Last month, a broad spectrum of feminist activists and organizations published an open letter to Facebook, demanding that the social-networking colossus crack down on pages that glorify or promote violence against women. Although Facebook’s moderators had long disallowed anti-Semitism, gay-bashing and other kinds of hateful content, they often excused misogynist pages, even graphically violent ones, as mere “distasteful humor”.
If anything ever seemed like a David-versus-Goliath battle, it was this. But the campaign generated a flood of outraged messages to Facebook’s advertisers, some of whom started to get nervous and pull their ads. And just a week later, in a startling announcement, Facebook capitulated and promised to improve its moderation policies.
This is exactly how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work in a free society. By allowing their ads to be posted alongside violent and degrading sexism, Facebook’s advertisers were signaling their tacit approval of that content. And the public responded by exercising their right of free association, voting with their dollars and declining to support companies who underwrote a viewpoint they found abhorrent. This is how democratic persuasion always operates, the same way that divestment was used to pressure the South African government to end apartheid.
By contrast, here’s how the marketplace of ideas isn’t supposed to work: this week, media critic Anita Sarkeesian posted the second installment of her web series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, showcasing the mindless repetition of sexist clichés in popular games. Within an hour, the video was taken down by an army of trolls who abused YouTube’s flag function. It was quickly restored, but even so, this showcases the tactics of anti-feminists: not to meet speech with speech, or even to persuade YouTube’s advertisers to pull their support, but to attempt to silence Sarkeesian with false takedown reports filed in bad faith.
I always think this distinction is obvious, and it seems I’m always wrong, because every time this happens, some trolls predictably complain about “censorship” and the denial of their free speech. (Even the ACLU, though I usually agree with and support them, was off-base on this one, absurdly comparing Facebook to a government.) So, as a service to the confused, let’s go over the definition one more time.
Free speech is the right to speak your mind without government censorship and without fear of extralegal retaliation like harassment or violence. That’s all!
Free speech doesn’t include the right to speak your mind on any forum anywhere. The government may not prevent you from speaking, but private parties, like blog owners or corporations, aren’t required to let you use their property as your platform.
Free speech doesn’t include the right to be believed or to be taken seriously. People may mock, ridicule or laugh at what you say, or they may reject it outright.
Free speech doesn’t include the right to be listened to. People who don’t desire to hear your opinion can hang up on you, block you on social media, change the channel, close the browser tab. Free speech doesn’t give you the right to bombard people with harassing messages or otherwise force them to pay attention to you against their will.
And free speech doesn’t include the right to suffer no consequences whatsoever for your expressed opinions. As Facebook found out, if you say things that other people find abhorrent, they may boycott you, disinvite you or choose not to associate with you.
There are countless people who don’t understand this, or at least pretend not to understand it, and who insist that their free speech does include all these spurious rights: the right to say anything they want, to anyone they want, at any time and place they want, without facing any consequences or incurring any damage to their reputation. The social-justice community has a punning homophonic description of this whiny, entitled behavior: not free speech, but “freeze peach”.
This idea spans the ideological spectrum. One of my very first posts on Daylight Atheism was about a Christian school suing a public university that refused to grant college credit for courses taught from an explicitly devotional, sectarian viewpoint. (They lost.) At the time, I called this the fallacy of free speech – but in retrospect, it it was clearly the freeze-peach mentality.
Atheists have their share of them too, as we’ve seen over the last few years: the misogynists who think that FREEZE PEACH! means their right to pester women in any way they choose or use any kind of misogynist language they see fit is sacrosanct. (Remember that unfortunate fellow who raved that my criticism of his behavior amounts to censorship?) Of course, they apply this standard with extreme selectivity, screaming about how the slightest criticism of their ideas is tantamount to brutal persecution by jackbooted thugs, while at the same time freely and gleefully trying to silence opposing views by harassing or intimidating the people who hold them.
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