Free speech in the digital age

I finally broke down and wrote a cancel-culture-adjacent piece. It originally appeared at Merion West, an online magazine. Since this essay contains themes I’ve been mulling over but have struggled to articulate for a while, I thought I’d reprint the piece here, with some commentary in the footnotes. Enjoy!


If I had to pick one thing America does better than any other nation, I’d have to go with free speech. The American commitment to free speech is legendary, codified by the First Amendment, which guarantees all Americans the right to worship, peacefully assemble, and otherwise express themselves without fear of government censorship.

As legal protections for freedom of expression go, the First Amendment remains the gold standard worldwide. We often take this for granted, forgetting that most people don’t live under the same conditions. Hold the American stance on freedom of speech in contrast with that of Iran or Saudi Arabia, where blasphemy is punishable by death, or China, where one-to-three million members of an ethno-religious sect are packed into concentration camps for crimes as spurious as abstaining from alcohol.*

If picking on theocracies and dictatorships strikes you as low-hanging fruit, recall that Europeans also live with less freedom of expression. A U.K. man was arrested and fined for posting a YouTube video that showed his girlfriend’s pug performing Nazi salutes, for example. By comparison, the American Civil Liberties Union has used the First Amendment to defend the rights of neo-Nazis and civil rights protestors alike to assemble.

Our commitment to the rights of others to express themselves, even if they hold heinous beliefs, is something uniquely American, perhaps the finest piece of our cultural heritage. Unfortunately, it’s a commitment we seem to be turning our backs on—and the First Amendment is often used as a moral license to do so.

The First Amendment guarantees one freedom from government censorship; it doesn’t establish the positive right to speech. This is as it should be, as anything more would require the compulsion of others to either hear or facilitate one’s speech. However, this allows people to take a narrow view of freedom of speech as being merely freedom from government censorship. We might call this the “showing you the door” strain of free speech thought. Such a view, while legally coherent, ignores that free speech has a cultural component as well—one that needs constant maintenance if it’s not to fall into disrepair.

That component might be described as a willingness to err on the side of permissiveness when it comes to public discourse—or perhaps an understanding that we generally tend to benefit from living in a culture where people can push boundaries without intolerable social and economic risk.** Its bedrock values are charity, humility, and tolerance. 

When I speak of a threat to free speech culture, I’m talking about the newly enabled impulse to defenestrate and defame people, often for trivial transgressions, sometimes years after the offense—“cancel culture,” if you must. It is distinct from free speech culture in that it doesn’t seek to confront opposing views but rather to erase them, often in ways that are financially or personally ruinous for the offending party. It’s the self-righteous, vindictive justice of the mob.

Because the internet

Anyone observer of humanity can tell you this is not new behavior. On the contrary, it’s been more the rule than the exception. But it does seem exacerbated and facilitated by modern life, especially the internet.

As more of life moved online, it became easily searchable, permanent, and largely public. This migration—the result of social encouragement to live in full view of your friends, casual acquaintances, and advertisers—has spawned a panopticonic social archive that can easily be turned against you.*** These are conditions unique to life in the 21st Century that many adults, let alone children, seem understandably ill-adept at navigating.

When paired with the rapid mutation of norms (also aided by the internet) surrounding acceptable speech and the mob mentality incentivized by social media and click-hungry outlets, this creates an environment ripe for reflexive, post-hoc defamation, to which even—or more accurately, especially—powerful liberal institutions (the very same tasked with guarding free inquiry) are showing little resistance

In such a hostile environment, the obvious choice becomes to abstain from speech that not only is controversial but also that which might someday be controversial. (The exception being those who are financially immune to cancelation and can thus be afforded public free thought.) This is clearly at odds with a culture of free speech, in which ideas can be freely debated, and people can change their minds over time. 

We’re already seeing the consequences: authors pulling their own books from publication for excruciatingly trivial offenses; professionals being fired for sharing objective research that supports unhappy findings. But the future consequences will be unseen: the important medical studies that aren’t conducted; the bold art that isn’t created; the policy failures that can’t be named, much less halted. From this vantage point, the future looks bleak, the province of the anodyne and ineffectual.

Censorship has been outsourced to private actors

Much like the social surveillance system under which we live (voluntarily, it must be said), the modern thought police regime is not a product of the state. Censorship has been outsourced to private companies and zealous volunteers, who are themselves often exercising their free speech rights in the course of policing others’ speech. From a legal standpoint, this is of course distinct from government censorship, and therefore not a First Amendment issue. No one has a right to a subreddit or a Twitter handle or a New York Times op-ed.

Yet it would be a mistake to say that these companies and individuals don’t or can’t pose a threat to free speech in the broader, cultural sense. To do so, you would have to ignore the market power of the relatively few actors that control the channels of speech in the modern era. The collapse of local media and the consolidation of firms within the industry, for example, have endowed the remaining actors with the power to filter the coverage of events and viewpoints that millions of Americans are exposed to. Do you trust them not to use it?

Over half of Americans get their news through Facebook, which is known to have manipulated users’ feeds to alter their emotions. Some 80% of search engine traffic flows through Google, home to famously opinionated, activist employees. About a quarter of journalists turn to Twitter—the use of which has been shown by at least one study to affect journalists’s judgement of newsworthiness—as their primary news source. The case of social media platforms and search engines is particularly illustrating: while they are private actors that users engage with of their own volition, network effects are built into their business models, meaning once established, they’re not as vulnerable to competition as other businesses and products are.

These companies are well within their legal rights to create their own policies and remove content that violates them, to algorithmically promote or suppress content on their properties, or to flag content as misinformation if they deem it so. But to deny that in doing so they might chill, stifle, or otherwise impact free expression is fanciful.

There are no easy fixes

Part of the irony of this problem is that addressing it in the most straightforward way (through policy or regulation) would actually represent a huge step in the wrong direction. Do I worry about the market power of companies that control the modern channels of speech? Yes, especially given the political power dynamics at play in many of our most powerful institutions. Do I think media polarization is dangerous and bad? You bet. But maintaining the independence of private actors, and thus the core of the First Amendment, is more important than the pursuit of an ephemeral unbiased public sphere.

That’s fine, because this isn’t a policy problem. It’s a cultural problem, and it requires a cultural solution: a revival of free speech culture and the virtues upon which it rests. We need to check our instincts to banish things we don’t like, and we need to voice our skepticism of those who over rely on the power of censorship.**** (It would probably also be a good idea for individuals to rethink how they use the internet.) 

I know this is a lot to ask, especially under the conditions of the digital age. But I have hope. Cultural free speech is a core American value and a key component of life in a pluralistic society. If anyone is going to defend it, it will be us.

Notes

* When I started writing this piece (about a week ago), Uyghur oppression was the most relevant example of Chinese human rights violation. By the time it was published, that had changed.

** This is one of those American ideals that has certainly never been implemented or enjoyed uniformly. As sociology professor Rod Graham points out, for a long time, you could risk losing your job and destroying your personal life by coming out as gay, for example. So while the tone of this piece is somewhat pessimistic about the state of modern free speech, I think it’s important to note that in a lot of ways, things have improved.

***  I should have also brought up that sometimes, as in many of the “Karen” videos going around, this social surveillance system is quite literally weaponized. There are incentives in place to do so—mainly the promise of money and virality for the poster.

****  There’s always going to be an Overton window; I don’t mean to suggest it could be any other way. That’s just part of living in a society.

Americans Aren’t the Ones Who Should Be Mad about Chinese “Dumping”

One of the few issues upon which Clinton and Trump seemed capable of agreement in the second debate was that cheap steel from China was hurting America. Given how alarming Sunday’s exhibition was, it might have been a nice respite. That is, if they had not both been so wrong.

China produces about as much steel as the rest of the world combined. This is due partly to cheap labor and strong domestic demand, but mostly to heavy government subsidies. Now that China’s economic growth has slowed, markets are awash with cheap Chinese steel.  This has led China’s trading partners to accuse China of “dumping” steel.

Dumping, for those not familiar with the term, refers to the act of selling a good in a foreign market for less than the cost of production. It’s against WTO rules and is penalized by tariffs implemented by importing nations. The United States recently levied a 522% tariff on Chinese cold-rolled steel, which is used for construction and to make shipping containers and cars.

The general consensus, dutifully embraced by both candidates, is that dumping is bad for the importing country and an act of aggression by the exporter. But if you think about it, this is pretty absurd.

First of all, countries don’t trade with each other. The United States doesn’t buy wine from Portugal; American companies buy wine from Portuguese companies. We’re not “getting killed” on bad trade deals as Donald Trump fears; there isn’t even a “we” in the sense that he suggests. There are only people, and people don’t habitually engage in voluntary exchanges at a loss. It should be obvious that importers (American companies, in this instance) are the ones benefiting from cheap steel from China. That’s why they prefer to buy it over more expensive steel made domestically.

It’s true that China’s not a market economy in the same way that America is; their government owns and subsidizes far more than ours. That might sound like an advantage for the Chinese, but it’s really not.

Chinese producers are able to sell steel for less because of large subsidies from their government. The people who benefit from this are the people buying and selling steel–importers and Chinese steel companies, respectively. The people who lose are non-competitive firms and those paying for the subsidies…which would be the Chinese taxpayers.

Subsidized exports are really a transfer of wealth from within a country to without. Importing parties are able to be more profitable and productive, which is precisely why Donald Trump builds with Chinese steel and why we’re all better for it. Yes, it hurts American steel companies, but whatever resources are devoted to domestic steel production can be diverted to other areas with better returns.

Conversely, import tariffs are paid by the importer, and ultimately the consumer. In other words, in order to protect us (read: domestic steel companies) from what amounts to discounted steel, our government taxes the hell out of it so that we end up paying more. Saying that this helps our economy is like claiming that rolling up your sleeves makes your arms warmer. Remember that any jobs or income generated by such tariffs comes directly at the expense of American consumers who are being forced to forgo savings or purchases they would have made with the money they saved on steel.

If millions of tons of steel fell from the sky would we draft legislation to tax the heavens? No, we’d take the free steel and build things with it. If China wants to take money out of its citizens’ pockets and use it to make steel for the rest of the world, Chinese citizens should be outraged. But why should the rest of us complain? When someone gives you a gift, the correct response is: “thank you.”