How Free Speech was Actually Threatened

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Political comics aren’t just limited to newspapers. You also find them online, related to various issues. This one’s been doing the rounds lately and while all such political cartoons are simplistic, this one is particularly terrible. I don’t think I’ve seen one that misrepresented the issue of free speech so badly since the somewhat notorious XKCD one. That was a shame, as XKCD normally has something of a level head. This one, however, is just ludicrous.

It is, of course, alluding to various online spats from Gamergate to ‘Ghostbros’ to the regular Hugo Awards side show, but it utterly misrepresents.

Panel 1: Title – Ironically, it may well turn out to be accurate rather than sarcastic.

Panel 2: The idea that feminism attacks free speech is meant to be seen as ridiculous, but it does – indeed – happen. There are any number of examples from building moral panics about video games (now the idea is that they cause ‘sexism’ rather than ‘violence’) to collusion with government to ban forms of pornography (Gail Dines and the UK kink porn production ban) to No-Platforming and Safe Spaces. It’s not just limited to feminism, but it is found across a swathe of people who – ironically and laughably – consider themselves progressive even as they attack people’s free expression, sex lives and other fundamental human freedoms they should be fighting for.

Panel 3: Case in point. ‘Calling out sexism in video games’ doesn’t mean that there is sexism and ‘criticism’, coming from the likes of Anita Sarkeesian or Jonathan McIntosh is not ‘criticism’ in the sense most people would understand it. This is not “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work,” or even “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.” This is claiming that these things do harm and should not exist. It is not presented as a matter of opinion or a disagreement that can be discussed, but something that ‘is’, and something that is ‘bad’. It is a bald assertion and any attempt to discuss, debunk or otherwise counter that claim is treated as confirmation of that claim and as a crime or violence in and of itself.

So ‘feminist criticism’ is, indeed, a threat to free expression because it’s not criticism, and it presents calls to action to change, remove and to force artistic works and other expression to change or be removed. If you think censorship is limited to governmental action, this kind of ‘criticism’ works there too, but even so, the ACLU has a fairly up to date definition which includes:

Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.

In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period. But these private censorship campaigns are best countered by groups and individuals speaking out and organizing in defense of the threatened expression.

This isn’t differences of opinion. They are presented as facts, beyond question and to reiterate – since its important – any rebuttal is treated as confirmation and as an ‘attack’ of its own.

It’s also important to note for later that these kinds of ‘critics’ seem genuinely incapable of telling the difference between thought and action. So they will see a cultural artefact that includes – say – violence against women as violence against women (and approving of and encouraging it). This also works in reverse as we saw in the Charlie Hebdo shootings. It allowed many people – even artists and writers – to refuse to commemorate and support Charlie Hebdo because they could not see a meaningful difference between Charlie Hebdo’s criticism of Islam and the ’emotional pain’ it caused, and the violent, actual, physical backlash they suffered.

Panel 4 & Panel 5: One of the great things about social media is that it empowers people to criticise, comment and debunk. This is, of course, not popular in some quarters which is why many sites of various kinds, but tending to have common ideological slants, have taken to removing comments sections or even up and down votes. This stifles the ability of people to point out problems in the assertions directly and such ‘fighting back’ is often conflated with the trolling etc that goes on, making a handy excuse to dismiss, deflect or drown out criticism. The irony here of course is in ‘critics’ lashing out at things people love and then recoiling in terror when they get the same kind of treatment in return. When their ideas are picked apart and tested – as they should be.

Panel 6: Here we see the conflation of criticism and trolls. Anyone and everyone who posts a controversial opinion of any sort online will get blowback and everyone gets trolled. Some people seem to advertise their soft-spots to trolls though, and yet still act surprised when they get attacked on it. A fat acceptance activist will be attacked for their weight, a feminist will receive trolling masquerading as misogyny, black people will receive trolling masquerading as racism. Trolls are not sincere, that’s the definition of a troll – someone who says something horrific or controversial simply to get a response. There are genuine crazies as well, of course, but – again – what happens is that all criticism and rebuttal gets lumped in with the trolls, and the trolls treated as sincere.

Panel 7-8: Nobody is being actively silenced here. They are deciding for themselves to stop speaking. All they have had is disagreement, sometimes strident, online from people they have insulted and tried to censor. The people coming at them have no ‘institutional power’ to do so, while in the reverse you will often find people going to authorities (see earlier) or abusing site rules, DMCA rules etc to silence people. In this instance there is no censorship going on. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone amongst the enemies of these ‘critics’ who advocates that they should not be allowed to speak or present their views. Rather they’re happy to have a free exchange of views, a ‘marketplace of ideas’. This is a very real and important difference. If they truly believed in their ‘criticisms’ they should be willing and able to stand by them, argue for them in the teeth of criticism. That instead they run, hide and attempt – again – to censor dissent suggests that their ideas are indefensible.

Panel 9: Indeed they did. They didn’t silence anyone, they stood up against people who attacked them and forced them to retreat. To any rational and reasonable onlooker who genuinely understands the terms and the differentiations, this is a victory for free expression – just couched in sarcastic terms by someone who knows nothing about it.

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