How “Free Exchange of Ideas” Naivety Limits Free Speech

How “Free Exchange of Ideas” Naivety Limits Free Speech September 17, 2017

Do the best ideas naturally rise to the top?

I’ve noticed, lately, that several people who insist on protecting the free exchange of ideas seem to portray this exchange as one that is already occurring on a flat surface. The implicit claim is that everyone is initially at the same starting point; at the beginning, we supposedly all have the same opportunity to be heard. The ideas that naturally rise to the top are, many seem to think, going to be the best ideas. As a result, we need to police the expression of ideas as little as possible (or not at all), and allow the free exchange of ideas to do its thing. The ideas that survive are going to be the most beneficial ones — the ones closest to the truth, because truth has a tendency to endure the lies.

Far from abolishing limits in the arena of speech, however, the naivety of this view actually encourages, however unintentionally, an oppressive limiting of free expression.

Because this ideal of a naturally free and open exchange of ideas, in which the best ideas automatically rise to the top, ignores the fact that the real world is not an ideal flat surface. The real world has power imbalances. Good ideas do not naturally rise to the surface; in the real world, we often have to be fight to hear the most important voices, and it’s hard for them to be heard above the dominant voices that are constantly shutting them down.

For example: If you were an American slave in the 18th century, you would not have as much of a say regarding what went on in this country as a white landowner. Obviously. Now, the white landowners can talk about the free exchange of ideas all they want. The fact is that the exchange is not free. If you talk back to your master, you may be whipped or otherwise punished. If you try to express yourself through voting, you will be denied. If your master asks you, in front of his guests, whether you think you should be free, your response — if you want to stay in your powerful master’s good favor, is “No, sir. I’m happy here.”

It’s not an equal playing field. It took the bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War, to even remotely attempt to even out that discourse. Free speech was limited for the slave. And sure, you could disagree — but you wouldn’t be heard. Instantly, if you said “Yes, sir” the whites at the table might laugh at you or dismiss you, and say that you didn’t know what was good for you — after all, slavery was beneficial to the blacks, or so the lore went. And you would be demeaned and face negative consequences at the plantation.

It is thoroughly extraordinary to me that many of these plantation owners signed the Declaration of Independence, which proudly proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights….”

While holding slaves. How does a slave have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? How could these people say that when they owned slaves?

Because the slaves didn’t matter. Because their discourse didn’t matter. Because the slaves could not speak effectively in the “free speech” arena.

How “But That’s in the Past” Hypocrisy Seeks to Silence Perspectives

“But wait,” you might say. “That was slavery. This is now; we’re past that.”

Are we, though?

I would argue that even now the slaves cannot speak. I mean, I am expected, as a black man with ancestors who were slaves, to look at that Declaration of Independence in awe, as a treasured piece of our history.  Like the slave in 1776, the pattern of silencing the angry slave whose master was looking for freedom while forcing that slave to work the fields is perpetuated in my situation — we are still not allowed to say, in several corners, that the Declaration of Independence is a hypocritical sham. Time is the excuse used — that happened yesterday. But I don’t think that’s the real rationale; I don’t trust it. I suspect that the real reasoning is that people don’t want the Declaration of Independence challenged today, any more than they wanted it challenged in 1776, and that the entire motive is to silence a discourse that disturbs them, that fundamentally challenges the foundations of this country.

Think of the hypocrisy: the Declaration of Independence, it is insisted, is a great document of the past that we should revere, but we should forget slaves because slavery was yesterday — even though both phenomena happened at the exact same time. When you see hypocrisy like this, it is rational to see the principle as a fraud, something hiding a real motive — in this case, to silence the slave discourse and to perpetuate the founding slave owners’ discourse.

The trend has a disturbing consistency, passed down from generation to generation. In the 19th century, the slave was not allowed to speak. His voice was muffled. And it is STILL muffled, because to allow the slave to speak today requires a fundamental reworking and rethinking of all we see in America, a paradigm shift that challenges the way this country fundamentally thinks about itself and its inhabitants.

To realize that the bloody Civil War was fought not just because of a hallowed view of the South, with the ideal of gentlemen of leisure lounging on plantations drinking mint juleps on the veranda, protected by dignified generals who valued honor and a rich cultural heritage — to go from that perspective to welcoming the perspective of the angry blacks in the fields, singing spirituals that were not merely romantic and beautiful, but expressions of what it was like to be cruelly silenced by their chains, the whips, and the ideological entrapment forced on them by a hypocritically applied Bible — to do that would be to fundamentally change the power dynamics of discourse in history and in America today.

Let me get down to the bones of this truth:

No one actually wants to forget the past. When someone says, “Slavery was so long ago, forget about it,” they are saying that because they want to stay in power — because there are other things they, without notable exception, will not let us forget. They want to preserve the unequal discourse that has been enforced and perpetuated since before the dawn of this nation.

Think about it. The same people who tell us to forget about slavery, voting disenfranchisement, lynchings, segregation, the drug war, police brutality, court system inequality, and the rest, are the ones who insist on celebrating events that happened at the exact same times as the ones they insist we forget. They are the loudest when it comes to protecting Columbus day, complaining about a Native American view of Thanksgiving, hallowing the Declaration of Independence as what made America great in 1776, praising police actions, and glorifying the Civil War South as an indication of the rich heritage and honor embodied by the South.

Do you find the double standard confusing? It’s very simple. The concern was never about forgetting the past. It was always and only about silencing uncomfortable discourses. When you were a slave you could not speak because you did not know what was good for yourself, which was being in the fields and respecting the honor and dignity of the South. Now time has passed, but you still don’t know what’s good for yourself. You can never speak a critical word against our precious narrative. Let it stay intact, they insist.

How “Snowflake” Hypocrisy Preserves Silencing Tactics

For all the talk of snowflakes, it is THEM who are the vulnerable ones, the ones protecting their lies from uncomfortable truths. It is their precious narrative that protects the ideology of their past, as surely as religious tyrants of yesterday insured that religious demographics become what they are today.

The slave owners have passed a legacy of protecting their narrative on to their descendants and fellow whites, which is why it continues to this day. The power of this legacy is protected not only by the lie that yesterday’s treatment of relatively silenced groups has no consequences or enduring effects, but also by the lie that the power dynamics in any given discourse are inherently equal, that oppression is a lie, that the flat ground of ideas keeps all discourse fair.

Because it doesn’t. We know it doesn’t. Minorities and marginalized groups that have long been silenced or ignored know it doesn’t, and if you don’t know it doesn’t, either you are being willfully ignorant or you have not heard us speak our actual experiences, because the movement to silence us and to protect the precious narratives that exclude our voices has had centuries to build itself up and remains extremely strong.

How the Myth Perpetuates and Hides Real-World Oppression of Unjustly Silenced Voices

Here’s a concrete example:

Arguably, no place better embodies the place most would prefer to believe that there is a free exchange of ideas and open discourse than a courtroom. But does anyone really believe that anyone is going to believe a Texas sheriff over a black man he abused in a court of law, if there is no actual videotape evidence? Even if there IS videotape evidence, it’s doubtful. We know from videotape that cops lie frequently. It’s a case where the ideal narrative people apply to a court of law — that the free exchange of ideas leads to a fair verdict — simply does not apply in reality. To insist it does is to, rather infuriatingly, deny that the cop has a tremendous inherent advantage, given decades or hundreds of years of history. And that cop’s free speech limits the free speech of the defendant — clearly. That limiting puts that defendent in jail.

Seriously. More than 90% of cases these days end in plea bargains — in which the defendant pleads guilty to lower their sentence rather than fight it out in the courts — often by people who claim they didn’t commit the crime.

Free speech? Hardly. And yet that’s the ideal we apply to a courtroom, as in other arenas. But it does not happen, because the power dynamics and biases, developed over hundreds of years, make the situation unequal. And this dynamic is a continuation of yesterday — law enforcement today still contains KKK members, on occasion.

These power dynamics are baked deep into society, and they exist far before anyone starts to open their mouth to speak. Think about it — after slavery, blacks couldn’t vote. They had a harder time getting a job. They had to drink in a different water fountain, ride in the back of the bus, live in a different part of town, take their kids to a different school, go to a different church, get a different level of employment — they could speak, but their voice would not matter. If it was the black man’s word against a white man’s word, the black man would be lynched for so much as looking at a white girl. Black people and white people both took drugs, but black people are the ones who saw prison time. The voice of a white person mattered vastly more in the past, and it matters a lot more now — by design, through hundreds of years of history, before you and I was born.

That’s why marijuana was so dangerous, for example, in the eyes of the law, and the narrative that it wasn’t took so long to get into the mainstream — because the so-called “arena of free discourse” silenced black speech, limited their speech, and ensured they got thrown in jail…and still determines that they get thrown in jail. Now that white people like it, in several places people can sell the same thing at the same rate that got black people locked away for life, for years.

That’s why we took so darn long to stop the AIDS epidemic. If it had been straight white men getting it, it would have mattered (and when they got it, it started to matter a bit more). But because it was gay men, it took forever…and still impedes the fight against AIDS. It isn’t like they didn’t speak up, either — they did. But in the so-called “free exchange of ideas,” people died, because the exchange was not free. Some voices were more powerful than others due to the inherent biases entrenched and reinforced in culture, and as a result millions of people have been buried, and AIDS became a more serious problem.

That’s why transphobia exists, with disastrous consequences. It’s not like trans people aren’t speaking up — they are, but to say that the discourse is equal is absolutely false. When people use transphobic slurs and arguments against trans people, they are silencing their discourse — as they have for hundreds (and possibly thousands) of years.

That’s why many in the US don’t believe in climate change. It’s not like scientists aren’t speaking up. It’s that there are severe biases in the free exchange of ideas. Correcting those biases does not mean simply letting everyone talk — it means being perceptive about oppressed or irrationally marginalized voices, and giving them a mike, and allowing them to change the narrative.

I mean, Trump lies ALL THE TIME. He lied so much that he got Lie of the Year in 2015 from the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Politifact. And yet he won an election. If that doesn’t convince you that, in the free exchange of ideas, the best ideas don’t naturally rise to the top, I don’t know what will.

The lies that he tells actually silence the truth. They impede free and rational discourse from taking place.

How the Lie Perpetuates Fake News, Bullying, and Other Effective Mutings of the Truth

Yeah, I know it’s hard to get past the lie that free discourse, on an equal playing field, is what we have in the Western World. But the fact is that good ideas aren’t heard without a fight. Facebook has to combat this viciously — fake news is MUCH more successful on an unpoliced Facebook than the truth, for example. Cyberbullying is rampant in free speech arenas, but it has the effect of silencing speech, not encouraging it — for every popular bully, there are dozens of potentially successful voices that are bullied and intimidated into silence, which is why YouTube and Twitter crack down. Bullies on social media create a Lord-of-the-Flies dynamic that ultimately will crash their platforms.

Now, I’m gonna get into some specific, lower-scale examples here. Viewpoints popular online (on sites like YouTube).

The people who are popular online are not popular, necessarily, because they are right. Popularity is not something you necessarily get for being right, it is something you get for saying what people want to hear. And what people want to hear is their biases, which have been embedded in culture through hundreds of years of effort. Joel Osteen is not popular because he is right. He is popular because of an arena of forces — sometimes through discourse, sometimes through the courts, and sometimes through brute force — that has created a landscape that gives his message an inherent advantage. That’s why he wins so much in the so-called “open exchange of ideas.”

The same with several popular online voices. And this popularity has the power to silence when it is used to bully.

I have seen, countless times, people who are in groups that have historically been kept silent be forced to remain silent through demeaning from those who reinforce the status quo of bias. People who make YouTube channels, for example, and then are forced out when an “attack” video sends millions over to the video to bury it in insults and abuse and threats. These are personal stories I’ve seen that I hesitate to bring up individually, simply because several of these people are trying to get as little attention from abusive people as possible, but they exist.

Pretending that the playing field is equal is just that — pretending. There is not a free exchange of ideas in the context of radically unequal power dynamics, the centuries-old reinforcement of biases, and the constant policing of these silenced groups.

And so, in light of that, we need to ask whether we want to fight oppression or perpetuate the lie of a mythical “free exchange of ideas” in which supposedly equal power dynamics don’t silence free speech of the most vulnerable people among us.

Because those most oppressed, those most suffering for who they fundamentally are as human beings, are, historically and currently, those least likely to be heard due to the interest many have in protecting traditional narratives, those most afraid of repercussions from speaking, and those most vulnerable.

If the concern is fighting oppression, we need to realize we don’t live in a free speech utopia, be honest about the power dynamics silencing these voices, and give them a safe place to speak where they won’t have to fear for their lives or well-being…at least, no more than the rest of us.

Far from being harmless, speech is an action that lays borders and real-world consequences for other speech. The right-wing myth that speech is somehow void of real consequences and thus should not be complained about is another tool to perpetuate oppressive power dynamics.

How do I know? Hypocrisy.

Call someone the n-word or joke about racist stereotypes that effectively silence honest black voices from being effective in today’s discourse, and the right-wing audience shouts “free speech.”

Point out that these stereotypes and the n-word perpetuate a racism that has real consequences for blacks in this country, politically, socially, and economically, and that such speech is “racist” — and suddenly you are shouted at to not call people racists by the very same would-be free speech warriors.  

Suddenly, they are acutely aware that such speech has consequences. Not to mention the fact that, as is obvious from the very title of “anti-SJW” that they give themselves, much of what they say are RESPONSES to speech, attempts to invalidate and thus silence speech, an activity they and their followers spend a lot of time doing through mocking and downvotes and threats and the rest. They know that the “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” adage is a load of excrement, or they wouldn’t be spending so much time attacking the words threatening to break the insulation of their centuries-old traditional narratives.

It’s not about free speech. It’s about protecting power and thus limiting free speech from sources they disagree with.

On Expanding Boundaries of Speech without Enabling Oppressive Views

If you are tricked into believing the principles of free discourse are ones that most in the right-wing/alt-right “free speech” crowd actually believes and takes seriously, you’ll be bewildered, as many are, when so-called “anti-SJWs” seem to repeatedly violate their own principles of free discourse. The principles were not the point; the point was always to silence discourses that don’t agree with theirs.

In spite of insistence on the free exchange of ideas, the use of popularity to create power dynamics that effectively silence discourses they disagree with is fundamental to their discourse. They aren’t trying to protect free speech. They are constructing limits to free speech, silencing and invalidating discourse, and the popularity is not fueled by their correctness — it is fueled by the anxiety people have when traditional narratives are fundamentally challenged. To the extent we encourage these voices in the place of the voices they effectively silence and diminish, we may be perpetuating patterns of domination and oppression, not promoting a free discourse of ideas that can end patterns of oppression. If we’re going to try to encourage the truth to be heard and end injustice, we are going to have to be honest about the world that we’re living in and deal with the tough questions that result from that honesty, encouraging oppressed voices to speak in the process — and being able to recognize that oppression not from mere popular discourse, but from the actual facts at our disposal…realizing that traditional narratives or ways of looking at culture are going to have an inherent advantage at almost every turn.

We will have to differentiate, as well, between those who are attacking people, and those who are attacking views.  The two are not the same. If you have a viewpoint that attacks people — say, if you a Nazi who thinks that Jews might overthrow American society because of their inherent qualities — you are more dangerous than a Jew who hates a Nazi. The Nazi hates the Jew for who the Jew, fundamentally, is — the response of hating the viewpoint is only natural. Same with other groups. Such differentiations are crucial for determining which views are protecting the right of a person to exist in the world — as who they are, not merely what they believe — and which views are oppressively silencing that right. As we try to open up, protect, and encourage arenas of discourse, it seems crucial to carefully keep these differences in mind…and thus make progress in breaking down the oppressive voices that limit the free speech and lives of the vulnerable people in our society.

Thank you for reading.

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