One way of looking at freedom of speech is atomic: treating each individual act of free speech as an equal component of the overall freedom of our discourse. That’s kind of the default position on Twitter, as well as in the section of American culture out of which it grew. It’s an assumption that is all but baked into the 140-character platform1. It’s also the basis of a lot of arguments advocating an unmoderated online culture as a whole, or pushing back against individual acts of moderation all over the web.
The problem, as Twitter so ably illustrates, is that treating free speech as a collection of free speeches can actually diminish the collective freedom of speech. There are conversations I can’t have on Twitter, because I’m afraid of the atomic acts of free speech that I will get in response. Some of them will be genuine tests of the value of my speech, but others may be rape threats, doxxing, a flood of vicious and pernicious abuse. And yet more will inhabit the shady borderland between the two: arguably legitimate things disproportionately aimed at particular targets2.
But because absolutes are easy, atomic acts of free speech are easy to defend, and are defended widely on the internet. Actual adults who can deal with nuance elsewhere can be surprisingly simplistic on the topic.
We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ‘em
That was a real nice declaration
Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation.
I’m being a little unfair here. Many of the people who defend free speech on an atomic level do so because of the risks of controlling it for any kind of “greater good”. And they’re right: most of the greater goods that have been used to control atomic free speech have been neither great nor good. But the answer is not to give up, any more than the answer to bad government is no government. The answer is to do better.
Because the model we’re using is broken. The awareness of its brokenness haunts our entire discourse3. Indeed, many of the people who abuse the model draw their passion from a fear of being silenced, of not being heard.
if New York’s in debt—
Why should Virginia bear it? Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting.
Jefferson’s portrayal of the South as a financially stable “land of the free” is, as Hamilton points out, based on keeping certain costs off the books. This is possible because in Jefferson’s Virginia the people paying those costs aren’t as important as the people reaping the benefits4.
In the same way, the “wealth” of atomic freedom of speech has costs that don’t appear on the absolutist balance sheet. No individual has the strength of heart and mind, the time and resources, to deal with the full range of possible responses to their speech. The fact that this full range is more likely to be deployed against certain speakers5 is the equivalent of Jefferson’s financial accounting6: important costs are being kept off the books.
Add those costs in, and it’s clear that our speech, taken as a whole, is actually desperately poor, deeply unfree, silenced, squashed.
I can’t solve the internet as a whole. I can’t solve our entire discourse. I’m a moderator on a few sites and a participant in a few conversations. But here, for what it’s worth, is my approach in those places.
And here we get to a problem I cannot solve with a blog post, a few bullet points, and a couple of stray Hamilton quotes. What we really need for free speech is a varied ecosystem of different moderators, different regimes, different conversations. How do those spaces relate to one another when Twitter, Reddit, and the chans flatten the subcultural walls between them8? Have we the tools or the will to foster the kind of genuine respect for disagreement, trust in disagreement, that that would require?
Probably not. But as adults, we still have to try to do our fallible best in a complex world.