The paradox of free speech and censorship

I left the now largely-defunct Google Plus social network when it censored me for opposing rape.

Yes, it really did.

Why? Because I had used the word, ‘rape,’ which Google’s artificial idiocy bots treated as threatening speech even when anyone reading my post would clearly have seen that I was writing in opposition to rape.

Censorship is a problem. But let us consider the unfettered alternative, unlimited free speech.

If I were the opposite of how I see myself, if, in fact, Google Plus had been correct to censor my post, that post might have been an attempt to silence opposition, whether political or of any other sort.

“Free” speech isn’t really free. As always with that word, one must ask, “free” for whom? To do what? To whom?

So I am presented with two binary opposite answers, neither of them satisfactory, neither of them actually advancing the purpose of free speech (also the purpose of academic freedom), which is that as a society, we must be able to consider even unorthodox solutions to problems offered from unorthodox sources. We have to be free to think about situations in different ways.

Otherwise, we are liable to be stuck in a rut. Like we are in the U.S. with the two-party system where candidates must align with one of two mainstream parties to have any chance of being elected, pretty much anywhere for pretty much any office.

There are partisan hues even for those offices that are allegedly non-partisan: Consider the likelihood of a “soft on crime” candidate being elected as a judge or district attorney. Consider an anti-capitalist’s prospects of being elected as an insurance commissioner.

The free speech/censorship conundrum is similar to that of the two-party system. Neither party is satisfactory. Neither unfettered “free” speech nor censorship is satisfactory. And there is no coherent middle ground between them.

It’s fairly obvious that the two-party system needs to be rooted out and destroyed utterly. It’s pretty easy to envision alternative arrangements: They’re far from perfect, but examples such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel offer (somewhat) functional examples. Experiments such as ranked-choice voting help to ameliorate the “electability” problem where unorthodox candidates cannot be elected at least in part because people believe they cannot be elected.

But I honestly don’t know what to do about the free speech/censorship conundrum. I don’t have functional alternative examples. I don’t see how to grant some people authority over speech without enabling the suppression of ideas.

What, for example, when elites (who control mainstream media outlets and have unlimited means of expression for their own ideas) decide my anti-elite ideas threaten them?[1]

In systems theory, we try not to think about contradictions as contradictions but rather as paradoxes. Systems theory is about systems, with feedbacks that function to limit excesses. But the essential nature of censorship is that it suppresses those feedbacks. We see this also where one person’s “free” expression may function to silence other voices.

So I’m pretty clear that I’m thinking about this problem in the wrong way. I know that the high tech industry has it wrong. I know that the advocates on both sides of the conundrum have it wrong.

But I don’t know what’s right.

  1. [1]For example, Tom Perkins, “Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?” Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/progressive-kristallnacht-coming-1390600169

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