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Oct 17 2012

If your speech reveals you to be a loathsome creep

A guest post by the philosophical primate. Originally a comment on Using anonymity to speak more freely.

Reddit’s terms of service do not in any way guarantee users’ privacy, and anyone who thinks their privacy is protected when using the internet is an idiot anyway. The only privacy that actually *matters* here is the invaded privacy of women and girls having their images exploited without their consent, which is morally reprehensible regardless of its legality. John Scalzi wrote something particularly clear and scathing on this topic yesterday: I encourage all to read it.

The key idea that deserves attention here is that protection of privacy — even anonymity — has a purpose: Whether legally or morally speaking, that purpose is NOT to protect people from the consequences of their actions. Rather, the purpose is to protect people from unwarranted, unjust negative consequences from morally blameless actions: We ought to protect the anonymity of whistleblowers who expose corruption because they are doing something good that might cause them to suffer bad consequences. We ought to protect the privacy of medical records because it’s good that people feel free to seek medical care (especially mental health care) without fear of social stigma or job loss or other negative consequences. We ought to to protect a sphere of private life from the intrusive monitoring of government because powerful institutions have both the motivation and means to abuse that information in ways too numerous to contemplate.

In contrast, we have no sound moral reason to protect the privacy of creeps who use anonymity as a shield from the negative consequences for their own antisocial behavior. More generally, it is rank moral idiocy to argue that anonymity ought to shield someone from the consequence of morally blameworthy actions.

Free speech (as Scalzi points out) isn’t relevant to this discussion at all in any legal sense: Reddit is a privately owned website, not a government institution or public forum. However, in the broader sense that silencing unpopular opinions can be a form of tyranny of the majority, it is potentially relevant: But even John Stuart Mill, the most ardent and eloquent defender of free speech in this broader sense, never argued that freedom of speech even slightly implied freedom from the consequences of your speech. If your speech reveals you to be a loathsome creep with no respect for other human beings and you suffer the natural consequences — that others loath you, lose respect for you, and shun you — you have no grounds for complaint.

Of course, the speech of Brutsch is not truly minority opinion at all: It is the speech of the powerful, the message of patriarchy and rape culture, the voice of the abuser and oppressor. It would be downright hilarious to watch Brutsch and his fellow travelers claim the role of victimhood in this situation, if only there weren’t so many loathsome idiots willing to accept their claims of victimhood at face value.

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  1. 1
    Wonk

    Yes. Yes. This. Here. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Ugh, I’m so fucking tired of hearing the freedom-of-speech angle.

    Because, I mean, child pornographers are just like Voltaire, amirite?

  2. 2
    ibelieveindog

    Thank you for this, and for the link to Mr. Scalzi’s article. You both wrote what I had bouncing incoherently around in my head.

  3. 3
    johnwalkr

    This post is great. Unfortunately reddit appears to be doubling down, both in terms of official response and in terms of what the users are doing.

    After creepshots was banned, it quickly reappeared as cshots. That was banned and many others popped up. The latest one has the same moderators, but claims to be a place for lesbians to critique clothing of other women. Of course, it’s the same users posting the same creepy pictures, often of underage women and often showing faces. Only now, the titles say things like “her highlights are so bad” or “look at that terrible sweater”. They actually managed to make it even worse than before, all while maintaining that they are free speech martyrs. The sidebar actually tells users to “speak like a sassy diva”. It’s really disheartening.

  4. 4
    Neil Rickert

    I agree with that view of privacy.

    The traditional (pre-internet) version of anonymity was that the anonymous person (say a whistle blower) would have somebody known who would vouch for them yet attempt to protect their identity. This kept it reasonably honest and limited.

  5. 5
    reliwhat

    One of the few good article i’ve read on this site so far. Congrats, seriously, you did your work. I think that if people quoted philosophers more, it might actually lead to some people reading a bit of philosophy. I’ve quoted utilitarian points in the comment section recently, and i’ve had responses like “that philosophy crap isn’t applicable to the real world”, which is kinda sad. And i think that your use of the “rape culture” was the best one i’ve seen so far. It sounded more like “a culture of rape” than “the culture of our country is based on rape”, which gives a better representation of the reality.

  6. 6
    FreeOpinion

    I think I agree with the attitudes towards the creepshot posters and the outing of their posters that the article (and Scalzi’a) expresses, but I completely disagree with grounds on which those attitudes are justified, and the assessment of Reddit’s position.

    The legal issue is a red herring. The issue is not whether Reddit is legally required to protect the anonymity of its users, including the creepshot posters, but of whether Reddit ought to protect the anonymity of the creepshot posters; or one step even further removed, whether we, by the lights of our (varying) values, approve or disapprove of that protection. ( This anecdote seems relevant.)

    My main disagreement, is with the suggestion that the purpose of freedom of speech “is to protect people from unwarranted, unjust negative consequences from morally blameless actions”. To me this is an appalling and dangerous principle. Once it was held to be immoral (and for that matter illegal) in many European countries to deny the existence of God. To assert “There is no God” was held to be a morally blameworthy action. A minutes web trawling turns up Thomas Woolston who died in 1733 after having been sent to jail for merely denying the literal truth of biblical miracles, thereby striking at ‘at the very root of Christianity’. And I remember Bush declaring the atheists should not be regarded as citizens (and hence presumably not afforded a right to free speech). The idea that we should protect only morally acceptable speech completely misses the point. Each generation and each culture will have its own account of what is morally acceptable, and it is precisely where they are wrong about this, where, for example, they hold that it is morally unacceptable to speak out against male leadership of households and parishes, or where it is morally unacceptable to assert that genital mutilation is mutilation, that those things need to be said most of all.

    The principle that only morally acceptable speech should be free, must inevitably be interpreted by each group as only protecting speech that is morally acceptable to them. And that principle leads to results that are, by my values, horrific.

    It is easy to criticise others, so let me take a moment to put forward my own positive view:

    I don’t support freedom of speech.

    If you go back to Mill’s eloquent defence of free speech you can see that its ultimate justification is that free speech leads us to truth. But I don’t think Mill considered advertising and pornography, for they do not help us in the pursuit of truth. What Mills arguments support, in my view, is freedom of expression of opinion. I believe there is no God. I believe that we should stop genital mutilation of African women as a matter of priority. There is no corresponding statement of belief for creepshots, or other forms of pornography (nor any genuine expression of belief in advertising), and hence, according to my values, those forms of speech do not deserve protection because they do not express genuine opinions.

    It may of course be difficult to determine which forms of expression communicate genuine opinions and which do not, we may even as a matter of practicality be forced to protect all speech just in case, but the emphasis changes. But I think that as a matter of fact we can clearly see that such things as creepshots do not express genuine opinions and hence do not deserve to be protected forms of speech according to the standard I am advocating (they are not even truth claims at all, or at very best only as side effects — the intention is obviously to titillate, not to express genuine opinions).

    What then of Reddit? It is committed to protecting forms of speech which I do not regard as deserving protection and to protecting the identities of loathsome creeps who post invasive and objectifying pictures of unconsenting women in public spaces. I still think I support the redit position, (though perhaps not with their reasons). Redditt has formed a online community with its own implicit social standards, among these apparently is a commitment to freedom of speech which is more encompassing (and better known and more widely supported) than my own.

    I would prefer them to adopt my standard of free speech, regarding it as protecting all that is important without needlessly protecting trash like creepshots, but they have not. However, I would still prefer them to have some standard of free speech that applies generally and without the sort of partiality advocated in the article above. That they will not breach this purely social convention of their online community for the simple reason that creepshots are immoral and objectionable (by our and perhaps even their standards) is something I still count to their credit.

  7. 7
    bad Jim

    Philosophical Primate, is, as usual, awesome.

    In the United States, the right of privacy has assumed a special importance, because that’s where the Supreme Court in Griswold & Roe discerned the right to contraception and abortion. Privacy is the right to be free of arbitrary encumbrances, to be able to say “This is none of your business” and make it stick.

    It ought to include the right to wear a skirt and sit without some dirtbag pointing his phone at your crotch.

  8. 8
    dirigible.

    “To me this is an appalling and dangerous principle. Once it was held to be immoral (and for that matter illegal) in many European countries to deny the existence of God.”

    If it had been possible to surreptitiously photograph God and post the pictures to the Internet, this would not have been a free speech matter either (and the history of Western thought would have been very different).

    Reddit’s idiocy is not about free speech, it is about material *actions*. It is important to make this clear , as philosophical primate and Scalzi do. It cannot and should not be defended *or attacked* as a matter of freedom of speech.

    Free speech is too important.

  9. 9
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    FreeOpinion:

    My main disagreement, is with the suggestion that the purpose of freedom of speech “is to protect people from unwarranted, unjust negative consequences from morally blameless actions”. To me this is an appalling and dangerous principle.

    Um, where in the OP are you getting this? Philosophical Primate was referring to the protection of privacy and anonymity, not freedom of speech.

    The key idea that deserves attention here is that protection of privacy — even anonymity — has a purpose: Whether legally or morally speaking, that purpose is NOT to protect people from the consequences of their actions. Rather, the purpose is to protect people from unwarranted, unjust negative consequences from morally blameless actions: We ought to protect the anonymity of whistleblowers who expose corruption because they are doing something good that might cause them to suffer bad consequences.

  10. 10
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    reliwhat:

    “that philosophy crap isn’t applicable to the real world”

    That’s not at all what I told you.
    The philosophical BS you spout about using intent to judge peoples’ actions is what I referred to. You simply canNOT know what someone’s intent is. Ever. You can only judge by the actions of the individuals.
    And just like Janine, I’m not following you around. I also follow B&W.

  11. 11
    DutchA

    Great articles.

    As a side-note:
    There are some differences between Talibans shooting at 14 year old school girls and ‘creepshotters’ shooting pictures at whatever turns them on. What they share is the same level of filthiness.
    So I applaud every action to excoriate those idiots.

  12. 12
    FreeOpinion

    Tony: “Um, where in the OP are you getting this? Philosophical Primate was referring to the protection of privacy and anonymity, not freedom of speech.”

    The common background is in the blurb at the top of the post: “Originally a comment on Using anonymity to speak more freely.”

    We all understand that curtailing people’s anonymity will deter them from posting certain sorts of thing online, (and on reddit in particular). Indeed isn’t that why people want to out the troll who started this? To prevent harm to others? It is disingenuous to pretend there is no link to free speech when the objective is to constrain what others will say.

    Again I have no problem with this, since I don’t advocate free speech, but free expression of opinion. But to accept only free speech or anonymity to do things which one finds to be morally blameless is dangerous. Where have the opponents of free speech objected to anything but speech they find to be morally objectionable?

  13. 13
    Emily Isalwaysright

    @Tony:

    “The philosophical BS you spout about using intent to judge peoples’ actions is what I referred to. You simply canNOT know what someone’s intent is. Ever.”

    Then what do you think of the difference b/w murder and manslaughter?

  14. 14
    researchtobedone

    FurryGirl writes very well about the idea of using tactics like outing people in situational, context-conscious ways: http://www.feminisnt.com/2010/vigilantism-and-crushing-bastards-in-praise-of-anger-hatred-and-taking-joy-in-the-smiting-of-ones-enemies/

    A lot of the ideas carry over, I think. As Dan Savage once said, “Outing is brutal, and should be reserved for brutes.”

    In this case, I think the decision to out this reddit fellow was spot fucking on.

  15. 15
    thephilosophicalprimate

    FreeOpinion: When you are responsible for a gross failure to read, it’s better to just admit it than to try covering up and claiming “context” that just isn’t there. The justification offered for the protection of privacy/anonymity was just that — a justification for privacy/anonymity. Free speech and anonymity are not disconnected, but they ARE very different from one another.

    Here is the relevant difference, simplified for sloppy readers:

    Freedom of speech neither includes nor implies freedom from the consequences of your speech. Nor should it!

    Anonymity DOES include freedom from consequences; protection from consequences is exactly what anonymity is intended to accomplish.

    That is why anonymity must logically and morally be much more limited than free speech: Protecting people from the consequences of their own actions should be limited to a very narrow scope, and it can only be justified where those consequences themselves are unjust.

    This in no way implies a similar limitation on protecting the free expression of opinion; it only implies that those airing their opinions in public don’t deserve any special protection from the consequences (except in very narrow circumstances). As Scalzi points out, the natural consequences of expressing their hateful opinions — being loathed and shunned by decent people, being exposed as an enthusiastic misogynist that no self-respecting woman would touch with anything less authoritative than a baseball bat — is exactly what Brutsch and his fellow travelers wish to protect themselves from by maintaining their anonymity. They have no moral right to such protection. (They also, as it happens, have no legal right to such protection; but that’s rather beside the point.)

  1. 16
    Scalzi on Brutsch | Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] philosophical primate recommended John Scalzi’s article on Redditt and Brutsch and “free speech” and creepy [...]

  2. 17
    Free speech is not anonymity, and vice versa « The Philosophical Primate

    [...] In which I comment at Butterflies & Wheels on the important moral distinction — which a large segment of the internet seems to have entirely missed — between the justification for protecting free speech and the justification for protecting anonymity. [...]

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