Are We Still Willing to Pay the Cost of Free Speech?

It wasn’t my intention to begin any kind of “series”… but I seem to have written a lot lately about the rising challenges of free expression.  People are on edge.  They don’t want to hear what might be taken (or mistaken) for a middle position.  This is probably because giving any ground at all may be seen as bringing one another few feet closer to the abyss, a tactic used by the opposite polarity repeatedly to suck one in and down.  I know the feeling.  I often share it.  I’m seldom in a compromising mood lately.

With that said, I remain nonetheless shocked at just how edgy my fellow citizens sometimes seem to be.  Earlier this week, a reader on Twitter had “liked” one of my comments; and, as I usually do when I have the time, I studied her profile and some of her posts.  She appeared the sort of person with whom I might make common cause.  (Note: I use Twitter to gather news and to seek after an intellectual community; and, yes, I know how naive that sounds: but what other options do we have in our anti-social nation of e-introverts?)  I returned later that evening to “follow” her and a few others who impressed me (as is also my pattern)… only to find that I had been blocked from her account.

Now that was sudden!  I have to conclude that this person imitated me in reviewing a few of my earlier posts—and saw something of which she disapproved.  So she slammed the door permanently to all further communication.  She didn’t respond to whatever objectionable comment I may have made in explanatory disagreement; and she also didn’t choose simply to read my opinions more selectively—none of which would ever be directed to her personally.  She certainly wasn’t censuring me for slinging about foul language or inciting mayhem, because I never do any such thing.  Just an idea… she saw an idea expressed that rubbed her the wrong way, so my voice has been forever silenced in her universe.

This is a small thing—but not, I contend, an insignificant one.  It’s a sign of the times.  Even as NGOs are busily trying to control our thoughts on every subject from the proper moment to mutilate a human fetus to the permitted circumstances for using words like “owner”, private citizens are beginning to behave the same way.  As individuals, we aren’t putting up a principled resistance.  We aren’t protesting, “I will neither be bullied into condoning baby-slaughter nor shamed into trimming my speech of harmless words.  I have inalienable human rights.  You needn’t listen to me, but you can’t cut my throat.”  No; we’re adapting formal airbrushing and permanent ostracism to our personal habits.

Young singles won’t date a person sympathetic with the opposition political party.  Families won’t hear of a child marrying someone once seen in a MAGA hat.  Social-media users won’t allow a person’s post to crawl across their screen ever again once he disapproves of executing Julian Assange or suggests that Putin might be less our cultural enemy than Angela Merkel.  An editorialist’s home may be surrounded by a mob if he argues in print that CO2 is not turning Earth into a death trap.

Disney, Starbuck’s, and Yahoo are not driving us to do these things.  We do them unbidden: we do them because they are our new etiquette.  We are turning into tribalists incapable of understanding the finer points of the First Amendment, or even the crude parameters.
Also on Twitter (what an eye-opening education in twenty-first century manners is that otherwise great sinkhole of wasted time!), I enjoyed this past week my first experience of being “reported”—or my first conscious experience of it.  (Who knows how many times I’ve made the “bad boy” roll without being informed of my achievement?)  I had repeated, with the brevity inescapable on Twitter, a charge about Hillary’s having accepted a fat Russian donation to the Clinton Foundation in return for using her office of Secretary of State to lubricate access to uranium deposits: the so-called Uranium One Scandal.  Turns out that my information was somewhat old and somewhat exaggerated.  The Russian entity actually failed to secure the kind of access which it had assumed would be the quid pro quo.  A message awaited me the next morning.  It simply read, “Reported.”  Reported.  As if to say, “Your action has not passed unnoticed, K.  A date will be set for your trial.”

Now, in the first place, Clinton remains ill-positioned to be mudslinging at Donald Trump because of a hotel in Moscow; that she cheated the devil by using her office to wring money out of crooks who ended up with nothing doesn’t exactly make her the gold standard of probity.  (For the record, I did not vote for either of these two in 2016: those few words alone will earn me a dozen “blocks”.)  I immediately corrected the excesses in my original statement—which did not include, “POS”, “burn in hell”, or anything in that genre.  Doesn’t matter.  Merely for typing the two words “Uranium One” on Twitter, you’re likely to get yourself “reported”.  No response voicing disagreement with referenced link, nothing even so personal as a complete sentence.  Just “reported”.  That passes in our time as a communication between two human beings.

As I say, Twitter has been an education.  I use the past-present tense because I think daily now about severing all ties with it.  I suppose I’ll continue until my first actual suspension; I’m kind of curious to see when that comes—if one idiot’s “report” of one slightly inaccurate (but not fundamentally wrong) news summary will suffice.  A single suspension will terminate my connection.  I’m too old to be nagged by a nanny, and too punctilious about my own conduct (John Cleese would consider me an anal-repressive) to tolerate an arrogant corporation’s moral halter in my mouth.

It’s a shame, though.  You can’t talk to people in the streets.  You can’t talk to your own relatives.  On the job, you risk termination for voicing an honest opinion.  For mainstream publishers, you have to propagandize suitably for your niche of the market.  You might risk talking to the trees… but an old Irish proverb warns, “The walls have ears, and the field has eyes.”