In my latest piece for Daily Beast, I briefly mentioned a current harassment case in Canada. A judge will make a ruling in the next few months. Some are claiming it is a free speech issue. In some ways it is, if we understand what such people mean by “free speech”: It should hopefully have some affect on the unfettered licence to say whatever we like without consequences that apparently only exists in online spaces – but not in meatspace. (The case is misconstrued as a free speech one, however, as Anne Thériault who actually knows more about the case demonstrates; a point I didn’t stress enough, but I didn’t choose the title of the piece.)
We are allowed to write freely, but we treat death threats seriously; we can say what we like to basically anyone, but most oppose street harassment; we can travel freely, but presumably don’t barge into conversations between people we don’t know. Some of these are wrong by virtue of being criminal; but we’d all be worried if the only reason someone refuses to perform an immoral act is solely because of the law rather than personal ethics.
The major focus for my essay was to remove it from the conversation about free speech; to focus on it being an issue of moral priorities. It was about saying that more people need to use the tools that already exist in digital spaces to clamp down on abuse, harassment and targeting. It’s not censorship to close comment sections, because no one’s taken your keyboard, computer or internet access; it’s closing a door, not sticking you in jail (as I say in the piece). Blocking people on social media isn’t some tool I created: It’s within Twitter’s function.
My focus is how so many site owners and others with power refuse to use these tools in ways that actively discourage harassment, sexism, racism and so on; they prioritise no moderation, effectively leaving marginalised and frequently targeted people open to harassment, over bullshit ideas of “censorship” – i.e. licence to do what you like without consequence.
Even site owners are playing this tune because of how widespread this BS notion of free speech is – but they’re not the government, they’re a private enterprise. They can do what they like; they already prioritise everytime they let one person publish, but not another. So why do they only focus on what’s atop the line, not the area where readers participate? And what reader will want to participate if they know they’ll be dogpiled, treated to harassment, sexism and so on?
Free speech is bullshit when people are too afraid, too fearful, too anxious to participate. Leaving it “free” means leaving it free… from top down consequences; it’s not some open agora with philosophers battling it out in amicable fashion. It’s marginalised people having to face down a horde, because the horde is already in power (that’s the benefit of being privileged).
Lots of people are saying “this is the price of liberty; you need to hear horrible things so that we don’t undermine freedom”. I hear horrible things all the time. I get messages about being lynched and killed for being a person of colour. There’s nothing free about entering digital spaces as a frequent target of harassment and stalkers and online abusers; I’m not asking for these people to be denied internet access, I’m not taking away their ability to write and publish on their sites or blogs or message boards or Twitter.
I’m saying more people in power should begin using tools they already implement, that their laziness or fetishising of free speech only benefits harassers’ freedom and, therefore, silences marginalised people; either in our refusal to participate at all or no longer wanting to speak in this space. (Thus, if you claim to defend free speech, even within this framework, you should care!) This isn’t “the price of liberty” – you are not free to hurt and harm. What that means for law, I’m not sure, but being digital doesn’t mean it’s free from the scrutiny of policies – and, in some cases, it has been under the scrutiny of the law to help protect people.
Digital life is real life. Just because, say, people are arrested for hate mail doesn’t mean mail has stopped or we’re unable to write; we just don’t send hate mail (again, if your only reason for not sending hate mail is the law, that’s highly problematic).
The more we start understanding digital life is real life, the better we can stop dressing digital protection as a free speech issue and understand this primarily as a safety one.
(Comment section will be heavily moderated because I hate free speech.)