If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
An aspect of life that humans have known since they could reason, seems to be that unfairness in life is to be expected. It is in unfairness being allowed to exist, without forced impedance, that our own sensibilities are refined and our own ideas are sharpened— and if we are receptive to listening to harsh criticisms, allows us to understand and peer a bit more deeply into truth, because truth is sometimes found in our own opposition, or perhaps somewhere in between the opposition and the alternate view. What Dorsey seems to genuinely want to combat, though fallaciously, are the prevalence of factions within the public global forum, in an effort to make the Twitter environment less offending to some; perhaps even less violent. The problem with this, however, lies in factions being a side-effect of freedom. Fee exchange, with the risk of offence, is another. James Madison, not entirely unlike Plato, spoke of this phenomenon in Federalist Papers No. 10. Firstly, he recognized that the tendency toward factions exists as a result of the nature of man— as in the species of man— toward seeking one’s own self-interest and the moments those interests are set up in opposition to another individual, or another group, factions are created. Now, in relation to factions Madison said,
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency (Federalist 10).
Madison is speaking to something I believe is relevant in the conversation of media’s tendencies toward manipulative rhetoric and controlling behavior. Liberty, is the cornerstone of successful societies that survive the test of time. And as also noted by Madison in the same essay, the curbing of liberty and of free exchange, are the reason for the fall of many democracies— as well as a portent of our own republic’s failure, should it travel down such a road. Twitter, and by extension other forms of media that have come into the public eye under scrutiny for curtailing liberty, is a perfect example of what Madison expressed as fallible man and his liberty to exercise that fallibility. The problem of course comes when that fallible human nature, is allowed to preside as a governing body over the free exercise of individual liberty, on a public platform built out of the freedom of such free expression. The auxiliary concern obviously being: whether or not it is moral for social media sites such as Twitter, to effectively censor individuals; whether it may be for a greater good, or not.
Though it goes against the democratic nature Twitter purports to operate under, it is indeed their right as a privately-owned company, not associated with government in any official capacity, to limit or promote speech that follows their own factional associations— as admitted, by Dorsey, to exist. But when the power of a right is expressed upon individuals through forceful means, or rather when Twitter uses its right to free speech to set rules that limit free speech, it brings about a moral consideration. In his essay Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin states, “for a cause, however effective, becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, only when it bears on moral issues” (Benjamin 2007). Of course, much of Western society is in a time when critics of free rhetorical exercise have deemed and determined it as offensive to some and is seen as hate speech, or even as violence in certain cases, to others. It is not, however, entirely convincing that words themselves can be violence at all, because it does not seem clear that they can indeed bear on moral issues, in and of themselves. What I mean by this is there has to be a known— and empirically demonstrated— foundational belief behind the words, in part, because without corresponding action that reflects the fervency and belief of the words, their meaning cannot truly and objectively be gleaned, as words themselves do not speak to intent; only to perceived intent, which of course is not an effective representation of objective truth. Words, especially intentionally rhetorical ones, can be perceived as being right, yet not be righteous in intent and on the converse, can be perceived as having malicious motives yet have a virtuous intent underneath. Intent itself, is a reflection of what is in the heart of man— that which no other man can truly know without seeking to understand; without seeking truth. Plato addressed this phenomenon specifically when discussing the tendency of people to follow what seems to be true, as set up by belief and the probable versus what is true knowledge, grounded in the transcendent. He suggested that, as a result of this, rhetoric, if moral at all, is morally neutral at best and morally pernicious at worst (TRT 84). But such a task cannot be sought when every thought is relegated to being shielded by the partiality of one’s own factional identities. Instead of arguing that words themselves can be violence which—as mentioned, does not seem to be the case— I argue instead that the limiting of free and open discourse, in all its forms, and the willful proliferation of false or unprovable speculations, is violence. Again, taking Benjamin’s framework: action itself seems to be what gives intent a truer demonstration of some tangibility for violence to have expression. For violence to occur, there must be a cost to one’s physical status as an individual person with the natural right to have rhetorical expression in the way the individual sees fit; pernicious or otherwise. Again, there must be a cost. One that confers an inability to give oneself full expression from within the framework of the transcendent umbrella of natural law (Garcia 2008).
Benjamin questions whether violence can be a means to a just or unjust end. The question then arises, just and unjust for whom? Because when there exists a powerful entity that is in control of the knowledge and expressions of millions of individuals, and when this entity embarks on efforts to change the rhetorical climate that has resulted from the free exercise of human will, through force— shadow bans, censorship, unchecked bias etc.— on platforms that, for some, provides their primary opportunity to gain knowledge or express true and honest views, there exists violence in action. All that is needed to further demonstrate this is to superimpose the entity of Twitter from the 300 million users over which it presides, to an entire government, and imagine the effects of it imposing such rules under that sort of paradigm. Historically, we would not have to look so incredibly far, as to regimes such as Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, or more recently Putin’s Russia, in order to demonstrate this. To be fair, Twitter is far from the likes of regimes that have killed millions of people and had almost completely sought to do away with human rights of free expression altogether. This illustration is used merely to illustrate the slippery slope of such actions, as seeking to limit certain speech in public spaces, because any justification for a conglomerate such as Twitter, can also be used, in relation to news media or to a government, as they can operate in similar ways. There is an imperative here, to be cautious in the willingness to create laws or rules for individuals to follow. With that power comes the need for action that aims to protect expression and the free exchange of ideas, at all costs. As Benjamin states in his essay, “law-making violence, is power making, and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence” (Benjamin 295). So the imperative comes with the realization that laws themselves can be violent, because with them comes the implied use of force and punishment for not following them, as well as the reality that not following them can mean a real world cost. This caution also of course relates to media organizations, as a whole. In relation to news, the caution should be in the quality of information that is relayed to the people, as a lack of caution can spread like wildfire, leading people to develop mindsets or start movements, from the information they see and such information could later prove to be lacking truth.
And of course, the intention is not to place “freedom” in a monolithic ambiguity, but rather as a representation of what is already recognized by our governing bodies— and thus has already been negotiated by the collective people in this republic, and continues to be so negotiated in the legal realm rather than the digital, though that argument too can be made— as acceptable ways of expressing our natural rights as citizens. It stands to reason that, if we are to have free and uninhibited rhetorical expression— not counting the unprotected nature of calls to action— that all speech that is allowed under our Constitution, would also be allowed in our public spaces. Freedom, for the most part unrestrained, is the tried and true test of a functioning society. Now, in saying unrestrained, there is no underlying call to some sort of anarchistic move here, as rules are indeed needed for a functioning society. There is a difference however, in rules that protect against calls to violence against one’s person and rules that are arbitrarily determined so certain individuals do not encounter offence. Surely, any discourse worth having, any rhetorical leap taken, risks itself being offensive to another. That is the essence of rhetorical speech and of action. This risk of offensiveness truly is representative of a republic, or rather representative of true and honest rhetorical interaction that seeks to find its truest representation.