The title comes from the Declaration of Independence. Third on the list of grievances, Ol’ Tommy J. has this to say:
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
We are represented in the legislature albeit (as I’ve been known to argue) poorly. And although we’re taxed at levels that’d make our forefathers choke we can’t be said to be taxed without representation. This particular situation isn’t one I’m arguing today. I’m considering what else might fall in the category “a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.”
Rights Such as the Freedom of Speech
It used to be that we generally agreed on free speech; that you could say what you wanted while broadly acknowledging some exceptions. The arguments were all about where the lines ought to be drawn. Giving secrets to enemies in wartime is obviously bad, but maybe the current classification system is too onerous. At what point does a threatening statement transition from being generally free speech to ‘fighting words’? Is the best way to tell what’s pornography just to show it to a supreme court judge and ask him?
These days though we’ve got people who are demanding a broad new exception to the principle of free speech. Anything that gives offense in one of several categories, which categories to be determined at a later date. Never mind the blatant disregard for causality that prosecuting ex post facto crimes implies the question of offense is inherently nebulous. On top of all that the intersectional determination of who exactly is allowed to take offense contradicts one of the self-evident truths stated earlier in the declaration, to wit that all men are created equal. As an aside you’ll note that Thomas Jefferson himself is guilty of a hate crime for failing to include other genders in that statement. Dig him up and hang him!
The Difference Between Law and Custom
You may take it as read that I’m against any sort of codification of hate speech into law. The problem, however, is that any such codification is currently redundant. The Twitter mob will take your job, and friends and relatives will no longer speak to you because of your wrongthink. At that point, custom has decreed you anathema and anything the law might do is extra. The consequence, therefore, is that any solution, if such a problem will admit to a solution, must not merely address questions of law but also be resilient to the Twitter mob.
Indeed, the biggest social media bullies of them all are the corporations behind it; Twitter and Facebook taking it upon themselves to gently correct the misguided thoughts of people who had the temerity to use their programs. Who would have thought the people who built the biggest gossip networks in the world would also want to put themselves up as the world’s biggest moral scolds? But a moment’s consideration indicates the futility of using law to constrain the corporations. Supposing it’s a law that has any bite at all on them, any law that would constrain them would also constrain anyone else from any number of harmless activities.
Let me explain. Google street view takes a picture of your house. Legal. They take seven million pictures of every house from here to Tipperary (and it’s a long way to Tipperary) and put it all together so that anyone in the world can go traipsing down your street and see anything that’s publicly visible. That might be an invasion of privacy. Supposing that passed a law making it illegal to take photographs of other people’s houses. You can bet your britches that Google will manage to deal with it and ordinary dorks who just happen to take a picture which partly shows someone’s house in the background will be guilty of trespassing that law.
The Tyranny Inherent in Censorship
Let’s swing us back to the question of free speech. The First Amendment only constrains the government; it doesn’t apply to private entities. There’s a problem with that line of thinking though; it gets things backward. The First Amendment isn’t correct because it’s in the Constitution; it’s in the Constitution because it’s correct. It’s one of those unalienable rights Jefferson mentioned. (You’ll note that his famous list was only three “among these rights”.)
Whether or not we have a legal duty to respect the free speech we have a moral obligation to respect it in others. That doesn’t mean you have to let every jackanape out there talk on their cell phone in a movie theater, but it does require a certain respect for other’s political opinions, however asinine they might be. In the past the ACLU had this correct; you have to let the Nazis march.
Today the argument is that saying these things can be painful. And to be honest it is; words can be more painful than physical injury. The thing is, generally, the words that really hurt aren’t the political opinions. It’s not people who think you’re wrong; it’s people who betray you in personal things. It’s uncomfortable having people disagree with you but anyone who’s grown up has learned to deal with that pain.
The people who shun you for having the wrong opinions, the corporations that set themselves up as the moral arbiters, the college students who riot rather than have someone they dislike speak, what exactly are they afraid of? The answer is that it’s not a question of fear, it’s a question of power. “Formidable to tyrants only.” Maybe these people don’t think they’re setting themselves up as tyrants, but that’s the inevitable result. You can’t assume the authority to determine what people are and aren’t allowed to say without necessarily making yourself a tyrant.
What, Therefore, Is to be Done?
There’s a tendency in this kind of article to describe a problem and end it by prescribing your miracle tonic to solve that problem. I don’t know that I believe that this sort of problem actually has a solution. Nevertheless, here are a couple ways I’ve thought about to address it:
We can use the power of the government to break up Google, we need riot police to stop speakers from being intimidated out of college events, we need laws to regulate what people can say on Twitter… wait, wasn’t that what we were fighting against? I’m very wary about using government power to solve any problem because of all the ways it can go wrong. Not the least of which is setting up a tyranny worse than the one we’re trying to escape. Let’s see what other options are out there.
We can wait for the culture to change. This isn’t as stupid as it sounds; Mankind has the natural disposition to assume that everything will stay the same forever (when it isn’t actively getting worse). That’s not necessarily true. Things change; perhaps enough NPC types will find themselves disavowed by their comrades that the left will do some serious soul-searching and move away from that strategy. Perhaps we’ll devolve into a bloody civil war and questions about who controls Google searches will seem charmingly quaint. Perhaps companies will learn that firing people at the first sign of Twitter outrage won’t save them. Perhaps we have far less control over events than we think we do, and we should avoid any compromises that lead to deleterious side effects without affecting the root problem.
We can outcompete them. Build a better Facebook that won’t go all book-burny. You know, because we can totally trust our institutions to maintain the noble ideals under which they were founded. I’m also not that confident that we could set up a better search algorithm than Google.
We can go around them entirely. Imagine a decentralized store of information; something that everyone can read and write to, but which no one can alter. No chance to ignore stories that someone thinks important, no chance of shutting anyone up that disagrees with you. On the plus side, that means that no one can censor it and that everyone has an equal chance at the information. On the minus side, no one can censor it and everyone has equal access to the information. Remember the word ‘censor’ comes from the Roman political office with that name, dedicated to protecting public morality. If no one has the ability to remove information then people can write all the worst dregs of the internet to it and there’s nothing we could do.
Right now I’m on the ‘wait until the world turns’ plan, with updates as events warrant. I don’t think that it’s particularly likely that today’s censors, now that they’ve snorted the joys of tyranny, are likely to wean themselves off of it willingly. I’ll keep on trying to change the world in my small way, mindful of the fact that the fate of the world is not mine to decide. If you’ve got any better ideas I’d love to hear ’em.