Author’s Note: The topic of free speech and media (social and otherwise) has been on my mind a lot lately. I am concerned that the actions we are seeing in squelching dissenting opinions, creating algorithmic echo chambers and replacing open debate about ideas with ad hominem attacks is taking our society down a wrong and costly path…and its one we have been down before. Be warned there is a brief rant, but I have marked it so that you can choose whether to read it or not. The choice, as it should be, is yours.
Begin Original Post
I struggled with too many topics for this post this week, but finally realized there was indeed a common thread that runs through them and that is that history, especially political history, repeats itself, and, (separate rant) unfortunately, political hypocrisy repeats itself, too. Amazingly, though, the politicians and the media believe that if they ignore it and don’t report it, people will just miss it and/or forget about it. I don’t tend to completely trust reviews of what happened, because they have a tendency to either omit or downplay aspects of events due to either implicit or explicit bias, so I tend to go to original source as much as possible in order to understand both what was said and what the context is.
WARNING – BRIEF POLITICAL RANT tl;dr I don’t like hypocritical politicians and trust them up until they open their mouths. Long version – Granted there are many, many examples of politicians switching positions based upon whether or not it benefits them (see Harry Reid/Charles Schumer/Mitch McConnell history on the filibuster when Reid did away with it under the Obama administration, Nancy Pelosi/Adam Schiff/Jerry Nadler on impeachment of Clinton vs. Trump, Maxine Waters/Kamala Harris/Nancy Pelosi on violence at summer riots vs. Capitol, Barbara Boxer/Barbara Lee/Pramila Jayapal/Jerry Nadler/Maxine Waters on challenging electors during the electoral vote count (2000, 2004, 2016, 2020) and, of course, the multitude of pretzel-like positions taken about the integrity of the election in 2016 vs. 2020 on both sides.) These are interesting political topics that I’d be happy to discuss over a beer sometime, but, frankly, such examples are myriad and really only serve to underscore the fact that politicians tend to take whatever position benefits them at the time and have no memory of ever having thought otherwise. In many cases, though frustrating, these flip flops don’t normally result in major societal impacts, rather they end up being part of the political dance that makes for great theater in Washington and for comedy on par with Airplane for most the rest of the country who are spending their days working to attain their part of the American Dream. END RANT
No, the problem is when our media and cultural leaders lead us down a road based on their emotional and personal ideology without recognizing that we have experienced this before and that history wasn’t kind to us.
With that, stop me if you have heard this before…
Private media and other companies blacklist, ban and/or refuse to hire people because of their political views.
What we hear today is that it is perfectly okay, and, in fact, admirable for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and others to ban people who espouse a right-wing viewpoint because they are private companies and don’t have to let everyone have a voice. Additionally, they have a civic responsibility to protect individuals from exposure to misinformation. In fact, this responsibility extends to ensuring that society is protected from “speech we hate” in addition to “hate speech”. The First Amendment does not apply because they are private companies. Likewise, there have been many calls for businesses, particularly media-focused organizations to not hire anyone associated with the Trump administration because their willing support of the former President is tantamount to endorsing racism, fascism, etc. Because of this, they have no right, nor should they have any expectation that they should be given any platform to spew their bile.
The other side of the argument has two key points. First is that the Internet was created to allow the completely free exchange of ideas, thoughts and concepts and that the responsibility lies with each user to decide what to read, support, etc. Basically, if you don’t like it, don’t support it, but let it be posted. It is the responsibility of each individual to choose for themselves what they will or will not consume on the Internet. The second point is that the social media companies are protected from libel lawsuits exclusively because they are a “public forum” and are not responsible for the content posted. By banning the President and several of his supporters they have become “editors” or “creators” of content and should be subject to libel and other lawsuits just as the traditional media companies are. (This is the Section 230 argument that has been going on for a bit.) Finally, there is a significant difference between speech you hate and hate speech and the first is protected under the First Amendment.
When you boil it down to basics, it is the age-old debate about whether an individual should be responsible for themselves or be taken care of or protected by a third party.
Where we’ve seen it before. November 25, 1947 through 1960. November 25, 1947, was the day the first Hollywood blacklist was created listing ten writers and directors who were subsequently banned from working with any of the production companies in Hollywood represented by the Association of Motion Picture Producers for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Commission. This initial list grew as the production companies began requiring oaths of loyalty and writers, directors, and actors pushed back. The result was a period in American history that is considered by many to be a stain on our claims of freedom of expression, freedom of speech, etc. (See Kirk Douglas – Spartacus, Trumbo, etc.) Don’t take my word for it, read about the history of the Hollywood Ten and the many actors and writers caught up in it (e.g., Dalton Trumbo, Dorothy Parker, Charlie Chaplin, Lena Horne, Orson Welles, Burgess Meredith, etc.) The actions by the House of Representatives with the House Un-Amerian Activities Commission was a black mark on history, but the actions by the private studios are what I am calling out here. As private companies, they decided to silence these people based on their political views and the popular yet wrong opinion of the political elite at that time.
I know we are in a politically charged environment and that there are strong emotions on both sides of the aisle, but we cannot abandon or sacrifice the principles that have made us the greatest nation in the world in the name of nothing more than petty revenge. We are better than that, or, at least, we should be. Hopefully, history will show that we responded much better than our predecessors.