Bloganuary Day 16: Causes

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Bloganuary Day 16 Prompt: What’s a cause you are passionate about and why?

Freedom of speech. Voltaire is widely attributed as saying, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend, to the death, your right to say it.” In this sense, I am a classical liberal in that I see this as the foundation of civil society.

You may try to temper this statement by saying that certain kinds of speech, like hate speech, are unacceptable, and you may be right. However, I think qualifying speech with certain conditions like that does not protect marginalized people; it only leads to the slippery slope of silencing most people on topics on which ordinarily you may find allies, because they are afraid to offend someone or not pass some sort of moral purity test.

You find this scenario on both the left and the right. On the left, you must be anti-racist, believe in systemic racism, patriarchy, and the like, and prove that you do by echoing the correct talking points; on the right, you must believe that elections cannot be legitimate if you lose them, be anti-vaccination, never criticize Trump, and the like. You are banished from the party and effectively silenced if you do not speak up about any of these talking points.

Neither of these poles leads to equity or a more civil society; we’ve just become more divided and only allowed the extremes the opportunity to speak. The rest of us are too afraid of getting cancelled, to offend someone, to be seen as judgmental, or generally not listened to. The values of civil society are being consistently attacked. Maybe one side is more egregious than the other based on your ideological platform, but never before has freedom of speech been more fragile.

Ironically, this is in the era where we are more hyper-connected than ever before and can access all kinds of information and global perspectives with the swipe of our finger on these little boxes we call smart phones.

Unfortunately, by connecting us, they have not made us smart. We only block and disassociate with people who believe different things than we do. We divide further up into tribes of people who are sycophants, culturally and economically similar to us, people who won’t offend us, who get us; because the other side is demonized. The center can no longer hold.

I believe that certain kinds of speech are indeed unacceptable, in a legal sense, as well. You cannot yell fire in a crowded room. But other kinds of speech are murkier. Should Trump have been banned from Twitter? I think yes. But should social media companies be regulating what is considered acceptable speech online? I’d rather see government, which does not have a profit motive, crafting those regulations, versus social media companies self regulating. Instead, government has let the Internet become the Wild West where anything goes all in the name of freedom, because they cannot hope to keep up with the rapidly changing pace of technology.

I think speech that harms others should be marginalized. You can deplatform the worst offenders for violating terms of service, but this is inconsistently enforced. People who post links to their website to Facebook groups should not be treated the same as people who say you can cure covid by drinking pee.

In this era of information, we should have become enlightened, more educated, more open-minded. Instead we are more divided than ever into identity clubs, united by our talking points and never questioning past the acceptable line.

We have become bereft of the ability to think critically, to question authority, to challenge each other. We have forgotten how to truly debate one another without personally attacking the other, or finding excuses to call the other person wrong instead of fielding a legitimate argument. We seek to push our agenda at all costs, slamming our talking points over any chance at real discourse.

The Internet has exacerbated this, too, by putting screens between us, leading to the same kind of impersonal realm as road rage. When you can shake someone’s hand you are much less likely to spew vitriol at them. The pandemic, too, has deepened our isolation and closed down traditional community gathering places. Instead we remain stuck at home, glued to the glow of our screens, doomscrolling for that chemical reward of the hunt.

Is this what civil society is built on? I would argue not.

So I am for freedom of speech. I am for letting the Nazis march and counter-protesting. I am for allowing speech but also marginalizing it and holding people accountable. I am against cancel culture, bullying, silencing people. I think people deserve the right to explain themselves and to change, to admit mistakes and grow.

Freedom of speech is what leads to equitable outcomes, in the end. And that’s because I believe those with a moral obligation to society are those who uphold the ideals of the society. You cannot achieve that, a free, equitable, civil society, when you’re afraid.

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