Free speech is for the brave and the hated (and everyone else)
Last week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for saying he would not automatically censor Holocaust deniers from Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg is not expressing sympathy with Holocaust deniers when he says he won’t automatically remove them from the Facebook news feed. His convoluted way of saying so may have missed the mark, but defending the right of people to post controversial or objectionable ideas on a free social media service should be a no-brainer. It’s a sad sign that anyone in America today should have to “walk back” any comment that defends the right of free expression.
Facebook has the right to censor content, as it’s a media platform that can operate by whatever standards it deems fit. And indeed it has censored content, putting dollars before principles and obediently obeyed repressive laws overseas in order to gain traction outside the U.S. It follows speech codes set by the Chinese government and governments in Europe that would never pass muster in the U.S. if they were applied by a government agency.
But the demands that Facebook censor content show the diminished respect for the concept of free speech and expression. Facebook enables users to block content they find objectionable and even block other users from their news feed if they are not to your liking. That people clamor for Facebook to go further and eliminate whole blocks of content simply because many people object flies in the face of what we Americans embrace as a concept of free expression.
Free speech is an end unto itself, it is a moral absolute. Freedom of expression is a basic human right that universal and inviolate. It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights as well as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19).
Social media is not obligated to the same concepts of free expression that are guaranteed human rights. When you sign up for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever comes next, you are agreeing to terms of conditions that enable the service provider to regulate how they wish. But our sense of fair play in allowing free expression in these realms is an important one.
Americans have rightfully embraced the saying that is often attributed to Voltaire (though it actually comes from biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who summarized his idea), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
And to stand up for free speech is to undoubtedly join questionable company. You’re going to be standing up for Klansmen, pornographers, Holocaust deniers, pedophiles, and religious extremists. You will defend the rights of people who want to see you diminished, or maybe even dead. Sadly, the distinction of supporting someone’s right to say something as opposed to supporting what they say is being stripped away. Even long-standing organizations that have famously jumped to the defense of free speech—specifically the once-reliable A.C.L.U.—are now hedging and making exceptions in the toxic partisan atmosphere of our contemporary era.
Much of the speculation today surrounding the ascent of alternative right elements in our national politics is whether or not we are heading down the slippery slope to a fascist state. If the American far right is excelling in bringing us closer to fascism, its greatest victory so far has been in getting its opposition to embrace fascist elements wholesale while waving the flag of anti-fascist virtue. Every “punch a Nazi” post you see on social media, every embrace of the very concept of “hate speech” is a steep step down that terrible slippery slope.
Please remember: there is a reason that fascists are rightly reviled, it’s because they do things such as… restricting freedom of speech under the guise of protecting the populace from harmful ideas, advocating violence against those they disagree with, or claiming some higher moral right to speech than others. “That’s not free speech, that’s hate speech,” is among the most fascistic mantras in common use today.
Let’s all sides agree to let others have their say. You don’t have to listen or agree, but recognize that free speech is a human right that no one should be able to infringe. Defending the right of someone to express their ideas is not the equivalent of endorsing those ideas: teach that in schools and put up ads around town about it.
There can be no equivocation. There is no other speech but free speech. People have died for it in America and around the world. Don’t accept any substitutes.
Make America Moderately Functional Again
There is much to decide in what direction our country heads this election season, and choices in this general election are so discouraging that I’m not sure I’ll find a suitable third party to vote for (besides Sid Yiddish).
But coinciding with the degradation of our politics is a crumbling of general competence across the country. This was driven home recently by a few incidents where people and systems just didn’t work and no one really cared.
One was the recent birth of my newest daughter. My wife had the baby at what is a very good hospital by all measures and standards. It is very highly rated and overall we’ve had excellent care there. Mother and baby are home and healthy, but not without extensive delays that could have been avoided altogether.
Our new baby was judged to have low blood sugar, but this was exacerbated by being tongue tied, which my wife thought was the case right away as one of our older girls was born tongue-tied as well. It was days before our daughter saw the right specialist to correct that despite my wife’s alerting people early and consistently.
The first night fell into a familiar pattern. The baby would show signs of being hungry and we would buzz the nurses’ station to ask them to test her blood sugar. “OK, I’ll tell your nurse,” the nurse over the intercom would say. Twenty minutes late the nurse would arrive. “How can I help you?” the nurse would say. We’d tell her about the blood sugar test. The other nurses didn’t tell her what this was for so she’d have to go get her blood testing kit. By the time she’d return with her testing machine and wash her hands, the baby would be too hysteric and miserable to latch onto a boob.
My wife was hooked up to an IV that gave her fluids. It was important for her to get fluids, but not life threatening. The IV bag was on a stand with a machine attached to it that would blare a loud and obnoxious alarm whenever it detected something irregular. If my wife moved her arm a certain way and pinched the IV tube, the alarm would go off. This alarm didn’t alert the nurses’ station or any doctors, it only annoyed us and in one case woke the baby up at four in the morning. We would alert the nurses to this, but it would take a while for them to react and by then the alarm would have gone off again despite our efforts to stop it.
The nurses were very friendly but that’s not adequate compensation for things not getting done. All the smiles in the world can’t replace professionalism.
While we were dealing with this, I would journey home from the hospital to try to take care of business on the home front, including getting UPS to pick up a package. We ordered something from Amazon that arrived missing parts (there was a big hole in the package when we got it). Well after UPS showing up at random times when no one was home, I left a note when I stepped out so we could be alerted and dash home to effect the pickup.
However, when I got home, the UPS driver had stuck the latest notice on top of my note, declaring proudly that he had seen these instructions and was blatantly ignoring them and screwing us over. There was chicken scratch writing on the note, which I interpreted as indicating a package had been left in “Apartment Y” (there is no such apartment in our building). I called UPS to let them know this wasn’t acceptable, and the representative who called me back told me that it was too bad and that this was the final attempt at a pick up (the note had not indicated that even though there is a box to check off if that’s the case). They had it in their system that they had made three attempts, and they refused to try again.
It was an act of taking pride in their own incompetence, of being purposely bad at their job because they don’t like it or because jobs make people expect things from them. I understand the sentiment completely, but I and many (most?) others have a concept of dignity that means we want to be good at our jobs because we take pride in ourselves and our own abilities, not because we like dealing with people. I do not like having to deal with other people; I’d rather sit alone and write things and make millions of dollars doing it. But no matter what job you have, even if you achieve your dream job, it means dealing with people and meeting other people’s expectations. There’s no way around it unless you want to be a hermit in the woods.
I know because I’ve been there. I’ve worked lots of jobs I hated and resented the masses of slack-jawed idiots who demanded and expected my service. But I learned that I didn’t have to bow and scrape to get by. People wanted me to kiss their ass, and needy and entitled people make any job dealing with the general public difficult.
But until you become a self-made billionaire, having to please other people never really ends. I work in an office and deal with professional people about high level things, and at least eight times a day I might as well be saying, “Would you like fries with that?” The company I work for has clients (client is a fancy way of saying “customer” FYI) and they pay us to write things for them and liaise with the media and they also pay us to listen to them bitch at us and for us to be there for them to throw under the bus when it’s professionally convenient.
No matter how high you rise in life, you’re going to have to answer to some asshole and be nice about it. You’ll feel better about yourself if you stay professional. People who want to make a dramatic show of being a customer and bossing you around are counting on an emotional reaction from you or gaining some kind of moral high ground; don’t give it to them.
You don’t have to stay at every job forever, but have the personal integrity and dignity to be good at your job and see to it to the best of your ability that things are done right. You will be glad you did, believe me.