For some time now, we've heard about a crisis of free speech where those who dissent from the approved "woke"—or, formerly, "social justice warrior"—line are forced to "self-censor" to avoid professional and financial ruin. Some people have faced excessive sanctions for what they've said, but this argument is often presented as a binary proposition: Either you can say whatever you want without consequences or you can't say anything. This is silly, as people have always gotten in trouble for saying things that are broadly considered beyond the pale. We are actually fighting over where the line should be.
Let's say you use a platform where you can quickly reach upwards of 80 million people to incite a mob that attempts to overthrow the government by force. Most people would say that's grounds for getting banned from the platform. (Nevertheless, in his quest to cause controversy every day to stay in the headlines and keep people on Twitter, Elon Musk has reinstated Donald Trump's account.) If you say Nazi shit, you should get banned. And then there are all the grayer areas, where today's fash sympathizers like to live. A continual debate rages around whether one should get banned for peddling various anesthetized versions of the Great Replacement Theory, which multiple mass shooters have espoused. That's part of how we do things in a democracy, and ideally there would be a set model of due process. Twitter did not achieve that before, though it's unclear how handing control over who gets to say what to a single rich guy is a path towards a richer democratic life.
But backing Musk's control of Twitter is not about fostering free speech generally. Many of his loudest backers just want the speech of their fellow travelers reinstated to the platform and amplified, and they want fewer or no ramifications for saying things their opponents deem beyond the pale. It's about power, not freedom. What many of these folks want when they talk about "free speech" is the freedom to say whatever they want without consequences. And that doesn't stop with platform bans or getting fired from your job—which, again, should involve due process and debate with regard to the individual case. Some of the Free Thinkers who've thought themselves into a pretzel will just come out and tell you that they think they should be able to say whatever they want without anyone ever calling them an idiot.
Enter, inevitably, Kyrie Irving:
Kyrie Irving returned to the NBA last night. After, he said: "I would like to be on a platform where I could openly share how I feel without being harshly criticized or being labeled or dealing with outside perceptions that have nothing to do with me.”
Consequence-free speech? pic.twitter.com/QYkBJEGbsB
— The Recount (@therecount) November 21, 2022
"I would like to be on a platform where I could openly share how I feel without being harshly criticized or being labeled or dealing with outside perceptions that have nothing to do with me.”
If you speak out in public, there's a chance you will be criticized. There's a chance you'll get fired. If I go and say something despicable later today, I could lose my job. As an adult, I accept that and try to behave accordingly. There are times when I "self-censor" and don't say something I'm thinking in my brain. The debate is around where the line should be, and again, there are unjust firings. There have been excessive social media pile-ons when someone merely asks a question, punishing people who are on a good-faith journey of discovery. But there will never be a day where you can say whatever you want without criticism. People are going to call you a moron. It happens to me every day! My right to express myself has not been infringed. They are expressing themselves in response to my self-expression. This is life in a democratic republic. You may not get banned for tweeting about how America is being invaded by a faceless horde of brown criminals who've come to kill us all, but some people are going to call you a fash sicko. If you constantly call gay people "groomers"—pedophiles, some of the worst people in our society—and there is a violent attack on gay people, some people are going to draw a connection. The reason most people have not joined the growing trend of going off about "The Jews" is that they're well-adjusted adults who've read a history book.
(Speaking of books, right-wing governments across this country are trying to ban them in schools and libraries. Seems like a free speech problem, however rarely we might hear about it from the free speech aficionados. The issue where these folks do have their eyes on the prize, and where the left needs to focus more of its attention, is on the Department of Homeland Security's new interest in regulating speech. The agency should be disbanded, but barring that, any initiative it undertakes to combat the real problem of mis- and disinformation should be entirely transparent—a public process.)
Kyrie Irving has YouTube Brain, so he's got some ideas he's been putting out there. He's too rich, famous, and powerful to face many real consequences, but he was suspended eight games. (Now he's back, and here we could mention that he is a phenomenal basketball player—like, really fun to watch.) He seems just as focused, though, on the fact that Shaq and Charles Barkley called him an idiot. Never mind that his speech has had a real impact already. He was asked about the Black Hebrew Israelite demonstrators who showed up outside Brooklyn's Barclays Center to support him on Sunday, Sopan Deb of the New York Times reports, and this was his response: “I think that’s a conversation for another day. I’m just here to focus on the game.” Well, they showed up to support you today. Maybe today's the day to have that conversation. And if you keep saying dumb stuff with no basis in the historical record, people will keep calling it dumb. This isn't an assault on your free speech, it's free speech.
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