An organism will do anything it can.
The hypothetical and highly imaginary Law of Ethics states:
Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should.
BZZT! Shock administered to test subject. The word “should” is disallowed. You lose a turn. Go back to START.
Okay. How far back should I go?
Hmm. No need to be excessive. How about the day your slimy species grew legs, became amphibious and hauled itself up out of the primordial ooze and lay panting on the beach?
So yeah, the other day I became embroiled in a discussion on Twitter about free speech. It all started when a person I follow stated they were under attack by some haters. Not only that, but she had just written a piece about how the haters were attacking her supporters, too. Hate by proxy, I guess. Adding my two cents, I responded with this pearl of wisdom:
“You have the right to your voice. Online harassers shouldn’t be allowed to operate with impunity.”
Naturally, as if to prove her point, I picked up some criticism of my own. I then got involved in a surprisingly civil discussion about the perils of too much free speech and what, if anything, constitutes “hate speech.” I began by asking my new-found critic a simple question: Where do YOU draw the line on anonymous online free speech?
His reply? “I don’t. Sticks and stones…”
No limits on free speech? None??? Such is the world of absolutes that some find friendly. This got me to thinking. Twitter, alas, was too limiting of a medium to try to explore some complicated concepts, so this post was born.
What would a world with no limits on free speech look like? Warning: This isn’t going to be pretty.
It’s going to be hard to avoid the word “should.” I’ll do my best.
Two happy average Americans happened to meet on the street. Luckily there were absolutely no limits on free speech so they greeted each other accordingly.
“Hey, fucker. Man, you are one ugly son of a bitch.”
“Oh yeah? I’d take a lot of pleasure in guttin’ you. Someone should put you in a wood chipper and scatter you all over town.”
Nice. Freedom can be so breathtaking beautiful.
Let’s rip a real example from the headlines. Here’s a quote I just found in Google dated July 23rd. That’s only one week ago. I apologize for including words that normally wouldn’t appear on this blog but this is a quote.
“There’s nothing wrong with [her that] a couple of hours of c*nt kicking, garroting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn’t sort out.”
Interesting. What’s the benefit, I ask, in a society that allows this sort of so-called “free speech?” Base, vile, beyond the pale, and utterly without any redeeming qualities? Can anyone explain to me why we need to allow that? Can anyone explain how it would be a hardship to make that sort of thing off limits?
In my impromptu online debate, I posited that there should be legal limits on “hateful speech.” My sparring partner leaped on this like a dog on a bone. “Aha! But how do you define that? Everyone has a different opinion.”
I thought about it a moment and replied off the cuff, “Communication with the intent to cause pain or injury.” Works for me.
Before I share some examples I wanted to make on Twitter that simply wouldn’t fit, I’d like to make a few introductory points.
First, none of the principles we hold dear, like those in the Constitution, are “limitless.” You can’t legally yell “fire” in a crowded movie house. The second amendment, which isn’t only about guns, has limits, too. It’s about “arms.” We recognize there are limits. You can’t walk around town with a tactical nuke in your pocket. Hell, not even a pipe bomb. The rights granted by this amendment are limited. Over time, in cases like these and others, the Supreme Court has held to a “greater good” standard sometimes supersedes our rights.
Limits on religious freedom? Of course. The Supreme Court thought human sacrifice went too far.
Search and seizure? Agree or disagree, the Supreme Court held that some incursions against this right are acceptable. Again, in the name of the greater good. See: Sobriety checkpoints.
Why should free speech be given some sort of special status as the only unlimited right? It’s shouldn’t.
Secondly, freedom itself has limits. We all pretty much accept (usually) that freedom ends where injury of another person begins. You can’t, for example, walk around hitting and injuring people. Overwhelmingly our society says, “Whoa, that’s a bit too much freedom.”
Why should extremely vile and injurious free speech be any different? The method of delivering the injury should be irrelevant.
Lastly, nowhere is it written that the consensus of the governed must be unanimous. I’d even go so far as to suggest any such standard is impossible. But when we talk about free speech suddenly the “not everyone will agree” argument is bandied about like a trump card. It’s not. The word consensus itself means “general agreement.” As such it represents a standard found agreeable to most of the governed to which it applies.
There isn’t universal agreement with every law that comes down the pike. Far from it. So why should free speech be any different?
With these three simple points I hope I’ve shown that some amount of limits on freedom should be acceptable. And what form should free speech limits take? Like everything else in our society a standard that the vast majority of us can live with should apply. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to feel that restricted if it should become illegal to harass my neighbor with vile statements that they should be raped and dumped in a shallow grave.
Something has to be done about the nutjobs who make these sorts of comments. They are out there. They exist. There must be consequences to this form of behavior. We clearly see what happens when there are no consequences of any kind.
A statement like “I’m going to kill you” is legally a threat. Of course, in our world, this is only partially enforced. If made online the police don’t seem to take something like this very seriously. If made against an average person and not the President of the United States the resources to do something about this are amazingly limited. It’s not like someone switched out the flags on a New York bridge.
“You should be retroactively aborted.”
“We need another holocaust to kill more people like you.”
I’ve been personally victimized and injured by anonymous hate speech online so I think I know a bit about this sort of thing. Once someone told me, “I’m giving you 24 hours to get out of town. Or else.” I reported the email to the local police. They couldn’t even begin to give the remotest of fucks. This was in a town where, due to limited “resources,” they weren’t responding to burglaries any more and, if after hours, even instances of assault (or worse).
Later I was victimized by a vicious, systematic and long-term campaign of anonymous hate via Craigslist. My home address and phone number were posted along with comments that I should be “taken out.” There were vile photoshopped pictures of me and my wife. They posted heinous and outrageous lies accusing me of criminal acts. My cat had gone missing and I had put up flyers around the neighborhood. Via Craigslist they took credit for “gutting” my beloved pet. Since the police wouldn’t help and the attacks were anonymous, there wasn’t much an ordinary guy like me could do.
Craigslist wouldn’t do a damn thing about it, either. Much like Twitter’s broken “abuse” system and lack of response to this day.
Last, but not least, I’d like to close with a letter sent by “[a] man once touted by Scott Brown’s team as a supporter of his Senate campaign.” The letter was sent to a New Hampshire Democratic party official. I’m reprinting it here in case you missed it just to provide a wee bit of the flavor that exists out there.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
I deeply resent your e-mail to me requesting my support for the Fascist c*nts you represent. These four whores have been and will continue to be wrapped up in their fantasies of sucking n*gger/sp*c cock and licking n*gger/sp*c assholes and not doing what is important for the country and their fellow citizens. I sincerely hope I have offended your PC sensibilities, your Fascist ideology demands it.
In my opinion LAW is a whore and you and your Democrat Fascist Party are its pimps. You and your cohorts are a despicable assemblage of government nipple suckers intent on destroying America for your own personal gain.
I have no idea how you got my e-mail address, but take my name off your list immediately, it sickens me that you’ve used it once.
Charles C. Benzing
Here’s a human being screaming out, “I need help. I am damaged.” Likely he was hurt by his parents and lacks the ability to overcome his environment.
Then there’s the case of Dharun Ravi, a man who secretly recorded private gay encounters of his roommate in his own residence and transmitted the video to the internet. The victim ended up taking his own life. Ravi was convicted of all 15 counts he faced but was released from prison after serving only 20 days. Both the prosecution and defense are appealing the sentence which should take place later this year. There have been other cases of cyberbullying resulting in suicide and cases like this illustrate just how difficult it is to get anyone to face consequences for their actions.
Even if we as a society somehow had the backbone to make some of the most vile cases of hate speech against the law it’s doubtful that much would change due to a lack of enforcement. But it could make a difference in some egregious instances and even if only symbolic is still something we should do.
There I go with the word “should” again.
Amen. I am astounded at all the hateful trash that people can now post on the internet. I am also shocked at the abuse you mentioned suffering in your post. Have people’s thoughts always been this ugly?
I used to be shocked. Not any more. Honestly I believe that human behavior has probably been remarkably consistent since the dawn of time. Each generation just happens to be under the impression that theirs is the worst. On the other hand I think it takes remarkably few bad apples to spoil the whole batch. It’s probably not as bad as it seems and it seems pretty damn bad.
Debra asks the good question of “have people’s thoughts always been this ugly?” — and I think the answer is: of course they have. They just haven’t had an outlet through which they can spew it with impunity.
The anonymity of the internet is like 5 beers to an angry guy — everything just comes out, and it’s usually not pretty. Assholes like the people you’ve described above would almost never say stuff like that in public to the people they hate because they’re cowards. The internet gives them the ability to hurl stones and run away.
What to do? The 1st amendment limits the govt’s ability to go after you for something you’ve said. Hate speech like that is tolerated because it’s not illegal and it’s nearly impossible to shut down? Are you going to go find out who GunLuvr11776 and GrandDragonDixie are? Close out their accounts? No. When does hate speech become a threat? Any threat? A credible threat? What if GunLuvr1776 is a grandma in Canada? Do we call out interpol? I don’t know. I really don’t.
I guess that’s why I’ve always been online as myself. You can look me up. You can probably find where I live and work. I try not to post anything online that I wouldn’t say to someone’s face. I feel I should be responsible for the content I post.
Of course. You nailed it. Never before have so few had such power to reach so many. And it’s mostly anonymous, too. Call me a fool, but I believe anonymous speech should be a different class of speech. The standards on anonymity should be higher. Call it the right of the victim to know the identity of his harasser.
In our world of slippery slopes people are seldom held accountable for any of their actions. I don’t hold out much hope that we’ll decide to do anything about this beyond lip service and even if we do nothing will really change.
I respect that you operate as yourself. Perhaps one day I’ll track you down and buy you a drink. 🙂 As for myself, I chose anonymity. If not, I’d be even more boring. In my defense I’ve taken great pains to protect the identity of persons I’d decided to talk about behind their backs. I like describing in vivid detail assholery that I see, but I’m not out to hurt anyone.
If our society was more clever it would be using this internet as a way to identity and treat the most damaged among us. But we don’t believe mental health is a priority. What could possibly go wrong?
This is why I love my delete key. Anyone writes anything even close to what you’ve written about today and I’m gone, baby, gone. I’ve found that mean, nasty people are as mean and nasty in real life as they are online. You talk to them for a while and that nasty streak comes to the surface.
Technology has given us so much, some good and lots bad. It’s really sad that, as you say, the minority of haters give the majority of sane, rational people, a bad name.
In my case, I went through several phases. Similar to the stages of grief, I think. But I pretty much skipped denial and went right to anger. I organized a network of friends to make use of Craigslist’s flagging system in an attempt to manage the situation. This was, of course, a doomed effort. It was like trying to plug a dyke with your fingers. Each time we got some hate pulled down I imagine it was like a rush of endorphins to the troll. You’d pick a weed and 10 more would sprout overnight. That sort of thing is not sustainable. Eventually I came out of the depression stage and arrived at acceptance. I like to think that if the same thing happened today I’d be more equipped to handle it differently.
It would be nice if no one fed the trolls but that’s not sustainable. Trolls exist. Obviously they are well fed. One person’s sticks and stones is another person’s serious “injury” (even if only hateful speech) that leads to horrible outcomes such as 14-year-old girls throwing themselves off of abandoned concrete manufacturing facilities.
A world with no limits on free speech is not exactly a fun one.