Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Freedom Of Speech: Truthiness And Factions

Truthiness [troo-thee-nis]

1. the quality of seeming to be true according to one's intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like:
the growing trend of truthiness as opposed to truth. 

2. Rare. truthfulness or faithfulness.

Two of the major stumbling-blocks where the discussion of freedom of speech is concerned are a) truthiness and b) factions. We need to talk about this because it's destroying social and political discourse. As it is, we're forcing people to take sides or be kicked out of the club and shutting down undesirable speech at a time when we ought to be more open to discussing the issues.

I've always been a big believer in free speech except when I found it objectionable, to be honest. When I found myself on the wrong side of this because my views aren't welcome in the echo chambers I found myself in at the time, I belatedly came to the conclusion that freedom of speech is essential not just because of the Twofold Principle,  
The individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected 
but because it's better to debate the issues than to bury them under a pile of censorship and hope they don't claw their way back out. The Twofold Principle was born of my desire to promote social responsibility in balance with personal freedom. It's hard to get it right but you can create a reasonable compromise if you try. 

Truth and truthiness

Freedom of speech is a tricky thing, as I've demonstrated in those earlier posts I linked above. On one hand you want to be able to express your opinions without being shut down for it.

On the other hand, you should be aware that annoying people tends to result in their expressing their annoyance in ways you don't like. As Techdirt writer Tim Cushing says,

While some may point out that petitioning foreign governments in hopes of preventing Blanc from speaking is a violation of his rights, the fact is that petitions are also protected speech. Foreign governments are still free to ignore the more formalized hecklers' vetoes, but protecting a foreigner's domestic free speech rights isn't going to win them the adoration of the angered masses. Blanc may be forced to ply his wares in the US only -- a place where he enjoys greater speech protections, but also one where his "magical white guy powers" will be considerably more muted. - Techdirt: Marc Randazza Emasculates Pick-Up Artist, Legal Counsel In Hilariously Brutal Response To A Bogus Takedown Demand, by Tim Cushing

That whole article is well worth reading for its nuanced take on freedom of speech. The takeaway is that a) you have the right to say what you like, and everybody else has the right to complain about it if they don't like it; and b) particularly obnoxious speech may have political implications and few, if any, politicians are likely to stick up for the rights of some foreign boor if the people are kicking off.

The truthiness here is that Whatshisface has the right to freedom of speech and no one should stop him from saying what he wants to. The actual truth is that there are these things called consequences which come into effect when you say or do things. If you open your mouth and something rude comes out, people are going to be offended. Yes, you have the right to be offensive, but everybody else has the right to be offended, and your rights don't trump theirs. In a truthy debate environment, it seems that some offensive speech is specially protected while other other kinds are not. It's trendy to bash authoritarian religions but women, non-whites and the LGBT community? Surely not! As I've already pointed out I get driven off the bridge by people on both sides of the political aisle because I don't like authoritarian anything and I refuse to make anyone else the arbiter of which speech is permitted and which is not. Counter speech you don't like, damn it, but don't shut it down or yours may be next.

Fact and factions

Okay, let's dig a little deeper into this. America has a deeply divided society in which people are pretty much forced to take sides between the Red team and the Blue team. These are represented by the Elephant and the Ass, respectively. No sniggering at the back. Note that they're both grey (I'm pretty sure that means, "We're both corporate-owned authoritarians."). Each group has its own set of media and preferred news sources, each of which caters to a left-liberal or right-leaning audience. This is actually the root of the problem; there's no neutral source of information for them as such; anything that doesn't appeal to their biases is automatically graded either left or right wing and each side of the aisle is considered to be utterly toxic and unworthy of a reasoned debate. I'm not even joking, check out this rant by a "family-friendly" film review site of the film "Citizen Four." Basically, they just can't be dealing with any challenge to authority, not even President Obama's, if it causes people to see America in an unfavourable light.

How free are we to speak?

The latest hacktivist attack by Anonymous is causing a bit of a stir in the media, evoking attitudes best summed up here:

This is Anonymous' response to the KKK's threat to use lethal force against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, where police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth.

Anonymous won’t tolerate racism in any form, or the suppression of the right to protest.- Anonymous Revealing Ku Klux Klan’s Identities – Operation #OpKKK, Anonymous HQ

Okay, but I don't see how a) revealing the identities of some KKK members and b) hacking into ONE Twitter account is going to stop anyone from using lethal force. The people whose names have been revealed may not be behind the leaflets and may not be planning to carry out attacks in "self-defence," so what are they planning to achieve? It's easy enough to set up a new Twitter account and think of a password that's harder to guess than the last one (that's the usual route in).

So what is going to change as a result? A war of words continues with the other KKK accounts (they are also legion, it seems. Stupidity loves company) but what will that do? I suppose they could try to (ab)use Twitter's new anti-abuse function, but that stops people making speech. Wouldn't it be better to just filter it out of your own feed so you're the only one affected? But people worry about the prospect of certain users being able to influence others. Well it happens but you can't influence everyone. The point is, opinion is divided over whether or not Anonymous have done a good thing here. I struggle to sympathise with the Klueless Klux Klan but I don't like the idea of shutting them up just because they're obnoxious. Better to let the stupidity flow so we can laugh at it. Personally, I'd goad them into getting DNA tested, then sit back and laugh when they discover they've got African ancestry or something and freak the hell out.

Well none of this should be an issue at all. It only is because of the authoritarianism that comes from taking an absolutist position on any issue. When there's no wriggle room you'd better conform to the prevailing trend or join a group and circle the wagons or risk being left out in the cold. This is the source of the tribalism and it's really got to stop because it's causing more problems than it solves. As I've pointed out before, there's nothing wrong with compromise or the ability to see things from the other side. These are essential to maintaining a healthy society. The reason most Americans think their society is divided is that the other lot won't do as they're damn well told. Let's be careful not to let that happen here in the UK.

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