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.

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 1, 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

On Free Speech: I. The Free Speakers of Speech – “Strands in the Web of Freedom”

About the Featured Image: At 19’5” tall and 15,000 lbs, the bronze statue named Freedom, set atop the Capitol Dome in Washington DC, was created by architect Thomas Walter, sculptor Thomas Crawford, sculptor Clark Mills, and master craftsman Philip Reid, four men who well represent both a complex history and complicated symbolism.

I. The Free Speakers of Speech

“Strands in the Web of Freedom”

“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

Before anyone starts rating Ellis Cose’s statement, “whereby phrases are made to do service for critical analysis by being turned into dogma” wielded against whomever they oppose… just stop and consider instead, against “the impregnating atmosphere of the times,” how neutrally this statement applies to anyone at all who might hold any position. Consider how anyone we oppose may wield this statement against us just as righteously as we may characterise it by using them.

There’s wisdom in this statement by journalist Ellis Cose, and an informed perspective that directs my attention toward a truer opponent facing all of us, which is to say all of us. It’s not so much a person, this opponent, but a tendency – a rather drastic tendency we have to skew our perspectives toward one outlook, one interpretation, one ‘side’ of… well, whatever we face.

[NB: what I call a ‘side’ can be populous or solitary. I’ve presented ‘side’ in single quotes because I know it’s a word loaded with partisan and polar connotations, none of which I want to suggest – not overtly, at least – besides which, I haven’t been able to decide on a more suitable word.]

This tendency is common of us. I’ve often maintained that we all land somewhere, starting with birth. As such, bias is inescapable and, as such, not pejorative but only descriptive. So, what to do about bias… ? Rather, what to do with bias. And how to do it.

The remark above Cose offers during an interview with Bill Moyers, in the context of considering free speech – specifically, its demise. In his recent book, Cose points out an overarching presumption about free speech – from a Supreme Court Judge, no less, Justice Louis Brandeis – that, ever since, has evidently grown roots:

“As Brandeis saw it, free speech was virtually a sacred right and an awesomely powerful force that would expose ‘falsehood and fallacies’ and ‘avert… evil by the processes of education.’ Hence, the remedy to bad speech was ‘more speech, not enforced silence.’

“That piece of writing has been deemed one of the most important commentaries ever crafted on the First Amendment. But Brandeis assumed something that has not been borne out by facts, which is that the better argument would generally win. He also assumed that relevant people on all sides of a question were equally capable of being heard and that skeptics were interested in listening.

“That fallacy continues to inform the thinking of those who see speech as inherently self-correcting.”

Featured Image by Lynn Melchiori from Pixabay

In this quotation, Cose gives me pause to stop and consider that the First Amendment – really any part of the U.S. Constitution – may have been written with a presumption that “people are basically rational and skilled in recognizing the better argument when they hear it,” or a presumption that “dialogue is dominated by real people with an interest in ideas, not by corporations and wealthy individuals hiding behind PACs and other creations, using trickery, appeals to base prejudice, and outright lies to gather gullible people to their side in the interest of commerce.” With such words, Cose gives me pause to wonder about some taken-for-granted assurance that tells itself, Well, of course anyone who reads this will understand what I mean because anyone who reads this will be just like me… We’re not just ready-made logical creatures. We’re susceptible to emotion and passion, and blind spots and presumption, which must be recognised before reasoned.

As I stop and consider all that… I consider myself. When I write posts for this blog and exercise my free speech with the ease of a mouse click, what is my thinking? I take such pains to write clearly, go such lengths to research thoroughly, in consideration of an audience that I’m largely unable to predict: a published blog post is a public blog post, and a reputation is as clean and thin and delicate as tissue paper. Yet I know I’ve been guilty of presuming a reasonable audience – you’re welcome? or my bad? The one question that can sum all my anxiety might simply be this: whose voice am I leaving out? It’s a version of a question I often asked my students, albeit in different context: whose voice is missing?

Maybe all this seems tangential to my initial idea: being prompted by Ellis Cose to write about free speech. Still, I can’t help but think, and feel, all this belongs.

I agree with Cose, once more from his book, that “… the society [Brandeis] envisioned has never existed.” With hindsight to his vision, I see in Justice Brandeis’s statement something he likely didn’t mean: his vision of society, for me, is a bit like the statues and sculptures that adorn and accompany buildings all over Washington, DC… we recognise their symbolism, we (allegedly) aspire to what they represent, and by their very placement (and I don’t mean to invoke idolatry), we sort of revere them. They represent not a world we believe is possible but a way we can imagine it – a world we would prefer to see, at the risk of misapplying Northrop Frye. For a given statue or sculpture, such reverence implicates what any one person values, which of course has become the subject of recent concern, weighing historical brutality against present-day redress. Moreover, if we aspire to the symbolic idea, somehow knowing it is unattainable, that becomes something very different than aspiring to it because we actually think it’s within our power to create. My broader point here is simply to note the analogy, a presumption imagined like an audience taken for granted, presuming ideas about people, as Justice Brandeis apparently did, or presuming an outlook held by an audience that, of course, is just like me.

The statue called Authority of Law, adorning the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC: LEX translates from Latin to “the law.”

Coming back to relate all this to free speech… when someone declares “[whatever]” in their exercise of free speech, they conceivably make no direct presumption about you or me or anybody, perhaps beyond their own self-centredness: “You have to listen to me because I have my right to free speech.” Conversely, that speaker may presume or flat-out know something about their audience, by which they’re able to push buttons, raise hackles, inspire applause, or generally incite some calculated reaction. Elementary though it sounds, what a speaker presumes when exercising free speech is simply and plainly that they have an audience – indeed, what need otherwise to qualify “free” speech? Ultimately, it’s this connection to audience that I will try to consider about free speech.

First, though, I should clarify – however broadly – that the corollary to a speaker is a listener, i.e. if you’re not speaking, then consider yourself part of the audience. Naturally, we have to be exposed somehow to the speaker, in person or by way of some recording or text. Maybe these are punctilious distinctions, but they seem necessary for what comes next.

What I tend to notice when I hear people invoking “free speech” may also seem elementary: it’s only invoked when an audience doesn’t want to hear it. This is so obvious yet so crucial to appreciate because within lies a difference as to what free speech even means: to the speaker, as I’ve described, it amounts to listen to me, but to the audience, it refers more to the anticipated outcomes or effects of speech yet-to-come. This is not to say a speaker has no aims, but rather to say a speaker has a more immediate concern, i.e. being heard, i.e. being allowed to speak, as in “free” to speak. Meanwhile, the audience also has an aim although I can’t decide which side of the coin: to not hear, i.e. to not listen, or to not hear, i.e. to silence the speaker – hence, as I say above, the need to qualify free speech from any other kind.

What I’ve come to notice of an audience in disagreement seems more the option for silencing, maybe because outcomes can’t happen when speech is pre-empted. I get that, an ounce of prevention, maybe well justified in some cases – yet there now, I’ve just done it too, approving (if not opting) to silence. In addressing free speech, is the audience obliged to consider a message in some way apart from the speaker? “Apart” from the speaker seems problematic since no speech can occur without one.

As speech is the catalyst or cause of certain outcomes, if and when it’s spoken, so speech itself is a consequence of something learned, which seems to return this to an issue of bias – which I might alternatively call education or belief but, in any case, something more individual or personal. Again, in the ways we might consider the cause or catalyst of speech, these remain inherent to the speaker. Okay, what of the speaker? Well, there does exist today an overriding value for the individual, for the discounting of convention, and for more than just being but also for embracing “yourself.” And there does exist today a self-orientation that values personalised education, and critical thinking, and questioning and problematizing how and why the way things are. These are briefly some general details that bear at least some influence upon speakers today.

Okay, what of these details? For one thing, such a self-orientation only goes so far: take the school principal, boasting and flaunting empowered students and their critical thinking, that is until the students think something critical about how and why the way things are at school. “After all,” the students say, “you teach us to be critical thinkers.” Eventually things may come round, though doubtfully without a struggle, and maybe some parental involvement.

To be fair, some initial resistance to questioning is hardly surprising, from any perspective. But in a culture that venerates the individual, even we are wise to remember Socrates for his being unique: where he seemed to land was “no place in particular” beyond perhaps “here, for long enough to ask some questions.” His no-place was his place, an ironic kind of certainty, which is a bit of clever word-play. Yet it was this freedom, taken to questioning things, that eventually helped to estrange the community from Socrates – which is also a bit of clever word-play – finally at the cost of his life. For our own tendency to grow rooted in one-place for longer stretches of time, maybe the rest of us should be thankful for slightly less orthodox individuality: for bias. Talk about integrity. Alternatively, imagine that world ruled by Socratic ignorance – free speech everywhere and many an ear to listen, just none finally willing to believe – how much worse, in that world, if might made right.

Individual rights, by definition, only make sense within a community, which was my cause to raise bias, which I likened to education though maybe I’d better call it “learning” – a post for another day. But more than this, more nuanced, is that individual rights only make sense as a community. If they cannot be shared, and respected, mutually, and tolerated, they can only come to a head. As to free speech… per se it remains only a concept because it is people who enact it, as speech – people make the concept felt. People ultimately make “free speech” something manifestly real; sometimes, especially lately, I feel like we don’t seem to get this, as if we view ourselves actually having the same idealistic glow as our ideologies. That would be fine if we all shared the same ideology.

Sometimes I feel like we view ourselves actually having the same idealistic glow as our ideologies. That would be fine if we all shared the same ideology.

A final word on bias-slash-education-slash-learning, paraphrasing my previous blog post… are lessons designed for a teacher to teach, or for a learner to learn? Or is it some mixture of both? If we’ve all been to school, even so, numerous learners still comprise an education system, just not all at once – this we end up calling “culture.” So how can education ever be singular, as in “personalised,” as in an education for you while another, separately, for me? How, that is, unless you want all sorts of cultures all walking around bumping into each other at every turn, and I don’t mean a “diversity-as-strength” kind of way because that still implies some rule of law. I mean anarchy.

We all learn, yes, but being educated is a collective trait, found somewhere at once in between all learners and their teachers and anyone else involved. So, as to free speech… once somebody communicates via real speech, another listens and reflects, maybe responds, and somehow, somewhere in between them, occurs an understanding. If that understanding is “I don’t understand you,” well, at least your work is cut out for you.

If the catalysts and causes of someone’s speech are an issue of bias, then outcomes and effects seem an issue of endurance or, as the case may be, a lack of it – as Cose puts it, what’s “comfortable.” Unlike the so-called individualism of education and the extent one decides for oneself, so-called rights, I would argue that endurance is borne more widely – if not entirely – of culture and conscience, the degree we each conform irrespective of ourselves – are these responsibilities or infringements? How would any died-in-the-wool individualist answer that? I think I know (… see what I did there?). From having considered in some way the free speaker, I’ve ventured into the audience, whose ears may or may not be so permissive. Yes, it’s people who speak – it’s also people who listen, and both of these always from some position of bias: if we hope to address any concern arising over free speech, start with bias or, as I referred to it above, education. Yes, education has its own raft of issues, but it’s still probably better to address causes over outcomes, if the aim is to restore our health.

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