Web Services will experience outage today while I migrate to a more stable platform. This includes the Minecraft and Terraria servers and the Mumble VoIP server.
Sorry for the inconvenience.
There’s something of a storm brewing online right now, over the place of free speech in the present day, and of the validity of free speech on private and non-government platforms; particularly, on social media. Debate and discussion of social activism movements like Black Lives Matter and the modern forms of feminism, the European migrant crisis, and Donald Trump’s rise to notoriety in recent months have brought up many questions on the nature of, and the merit of, a right to free speech. Particularly among young people online, and on college campuses across the US, the notion of restriction of free speech seemed to gain a lot of momentum in 2015. What many who argue in favor of this fail to recognize is how vital and fragile free speech has become.
Now, I personally try to keep lines of demarcation between the different spheres of my social existence. It’s why Twitter is increasingly the home of the hottest of my hot opinions you’ll find online. And that’s just common sense to me: in the same way that I’ll never bring up discussion of politics, religion, or other dissentious topics up at the dinner table or in the workplace, I have set aside my Facebook account and other platforms as safe havens from the tumultuous and divisive world of politics and social debate that seems to dominate the Internet. (To that end, you have no idea how many Facebook pages I’ve filtered from my news feed.) And filtering, blocking, hiding, and other similar tools are a great thing; these tools empower users to tailor their own social experience online, and are particularly good for children and other victims of cyber-bullying and other forms of online harassment.
However, it seems many out there feel that that power doesn’t do enough. It seems that, almost weekly, I hear about attempts to have people blacklisted, banned, fired or compelled to resign from their jobs, or otherwise socially censured on account of political attitudes. Notable victims (yes, victims: more below) are numerous:
- Erika Christakis is a Yale lecturer who came under fire last October for defending the right for students to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes, and who has since withdrawn from her teaching role, citing a hostile climate on campus. Her husband was perhaps more notably mobbed by students on campus who hurled insults at him and called for his resignation.
- Mizzou president Tim Wolfe was compelled to resign after he became the target of ConcernedStudent1950, a racial-issues group on campus there.
The list goes on. The underlying issue isn’t why these people have been targeted; it can be sufficiently argued in either direction as to whether they deserved what they got in each case. What concerns me is the emergence of what may be best described as Internet headhunters — in each of the above cases, we saw an institution elevated to national attention over a smaller issue blown up to massive proportions by otherwise unaffiliated keyboard warriors. This isn’t an intrinsically bad thing; so called signal boosting has been a driving force for positive social change since the invention of the printing press made it possible. What worries me is that, in many cases, the result has been social censure on a worrying scale.
I’m going to pause for a minute to attempt to reign in a good, twenty-first century description of free speech. The US Constitution has a protection for free speech which appears in various forms in the legal codes of most post-industrial nations:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This is very, very frequently mistaken as a definition of free speech, or as a law providing free speech to citizens. The opposite is true – the First Amendment and its global permutations define free speech as a freedom, as a right. Then, they go on to define a concept of protected speech: that is, speech that is guaranteed to be “free” and unabated by the government. Protected speech has a checkered history in the US, with laws like the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the Espionage acts, which objectively outlawed criticism of government, went unchecked for decades by the Supreme Court. But by the Vietnam War, the preceding SCOTUS decisions were instead interpreted as land grabs for purposes of national security, and the “clear and present danger” test went on to protect anti-government speech in cases where it did not pose a credible threat to the government. Beyond that, protected speech excludes defamation (lying about another person with malicious intent), credible threats of violence, and other minor exceptions. The bottom line, however, is this:
- Offensive speech is legal and protected.
- Satirical speech is legal and protected.
- Inflammatory speech is legal and protected.
- Racist, sexist, homophobic and hateful speech is legal and protected.
That’s the way it is in the US and in much of the West. Deal with it, or go fight to have it changed if you don’t like it. But, as it stands now, government bodies are prevented by law from punishing individuals for any of the above.
But there’s a catch. More and more, the medium of our speech has been through proprietary spaces — through social media. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple and the rest are not government bodies, and are not bound by these restrictions.
Enter Milo Yiannopoulos. At the time of writing, the #1 trending hashtag on Twitter in the US is #JeSuisNero. Earlier this week, Milo, tech editor at Breitbart, was temporarily banned from the social media service, only to be inexplicably reinstated roughly 30 minutes later. Then, today, Milo was stripped of his “verified” status and was threatened in writing with permanent suspension by the Twitter staff should his violations of the site’s rules continue.
I’ve been sat on the naughty table! pic.twitter.com/2ppJ3X4J62
— Milo Yiannopoulos (@Nero) January 8, 2016
At time of writing, Twitter has not elaborated on what the rule violations were. However, it’s probable that the site’s staff will cite a publicity stunt Milo was pulling in the days prior, in which he claimed to be Buzzfeed’s new Social Justice Editor [Link NSFW]. A casual look at Milo’s Twitter and Facebook pages, or anything he’s published on Breitbart gives a distinct first impression — that of an outspoken alt-right conservative with a penchant for the outrageous. Regardless of the merit of any of his rhetoric or assertions, it seems only natural that he would incur the wrath of the young, largely progressive, left-leaning demographic that dominates both Twitter and, to some extent, the Internet as a whole. His supporters in the #JeSuisMilo hashtag seek to stand in solidarity and to protest a perceived bout of ideological censorship. For context, below is my string of tweets on #JeSuisMilo:
yes, even the guy trying his hardest to get attention by spewing what Milo spews has the right to. “‘Fire’ in a crowded theater” was (1/2)
— ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
a tactic used to suppress free speech under the guise of defeating Communism. Was co-opted by religious orgs, politicians, et. al. (2/3) — ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
Now, like then, anti-“hatespeech” stands to be used as means to nefarious ends in the same way. It’s crucial that free speech is preserved.
— ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
Ernesto Miranda, a literal kidnapper and rapist, but whose initial defense has guaranteed the right to legal counsel for millions since(2/?) — ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
In the same way, western citizens have an obligation to stand up for the free speech rights of even the most offensive, undeserving people.
— ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
Time will tell whether Twitter will give Milo the boot, and if so, what their reasoning will be. But this is only the latest in a worrying pattern, in which social media platforms practice a form of censorship on their userbases. This would be illegal if done by a government body. And, in my mind, that prompts an important question: As our speech is increasingly taking place on private platforms, does the right to free speech extend to these platforms?
I don’t have an answer — this issue falls squarely between two of my strongest political principles: that the fundamental purpose of government is to defend human rights and civil liberties, which include the right to free speech in all its forms, and that the government has no right to meddle with private individuals and institutions in a way that infringes on those same rights. On one hand, under current US law, Twitter and the other Internet giants have the means to enact an unbelievable degree of ideological censorship, such that dissenting opinions on any given issue can be effectively removed from the majority of the Internet, with no legal recourse. But on the other hand, the billions of social media users out there are effectively guests in the homes of these entities, and they are entirely within their rights to enforce any community standards or similar codes of conduct if they so choose.
I implore all of you to consider this question as well. I didn’t choose Milo “#FeminismIsCancer” “Trump 2016” Yiannopoulos as an example by accident. If you, reader, are an advocate of free speech, then you ought to be willing to defend the free speech of everyone from Milo and Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders and Bahar “#KillAllWhiteMen” Mustafa.
And regardless of the legality of social media censorship, I oppose any actions taken by Facebook and Twitter to censor users based on any sociopolitical attitudes. I hope you do, too, but I won’t try to get you banned if you don’t.
I’ll close with an excellent comic defending free speech, in response to Randall “xkcd” Munroe’s attack on the concept.
No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.
— Bane, The Dark Knight Rises
Anonymity is an odd thing. Defined by Wikipedia as “namelessness” or “[a state] where an acting person’s name is unknown,” anonymity has, of late, become something of greater cultural significance and, naturally, Internet debate. If you’ve ever had the distinct privilege of hearing me opine on the topic at length, you understand that I have something of a developed opinion on the matter.
The ability to be anonymous, to say what is on your mind without fear of punishment, reprehension, or scorn, is, in my mind, a fundamental need in human society. It is also, worryingly, an ability which has been hamstrung in recent years by an ever-present Internet which records and remembers everything you say, and a growing culture of outrage in the West.
The age of computing has brought with it levels of surveillance, record-keeping, and cataloguing never seen before in human history. The benefits of this are innumerable; analytical data, demography, et. al. have been the driving force behind breakthroughs in medicine, law enforcement, humanitarian aid, and (of course) the monolithic twenty-first century market of consumer electronics, social networking, and communication. All of these personal and societal benefits come at a cost, however. That cost is privacy. Just about every application, service, social network, and website you use or access tracks, catalogues, and analyses data about you in one way or another. The subjects of surveillance, datamining, and e-privacy are very broad, and each deserve a discussion beyond the scope of this little anonymity speech. Long story short: you should care that you are being tracked online. This segment from HBO’s Last Week Tonight is a good starting point. But, I digress.
To me, anonymity is liberating. In this age of internet responsibility, where anything and everything you say (type) comes right back to you, with real life consequences, it can be intimidating to open up about anything online. Ever use a four-letter word in a post/Tweet about a football game? Remember that Facebook post from 2009 you made right after your first break-up? Pepperidge Farm remembers. Even worse, have you shared political opinions online? This happened to me, in a very real sense; I use one of those services to keep track of changes in Facebook friends and Twitter followers; I lost 20-odd followers on Twitter, many of them personal, real-life friends of mine, in the month that Gamergate broke last year. I shared my viewpoints, and I paid the price. And with what seems like the entire Western world constantly on film (semi-related), one might say that the real world itself is no longer safe. God knows I haven’t opened my mouth in a single debate in my social sciences classes — a modern culture of outrage has seemingly eliminated all discourse and reasoned debate. It’s easier to call someone a “bigot” or a “hippie” and disregard everything they say than it is to, y’know, participate in a debate to develop and widen your opinions and understanding of the world. Read this article on the subject. ((I know I tend to cram a lot of links into these posts, but that one right there is pure gold. Read it, please.)) Only in an environment of total anonymity, of total freedom from the social and practical consequences of my opinions, do I feel safe sharing how I really feel about some things. It’s why you’ll never see a blog post here on anything remotely controversial.
In a sense, anonymity is magical. Long before the days of the Internet et. al., Billy Joel composed a song that really captures what I’m getting at. A place, in the real world or otherwise, where one can bare it all and make the best of friends with the greatest of strangers is, for many, the only respite from a world which might otherwise drive them insane. In my mind, this alone explains the popularity of anonymous services like Yik Yak, 4chan, Omegle, and many others. Just like political attitudes and opinions, I’ve learned better than to expose themselves emotionally to the Internet at large. But, in some cases, I’ve felt like I’ve had nowhere else to turn. Sans names and addresses, I’ve been able to spit out my life story to my IRC buddies or to nameless walls of text on imageboards, to sort out my thoughts, to wrangle in my emotions, to keep me from making mistakes that would have consequences.
For all these reasons and more, anonymity is absolutely crucial. While the benefits of a unified online identity, and of ubiquitous tracking and surveillance are lucrative, we ought to, as a society, exercise great care not to eliminate entirely the anonymity we so thoroughly need.
Richard Stallman, Christopher Poole, and Edward Snowden are notable public advocates for privacy and anonymity, particularly online. I encourage you to look into them if my incoherent, 4AM ramblings don’t make a ton of sense to you.
xkcd makes a brilliant, if sarcastic, statement on the devil’s advocate.
In short, playing “devil’s advocate” is the act of debating the points of an opposing side of an argument, in an attempt to put one’s own argument into context. (I’m assuming, however, that you already know that.) When done prudently and properly, the devil’s advocate allows us, at best, to gain a greater understanding of our own views and to add more depth to our arguments and, at worst, gives us more ammo with which to assault the strawman.
… and we’re back!
Blogging is hard. Digital responsibility dictates that tackling the tough issues is social and career suicide, no matter which side is taken, and I, for one, don’t believe I’m self-centered enough to drone on about my life for hours on end.
Okay, maybe I am, but I’d never leave traces of it on the Internet.
I made myself the most divine ham and cheese sandwich today, complete with crinkle-cut kosher dill pickle chips and French’s classic yellow mustard. I can’t wait to drive to the store and pick up a gallon of milk — last time, I saw a classic car on the way. God, I’m so important.
Anyhow, I’ve been really busy for the past few months. I’ve been doing IT consulting for RT Software Systems full time, as well as a retail job at a Spirit Halloween in Troy. However, none of that captured my free time and my passion more than the Data Behind Bars project — earlier this year, my father acquired the Detroit Police Department’s 6th Precinct building in southwest Detroit — from the minute my feet hit the ground here in August, we’ve spent just about every shred of free time we’ve had shoveling debris, knocking down ceilings, and building doors and gates.
Along the way, I’ve had the unique opportunity to unearth history within the walls of the 1930s original building — we’ve found police records, memos, newsletters, and even shell casings from the indoor gun range. It’s been pretty awesome, actually — I have this kind of love affair with the city and its history, and I’ve discovered things that will eventually end up in the building’s mini-museum.
Next Friday, I leave for my first semester of college at MTU — and while I’m happy to be moving forward with my education, I feel like I’ll miss the 24/7, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of lifestyle I’ve been leading. (I’m sure my friends and family won’t miss me complaining about my perpetual exhaustion.)