by Greg McCann
A while back there was a study in the Journal of Communication that suggested that those who unfriended people on Facebook for political reasons, were shown to be less supportive of Free Speech. There have been many articles citing this study, and some of the conclusions being drawn give me cause for concern, because they have the potential to fuel ideas that are ultimately counter to the principles upon which Freedom of Speech is founded.
For the purposes of this essay, I will be referring both to the study, and another story that centres on Freedom of Speech as it relates to Social Media - the Gregory Allen Elliot Twitter Harassment trial. I will then go on to a few other examples to further illustrate my arguments. Before I proceed to do any of this I will first attempt to set my terms. Please note that this is primarily a Logic and Ethics based argument that I am making here, and as such citation will be limited to the two sources I have already mentioned.
No one has the right to NOT be offended. You do have the right to be offended (and also the right to be offensive). Offend and be offended, both are rights of Free Speech. In the case of being offended - it is what you do about what offends you, that determines whether you believe in Freedom of Speech, and it's close sibling, Freedom of Association.
If you find something offensive, it is completely compatible with Freedom of Speech to disassociate from the speech, and yes, even from the person who made it, if you do so as an individual, without coercing others to disassociate as well. If you don't like that book, movie, or song, then don't read, watch, or listen to it. While it may be considered a form of willful ignorance, it is still a legitimate option that does not undermine Freedom of Speech, since it does not limit the speech of the one who offended you - again, if one disassociates as an individual. This is, in fact, one of the strongest defences of Freedom of Speech. Ignoring things you don't like is a perfectly good strategy in the short term; life is too short to spend ALL of your time listening to ideas that offend you.
Of course, another option is to engage in a conversation with the other speaker, in the interests of moving forward the Marketplace of Ideas; another of the strongest defences of Free Speech. It is important to test one's views within the Marketplace of Ideas, to see if they can withstand the heat of debate. However one must have the freedom to pick one's battles as one chooses. Sometimes it is equally important to walk away, and live to fight another day. And so, both the Marketplace of Ideas and Individual Association (including disassociation) are legitimate options for exercising one's Individual Rights, which is the basis of all Freedoms enjoyed within Western Democracy.
The Journal of Communication study is an overall an excellent piece of work, containing a wealth of valuable information, and I highly recommend reading it. However, it is when the authors of the study begin to draw broader conclusions that I begin to detect some potential flaws in their argument.
While the study does not go so far as to say that disassociation is directly contrary to Free Speech, it does at this point apply slippery slope observations that have the effect of creating vagueness along the lines of these issues - operating on the power of suggestion rather than the power of facts. One of the observations made is that when “we” choose to unfriend someone on Facebook, then we are contributing to the echo chamber effect so often observed within social media. This observation is preceded by a reference to the algorythms and filters that Facebook already provides for it's users, arriving at a presumptive conclusion - that when users exercise their Freedom of Association, they are adding to that condition. Freedom of choice being an additional distortion to algorythmic manipulation! Another example of misleading framing being used is when the authors refer to disconnectivity vs connectivity, seemingly as markers for the exercising of one's freedom of association. The reason I find this framing to be more misleading than Association and Disassociation, is that it indicates an exclusively mechanistic result that cannot be overridden by the exercise of Individual Freedom. One interesting speculation would be how social media creates a framework in which the exercise of Freedom of Association can lead to these types of results in the first place. Instead the authors choose to place the burden of these distortions on the individual, in a type of double standard that holds the individual's choices under the burden of collective reactions, with bare disregard for those very same extenuating circumstances. The authors seem to use deliberately vague logic to back their conclusions. One example is when they cite a reason for unfriending being the frequency of political posts – the authors then speculate as to when would be a more appropriate period of time for such posts, such as during an election cycle. Note they do not ask what would be a more appropriate frequency of time, even though this was the reason being referenced. Someone making a political post every five minutes is going to be more annoying to people, no matter what time of the year it is. They also don't ask whether these political posts contain any valuable or possibly even objective information, rather than posts of the more hyperbolic variety. If this may seem like a little too much specificity for the purposes of this study, remember that the study itself was focused on a specific group of people's reactions around a very particular political event. A number of reasons are cited as to the advantage of such a framework, however that same framework contains a double edged sword when it comes to this stage of the authors' conclusions. Given the specific pool indicated in the study itself, particularly the issue around which the activities in question took place, to draw any broader conclusions about people and social media requires the sort of deductive reasoning that fuels the vagueness and suggestion that I am detecting here.
Distinctions are important when examining the relationship between Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association. Otherwise the ideas that emerge will be reckless and short sited, which can be seen quite often manifested in the jargon of Social Activist groups.
One saying that many Social Activists like to use is: "the right be heard". Not the right to speak. Not others having the right to listen to you. But the right to be heard. By whom? By whomever so chooses to listen? Or by whomever you decide HAS to listen to you? As far as being heard by authority is concerned, that viewpoint may have legitimacy if you ascribe to the legitimacy of authority in the first place; that is unfortunately an argument for another day. It has been my own observation that when social activists claim the "the right to be heard" they mean the right to be heard by everybody. Anyone who has found themselves on the wrong end of a bullhorn can attest to that.
Now, when the shoe is on the other foot, the argument that no one is obliged to listen to someone else is forwarded, but in a way that disregards key distinctions between the right to ignore someone, and the right to speak about someone.
Another distinction is the principle of Reciprocity, a widely misunderstood principle that I believe applies most effectively to Communication. Essentially, when one chooses to engage in communication with another individual, one has to respect the other person's right to respond to whatever one has communicated. An example would be: If I ask you a question, you have the right to answer my question. I don't have the right to prevent you from answering, although I can choose not to listen to you (rude as that may be, and a poor reflection on my character). A violation of this principle would be to ask someone a direct question and then, before they have a chance to answer, immediately follow with a rapid and long winded filibuster style argument, effectively undermining the other person's right to answer my question in a reasonable manner, having moved the argument forward before allowing for reciprocation of communication. I refer to such a tactic as Abuse of Prompting.
Another example: If I attack you, impugn your character, malign your reputation, you have the right to defend yourself, to the world, and to me. I don't have to listen, but I certainly should not try to take away your right to direct your response to me, as long as you don't become violent.
My point about the principle of reciprocity in communication is that what is reciprocated is value – the other person's right to speak being a value that aligns closely with the maxim, "offence can only be taken, not given". To presume the giving of offence is to claim the authority to define another's intentions based on a subjective interpretation - the interpretation of offence. Enforcement based on the presumption of another's intentions, without objective evidence, is grossly authoritarian.
Which brings me to the subject of Gregory Allen Elliot and Steph Guthrie.
This is in reference to the infamous Twitter harassment case in Toronto, in which Gregory Allen Elliot was charged with criminal harassment for tweets he made in reference to Steph Guthrie, as well as two other complainants. After three years and a rather gruelling process, Mr Elliot was found not guilty. More can be found about the trial from many different sources, but for the purposes of my essay I am citing an exchange between Mr Elliot's defence lawyer (Q), and Ms Guthrie (A).
Q. You knew that ... you knew personally that Gregory Elliott was
responding to defend himself?
A. He’s entitled to defend himself to the world, but not to me.
A. He’s not entitled to an audience from me, Mr. Murphy.
Q. Okay. And that’s what it comes down to, would you agree with me,
that you don’t believe that Mr. Elliott is entitled to defend himself to
A. To me. Yeah ... no, I don’t believe he is.
Q. Right. Okay. No matter what you say to or about Mr. Elliott,
A. There were a lot of people who backed me up on what I said about him,
a lot of people, Mr. Murphy.
Q. Two of whom are ...
A. Two of the dozens, yeah.
Q. Two of whom are the complainants in this case, right?
A. Yes. Yes.
There is a confusion that arises when Reciprocity is conflated with Association. Arguments such as Ms Guthrie's have the effect of doing this, although in reverse; she argues that since she doesn't owe him an audience, she can stop him from criticizing her, even in defence against her attacks on him. While she does have the right to disassociate herself from him - to block him - she does not have the right to stop him from defending himself to her. Particularly if she continues to speak about him.
Another observation is that when she goes along with Mr Elliot's lawyer's description that Mr Elliot was defending himself, she essentially concedes that she had attacked him, or at least that he had perceived himself as under attack. Considering the subjective aspect of Canada's Harassment laws that Ms Guthrie is exploiting here, such an exchange is telling on many levels.
An unfortunate reaction is to conclude that arguing for disassociation aligns with the views of people like Ms Guthrie, due to the rhetoric that she misuses. When practiced on an individual level, disassociation is a policy of non-interference with an opposing viewpoint, a far cry from the policies of people like Ms Guthrie.
Pitting Freedom of Speech against Freedom of Association has the effect of undermining both freedoms. When understood that both freedoms are derived from Individual Rights, these freedoms do not contradict each other, but rather enhance each other. Freedom of Speech enhances Freedom of Association by providing a Marketplace of Ideas, through which Individuals can make their own choices as to which Ideas and People they wish to associate. Freedom of Association enhances Freedom of Speech by providing one of it's strongest defences - the right to disregard speech you don't like, rather than trying to stop it.
A physical example would be the right to walk away from someone. If they don't continue to follow you, they can still talk about whatever you have said to them – they are still defending themselves to you, to what you have said about them, without harassing you. They are addressing you in reference to the words you have spoken to them. You are the owner of your words. To speak to your words is to speak to you - and you still have the right to either address their speech, or walk away from it. How you choose to react to this prompting is up to you – as long as your freedom to choose has not been violated, then no abuse has occurred, direct incitement to violence being of course the limitation on this entire scenario.
Most of my points until now have been directed to the issue of rights. Now I will move into the area of moral and intellectual honesty - tools that are most required in order to engage productively in the Marketplace of Ideas. The notion I want to address is that of the "bubble" - listening only to those that one agrees with, as it pertains to association, and disassociation.
One distinction that needs to be made is between Association and Communication. It can be argued that by being someone's online "friend' or "follower" is a choice to associate oneself with that person's views, in a general sense - you might not agree with everything they say, but most of it (as regards Facebook, there is compromise now built into the system, in that you can be someone's friend but choose not to follow their posts). Disassociation on social media does not automatically mean an end to any and all communication. At the risk of sounding like an old man, there's always email, or text, or God forbid you could even phone someone - all of which presumes that you were actually friends with the person, and not just Facebook friends. The presumption that disassociation from someone's speech indicates a goldfish bowl mentality is a social pressure tactic that ultimately comes down to the issue of controlling how, when and where an individual is to expose themselves to another's speech.
Unfriending someone on Facebook does not make you an enemy of Free Speech, or "less supportive" as it is so euphemistically termed. The only requirements for support of Freedom of Speech is to speak freely and to refrain from preventing others from saying, and listening to, what they want - with an objective standard of violence being the universal limitation. The idea that there are different levels of "support" for Freedom of Speech sets off my Collectivist Alarm, as the main argument for this refers to one's influence on others. Influence on others is a tool for which one assumes responsibility, when one chooses to actively use it - such as organizing to "No Platform" a Speaker from an event, rather than simply choosing not to attend their lecture.
This is another tactic that attempts to muddy the waters and erase distinctions - "we aren't banning them outright, just no platforming" - ignoring the distinction between being in an audience and up on the podium. A few years back, the Canadian Winter Olympics had a phrase: "Own the Podium" (try saying that in your best Canadian accent for a good laugh). It seems that the battle to own the podium continues on campuses today. Downgrading a previously scheduled speaker to that of an audience member is to directly disenfranchise the individual in question, and has the effect of incentivizing a Mob Audience, which has the additional effect of undermining the Socratic method of argument. Note how this also runs counter to the principle of disassociation. Although I could anticipate a misuse of disassociation - "If she doesn't like being no platformed, she doesn't have to attend the event".
It is true, you don't owe anyone an audience. You also cannot deny others the right to give that person an audience. To misuse the first argument as a reason to ban, punish, or otherwise silence someone who's views you don't like, is to falsely pit Freedom of Speech against Freedom of Association. To have a knee jerk reaction against this argument by labelling people who exercise their Freedom of Association as vaguely less supportive of Freedom of Speech, also falsely pits both freedoms against each other. This will ultimately have the effect of undermining the legitimacy of both Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association; enabling a divide and conquer strategy in the market place of ideas.
A key to maintaining a perspective on all of this is to remember that both these and other Freedoms that we enjoy are the result of the Principle of Individual Rights. Maintaining this perspective is an effective way of keeping the various freedoms we enjoy from being pitted against each other in the form of a false dialectic. When understanding how all of our Freedoms are derived from Individual Rights, a deeper appreciation of how these Freedoms compliment each other is possible, thus reinforcing the strength of these Freedoms and the foundational principle of Liberty for all.
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