Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mind's Eye Re: Is free speech free?

Firstly a disclaimer: I am not a Gabby-bot.

As with so many issues, this one is much deeper and more complex than it seems at first sight. A few points.

As frequently happens in the English-speaking web-world, many of the cultural parameters implicitly (and usually unquestioningly) accepted for discussion are dominated by the US-American experience and world-view. (This observation is - from my point of view - just that; an observation, with no intention to apply any kind of (moral or other) value). In the US, freedom of speech is one of those issues dealt with in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the so-called "Bill of Rights" (1791). As such, it is often automatically accorded a kind of mystical, quasi-religious status. There's nothing unusual about that: every culture and society needs a living unifying mythology, the foundations of a shared narrative, in order to function. (When such a unifying mythology isn't present, or breaks down, a society will tear itself apart. Northern Ireland in the last four decades of the past century is a good example: two irreconcilable tribal mythological narratives colliding.) But just because particular values have a constituting mythological significance for a particular group doesn't give them an automatically sacred or inviolable character - particularly for people who don't share that particular constitutive group narrative (i.e. non-Americans).

The idea of universal "rights" has been around for a long time, but it achieved a central position in the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment - while (in my view) it represented a major positive vector for human progress - had a number of weaknesses, the most fundamental, perhaps, being its emphasis on the primacy of reason in human affairs, underestimating the power of other aspects which go to build up human nature, and human societies (emotion, aggression, fear, greed, etc.). 

The Enlightenment idea of "universal rights" defined itself, at least partly, as a reaction to the older (traditionally Catholic) view of a (divinely ordained) natural order. The idea of natural order gives rise then to a philosophy of "natural law" which regulates that order. If there are natural laws, which can be discovered by humans, then these laws are true and every other view which contradicts them is false. The logical endpoint of such a position is that of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, often expressed in the aphorism: Error has no rights. Society should be organised according to natural law, any intellectual positions which advocate views which are in contradiction to natural law, if put into practice, will have negative consequences, since this is not the way things were "meant to be." Thus, erroneous positions are damaging - both for individuals and society - consequently, individuals and societies must be protected from them.
Of course, this position is based on the conviction that the fundamental grounds of existence are ontologically certain, and that humans, either through reason, or revelation, or a combination of both, can recognise the laws implied in "being", and their concrete unfolding consequences in reality. It's not a question of finding the best way to do things, rather finding the (only) right way to do things.

The idea of inalienable fundamental "rights" is one of the basic building blocks of the (western) modern view of human nature and society, reaching its apogee perhaps in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949). Among these basic rights is the right to freedom/liberty and its consequence, the right to freedom of speech/expression. But the idea of "rights" is complex and contains many problems. Are rights absolute? If so, how do you deal with conflicts of rights? If not, how can you establish hierarchies of rights? You're faced with a plethora of individual decisions, which can only be decided within their own specific contexts. And then, who decides?

Coming down to the particular situation here, one point should be completely clear. Minds Eye, as a subset of Google Groups, as a subset of all the shit available on the web, is not a constituent part of the USA (hard though it may be for some US Americans to conceive of such a notion). As a result, the rules governing this group are not subject to the US Constitution. Therefore, there is no automatic right to freedom of speech here. The "rules" which govern the group are laid down in the guidelines and these include the idea of moderation and the specific powers which moderators have. You may not like the rules, but you're not forced in any way to be part of the group. This is the basic difference between the kind of pocket universe an on-line discussion group forms and the physical societies in which we all live. In the "real" world, my right to freedom of expression is important to me, because I can't stop the planet and get off to join some alternative earth which I like better. Here - despite howls of protest by people like Gabby about the blue in the Eye, or being placed on moderation, or others being banned - if you don't like the way things are organised, you can just piss off somewhere else. An awful lot of what goes on at this level reminds me frankly of nothing so much as the antics of Statler and Waldorf in their balcony at the Muppet Show.

And, of course, even within the web context, there is a conflict of rights between the right to freedom of speech and the right not to be gratuitously insulted or flamed. If people were to behave rationally (in an Enlightenment sense) then this would not be a problem. But the web - even Minds Eye - is a microcosm of human society in general. Unfortunately, people will continue to troll, flame, insult and injure. And as long as that is the case, moderators are necessary - necessary evils like cops, dentists, speed-limits and revenue collectors. I've nothing but admiration for Neil and Molly for taking the nasty task on, particularly as I regard neither of them as being remotely megalomaniac.

In his parting post Andrew stated, "Freedom, in order for it to have meaning has to be unconditional." I find this view hard to understand. Freedom is not an on-off switch. Absolute freedom (does it even exist?) and total servitude are two ends of a sliding scale, and we nearly always find ourselves somewhere between the two. 

Am Samstag, 28. März 2015 14:57:02 UTC+1 schrieb Molly:
Here is part of what Wikipedia (usually my last choice for citation) has to say about the protection of free speech under the US constitution:

Criticism of the government and advocacy of unpopular ideas that people may find distasteful or against public policy are almost always permitted. There are exceptions to these general protections, including the Miller test for obscenity, child pornography laws, speech that incites imminent lawless action, and regulation of commercial speech such as advertising. Within these limited areas, other limitations on free speech balance rights to free speech and other rights, such as rights for authors over their works (copyright), protection from imminent or potential violence against particular persons (restrictions on fighting words), or the use of untruths to harm others (slander). Distinctions are often made between speech and other acts which may have symbolic significance.

Now, debate on where things said fall into the loose structure is certainly an option. Can someone tell me I should be ashamed of myself. I guess so, although it is certainly uncomfortable for me to see that in writing, all caps, and know it is repeated in RSS blogs across the internet. Is it slanderous? Calling someone a paranoid schizophrenic in public may be slanderous but worse is  done every day all across the globe, unfortunately. Law is in place to be argued in court, and who wants to do that except lawyers and those that have lost much because their rights were violated. 

But I think in groups there is a social contract that shapes the perimeters of civility, one that all members contribute and define by the coming and going of the group. Internet groups are complicated because of the anonymity of identity and lack of accountability possible. What members are left with is the choice to leave the group, as demonstrated here with our dwindling numbers.

I don't have an answer but believe in free speech and the group. And I must say I am enjoying the fact that every thread does not disintegrate into the same old flame war.


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