Free Speech vs. Licentious Speech (Part II)

In Part I of this discussion, I addressed the mistaken view that the alleged suppression of non-progressive (or any other) opinion by a privately-owned internet platform such as Google or Facebook constitutes a violation of the right to free speech. There is another, more subtle argument I have encountered recently, however, one more in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, namely that although a privately-owned platform has the right to restrict speech, it has a moral obligation not to do so, on the grounds that this violates the spirit of free speech, which resides in the concept of an “open market of ideas.”

To those who are saying all ideas should be heard without discrimination or prejudice, and that a public forum for political speech has a moral (though not legal) obligation to allow this, I raise the following objection:

In a real public forum (non-virtual), exercising your freedom of speech, like any other freedom, comes with responsibilities due to the fact that in order to express your views, you have to face being publicly identified with those views in your community. This bears tangible consequences, because other participants in the forum might say, “We don’t want people who espouse such views working in our companies,” or “We don’t want your kids playing or studying with our kids,” or “We don’t want to bake a wedding cake for people with views like yours.”

In other words, the forum might be perfectly open and non-exclusive in practical fact, but the social consequences of espousing fringe views, such as advocating the death of all Jews, will act as a natural limit or discouragement to mobs of morons who might hold these views, but who still have enough shame or common sense to keep the views to themselves, to the confines of their kitchen tables, or to private gatherings of likeminded individuals. And this social self-regulation, by the way, does not violate the Millian principle of the market of ideas. On the contrary, it is a normal operational feature of such a market, like any other, less metaphorical market, that potential participants, those with something to “sell,” must first judge whether their wares are worthy of being placed before the public, or whether, on the other hand, their exposure is likely to bring ridicule or ostracism that will harm the market value of any future “products” they may wish to place on the market.

Online, by contrast, one may espouse such views without identifying oneself, which removes the natural social constraints (shame, perceived public acceptability, the risk of personal consequences) that act as guidelines for civic behavior.

Hence, thousands of idiots with socially despicable ideas, who might have held their tongues in a general public forum when everyone could see their faces, know their names, and take voluntary action against them in the form of expressing their own right to freedom of association (in other words, to discriminate against them, in the proper sense of the word), now feel free to swarm in and feed off the perception of strength in numbers, often drowning out or mucking up the discussion among more thoughtful, responsible people.

For this reason, i.e., the lack of normal social self-regulation based on shame and considerations of reputation, a privately-owned forum for online speech has a more urgent obligation (not legal but commonsensical and moral), as well as a greater business-wise reason, to place and enforce guidelines on what kind of speech they will allow. If they don’t, their service might end up being reduced to little more than a platform for all the shameless, anonymous nuts out there who enjoy being able to say “Kill the Jews” and get away with it. Something along these lines actually happened during the 2016 presidential primaries, on the comment forums at American Thinker, Breitbart, and so on. People with views not perfectly in line with the pro-Trump orthodoxy of the gathering swarms of angry vitriol-spewing cultists were gradually squeezed out of the discussion altogether, for lack of any good reason to participate, or for lack of any masochistic wish to be called repulsive names by morons.

To the Millian defenders of the internet as a “free market of ideas,” I ask, “What would you do if your privately-owned platform (your property) came to be seen not as a place for open political conversation, but as a haven, and therefore a favorite gathering place, for thousands of alt-right white supremacists, Antifa communists, or any other such faction of irresponsible agitators of the sort who are out to destroy civil discourse with their mob swarming mentality and tactics, and are prepared to take advantage of internet anonymity to give full voice to views they would almost invariably temper in face-to-face discussion due to shame, or fear of painful social consequences?”

And if you object, “But Twitter and Facebook only limit conservative views they find disagreeable, while giving Antifa and other leftist agitators all the slack they need,” then I answer, “Then that’s how Twitter and Facebook have decided to define themselves in the market, which is their prerogative. I didn’t say they were making good decisions about which views to allow and which to restrict. They are not. I only said they should make such decisions, and in fact they have to, especially due to the market-skewing effects of the joy of anonymity among the lowest denizens of the online community. Making those decisions intelligently is another issue, and I haven’t seen much intelligence from anyone on any side of the internet’s political discussion lately. Have you?”

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