“If there's one American belief I hold above all others, it's that those who would set themselves up in judgment on matters of what is "right" and what is "best" should be given no rest; that they should have to defend their behavior most stringently. ... As a nation, we've been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn't approve of them." Steven King write this back in 1992, and it is spot on how I feel about people who are willing to give up their rights, and the rights of others, to fit some sort of socially acceptable rule. Liberty dies fastest when we willingly put our hands in shackles, sew our own mouths shut, and sell out our neighbors because we're offended.
"So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause." It’s a very poignant line from a much-reviled series of prequels, depending on who you ask anyway. However, this isn’t about Star Wars, or Revenge of the Sith, or any of that. Those words have so much more meaning than the fictional takeover of an imaginary democracy in a galaxy far, far away. Unfortunately those words could be said of far too many recent events as people lobby to give up some of their own rights, and the rights of others, for the illusion of safety and security.
Do You Realize How Good You Have it?
I’d be willing to bet that if you’re reading this you live in the U.S., Canada or Europe. I’d also offer the wager that you’ve never experienced the true oppression that comes with a dictatorial regime, one that stifles speech, press, and freedom in all forms. Of course it’s possible, anything’s possible. This article is really for those who’ve never experienced anything like it, nor have a frame of reference from parents, or even grandparents. If you are reading this, you have internet, unless you’re reading this in a print medium which would surprise even me. You probably have a cell phone, a fridge, air conditioning most likely, running water, in-door plumbing, and can get just about anything you want to eat from any brightly lit fast food joint just up the road at nearly any time of day. Congratulations, you’re part of the most privileged society on the planet, regardless of race, class, religion, or sexual orientation. I don’t mean the kind of privilege that’s applied to people just because of the circumstance of their birth, but the kind that sees you on your newest iPhone, tweeting about how oppressed you feel about some offensive article you read over a half-caff, no fat latte, and begging someone, anyone, to come to your rescue and ban that article, the writer, and the website it was published on.
All of these things we take for granted. Even if you don’t have all of these modern conveniences I doubt you have any concept what real oppression is. Can anyone reading this really claim that they have to fear that at any moment some government goons, or paramilitary thugs are going to break down your door and drag you out of your house because you drew an offensive cartoon? Despite all our western claims of ‘systemic oppression’ and ‘patriarchal micro-aggressions’ we really don’t know what it’s like to fear that the article we wrote criticizing our own government will get us killed by said regime. None of us knows what it’s like to fear being brutally tortured, stoned, or raped just for our religious beliefs. That’s why it always amazes me when I see people like me, like us, who have all the advantages of living in a free society, willing to give up that freedom for the perception of safety. It’s even more disturbing when those pushing suppression and censorship are other artists and creators, willfully asking to have the rights of their colleagues stifled.
When people go in front of the U.N. and advocate the suppression of speech in order to ‘protect women’ they’ve blindly invoked what I think is one of the most insidious forms of tyranny, that which we put upon ourselves. No dictator, warlord, or tyrant can do as much damage as a free people willing to give up their freedom, and that of their neighbors, and they usually do it in the name of protecting someone. Who doesn’t want to ‘do it for the children’, or to ‘protect the less-fortunate’? This all might sound like something out of the next big dystopian movie, but this actually happened, and more people are talking about applying limits to speech on the internet. Phrases like ‘cyber violence’ are being used to legitimize this movement which is nothing more than an attempt to suppress criticism of ideas and expression of thoughts some people don’t like. They wrap it up in comparisons of online harassment to real world violence, claiming that the two are equivalent.
You Cannot Have Freedom Without Disomfort
Of course the internet is a disturbing place where one can find a plethora of trolls; people who enjoy engaging in activity from simple meme spamming, to outright harassment or worse. The ease of contact on the internet, and anonymity of the medium makes the web prime real estate for people who get their kicks out of that sort of thing. That same ease of contact and anonymity is also what makes the internet our most powerful tool for freedom and the sharing of ideas, and like it or not, you cannot have one without the other. It is impossible to have the free exchange of ideas without having to be exposed to ideas you don’t like, and expression you may find offensive.
Thankfully the internet also comes with tools that real life doesn’t have. Block, mute, or the all-powerful turn it off and walk away. None of which are available in real life, and all of which make the concept of ‘cyber violence’ utterly laughable, especially in light of what happens in the real world, to real people. No amount of words on Twitter, or text in any form can crawl out of your computer and attack you. There are no mean words extreme enough to do you physical harm. Some online harassment does become persistent enough to follow people from one platform, or one medium to another, disrupting work, networking professionals, and even business, in which case law enforcement should be engaged just like you would in real life, or if said harassment involved threats of harm. In these cases people should seek help from the proper authorities, not their friends, not share said harassment as a way to collect money online, or to claim victim status. All of these public activities not only make it harder for law enforcement to fight this sort of thing, but it plays right into what fuels the behavior in the first place, attention.
Freedom speech is, arguably, our most important basic right. It’s the foundation of every other right we have. It insures that we can question our government, express our ideas, share our art, and yes, even be offensive to others. Without this we would be powerless to educate ourselves and others, to discuss issues, or grow as a people. We’d have no voice to even protest the infringement of our other rights. We’d have a world without art, music, entertainment, debate, or true education. I can’t think of anything more frightening than a world where people must license their speech, or live under real censorship. That sort of world would guarantee all the other evils out there have free reign over us. Sadly that’s the sort of world some people want. I didn’t make up the phrase ‘license speech’ out of whole cloth.
Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee
Too often we see writers, journalists and commentators publish an article online, an opinion column in the paper, or some other piece of work that calls into question some social convention or idea, only to have their colleagues call for their jobs, to have the article pulled, or black-listing of the writer. I’ve seen fiction authors celebrate when other artists are suppressed, or support the idea that some topics should be off limits when it comes to artistic expression. As a journalist and fiction writer, married to an artist, it is deeply disheartening to see other artists and creators support, and even call for the suppression of their peers. Quite simply, when we support the idea that someone’s expression can be suppressed then we are also stating that our own are open to censorship.
Also rising with censorship in the media is the banning of speakers on college campuses. Universities and colleges of the past were places to challenge ones mind, world views, and each other. They were bastions of knowledge, thought, debate, conflict, and innovation. Now, however, they've become stagnant pools of conformity where 'wrong-think' is unwelcome. Speakers have been banned simply for their views, from speaking at places where debate was once cherished. Now instead of challenging our children we pander to them with safe spaces, trigger warnings, and protection from anything that might make them think outside their sheltered world-view. It worries me that we're raising generations of children who'd rather silence others than hear something that might make them uncomfortable, or worse, make them question what they have learned.
In a more recent example SXSW, an entertainment convention held yearly in Austin, TX, cancelled two gaming-related panels after they received threats of on-site violence. I reached out to the press contact for SXSW but have not received a response, so all we have to go on is their statement:
On Monday, October 26, SXSW Interactive made the call to cancel two sessions for the 2016 event: "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games." We had hoped that hosting these two discussions in March 2016 in Austin would lead to a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic.
However, in the seven days since announcing these two sessions, SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming.
SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas.
However, preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people cannot agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.
Over the years, we are proud of the healthy community of digital innovators that has formed around SXSW. On occasions such as this one, this community necessitates strong management to survive. Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.
-- Hugh Forrest
SXSW Interactive Director
Of course some news media took this vague statement and proceeded to create a villain, speculate on the threats, and decide which side was the more 'problematic'. Some even came down hard on SXSW for the decision, claiming the threats weren't credible, which isn't something we can gather from the information we have. SXSW is caught in the unenviable position between liability and safety, and I can't imagine the decision was easy. Most of the media speculation around this has been reckless, intentionally misleading, and diverting from the central point of this issue. Quite simply, this is an attack on free speech by people who do not want ideas shared by people they don't like. Whether those who sent the threats were trolls, or members of one 'side' or the other of this debate, they have shown themselves to be about as anti-freedom as you can get, in my opinion. Of course the media has not helped, some calling for one panel to be reinstated, showing their adherance to the adage, "Free speech for me but not for thee." Even Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA) weighed in with a letter demanding the reinstatement of one of the panels, but not even mentioning the other. What an example to the rest of the world when even one of America's elected officials subscribes to the notion that free speech isn't for everyone.
After the announcement a small group of media outlets including Buzzfeed and Vox announced they will not be attending the convention unless the panels are reinstated, and SXSW stated they are considering an alternative. Just a day after the announcement they were looking at alternatives SXSW announced a 12 hour online discussion about harassment featuring speakers from both cancelled panels, and bringing in more to speak on the subject. I personally din't think this was ideal, but it is certainly better than no discussion at all. The Save Point discussion was meant to tackle the state of the gaming community and ethical coverage of events, and as of now their panel has been restored and will appear separate from the other. It is still months away, so I imagine the speculation, and media 'coverage' will be extensive.
What world do we want when our children's children grow into adults? What legacy will we leave future generations with the trust we've been given by those who have gone before us? Have we done all we can to protect the sacred charge we've been granted by the countless men and women who risked their lives, and paid the ultimate price to give us the freedoms we have today? Sometimes I wonder.