The Twitter “free speech” straw man

There’s a lot of talk these days about how everything is “getting too PC.” I won’t spend too much time talking about the fact the majority of this talk comes from people who have not experienced discrimination, because that’s more or less a given.

But I do want to discuss the “free speech” straw man argument that’s given in response when people tweet things like this: “Online harassment is a huge problem! It’s worth losing the ability to hurt peoples’ feelings to try and stop it.”

I made that tweet a few days ago in response to that very prompt – someone saying “things are getting too PC,” and “if the sissification of the internet continues, I’ll leave twitter.”

The most measured responses to me tended to echo the sentiment of this person, who said, “Is it worth losing the ability to dissent, whether you use colourful language or not?”

Ultimately I felt compelled to write this when I saw a friend post the following excerpt from Hitchens and O’Neill:

“..what the offensive person has actually said is seldom important. It is what the offended person believes him to have said that actually counts. And this is the process to which we are rapidly entering as a society. We’re moving towards a strained dictatorship of rage where any approved group or any approved person’s fury is sufficient to trigger cause for the denial of platforms, for the ostracism of one kind of another of that person. In effect for the silencing of those people and the suppression of their opinions. This is a sinister development. Why is this so fantastically sinister, this attitude towards people on expression of opinion? Because it is irrational, even medieval..”

“In fact, pretty much every leap forward in history, pretty much every freedom we enjoy is a product of individuals giving offense. Having offended against the orthodoxies of their age. Offensiveness is not just something we have to begrudgingly accept, offensiveness is the motor of human progress. The right to offend is not some pesky little part of freedom of speech that we have to put up with, it is the heart and soul and lungs of freedom of speech. It is the coursing lifeblood of human progress. It is the instigator of liberty and modernity and science and understanding.

What a laughing stock today’s student leaders are that they can so casually dismiss the right to be offensive without realizing that their lovely enlightened lives are the gift of individuals who gave offense. The gift of scientists, thinkers, agitators who bravely showed their asses to the dominant ideas of their era. Their offensiveness made you free.”

So I agree of course that free speech is important, because I’m a reasonable human being who believes in positive change – but these excerpts and those twitter responses don’t defend free speech in the abstract, they are referencing student leaders wanting to create “safe spaces,” and twitter users wanting to be free of harassment, respectively. I agree that the relatively fringe groups that want to do things like put trigger warnings in books are, indeed, fringe groups.

But the larger context of this is one of harassment – that’s what these fringe “trigger warning in books” overreactions are lashing back against, but in most contexts I find the people overreacting are the ones “defending free speech,” when in fact they are defending harassment.

Consider this video for example, about women who stream games. The second comment is “toughen up, you’re on the internet,” which is essentially what the above quotes are saying as well, except “toughen up, you’re in society.” And that’s true to an extent, but then you look at all the subsequent replies to that youtube comment, which are full of vitriol and hate.

Now, imagine being that lady, and having people in your place of business calling you a whore, a slut, and literal trash every day, every minute, while you’re trying to do your job. To what extent is that degree of “debate” useful for anyone? That is the reality of being a woman on the internet right now, and it is where these reactions come from.

Free speech is important, but is it an inherent right of people to be assholes and harass others? Every time I bring this up on twitter, that is essentially the argument. “If we lose this part, we lose it all,” they say. “This is how you get a China-style censored internet,” is another argument.

But if your platform is “fuck you, you’re a slut,” that is not a platform that needs defending, because it’s not a stance, it’s not an argument, it’s just an insult. Saying “I think this person is terrible for X reasons,” that is one thing. Saying to that person “You are terrible for X reasons” is another, especially when it’s done over and over again, and when it is not a discussion, but a one-way monologue. That is when it becomes harassment.

Consider, for example, the witness protection program, or restraining orders. The freedom of speech of the harasser/stalker is being greatly diminished here – they feel they have this important thing they need to bring up with the person they’re stalking. I’ve read many reports on this particular subject, and in general, the stalker feels they have unfinished business with the stalkee, and if they could just get their point across the right way, everything would be fine. So they keep pushing, and prodding, and calling, even if they’re being ignored. This is very similar to what you see in online harassment.

What do you do in such a situation? Being a remotely popular woman on the internet means essentially being in this situation all the time.

In California, harassment that can lead to a restraining order is described as:

Unlawful violence, like assault or battery or stalking, OR
A credible threat of violence, AND
The violence or threats seriously scare, annoy, or harass someone and there is no valid reason for it.

Most of the popular women on the internet have experienced these. The problem is there are no laws that protect people from this sort of behavior right now, so people are having to take action themselves – blocking, muting, et cetera. But when those that harass them can still see what these folks are saying and doing, and harassment is their entire platform, to what extent is their input valuable, and to what extent is it more likely to be harmful?

If people did these sorts of things in “real life” they would be getting restraining orders – but because it’s on the internet, it’s “not real,” so it’s not particularly regulated. People are calling on platforms like Twitter and Facebook to help prevent abuse, because the law is not doing it. People are muting and blocking and writing about these issues because the law does not offer them recourse from harassment.

I am not saying that anyone should murder free speech – I wouldn’t imagine any reasonable person would think that, which is why it gets my dander up when I see these arguments about free speech. Of course free speech is good! The right to protest and the right to freedom of expression and dissent is under serious attack in cities across America.

But you can’t divorce that Hitchens discussion above from the current reality of harassment on the internet and in public. When you’re getting hundreds of tweets and facebook messages and emails about how someone wants to rape and kill you, and *even one* of those includes a picture of your house, suddenly all the other “harmless” boasting doesn’t feel harmless, and the “get over it, you’re on the internet and this is how it is” doesn’t work for me.

While you can’t stop people being terrible to each other, and the Hitchens paragraphs argue you shouldn’t stop them, shouldn’t the victims be able to have some recourse, or a way out? To what extent is someone shouting “FUCK YOU SWJ RETARD” at someone 100x per day a debate that one should engage in? Does the person typing that even have a platform? Is it worth my time to try to convince someone I’ve never met or heard of… something? Whatever it is they don’t like? Are you killing free speech by muting them? Are you losing something by not finding out exactly why they think you’re a pile of garbage?

But muting isn’t what people are worried about – it’s the removal of that person’s voice entirely. Those who cry “free speech” at me when I tweet that it’s worth losing the ability to hurt someone’s feelings are worried that voices will be silenced forever. But when I talk about losing the ability to hurt someone’s feelings, I mean losing the ability to harass. I said it in a cute way, but that’s what it comes down to. Of course you can hurt someone’s feelings if you want to (I still don’t think it’s the best stance, but hey). When you do it en masse, though, you start to make yourself a problem, and it’s not free speech you’re contributing to, but harassment. I say again – the free speech of someone who harasses someone else in real life gets squashed with a restraining order, or jail time, because they are bullying, harassing, or stalking, not contributing to a discourse. Should you throw every internet troll in jail? No, of course not. But if *any* consequences for these actions existed, people might actually think before they typed.

I maintain that if internet harassment law matched real-life harassment law, the person who wants to yell “GO DIE, SLUT” to every woman would be a very different person on the internet. They might voice an actual opinion or platform or discussion instead. And I argue further that the “toughen up” and “this is free speech” argument just doesn’t hold up when paired with the actions it’s being used to defend, right now. I’ll have a debate with people if it is a debate. If there is no debate, the “free speech” defense becomes a straw man.

To conclude:
Do: defend free speech.
Do: create online harassment laws that mirror offline laws.
Don’t: defend harassment by invoking free speech.