The classical liberal principle of freedom of speech, of course enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, is supposed to protect the citizenry against state censorship. As with many Enlightenment principles and ideals, “free speech” is complicated by technology. We now live in a society where there are often more restrictions imposed on people from non-state actors than from the state itself. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: A mob silences a despicable person – someone who deserved it – it brings us all closer together in a mutually-shared opinion that the bad person committed a bad act, worthy of punishment.
Even in this circumstance, a fairly common one, many of us evince an unease of mob justice, even if we agree with the principles on which that rough justice was founded.
Example 2: A suspected child pornographer is caught with 5 terabytes of pornography on his computer (an almost unimaginable amount), but the warrant that allowed the search of his computer is flawed, and the case is thrown out after action by the ACLU – and a pedophile goes free.
In this circumstance, we are almost universally on the side of the authorities, because the guilt is obvious, the crime heinous, and the liberation of the suspect is on the basis of a technicality.
Now, a third example: a man expresses an opinion, which may be at the edge of commonly-accepted propriety or public opinion, but which is not heinous and not illegal. A social community, and not a court of law, attempts to get that man in “trouble” with his employer. He is not saved by a technicality, nor totally condemned by a mob.
The third example is the tricky place where many of our modern disputes over freedom of speech and mob justice inhabit. There is no clear legal principle which overrides the general condemnation of an overtly heinous act and there is no universal mob (that is, there are always dissenters and contrarians) which engages in a digital hanging.
Part of the question becomes: quantitatively and qualitatively, how free is our speech currently? And not just in the narrow constitutional sense, in the sense of having cultural and social constraints? How powerful are those cultural constraints, and is there anything “we” should do about it as a society? I don’t propose to have many answers here, certainly not any easy ones.
We may be easily seduced by the dull, Doric opinions stamped by the imprimatur of the enforcing mob of a habituated mass-culture – just as we may be titillated by the exotic contrarianism of a seemingly rebellious agitator, who may wring truth out of over-saturated public narratives.
Independence of thought is once again the difficult vigil of any discerning and intelligent individual. The problem with the mob is that the mob is often right, and the problem with the contrarian is that they are often wrong.
Most often, the mob is turned against those on their “own side,” as a way to enforce rigid tribal identities. The liberal artist is the one in danger of being canceled for talking inappropriately about race, not the conservative. The conservative is likely to be publicly emasculated for their opposition to the public’s ownership of AR-15’s, not Taylor Swift.
“If you say the wrong thing these day’s you’ll be canceled!” – says the centimillionaire who has made a living off of being “politically incorrect” and has, at no point, been canceled.
So the battle against censorship is fought in different dimensions now: it is fought against the government in some cases, but more often, it is fought against the mass culture of society, conjured into existence, especially, by social media. And it has also become a thing-in-itself, like so much else. It is a tool used for national politics, to enforce tribal boundaries, it is used as boogie man to frighten one side or the other.
Tribal digital mobs are fluid, and many opinions shift on “cancellation” depending on which tribe one is in. A man decrying the fate of a “conservative” losing his job one day may in fact call for the destruction of another man’s livelihood on another. Examples of this abound, and I do not feel the need to post any particular exchange. If you open up Twitter and scroll for a few minutes, I’m confident you will find an example.
The problem we are faced with now is probably unique in modernity: the social restrictions enforced by the unofficial rules and powers of mass society are as effective as the restrictions imposed by governments. Things have changed, but it may be helpful to look at the wellspring for some of the original arguments against censorship and for freedom of speech in an attempt to inform our current response.
“Areopagitica” is a polemic by the poet John Milton, arguing against government censorship of books and pamphlets. It is cited often as a basis for the First Amendment, and more broadly as a classic defense of the principles of Freedom of Speech. As it has become a “classic” it is broadly defunct and dead – not a living document, but an afterthought and citation. What is forgotten about the polemic is that it is foremost an attempt at persuasion. This is fitting as there are no unassailable truths in this world, there is no scientific principle that was not overturned, and there is no basic argument about human ideals that is not, at its base, an opinion.
For those looking to the sage words of our intellectual forebears on the construction and nature of liberty, there is no succor to be found for a society where social norms are enforced by mobs:
“Nor is it Plato’s licensing of books will do this, which necessarily pulls along with it so many other kinds of licensing, as will make us all both ridiculous and weary, and yet frustrate; but those unwritten, or at least unconstraining, laws of virtuous education, religious and civil nurture, which Plato there mentions as the bonds and ligaments of the commonwealth, the pillars and the sustainers of every written statute; these they be which will bear chief sway in such matters as these, when all licensing will be easily eluded. Impunity and remissness, for certain, are the bane of a commonwealth; but here great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.” (pg 18, paragraph 1)*
Aside from this (an argument that leads to the thesis that censorship will be ineffective), the central argument of “Areopagitica” is that exposure of controversial ideas, through a free press, allows society to sift and refine ideas until only the specks of pure truth remain.
“For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evil substance; and yet God, in that unapocryphal vision, said without exception, Rise, Peter, kill and eat, leaving the choice to each man’s discretion. Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomach differ little or nothing from unwholesome; and best books to a naughty mind are not unappliable to occasions of evil. Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”(pg. 12, paragraph 1)
In this argument, people are forever infantilized by censorship – our liberty of thought and action is restricted by a government paternalism. If we are to be fully-realized people we must have access to the various contrary arguments and temptations of the world.
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where the immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial by what is contrary.” (pg 13, paragraph 2)
The last thing that we CAN learn from Milton’s piece is the best remedy we have, perhaps the only remedy: to think independently. It is not an easy answer, or a quick social fix. It is not a principle which can be codified in law, and it will not stem the tide of accusations, harassment, unfairness, or rigidity from digital mobs. As in all matters which beset the modern mind, it speaks to personal responsibility, to recognize in one’s self the means whereby we may fix our feet to the ground and not be pulled along by those surging around us. I wish I had a better answer, but it seems the only way to fracture the mob is to not participate. It is doubly-hard because we should be most skeptical where we are most sympathetic and most engaged. Mobs inflame our sense of tribal identity and ignite the most passion where they find dry kindling.