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Shut Up, No You Shut Up…

Stuff keeps happening, doesn’t it? As I wander through this life and trail behind my friend Oliver, I listen to podcasts and get to hear what other people think about what is happening in the world. Oliver is magnanimous toward every opinion and doesn’t say much regarding the wide variety of views and topics that knock around inside my head. It’s helpful to him that he doesn’t have headphones on, and I get to listen to the voices in my head on my own. Hmm… that does sound like I am talking about something else. Oliver is my dog, by the way, and he is a good boy.

Podcasts. I listen to a lot of them. They are interesting and have wide-ranging opinions and intelligent sources and the people in those podcasts have excellent reasons for saying what they say. Their passion on behalf of their viewpoints is always a source of inspiration to me.

Passion is a good thing, usually, and I can find myself gravitating to those people whose passions run toward positions that I might agree with. Good arguments can do that.

A particular topic of interest to me is that of free speech. I know, it’s very high-minded and noble of me, don’t you agree? Truth be told here; I am of that ilk that believes that free speech should not be trifled with. All of it, unvarnished, from wherever the speaker thinks it should proceed to, let it go there. It’s less than a hundred years old, but I love the idea of the “marketplace of ideas.” Put your viewpoint out there, and through a series of arguments, hey – a discussion even, we might arrive at a place where 51% of your position prevails over 49% of mine. And then… (this is the part that is sorely missing from our interactions “these days”) we shake hands, have frosted fermented beverage and we continue our friendship.

A recent podcast that I heard (and dang it, I listen to too many of them to keep track of where I heard it or who said it… so you must trust me here…) a woman said that they put the “marketplace of ideas” to the test and found it to be sorely lacking. Her test was that they had a few people tweet out a few stories – some stories were true and factual, and others were false and full of errors and misinformation. The false stories got retweeted and shared and commented upon way more than the true ones. So, on that basis, she wants us to abandon the marketplace of ideas mantra. Because, well Twitter is where we champion all the great ideas of our time. Only high-minded discussions take place there, and if it can’t be summarized in 280 characters, then shut your mouth.

No, you shut up. A rumor is halfway around the world before the truth has its shoes tied. It’s been that way forever. Twitter just confirmed it.

There are those who put forth the idea that the marketplace of ideas is inherently racist and used by those with the privilege to shout down everyone else. Calling someone racist is supposed to be the end of the argument. The biggest threat to free speech is to label it with something that is abhorrent and thereby renders the other person defenseless. If you are racist, you lose your seat at the table and you no longer have the right to take part in the discussion. In fact, the discussion is over.

Hate speech or misinformation, or its step-sibling, disinformation. Slap any of those labels on someone’s argument and the discussion is over. The “marketplace of ideas” has been bandied about by the really smart kids for a long time. Those exact words were first coined in the US Supreme Court in a free speech case in 1919. You can argue that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes came up with the idea, and a half-century later Justice William O. Douglas said those words… but it’s been a thing for quite a while now.

It’s disappointing that people of a certain age now feel as if all you have to do to silence someone (like me) who is jabbering on and on about the freedom of expression is to ask, “What if it’s hate speech?” Hate speech should not be tolerated in any way shape or form, ever, they contend.

Another place where freedom of expression has summarily tortured, bloodied, and kicked to the curb is on social media platforms. Before we tiptoe through these tulips, I know – social media platforms are private entities, and they should get to decide who gets to play on their playground. I agree, completely. It’s their place, they built it, and if they don’t want to let someone like me chirp about freedom of speech, they are completely entitled to close the gate and make sure that I am on the outside.

That leaves me with questions (everything does, I am irascible, pit bullish sometimes, and curious…). As to hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation – by whose definition are we playing? Who gets to do the labeling? Who gets to be the final arbiter as to what can and should be said?

Ok, so if the social media “fact-checkers” have deemed something I said to be hate speech, misinformation, or disinformation. I might be disinvited from their midst. Ok, they have the right to do that, it’s their platform. My next set of questions has to do with: What are they afraid of? Engage me with arguments that counter mine, refute mine, site facts and sources that lay my contentions bare and expose me as a liar and hate speaker and mis/disinformationer.

This topic is way bigger than my ability to prattle on about it. I shan’t be letting go of it. My friends, if you are ok with them silencing me, then you might be on shaky grounds if someday they focus their laser a little tighter and suddenly, you ain’t playing by the rules. I am not saying that this has happened to me, I was just using me as an example. Maybe I am looking into the future, or maybe I just didn’t want to use some examples that would’ve caused hackles to get raised. My arguments are pure speculation and just for the purposes of this discussion.

Let’s ask ourselves this question and be honest and sincere in our deliberations. By silencing anyone, no matter how heinous and disgusting their point of view, aren’t we driving it further underground and giving credence to those who would gravitate toward it because now it has the gravitas of being banned? So, somebody got hacked off and banned this line of thinking. There might be something to it, someone might conclude…

If hate speech or the mis/dis siblings are like pornography (I know it when I see it) – why try to drive it underground. To me, this is all about people who think they are our betters trying to decide for us what to believe and what not to believe. What are they afraid of? If they are afraid that stupid people will believe it, why are you afraid of stupid people?

I have an answer. Spoiler alert: it requires me to continue this discussion in another post. Stay tuned. Or not…

Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Ooooh Tom, as idealist, you’ve given me so much to process. I have to say I love the idea of free speech, but the execution of it, when it is riddled with mistruths that poison the democracy that made it possible in the first place, leaves me very unsettled. Since I see the slippery slope of censorship, I struggle with identifying a solution. We clearly can’t assume people will bring integrity and act responsibly as commerce and power seem to prevail. And your question, “Why are you afraid of stupid people?”… The nice person in me has a hard time with that label, but I do think think our recent history has proven that there are millions of people who can be manipulated based on whatever propaganda they follow, which as put our civil society and our democracy at risk. I’m afraid because I don’t see a way out of this pickle we’ve created for ourselves.

    • Ok, Kimberly, you are someone who makes me believe so much more ardently for this most critical right to free speech to remain as a cherished part of our foundation. I disagree with you here, but I love that we can have this discussion. If we adopt your method of filtering information, and therefore “protecting” those millions of people from mis/disinformation, we have condescendingly patted them on the head and said “We know better than you, therefore you are not eligible to get this information.” The way to combat propaganda is with more information, more discussion, more research.

      Part of that discussion is going is going to be that we will need to blow up the silos that exist that are just mouthpieces for one side or the other… and by blowing up, I don’t mean getting rid of them. We have to make efforts, all of us, to treasure balanced information, to make people want to see things from more than one perspective. What was disinformation six months ago is now being proved to be accurate. Why are we so afraid of full disclosure? I get it that bad actors will misuse this right, and false, inaccurate, half-truths will be put out and they will be picked up and they will flourish. All the more reason to have them out there, so they can be refuted wherever they are. We can hold facts up and say “See, this is wrong, and here are sources that refute this information and here is why they are wrong…

      I love that you took up my discussion and took it to logical endpoints. Those endpoints are: this is not an easy thing to resolve. It will not always be pretty. The truth may not always win out. The alternative is this: To lose this right, and never get it back. Once rights are gone, they don’t come back. Thank you for engaging with me here, I love that you answered from where your heart leads you, you could do nothing else. That’s why there’s only a gazillion people on the planet, me among them, who love you so dang much.

  2. Hi there Tom..even though we were granted free speech, there are many times I hesitate to express all of my thoughts.

    This of course is a safe route to take..yet, I ask myself when I get a thought that aggravates me, who really cares about what I have to say about that topic?

    I see by what Ken Vincent has written that I adhere to being responsible.

    Anything else I wish to speak about in the genre of ‘free speech’ will only be with those I know and trust.

    You wrote a great piece and I will reread and forward it to those who will appreciate it..and thanks Ken Vincent as well.

    Onward,
    Joanne Victoria

    • Joanne –

      That we give that blank check of free speech to all to use as they may is a guarantee that some will blow it on some bad things. We can’t save them from themselves. We can’t take it away from them to protect them from misusing it. We don’t guarantee a lack of consequences to the misuse of the freedom of speech, we just want it to be available to everyone. Laura Staley accurately pointed out that everyone should use the trio of “is it kind, is it necessary, is it true” as the threshold we all need to take into account, but we know not everyone will.

      And you are spot on when you say that free speech, by its very nature is, and should be situational. I can say things to my wife about certain topics that I would cringe and shudder if they ever were spoken to others. The “marketplace of ideas” will be messy, and there will be times that we’ll need to clean-up the aisles when things are tossed around carelessly or haphazardly. But with those clean-ups come opportunities for further learning, growth, wisdom and redemption. We can’t take those away, can we? Thank you for your contribution, I love the kind of insights that you shared here, and elsewhere.

  3. Being aginst free speach is akin to being against motherhood and apple pie. The right to free speech should be a given and apply equally to all. However, like all “freedoms”, free speech comes with a price. The price of responsibility. While a speaker should be able to voice their love of Naziism and Hitler, I don’t want that being voiced in a third-grade classroom. My point is that there are venues where some subjects and opinions should be left alone. The question of course is who gets to decide those boundaries. It would be nice to say that logic and common sense should be the rule. It has been my experience however, that logic and common sense are not all that common, so there we return to the questions of should there be limits, where are the limits, and who draws the lines?

    • Ken – exactly. To me when we talk about limits and guardrails and restraints – who are those arbiters? To me, that’s where the discussion has to logically proceed to. Because if we just use an empty bromide like “well, ban all hate speech” – we could talk until we are blue in the face about what that might include and what it might exclude, and we won’t find two people who will be able to thread that needle the same way. You are dead on when you say that this topic needs to include responsibility. It definitely does. And there will be harrowing and disgusting displays where those will be sorely lacking. And we need to leave them out there for all the world to see, to examine them, and to understand them for what they are. We need to keep the reminders of what free speech entails in front of everyone, all the time. It’s easy to forget, and to lose sight of the value that they bring. Thank you so much for your contribution to the topic.

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