I’ve been struck by the twisty complications of the recent outing of the creepy redditor Violentacrez as Michael Brutsch, a programmer for a financial consulting company, by Adrian Chen of Gawker. I’m particularly interested by the fact that the case has become a focus of concern by defenders of free speech — people who regard free speech as sacred and absolute.
Well, you know what I think of the sacred.
“Free speech” has become a mindless shibboleth for many denizens of the internet — it gets thrown about to excuse anything, and seems to have lost all of its meaning. When Thunderf00t was kicked off Freethoughtblogs, there was a tiresome chorus of his kneejerk defenders claiming that his right to free speech had been violated, when nothing of the kind had occurred. He’s still speaking freely, but there’s nothing about free speech that says a network must give a soapbox to anyone who demands it; we rightfully limit our obligations to whom we must give space, otherwise a freethought network would be required to host Christian blogs and Satanist blogs and porn blogs and commercial blogs for our new fellow citizens, the corporations.
Almost every time I ban someone from this site, someone somewhere will claim that I do not permit free speech. I do, but with limits; I won’t let people use my site as a forum advertising hatred and misogyny, for instance, and most of my bans are for individuals who try to dominate the conversation, swamping out others’ voices with volume. I am not obligated to give you a bullhorn.
But let me say this in favor of free speech: we mustn’t silence even voices we oppose. I want to give atheists, feminists, scientists, and liberals a place to speak out, but that doesn’t mean I think we have to gag Christians, MRAs, creationists, and conservatives — they do have a right to express themselves, no matter how odious their views, in their own venues. They just don’t have an automatic right to propagandize here and everywhere.
But there’s more to this conflict than just assigning speech to a proper place. There are serious problems with the absolutist version of “free speech” that gets bandied about on the internet.
The problem of privilege. When speech is completely unchecked, when there is no recognition that it can be oppressive, it favors the privileged who can shout the loudest. This is the problem of democracy in general: there must be restrictions in place to protect the rights of the minority from the thoughtless disregard of the majority. The internet, and Reddit in particular, is dominated by white male geeks — people who are all too often completely oblivious to the ramifications of their actions and who are too often dedicated to preserving their selfish privilege to do whatever the hell they want. This is a network of human beings forming interacting communities which shuns all the broader needs of a healthy community, other than self-interest and individual indulgence. There must be a recognition of diversity, differences, and the rights of others.
The problem of balancing rights. You know, we have other rights than free speech. What about a right to privacy? The same people who are absolutists about the right to free speech are also often absolutists about a right to privacy — and they regard the outing of Brutsch as a violation of both. But Brutsch made a career of violating other people’s right to privacy; he’s known for his “jailbait” and “creepshot” subreddits, in which he encouraged people to post photographs of half-naked children taken without permission — the special thrill of these photos was specifically that they did violate boundaries. Do his defenders ever stop to think that sometimes these two rights conflict?
Further, there is considerable outrage over Adrian Chen’s ‘doxxing’ of Brutsch — he violated Brutsch’s privacy! Several subreddits have actively banned all mention of any Gawker media. Note the irony, though: Adrian Chen was practicing his right to free speech, too. Apparently there are limits to the degree of free speech that will be allowed, even among Brutsch’s defenders.
The problem of responsibility. This is a major one for me. Free speech is lovely and important, but some of its advocates aren’t primarily concerned about being able to say what they think, but want to be able to say what they want without consequences. This isn’t part of the deal: free speech is not just a privilege, but a responsibility. People like Brutsch want to lash out and enrage people to no particular purpose other than their own gratification, and are horrified at the idea that just maybe their indulgences could have an effect on themselves rather than others.
On the Gawker article, someone named YukaUSA left a revealing comment.
Mr Adrian, keep in mind that posting this article will have real world repercussions on that man. If he really cracks and gets a gun, who know what might happen. He might as well take his life and you’ll have that in your track record. You can do in fact kill a person with words.
Yes? How interesting that YukaUSA uses that argument to defend a pedophile and self-confessed molester, yet never thought to bring it up in criticism of all those reddit channels dedicated to revealing, illicit photos of young girls. Especially in light of the Amanda Todd case, I agree that words can kill…and we have a duty to wield them responsibly. So how should we respond to the Michael Brutsches of the world who don’t seem to give a damn about the rights of the subjects of their violations?
The problem of principle. What cross are you willing to die on? Free speech can be used to defend the truth. It can be used to protect the weak. It can be used to hold the powerful accountable. It’s a tool — one that bears risks as well as power. And anonymity is something that the good can use to lurk in the shadows and do good, or the wicked can use just as well to lurk in the shadows to do evil.
It would be very hard to argue that Michael Brutsch used his anonymity and free speech to make the world a better place by spreading pictures of half-naked children and building refuges for people who liked to talk about “chokeabitch” or “Jewmerica”.
Brutsch knows it, too. When confronted by Chen, he was afraid and begged him not to expose his identity; he has since shut down his Violentacrez account and left reddit (as far as we can tell). This was his occupation that he thought so important that he spent most of his free time moderating hundreds of perverse groups, and now he’s fled from it now that his actual identity is going to be held accountable for it. If it had been a cause like truth or opposing wickedness, would someone have fled it in shame as Brutsch has done?
Free speech is worth defending. But it is not to be defended unconditionally; it’s too complicated for that, and also, it needs to be defended from those who would cheapen and corrupt it as well as those who would silence it. Violentacrez did not promote free speech, he poisoned it for the rest of us, and I fully endorse his outing. If his cause was worth fighting for, he can now fight openly for it.