about “enforcement,” but free speech per se remains a concept, nothing more.

Free speech enacted is more complex. It’s not about the one who’s angered and vocal, it’s not about the one who’s squeamish and militant, it’s not about any one at all whom we might try to describe as a speaker or a listener – free speech is not about any one, but always at least two, and far more likely even more. Free speech, like every freedom and right we boast, demands as much give as take. If that balance is contextual, it’s also never only one person toeing its edge.

At last we’ve landed in a place to offer the trite-and-true “words matter”: indeed, words do matter, in a demonstrable, consequential, fundamental way. They matter, just like the people who use them – or rather because it is people who use them.

Grounded, or just playing it safe? Anyway, when the sky’s the limit, you know your limits.

Words matter because people matter, yet we protect and prize our free speech distinctly inside the public sphere versus outside. Prohibiting government from restricting our free speech, based on its content, is its own defining characteristic: it is based on past experience and, you might say, ought to speak for itself. In other words, protecting our speech, with some granted qualifications, from government interference was an intentional decision.

Curious that we might find similar…? intent in the private sphere, except here the intent seems…? to restrict free speech, and it arises among people who evidently privilege themselves…? as a kind of alternative government without prohibition. Quite apart from choosing to not listen to free speakers, such people proclaim a mandate on behalf of the rest of us to silence them. Who among us may justifiably enact this distinction? Whomever already does.

Click here to read the final post in this series on free speech: Part V. Bending Two Extremes.

On Free Speech: III. Craft Displacement

Remembering the Information Superhighway… next stop: Democracy!

Featured Image by Radek Kilijanek on Unsplash

Click here to read Pt II. The Speech of Free Speakers – “A Delusion of Certitude”?

On Free Speech III. Craft Displacement

“I think what we’re learning is that, particularly when they get a choice, a lot of people decide to believe what’s more comfortable for them, even if it’s not the truth.”

– Ellis Cose

In his interview, Ellis Cose attributes greater allotment of free speech to those with media access and financial clout, such as politicians, corporations, and individuals who may control either or both of these. Where something can’t be more free than “free,” let’s take his point to mean that more free speech is more opportunity, more prominence, a wider audience – “more” essentially being more accessibility. We might expect more accessibility to translate into more impact, simply by sheer weight of volume if not vetted credibility. Into the larger consideration of free speech Cose offers this nuance of accessibility against an historical standard, below, by which free speech, being free, is a great equalizer:

“Speech may be fought with speech. Falsehoods and fallacies must be exposed, not suppressed, unless there is not sufficient time to avert the evil consequences of noxious doctrine by argument and education. That is the command of the First Amendment.”

American Communications Assn. v. Douds, 339 U.S. 382 (1950)

Against this notion, Cose points particularly at the Internet and its associated media. A consideration of its global spread and interminable flow, put to use by nearly everyone – particularly by those politicians, corporations, and controlling individuals – ought to give everyone pause:

  • voices previously unheard can today access audiences previously unreachable
  • page views can be drummed up algorithmically, or simply go viral all their own; in either circumstance…
  • the potential for rapid profit now tempts an irresponsible publisher toward more revenue-generating click-bait; thus…
  • nothing less than spectacle, vitriol, or fill-in-the-blank will do
  • all this occurs, as anything must, in the zeitgeist of the times, which these days is decidedly emotional and specifically angry

Let me digress a moment and open a new window on financial incentives, algorithmic or otherwise… the flipside for publishers, media, and really any private business is that something unpopular corresponds to lost revenue. And if that’s an equal yet opposite incentive, it’s also just as mercenary. Not to be forgotten, either, is what the “free” in speech really means according to the First Amendment, specifically that government can take no action, outside a few negotiated exceptions, to deny people their public voice. This defines the boundaries of the freedom to speak in the public sphere. And what defines the boundaries of the public sphere? Questions, questions.

Meanwhile, in the private sphere, there are laws apart from the First Amendment that prohibit injurious and obscene forms of expression. Although, as in the public sphere, what’s injurious and obscene these days is up for negotiation, whether in court or, more and more commonly, pretty much anywhere and everywhere. And meanwhile, what even counts as “the private sphere”? Evidently, that’s subject to debate. Lawsuits, lawsuits. Oh, what a tangled web we’ve woven (… and, incidentally, it’s Freund’s book that provides the subtitles for Part I and Part II of this series).

In any case, despite a somewhat different standard, we still find within this wider scope of the rule of law a context for understanding the accountability of private media and publishing companies. Maybe, being as market-driven as anything else, we could consider the incentive to proffer appropriate free speech more wryly as “profit speech” – nothing less than popular, trendy flavour-of-the-month will do. I say maybe because not every company has a stellar record of accountability, which is a topic for another day but does implicate all that access and clout. On that score, since some private corporations and individuals have been known to bear an influence on politicians, we may also question how this conflation of public and private spheres affects free speech in either one.

For that, let’s go back to the Internet, which has massively amplified and accelerated all that access and clout, on top of the slew of details already mentioned. Engineered for uncomplicated access, rapid dissemination, unprecedented reach, and ubiquitous spread, the worldwide web has since become a relatively lawless e-zone, still a little beyond government regulatory control and lying in the hands of various… privateers? who are open for business. Once upon a time, a privateer was commissioned by a ruling power; today we might argue the reverse or, if we simply eliminate the state, as the Internet has arguably done, we could say that privateers are the ruling power. I’m not so sure they ever really weren’t.

Whatever… we can argue the Internet’s historical precedents. There’s even one vestige that remains a notable rival: the influence of talk radio may not have on-line profusion but, spanning decades and geography, it was making waves as the local toxic underbelly long before on-line Comments ever floated to the surface. Talk radio is fully immersed in access and clout as well as, in recent times, free speech – and, while we’re on the topic, how about complicity? Move over, financial incentives, now there’s something meaner: legal exposure. With that said, if you think talk radio’s strictly a conservative platform, let me assure you the most dominant station in these parts has long been a news-talk format that is today unabashedly liberal.

But again, I digress, again. Where was I?

Of course, the Internet. Free speech, other people. Curiously, what Cose offers about the Internet in a free speech context is all the more ironic since, once upon a time, the Internet was the great democratic equalizer. I suppose it still is, or else it can be, though like any tool, its effective usage takes some bit of skill.

Who ever thought, driving the ol’ information superhighway, we’d need winter tires? The worldwide web comes at great cost of responsibility as well as consequence, not only for the unprepared but for everyone alongside them.
Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

For its accessibility and scope, on-line media amplifies and accelerates all our published speech as never we’ve known before: be it truth or falsehood, correct or misleading, accurate or mistaken, it’s all there, instagrammatically. And, apparently, we haven’t really been growing into the role of mastercrafting this tool, even while learning on the job – not building the plane while flying, to use the stale phrase.

Maybe that’s because what this tool we call the Internet imparts, as much as anything, is disembodiment. If there can be a divide between free speakers and the audience in the same room, what on earth could we expect in a chat room? Yet this consequence, like any other, is there to be understood and reckoned as we will, or as we won’t. Hard to blame the tool when it’s the craft.

Click here to read Pt IV. Grounding Movement Control

On Free Speech: II. The Speech of Free Speakers – “A Delusion of Certitude”?

Featured Image by Lynn Melchiori from Pixabay

Click here to read Pt I. The Free Speakers of Speech – “Strands in the Web of Freedom”

II. The Speech of Free Speakers

“A Delusion of Certitude”?

“I think what we’re learning is that, particularly when they get a choice, a lot of people decide to believe what’s more comfortable for them, even if it’s not the truth.”

– Ellis Cose

Is any look at speech, free or otherwise, fairly completed before considering the listening and the thinking that the speech provokes?

From the context of his interview, Ellis Cose’s statement above seems less about how freely people do or don’t speak than about how the rest listen, and cope, and think. It’s about how readily people arrive at some assurance and, from that position, rest in acceptance of only certain other perspectives. As I mentioned in Part I, his statement (for me) is about bias, as in what was learned from the speaker’s education that now prompts the message they speak aloud. And hey, from any given perspective, as we can never be two places at once, so we can only utter (or write) one thing at a time. “Perspective” has to mean something. So maybe what Cose calls “more comfortable” we might term less generously as “lazy” or “narrow-minded,” as in Hey, if you plan to see from any other perspective, you need to get up and move.

And I can imagine the anti-them us-approving fist-pumps spurred by the previous sentence. Is it some “immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment”? Rather than wholeheartedly agreeing, from your current perspective, that the prescription to get up and move is antidote for others, consider how well it applies to any perspective at all. Consider that it may well be directed at you as directed by you… which is not to challenge anyone’s morality so much as note that morality can be challenged. Surely, though, getting up and moving yourself is more humble and accommodating than expecting or demanding it of others – isn’t it? It’s the difference between being humble and being humbled, and I think we’d all prefer the former, if that choice were all we had.

I suppose what I’m advocating is a thorough investigation of alternatives, even ones we might have thought objectionable, before we opt for anything more drastic. And look, nobody needs to invite their opponents over for nachos and board games just yet. Even so, ask yourself, “What small space can I clear for people that, up til now, I just haven’t allowed?” Is such space even conceivable, at all?

On the other hand, if we’re flat-out convinced, and some other perspective feels equally immovably justified, and there’s no recourse but to fight it out, well… it has been known to happen.

Judgment [of free speech] is… solicited on a conflict of interests of the utmost concern to the wellbeing of the country. This conflict of interests cannot be resolved by a dogmatic preference for one or the other, nor by a sonorous formula which is, in fact, only a euphemistic disguise for an unresolved conflict. If adjudication is to be a rational process, we cannot escape a candid examination of the conflicting claims with full recognition that both are supported by weighty title-deeds.… Full responsibility for the choice [belongs] not to the courts [but] to Congress.

Dennis vs United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951)

For me, though, what Cose elucidates above all else is nuance. Its laced throughout his interview. He himself has an informed take on the history and the context of an issue that, on its face, we call “free speech.” It bears mentioning that “free” is not meant in the sense of getting a free burger at McDonald’s but, rather, getting a public opportunity to say or write what you believe, unhindered by government on the basis of content. What is prohibited is the act of government censorship, with some qualification reserved for government to negotiate with the speaker (via judicial systems) on such bases as common obscenity, so-called “fighting words” of hatred, malicious defamation of public officials, and more generally the balance in likelihood between the “gravity of the ‘evil’” and whatever “invasion of free speech” might be deemed necessary, say if someone were inciting others toward government overthrow.

Of course, neither government nor citizen has full and unbridled ability to act. The balance is contextual, and it’s usually lawyers who argue before judges and juries who decide. Here is a good discussion on that note.

And of course, in the Cose interview anyway, the entire topic is steeped in the conflated history of America’s socio-economic politics, including other Constitutional concerns such as citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law, which fall under the Fourteenth Amendment. As Cose explains, “free speech” today and historic First Amendment protected speech aren’t necessarily the same thing.

As for me, I’m no expert lawyer, I just watch them on television. So I fear my attempted definition here is hardly precise enough. But how else can we discuss such topics unless we try to be more than just forthcoming? We must also try to be more thorough. In fact, that’s one reason, maybe the main reason, why I started this blog. But my mono-blog is only one voice in our dialogue, so please offer to this discussion whatever informed-slash-substantive insight you have.

As every one has a right to be heard, let us hear from every one, that we might hear from everyone.

Click here to read Pt. III Craft Displacement