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22 July 2014 19:18 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

Freedom of speech & freedom of abuse

  • Jacques Rousseau
Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace is due in part to an audience that is both voracious and averse to complexity. The story of Tom Daley, on the other hand, revolves around an audience that is vicious. Both of these events highlight that our assumptions regarding how media is produced and received might be in need of some adaptation. By JACQUES ROUSSEAU.

It’s somewhat of a cottage industry to point out yet another way in which something new in the world will transform our lives. Whether it be social structures, economic systems or modes of communication that are changing, it’s the stuff of pop-psychology, science or economics to point out what we need to adapt to, and to make suggestions for how we should do so.

Some people make a living from making these suggestions. Or did make a living, until being discovered fabricating Bob Dylan quotes as Jonah Lehrer recently was. (If we’re lucky, a similar fate might soon befall Malcolm Gladwell, sparing us from Slurp: What kitten’s tongues teach us about derivatives.)

Yes, of course I’m jealous. And also sympathetic, in the case of Lehrer, because it seems likely that he didn’t so much intend to deceive as simply to entertain. This isn’t to excuse him, because clear distinctions can be drawn between cleaning up quotations and simply making them up. The latter remains, and should remain, unacceptable in anything purporting to be non-fiction.

But one of the things that has transformed and requires adaptation is the relationship between writers and readers, on at least two fronts. Even in the market for pabulum, where the likes of Lehrer and Gladwell often trade, the attention economy conduces to style is becoming as important as substance if you’re looking to sell books.

In the latter decades of last century you could perhaps count the popular science writers worth reading on 10 fingers, and “popular” was still compatible with “rather challenging”, at least for laypersons. Now the bookshelves seem packed, frequently with books from the discipline dubbed “neuroscientism” in which Gladwell and Lehrer arguably both work. To have your books sell, rather than a competitor’s, you need to become a brand.

The need to become a brand is not new. Perhaps, though, what it means to be a brand these days is new, because brands appear to no longer be built on the best ideas, but rather on ideas that spark the imagination and can be captured in headlines and slogans. The aversion to complexity that many of us in the audience seem to have incentivises the sort of shortcut-taking of which that Lehrer is guilty.

The changing expectations we have for what our “experts” should deliver, and how they might adjust their output in response to those expectations, was one sort of adaptation that was widely discussed over the past week, mostly in response to the Lehrer case. A second sort of adaptation can be found in (and is necessitated by) the fact that many of us seem to have forgotten what free speech is for.

As I argued in last week’s column, we can be wrong about what we believe to be true. Our prejudices and biases might stop us from realising that we’re wrong, and worse still, they might cause us to silence those who disagree with us. So, free speech is largely good for protecting vulnerable (but often valuable) speech acts.

What it’s not for is claiming protection from ridicule or criticism for saying stupid, bigoted or hateful things. So, just in case anyone missed or misunderstood last week’s column, in it I argue that Americans have just as much right to ridicule Chick-fil-A’s president as he does to express his homophobia, because the morality of both of these actions is a separate issue from their permissibility.

This background is relevant to the second adaptation because of the size of the market for opinion – both the producers of it and those who respond to it, increasingly on platforms like Twitter. I’ve previously asked the question of whether comment facilities on the Internet help to turn decent folk into raving loons (temporarily, one hopes), so won’t revisit that territory here. Instead, the question I’d like to raise is what we’re supposed to do about it.

To put it simply, as an audience grows, so too does the number of trolls. As any of you reading this will know, the troll is frequently louder and more persistent than any other contributor to debate. A common refrain on comment threads has for years been “don’t feed the trolls”—in other words, ignore them and hopefully they’ll get bored and go somewhere else.

But this attitude is starting to seem somewhat naïve. Not only because groups like 4Chan and LulzSec have been known to express their views through damaging hacks, but also because the idea of what free speech is good for is perverted when we start using it to justify the level of abuse that Olympic swimmer Tom Daley was recently subjected to.

In his explanation of why Rileyy_69 (the Twitter user who taunted Daley) is no free speech hero, Graham Linehan makes a number of good points. These two paragraphs are particularly worth reading, and clearly illustrate why we somehow need to adapt our norms—and even perhaps our laws—to accommodate the different ways in which people can and do engage in a world of electronic media.

“Being able to locate someone—even on the other side of the world—who has suffered a bereavement, and whisper in their ear words calculated to break their heart, is a new chapter in our development, and I think we can all agree that the arrival of hyper-empowered bullies is far from being the most positive aspect of our current connectivity.  

“And ‘don’t feed the trolls’ won’t cut it as a solution. That's just victim-blaming. Often it comes from people who have never had to deal with the level of abuse that many in the public eye receive, and never will. New rule: If you don’t experience it every day, you don’t get to tell anyone who does to suck it up.”

There are many more adaptations than just these two that might be necessary, and the two I discuss here might not even be at the top of the list. The Lehrer case is arguably an example of what one might call the “shortcut culture”; and Rileyy_69 an example of what can happen in a world where everyone seems to think they’re entitled to just any opinion, and who have lost the internal censor which might otherwise have told them that a given opinion was not worth sharing.

“The question of how we protect free speech is no less important than the question of how we deal with abusive behaviour online,” Linehan wrote. While that might be putting the case too strongly, the latter is certainly an important question. It is also a complex one, and this is where the two adaptations intersect. Complex questions require careful deliberation, but fabricated Dylan quotes might sell more books. DM

  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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