The Free Speech Argument Against Free Speech

The Free Speech Argument Against Free Speech

Vox Day recently took a bit of a victory lap over the redesign of Gab, which introduced a “remove reply and block” feature. It seems that anyone who reaches even a modicum of notoriety or fame online these days attracts the worst that the internet has to offer, including left-wing bi-polar types as well as right-wing edge-lords.

I’m no e-celebrity — and hope to keep my head low enough to avoid the worst of this kind of thing — but I’ve somehow drawn the attention of one person (I’m certain it is one person, despite them using multiple accounts) who decided I was worth spamming. I’ll share some of his insights and criticisms here for context:

osho? seriously? that guy was a sociopath.

you need to be gassed. preferably in eastern poland.

you’re too stupid and evil to be allowed to continue your existence. should be the name of your blog.
if you think arguments have anything to do with philosophy you’re autistic and deserve to be enslaved or take a shower in poland.

the more an author uses the terms “argument” or “argue” the more UN-philosophical he is. “analytic philosophy” is NOT philosophy. it’s just autism in the service of capital.

but what about muh argument?

SRFU! you have autism.

what argument is there that ingrid bergman was beautiful and cokroaches are disgusting?

whoever is against free speech absolutism is too stupid and/or evil to talk to.

#1 rule of jesus club is <b>SHAVE YOUR FUCKING FACE!</b> or just do the full osama. anything else is ANTI-CHRIST!

a. no president has had any facial hair since taft.
b. no pope since full osama…some pope in the 18th century.
c. the new york yankees require NO FACIAL HAIR!

#2 rule of jesus club is vox day is a rich kid…and a sociopath…and autistic…and low IQ…


you were also wrong about not having AIDS.

you are T4-able.

you need to be in a slave camp at least.

this blog’s author needs to be put in a camp.


What Vox has correctly pointed out is that such people are, of course, not actually offering any criticism. It’s just unpleasantness. And permitting such accounts to exist on any platform is going to drive away all normal and decent people.

That said, banning people from an administrative perspective — even the most unpleasant and obnoxious — poses some dangers, because what’s “unpleasant” is somewhat subjective. I personally find a lot of Vox Day’s insights to be valuable, but I have no doubt that a significant minority — or even a majority — of people would find Vox Day himself obnoxious and unpleasant.

What I think Gab appears to have gotten correct — and I imagine this will expand outwards to other platforms as well — is the idea of putting the power of censorship in the hands of the user. Not on behalf of other people (critically), but merely for one’s own feed.

Hitchens argued in his defense of hate speech that freedom of speech was not just about the rights of the speaker, but was just as importantly about the rights of the hearer to listen and to judge arguments and views for themselves. This argument is at the heart of the case against top-down censorship. But implicit in this “right of the hearer” is also a right not to hear, even to not be addressed as Matthew Crawford has put it in reference to automated systems that steal our attention. I think a similar argument could be made when dealing with anonymous accounts who have no skin in the game.

At the root of the American view of “free speech” — summarized beautifully by Justice Robert Jackson in West Virginia v Barnette — is not a right to say what we want, but more importantly a freedom from being compelled to say what we do not ourselves believe:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

The arguments used to shadow-ban, de-monetize, and censor content on social media for the past decade or so has been advertisement-based; that content that features advertisements will associate the content itself with the brand of the advertiser, and so it is reasonable for advertisers to refuse to support certain kinds of content. This argument seems to have been used as cover for overt political targeting and suppression, but in and of itself, the argument is perfectly defensible and valid, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t apply to individuals as well.

If a user develops a platform — be it a blog, a channel, or just a persona on a social media site — comments left by others gradually become associated with the channel itself, and color the experience of those who go there (including the owner). From a creator’s perspective, does this constitute a kind of compelled speech, without the ability (and willingness) to occasionally delete speech which goes too far?

I believe it does. Insofar as “the freedom of speech” entails protection from compelled speech, or platforming speech one does not believe in, it implies the right to delete comments and to ban users from one’s own platform. Indeed, if we are civically minded, this “right” might be closer to a duty, wherein the user might police his comments in the way that one might decide to pick up garbage off the street, or return someone else’s shopping cart in a grocery store parking lot. It’s a small contribution to guarding the quality of the commons that is our shared internet experience.

In this way, I think there’s a plausible — and indeed, a fairly strong — argument that “the freedom of speech” articulated in 1789 actually defends against the worst plagues of “free speech” as we have inherited it since 1919. And the development of small tools that empower users to take charge of their own experience will go a long way in improving our digital commons, as public garbage cans and rest rooms have improved the quality of our physical commons.

I think toggling “author must have a previously approved comment” completely solves my singular troll problem. Other creators might have to get more creative. But in any case, maintaining the right to sovereignty over our own attention, and a “right to not be addressed” by automated and anonymous accounts seems increasingly like an important assertion we will have to make over the coming years.

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