The Material Sources of Free Speech Anxieties


We are presently in the midst of another wave of free speech/cancellation discourse, this one prompted by an open letter published in Harper’s warning against a rising tide of illiberal constraints on free expression.

While debates about free speech are as old as the idea of free speech, a case could be made that they have taken on a different character in recent years. This may be a matter of frequency and intensity, but I suspect that the nature of the debate has shifted substantively as well. It seems that more recent clashes have less to do with specific applications of the principle than with the relative merits of the principle itself.

If so, it should not come as a surprise. When the technological infrastructure sustaining public speech is radically altered, so too is the experience and meaning of speech. Because this debate is framed by the conditions of the Database—the superabundant, practically infinite assemblage of data in our externalized collective memory, otherwise known as the internet—it is nearly impossible to navigate through every continuously unfolding aspect of even a seemingly narrow and contained instance like the Harper’s letter. So I won’t even make the attempt. Instead, I’m going to take a path that has been less frequently trod by examining a handful of underlying dynamics driving the controversy.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that I can explain the causes of the debate, they are many and complex. Much less do I aim to settle the debate one way or the other. In fact, if I’m right, the debate can’t properly be settled at all. Rather, I aim to understand the deeper material conditions that generate the context for the debate.

My overarching thesis regarding free speech crisis discourse, including debates about “cancel culture,” can be put this way: this is what you get when the word is re-animated under the conditions of digital re-enchantment.

That’s a pretty jargon-heavy claim, so it obviously needs to be unpacked. I’ll start the process by distinguishing the two key theoretical components: the re-animated word, on the one hand, and digital re-enchantment on the other. These two distinct but related developments together generate the conditions driving our seemingly intractable and increasingly acrimonious free speech skirmishes.

By speaking of the re-animated word, I’m thinking in terms of media ecology and the basic premise is that we experience speech differently depending on the medium that bears it. Speech grounded in the face-to-face encounter is one thing. Speech inscribed in writing is another. And, more to the point for our purposes, print produces an experience of speech distinct from the experience of speech generated by digital media. It is in this difference that we find the root of our present re-litigation of the nature and value of free speech. Our previously regnant ideals regarding freedom of speech arose in the context of print culture and they are now, for better and for worse, floundering in the context of digital media.

In short, writing, and especially print, renders the word seemingly inert and thing-like. It tames the word in a very specific sense: by removing it from the potentially volatile and emotionally laden context of the face-to-face encounter. The difference has less to do with the content of the printed word than with its phenomenology, or how we experience it. It is absolutely true that you can find all manner of vitriolic and combative speech in print, as is evidenced, for example, in the political pamphleteering of the early republic. But, experientially, it is one thing to encounter this content in written form at a temporal and spatial remove from the author, whose very significance becomes dubious, and it is another to encounter these words directly and immediately from the mouth of the speaker, whose personal significance is unavoidable. In other words, even the plausibility of the claim that you should challenge the ideas and not the person, for example, is sustained by the conditions of print.

Let’s reflect on this a bit further. What is a word? This is not a trick question or a sophomoric dorm room provocation. When you think of a word, what do you think of? I’d be willing to bet that if you were asked to think of the word “cat,” for example, you would almost certainly think of the three letters C-A-T (or whatever the equivalent might be in your native tongue). Now ask yourself what would be the answer to that question in the era before writing was invented? Clearly not a set of symbols.

When you think of a word as a set of letters, you’re thinking of the word as an inert, lifeless thing. Before the introduction of writing, the word was not a thing but an event. It was powerful and effected irreversible change. Nothing better illustrates these different attitudes to the word than when modern readers encounter the biblical narrative of Isaac and his two sons, Jacob and Esau. When Jacob deceives his father into conferring his spoken blessing on him rather than Esau, the eldest son, a modern reader is likely to ask, well, why not just take it back, they’re just words. But when the word is an event rather than a thing, you can’t just take them back just as you can’t undo an event.

Not surprisingly, then, modern free speech ideals are historically correlated with emergence and internalization of print culture. Print encourages the notion that the content of ideas can easily be and, indeed, ought to be distinguished from the one who presents them. Print abstracts the act of communication from the lived experience of communicators and thus fosters the sense that words alone can do no harm. The well-known proverb about sticks and stones, for example, is most plausible in the context of print culture (and, in fact, seems to arise precisely in this context). The time and space necessary to the labor of communicating in print itself has a diminishing effect on the felt intensity of communication.

Digital media changes all of this. It places the word back into the heated context of relative immediacy. It is true, of course, that most digital communication still happens at a physical remove, but the temporal remove is collapsed, renewing a measure of immediacy to the act of speaking in public. Moreover, the word is reanimated in the sense that it becomes newly active: active and ephemeral on the screen, enlivened by image and audio, and active in its intensified emotional consequences. To speak into the digital public sphere is to potentially invite an immediate and intense assault not simply upon your ideas but upon you and your livelihood and well-being because, after all, you and your ideas and your words are now more tightly bound together.

There is a paradox here, though, that is worth noting. In one respect, one might just as easily say that digital speech does nothing, transpiring as it does in a hyperreal context. If the word once again takes on the aspect of an event, it is may be more like a pseudo-event. If so, then, this dynamic, too, threatens to escalate and intensify the character of online speech. The more powerless it appears as speech, the greater the temptation to ratchet up its intensity and escalate its hostile character.

So, then, the reanimated word is a different beast than the printed word. Consequently, when we internalize its dynamics, we’re likely to begin with a different set of assumptions about freedom of speech than those fostered by print culture.

The matter of digital re-enchantment is a bit more complex, but I’ll try to keep this relatively brief.

In the sociological tradition, modernity is characterized by the disenchantment of the world. This is a matter of serious debate, which I’ll sidestep here, but, needless to say I think there is a good case that can still be made for the theory. The general idea is that in the modern world, we’re less likely to think the forest is populated by fairies, that magical amulets can ward off disease, that a relic can protect us on a journey, or that evil spirits can bring harm upon us. The enchanted world was also a locus of meaning and significance as opposed to disenchanted modern world, which appears chiefly as raw material for our technological projects.

For my purposes, I’m especially interested in the way that philosopher Charles Taylor incorporates disenchantment theory into his account of modern selfhood. The enchanted world, in Taylor’s view, yielded the experience of a porous, and thus vulnerable self. The disenchanted world yielded an experience of a buffered self, which was sealed off, as the term implies, from beneficent and malignant forces beyond its ken. The porous self depended upon the liturgical and ritual health of the social body for protection against the such forces. Heresy was not merely an intellectual problem, but a ritual problem that compromised what we might think of, in these times, as herd immunity to magical and spiritual forces by introducing a dangerous contagion into the social body. The answer to this was not simply reasoned debate but expulsion or perhaps a fiery purgation.

Just as digital media reanimates the word, so to does it re-enchant the world, although in a very different specific sense. Taking Taylor’s model as a template, it reverses the conditions that sustained the plausibility of the buffered self. In the digitally re-enchanted world, as I wrote in a recent essay for The New Atlantis,

“we are newly aware of operating within a field of inscrutable forces over which we have little to no control. Though these forces may be benevolent, they are just as often malevolent, undermining our efforts and derailing our projects. We often experience digital technologies as determining our weal and woe, acting upon us independently of our control and without our understanding …

We are troubled not by spirits but by bots and opaque algorithmic processes, which alternately and capriciously curse or bless us. In the Digital City, individuals may be refused credit, passed over for job interviews, or denied welfare on the basis of systems built on digital data against which they have little to no recourse.

We are, in other words, vulnerable, and our autonomy is compromised by the lines of technologically distributed agency that intersect our will and desires.

This means, then, that the experience of the self that emerges out of this technologically enchanted milieu more resembles the porous self of the previously enchanted world than the buffered self that corresponded to disenchanted modernity. And the newly porous self is more closely correlated to the virtues of communally regulated speech while the buffered self was more neatly aligned with the spirit of individualized free speech idealism.

There’s obviously a great deal more that could be said about free speech in digital contexts. All of the following deserve careful consideration: the scale and immediacy of consequences in terms of both actions elicited and retributions exacted, the shifting power differentials occasioned by digital media, the precarity of employment, the form of digital platforms designed to elicit passionate engagement and discourage thoughtful conversation, the presumption of bad faith engendered by the overtly performative character of communication on digital platforms, the collapsing of different communities with their distinctive codes for speech and conduct into one digital space, as well as the relative permanence memory and lack of obscurity generated by searchable databases.

That said, I think the deeper undercurrents shaping how we experience the word in relation to the self that I’ve outlined here play an important role in setting the stage for our free speech travails.

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