That’s the price you pay


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 effect 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 ThĂ©riault – who actually knows more about the case – demonstrates; a point I didn’t stress enough. 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.)

Comments

  1. says

    That’s a good piece.

    I remain unconvinced that “free speech” should be canonized as if it’s a human right. The reason that free speech is important is specifically political; it’s the right to organize and critique leaders and governments. That’s important and we see it’s important because bad leaders and bad governments specifically want to prevent vocal criticism. But outside of the political realm, things rapidly get corporate: you can say “this is my blog, my rules…” or boycott a company into changing its offerings (thereby altering the company’s ‘self’expression) or use other forms of economic leverage; free speech, it turns out, pretty much only exists in the one place where it’s most important – and even then, rarely. Ask Anwar Al-Awlaki about his protected political speech and see what he answers.

    There are a lot of people who fly the banner “free speech” when they really don’t understand what free speech really would mean and why it should be free. Political expression does not cover (sorry!) someone’s ability to scream abuse at someone else. That hasn’t ever really been part of “free speech” at all.

  2. says

    Tauriq:

    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?

    A bunch of us at Pharyngula have been trying to drill this into the head of a couple of lunkheads arguing that Reddit should continue to allow racists and misogynists to continue posting in subreddits. We haven’t been very successful. I don’t understand why site owners can’t be better people-decent human beings-and ban this kinda of crap. They can easily say “no more racist threads”, “no more misogynistic threads”. That they choose not to is a problem.

    And Y U hate freeze peach so much?

  3. says

    I think the court case in Canada is about free speech. I am a blogger who has a very strong opinion of assisted suicide–I’m against it. Not because I’m religious, but because I don’t think our healthcare system in Canada is robust enough to deliver it safely. (An experience with an elderly family member, one that stretched over several years, is what has convinced me.) I have been attacked online frequently, sent threats, been ganged up on on Twitter, had my site hacked, etc. A surprising amount of this bad behaviour is being done by women who disagree with me, and I’ve seen some of them bait the disability activists I work with. I’ve seen their handy-work up-close and it’s unbelievable, but these activists are used to it and so for them, it’s like water off a duck’s back.

    The fact is that Twitter’s parameters are clear. It’s a virtual public space. They are also an enterprise, not a controlled government body, so they really can do what they like. I don’t like being mistreated online, but I understand the risk I’m taking by tweeting. When I’ve been attacked, I’ve blocked offenders and refused to engage any further. Sure some of these people follow me around online and keep bugging me, but my coordinates aren’t available, so I know I’m safe. There’s a lot of free-floating anger out there, but I’m not obliged to take it seriously.

    The incident with Justine Sacco was terrifying, and it certainly made me wary, but really, I was already being careful because of the mob justice I was experiencing over my stance on assisted suicide. (And yes, it was mostly leftists who were doing it.)

    Letting everyone speak freely can suck sometimes because it means you have to listen to a lot of bad stuff, not just nasty, but ill-informed and provocative. Guthrie’s call-out to the Twitterverse, suggesting that mob justice be sicced on a young man was ill-conceived. As someone who has been attacked, I can tell you I disagree with it and I don’t care who the instigator is or what cause they think they’re protecting. I wouldn’t pick an online fight with anyone over it, but I’m not surprised when instigators suffer blowback. Anyone who has spent any amount of time online knows to expect antipathy when they put it out there. It’s the nature of the ‘net, unfortunately. Claiming ignorance seems a bit disingenuous.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      @Irene

      >> Letting everyone speak freely can suck sometimes because it means you have to listen to a lot of bad stuff, not just nasty, but ill-informed and provocative

      If you’re saying this in response to my post, it doesn’t seem you’ve not read what my point was. You also don’t see how one person saying, say, awful racist nonsense in spaces that are site owners themselves claim will be a safe space, is itself a free speech infringement on others – who are now too afraid, too anxious and too concerned to speak.

      Again: No one is saying you can’t be racist, but why should I, as a blog owner, be forced to host racist comments on my blog? If you say I have to, then you’re infringing on what I can and can’t publish (which kinda sounds like infringing on my free speech, if you ask me.)

  4. says

    Oh I’m sorry, I thought you were only referring to Twitter, in which case, you’re right. I did misunderstand. Digital life is real, and online stalking is unpleasant, but it’s not as dangerous as being physically followed by a stalker. Surely you see the difference?

    That’s the issue with the court case in Toronto. Some of us differentiate between online stalking behaviour–which Twitter allows in its configuration–and physical, IRL stalking. To claim the two are same seems hysterical to me, but then I was around before the internet and have not had my consciousness shaped by it: IMO, IRL and online life are two very distinct spheres.

    This is why some of us are watching the case in Toronto closely. We are concerned about this conflation. I put forth my own story of online harassment because it’s important to understand that anyone can become a victim, even disability activists who are doing very good work. (And really, if you don’t believe me, you should talk to some of them.)

    It’s also important to understand that those on the left can be as vicious and controlling as those on the right. I used to identify as left but no longer do because of attacks made on me by my (then) own side. I have changed my political views–I’m now more centrist–but have not stopped writing and posting. I’ve just changed my attitude by the all the excrement out there.

    You are of course welcome to moderate comments on your own site, but sites like Twitter, that rely on income (in different ways), are entitled to do what they want. It’s up to us to decide whether or not it’s a forum we find fit for using.

  5. Lesbian Catnip says

    IMO, IRL and online life are two very distinct spheres.

    Tell that to Brianna Wu.

    Whether or not anyone gives a flying fuck about whatever GamerGate is allegedly about, it is undeniable that the harassment produced by that hate engine manifests “IRL” as well as online. Victims are doxxed. They receive mail, email, text, and phone threats. In the case of Wu, she was literally in a collision with one of her harassers. And how is a constant veil of fear for one’s own safety any less dangerous, even if the attackers are just supposedly on the other side of the screen? GamerGate demonstrates that harassment doesn’t stay on the computer anymore, especially if the harasser is determined–and that is more common to encounter these days with internet echochambers cheering them on.

    We are concerned about this conflation. I put forth my own story of online harassment because it’s important to understand that anyone can become a victim,

    The implication being that this makes online harassment okay? Murder is tragically common, should we de-criminalize it too?

    It’s also important to understand that those on the left can be as vicious and controlling as those on the right. I used to identify as left but no longer do because of attacks made on me by my (then) own side.

    “The Left” also includes hippies that genuinely buy into phrases like “cleansing” or “organic.” Should I change my political leanings because someone feels motivated enough to strap themselves to a solar panel because electricity is “unnatural”? As a trans women, should I stop being a feminist because a feminist writer like Brennan produces viciously transphobic pieces?

    Left and Right are not “teams.” I’m not going to automatically agree with someone because they identify as a liberal, especially when the word “liberal” could mean literally fucking anything. So that’s a really dumb reason to eschew a label.