Yesterday on twitter a total asshole was saying really offensive things. I assume that makes it a normal Monday, but this time it crossed my carefully-curated feed. I rebuked him for presuming to speak for men, because his hateful speech didn’t speak for me. And I offered to talk to him privately about why he seemed so angry, at which point, he got bored with me and went back to antagonizing people that gave him a more satisfying reaction.
Several people then started screen-capping his tweets and sending them to his employer, presumably in hopes of inspiring professional consequences for his impolitic opinions and aggressively asserted misogyny. I can’t support that. I think it’s wrong.
We see it happen a lot on twitter these days. When people spout hateful opinions others go and attempt to quash their perspective and destroy their livelihoods by making trouble for their employer until the corporation decides the public outcry is bad for their image. They defend this by saying, “Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from consequences.”
But to some extent, yes, it is. Freedom from formal consequences, that is. While I understand that the first amendment formally only protects us from governmental proscriptions on expression of opinion, I find that the spirit of it – that people should not be punished for failing to adhere to a culturally or legally enforced set of politics – is being abrogated wholesale in the online community.
When we attempt to insinuate ourselves into power over others’ economic viability based on not liking how they present themselves politically, we join a long list of oppressors. People with undesirable political opinions have long been marginalized, and I see the temptation to do so. We desire a society that respects women, so those who denigrate them should not be able to do so free from response.
But we also desire a society in which people are allowed to express even unpleasant opinions. Because every opinion is unpleasant to someone. And it takes little imagination to postulate a circumstance where liberal values are the ones oppressed: it has happened in many places and at many times. And it’s not over. It is happening now in places not far from here.
The whole ideal of liberal democracy is the rule of law and the freedom of expression. Extra-legal consequences like attacking someone’s employment as a silencing tactic is based in tribal justice: I feel aggrieved so I will recoup my imagined damages personally, through vengeance. We should not be surprised when we find ourselves looking down the barrel of that cannon instead of lighting the fuse.
Being offended – even by legitimately offensive things – does not entitle me to redress. It only entitles me to disengage. And it is not right to attack anyone’s livelihood to silence them. That way lies lawlessness and blood-feuds. It is, I think, literally uncivilized.