Let Me Speak: The Freedom of Speech Debate

Our writers explore the different sides of one of the most contentious debates out there: how much freedom of speech should we have online?

By Matt Woodford and Joe Buck | @Mattwoodford12. | Illustration: Gordon Johnson (Pixabay)

Social Media has too much power over our voices | Matt Woodford

Facebook’s recent decision to ban several prominent media figures like Alex Jones, Paul Joseph Watson and Milo Yiannopoulos is disappointing but not in the least bit surprising. It has indeed become an increasing trend for such platforms to take action preventing “dangerous” ideas from being shared on the platform, and block any accounts presenting a worldview that doesn’t conform to the approved, rubber stamped narrative. In fact, it has been reported that Facebook is even preemptively shutting down pages before they have even breached it’s policy.

Obviously, these people spout some inflammatory, often insane ideas (see Alex Jones gay frogs) but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the right to share them, nor does it mean social media companies should block them from having a platform. Part of living in a “free society”, admittedly a concept we seem further away from with each passing year, is having to deal with the fact that people have different opinions from our own and as long as they are not encouraging people to commit acts of violence, that’s okay.

Just because they have a platform where their voices can be heard, does not, and this cannot be stressed enough, does not mean you are forced to listen to them. No one is forcing you to follow Alex Jones on Twitter. No one is forcing you to subscribe to Paul Joseph Watson, nor is anyone forcing you to attend Milo Yiannopoulos events at universities. Encouraging violence is of course, an entirely different matter but banning people from speaking because they have opinions you don’t like, or because you have decided to brand them “Nazis”, is knocking at the door of fascism (ironic really when you consider most of these groups claim to be against fascism). Misguided cretins they may be, Nazis they are not.

The world we live in is now completely and utterly dominated by social media in a way it wasn’t just a decade ago and with that comes a lack of clarity on what can be said and what lines can be crossed. As the internet entrenches itself deeper and deeper into our everyday lives, national laws become irrelevant. In the days before the internet, entertainment was regulated at a national level. People in media knew what lines they could cross and what lines they could not. It was dictated by national laws and this is important because laws around freedom of speech differ wildly across the world. This is no longer the case and what used to be certain is now nuanced.

The issue here is not hate speech laws, they are perfectly valid and no one is suggesting that actual fascists deserve a platform. The question is who decides what is genuinely fascist doctrine and what is just an opinion you disagree with. When you leave a decision like that to companies like Facebook, who increasingly want to be seen as doing the right thing in order to not get banned by our government overlords, things get messy.

Facebook has appointed itself judge, jury and executioner and sees itself as the moral gate keeper of what is right and wrong.

The biggest problem with all of this is the lack of accountability. Fear of being labelled “right wing apologists” by groups intent on shutting any other opinion than their own down has lead Facebook increasingly tightening the reins on free speech. Ultimately, Facebook has the right to censor anyone they wish to, they are a private company. But surely a company with such power and influence over the world should at least be willing to let people have a voice?

Fascists aren’t interested in your reasoned debates | Joe Buck

Words don’t exist in a vacuum. They have consequences. Granted, as your mum probably made clear to you with her line about not jumping in front of buses because you were told to, the link between words and actions isn’t a direct or instant one. But without exposure to words and the ideas that they convey, where would our beliefs come from? Racists don’t just wake up one day with an inexplicable prejudice – they are taught these beliefs. And then comes the action part, when they reject you for a job because your skin is the wrong colour.

Free speech purists would have you think otherwise. For them, words are detached from action, and can never be turned into sticks or stones. History tells us a different story. And if we pay close attention to their words, we’ll find many holes in their arguments.

For the purists, freedom of expression is a universal right, and one which trumps all others. it is, of course, an important right, integral to any free society – but in reality, there are many competing freedoms. One person’s freedom from persecution for, say, their religious beliefs, frequently comes into direct conflict with another’s freedom of speech. When Paul Joseph Watson uses pseudo-science to promote the idea that Africans are “more aggressive due to their lower IQs”, this conflict is obvious.

This raises another issue with unbridled free speech: not all voices are equal. If they were, then perhaps unlimited freedom of speech wouldn’t pose a serious threat. However, certain voices – typically white, typically male (Paul Joseph Watson) – are significantly more able to make themselves heard and carry considerably more weight than others (the tremendously diverse people of Africa whom he seeks to lump together and dehumanise).

But shouldn’t those seeking to drown out the voices of hatred simply defeat their ideas through robust debate? This noble approach, rooted in Enlightenment ideas of reason and liberal democracy, is valid in many instances. It should always be our first point of call. But even one of the founders of modern liberal thought, Karl Popper, recognised that debate isn’t always enough.

The devastating consequences of European Fascism had led him to accept that some ideas cannot simply be debated away.

Writing in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper stated that “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” Published in 1945, the context behind Popper’s “Paradox of Tolerance” is clear. The devastating consequences of European Fascism had led him to accept that some ideas cannot simply be debated away.

As an ideology, Fascism rejects both reason and freedom. Fascism poses a very real existential threat to millions of people, and, given their rejection of reason, they don’t want to hear your side of the story. In fact, they probably want to exterminate you. History shows us that the only way to confront such an inherently violent ideology is direct confrontation. This is the starting point of the much misunderstood Antifa.

Popper’s paradox has become increasingly relevant in the internet age, for two reasons. Firstly, an emboldened far right are spreading old Fascist ideas to new audiences through social media platforms. Secondly, the ironic detachment so common in online communication allows for a sort of plausible deniability of the connection between words and actions (“just for the lulz”). We must recognise that the traditional differentiation between online and “IRL” no longer holds; the internet is so much a part of who we are, what we believe and how we communicate that it could hardly be more real. When Alex Jones invokes the idea of so-called “white genocide”, he is feeding directly into the ideology that leaves 51 dead in Christchurch’s mosques. (Curiously, free speech purists seem unwilling to extend their support to, for example, jihadists, revealing that what they really want is unlimited freedom of expression for white men).

It’s vital that society doesn’t simply shut down all opposing voices. And it is alarming that so much power lies in the hands of social media behemoths like Facebook. Freedom of expression is hugely important, and we must think very carefully about how and when to limit this freedom. But simply allowing anyone to say anything short of direct calls for violence is not enough – the vulnerable need more protection and the burgeoning numbers of Fascists must be confronted. In light of this global context, we should be glad that Jones, Yiannopoulos and Watson are being denied a platform.

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