A lot of us have been asking lately what has happened to this country? What has happened to our discourse? What has happened to common sense? And when did the lunatics start running the asylum (in more ways than one)? I pin it down to too much freedom of speech with too little responsibility to police it.
Can there even be such a thing as too much freedom of speech? Isn’t that one of those things in the Constitution that’s inviolate? Isn’t saying there’s too much freedom of speech, and that it needs to be policed more similar to saying that there are too many guns out there, and they need to be policed more?
Perhaps. But let me make my case.
First of all, many of us misunderstand what freedom of speech really means. It doesn’t mean that you’re free to say any damn fool thing without consequences. Aye, ye call your boss an asshole at a staff meeting, and there be consequences. What it means is that the government can’t take action against you for things you say that it doesn’t like.
But that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about too much freedom of speech…or writing, really…in response to the printed word…in online forums dedicated to the printed word.
Let me explain.
Back in the day, magazines and newspapers had one or two pages devoted to letters to the editor. Because space was limited, only the best written, most interesting, and most intelligent letters were chosen to be published. It was usually a statistical sampling of what had come in, with opinions on all sides of the spectrum. Occasionally a letter from some crackpot who said, “I bet you won’t print this because I disagree with you” made it to print, if only to show the rest of the readers, with more than two brain cells to rub together, that there indeed be fools out there. But aide from that, everything was kept civil; and follow-up letters, if they arrived, were almost never printed…unless the editors deemed them particularly compelling.
Enter the age of the internet, where magazines and newspapers created online forums that took the place of the traditional letters pages. And here, because space wasn’t an issue, there was no screening of what went online. Anything and everything got posted…including some of the most uncivil and vile responses to previous responses. Including things that never would’ve made the cut to make it to the printed letters page. Including posts filled with all kinds of crackpot ideas that had been totally debunked by those who actually knew what they were talking about.
And because these things got printed, and shared across the internet, we became less civil, more vile, and definitely more stupid.
This is because the people who had previously been the gatekeepers of the printed page naively abdicated their responsibility when things moved online. They thought that having those letters just go directly online would make their jobs easier, and that people would behave appropriately.
They were wrong…as countless trolls and troll bots have proven.
Since then, a number of publications and online forums have pulled back from the free for all of open comment pages. Some have started to moderate them, which is simply doing what was done in the print days, and screening things before they made it to the public. Others have taken the even more drastic step of just not printing comments at all. Oh, you can most certainly send them all the comments you want, and they’ll read them in their offices, but you won’t see them printed…not even the most compelling ones.
I think these are both good steps.
And by the way, I do believe that there are too many guns out there.