The ability to say unpopular things and the ability of others to counter such statements is an essential part of a free society, Greg Camp writes.

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First published in July 2019.

In ancient Greece, the agora was an open space, the heart of the city, where citizens gathered to conduct public business. There is a lot of information here to discuss. A citizen, generally speaking, was a property-owning male. This could be refined with some exceptions, depending on the location, but it is a good enough picture of the political situation during the time when the city-states stood as independent entities. And a citizen was someone who was regarded as capable of participating in public activities – in contrast to the idiot, who needed to be left at home. But with these caveats, it is still true to say that the Greeks first introduced during humanity’s historic period – the duration of written records – the concept of popular rule, exercised by public participation in arguing through various positions and voting on which would be adopted.

Today, with the exceptions of some towns in New England or in caucuses, American politics is not conducted by our getting physically together. For decades in the middle of the twentieth century, the automobile made moving easier, and broadcast media – radio and television – became a popular source of information in which single voices spoke to the nation as a whole. But as the Internet grew out of a means for researchers or militaries to communicate among themselves into a global platform, transforming physical into virtual contact, the potential for a worldwide town hall turned into the actual.

That can only work, however, if free speech is inherent to the medium. And this dumps us into the middle of a controversy that Trump’s conspiracy of trolls has intensified, the battle over how much ought to be allowed on sites like Twitter or Facebook.

This battle is conducted in more fields than the social media, of course. Professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, got himself banned from the aforementioned platforms – from Twitter for encouraging harassment of Leslie Jones, one of the stars of the third Ghostbusters movie, and from Facebook for extensive violations of the site’s policies. This has not stopped his yearning to be outrageous. For a sample of the things that Yiannopoulos says to shock people, consider his statement upon accepting the position as grand marshal of the proposed “straight pride” parade to be held in Boston this August. According to him, straight people are the most brutally repressed identity in America.

I find this hard to take seriously, though I suspect that there are enough people in this country who will to be worrisome. I have on a number of occasions been one of the few straight persons in a GSRM (gender, sexual, or romantic minority) crowd and managed to get home safely after having a fabulous time. This includes dinner at a Denny’s in Atlanta after seeing Rush’s Counterparts tour in 1994 where the employees and customers were comfortably gay. Neil Peart’s lyrics for “Nobody’s Hero,” a song about his being a straight minority at a gay friend’s party, among other things, played in my head, and my college roommate looked ill at ease, but despite being a child of uptight, fundamentalist parents, I found the experience to be a revelation of just how alive people could be even while not living the way I had been raised. Did I feel repressed, brutally or otherwise? Not in the slightest. Nor have I since then. This is not so much the result of my belonging to any group as it is the consequence of the many inherently decent GSRM people I have known.

Yiannopoulos’s claim is clearly and I argue intentionally ridiculous, an outrageous remark designed to attract attention for its own sake, rather than to achieve some external good. And it is tempting to say that such trolling should not be tolerated. But moments when I feel offended are precisely the ones in which I must be the most careful about sticking to the principles of free speech. More on that in a bit.

What I am discussing here is not merely a philosophical discussion, as the attack on the 29th of June on Quillette journalist, Andy Ngo at a Portland, Oregon protest shows. Ngo’s career has much in common with Yiannopoulos, including declaring himself to be an anti-feminist. The incident in Portland is the latest in a running fight between Ngo and Antifa activists. Ngo was recognized at the protest, and video of the event presents several participants cursing at him and throwing a white fluid – milkshakes, according to some, while others claim that quick-drying cement had been added – on him. He additionally alleges that he was beaten to the point of suffering a brain hemorrhage and that police presence was insufficient to stop violence from occurring.

This is not speech. We can debate how much burning a flag or the painting of graffiti on a wall are speech, but physical violence moves us into another category. What this incident illustrates, however, is that speech is entangled with other acts, bringing me to the main point here, the nature of the right to express oneself and the limits in particular that are permissible on today’s definitive means of conveying such expression.

One solution to this question comes from Alexander Heffner, declaring in Wired that social media needs the principle of in loco parentis. In his view, “We need responsible parental mindset to distinguish between fact and fiction.”

Is Big Father, especially a parent who has commercial interests that at the least do not take public ones into account, better than Big Brother? I do not think so, but even if it is, we would be in realms of fantasy if we sought to impose such paternalism. Walter Cronkite is no longer around to tell us the way things are, and he cannot be replaced. As cyberactivist John Gilmore put it, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Elites trying to shape public opinion will have a harder time than censors in controlling the flow of expression.

This is not to say that the flood of lies and threats on social media are not a danger to democracy. Russian interference in the American 2016 election and the British Brexit referendum is by this point an established fact, and the number of people on the right wing who deny this form a powerful argument against the position I am taking. But I do say that a small establishment guiding our thinking is no better than mobs of Russian trolls.

My prescription comes in two parts, one governing the medium itself and the other a recommendation to users.

First, we need an Internet Bill of Rights, a declaration that what can be said in speaking to a physical audience will be protected online. If someone comes up to me and states an intention to kill me, that is a violation of law, and cases like those of Patrick Syring, who engaged in a lengthy campaign of less and less veiled threats against Arab-American pollster, James Zogby, by e-mail, have rightly been treated in the same manner as an audible communication.

New Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Pastor Tommy McMurtry’s threats against the GSRM community deserve the same response. These are easy to distinguish: Do not call for immediate violence. I can even accept defamation by accepting the maxim of Justice Brandeis that more speech is the answer, not silence. Social media companies will claim that they are privately owned corporations and thus are not bound by the First Amendment or similar, but they have asked to be the place where politics is discussed, they have sought the title of the modern agora, and this puts on them the duty to remove their thumbs from the scales.

All of this depends on my second plank in the free speech platform: the responsibility of citizens. As with the ancient Greeks, so with us today. We have to be ready and able to participate in public matters. If we are not, no amount of paternalism will save us. We should be devoting more resources to education – and the right wing’s opposition to doing so is suggestive, given the anti-intellectual elements of their ideology – but each person must also take the time to think, to question, to object. This is hard work, but that is the task that we have taken on ourselves by asserting that popular rule is best.

And then there are the block and mute tools that offer sufficient relief from harassment.

As a writer, I can be expected to stand up for freedom of expression. Accuse me of this bias if you will. But I do insist that the ability to say unpopular things and the ability of others to counter such statements is an essential part of a free society. If we sacrifice this to gain a few moments of peace and cat videos, we are surrendering to one or another variety of authoritarianism, to an acceptance that we must be led about by our betters.🔷

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[This piece was originally published on the PMP Blog! and re-published in PMP Magazine on 7 July 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Dreamtime/Antonio Guillem.)