Time Magazine goes full stupid: “free speech has become an obsession of the mostly white, male members of the tech elite”

May 8, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Now that Elon Musk has bought Twitter, which he claims to have done to promulgage legal free speech (i.e., speech permitted by the First Amendment), we see a lot of people suddenly finding reasons to oppose free speech. One reason that many people simply despise Elon Musk and will criticize anything he does.

But support for free speech all over America is waning for several reasons. First, because free speech—even that allowed by the Constitution—is said to permit “hate speech” and “offense”. My response to that is that one person’s free speech is another’s hate speech, and that “offense” is not an excuse for censorship. And who is going to parse the First Amendment so that it no longer allows “hate speech”?

Another reason is that the “hate speech” is said to “erase” the speech of minorities and promote white supremacy. But in the past years, since the death of George Floyd, I’ve seen a huge upwelling of speech, both public and on social media, by members of minority groups. What I see, and favor, is that they have a bigger megaphone, not a smaller one. Nobody has been “erased” or had their megaphone taken away.

Third, freedom of speech is said to promote “disinformation”—deliberate lies promulgated to further an agenda.  Well, yes, it does that, but it’s been doing that for centuries, as pointed out by Jon Zobenica and Ben Schwarz in an excellent essay from the Free Voice called “Who Will Watch the Watchmen?

Both Left and Right have engaged in disinformation, and, although the argument goes that social media magnifies it, that argument also was made against printing presses and yellow newspapers. Frankly, I am not much bothered by “disinformation”, as eventually the truth always comes out (because of free speech!); it’s not illegal except for false advertising;  and, most important, who will decide what “disinformation” is? That is the point of Zobenica and Schwarz’s essay and of much writing and speecifying by Christopher Hitchens. Remember that the Hunter Biden laptop fracas was pushed out of the liberal press as “disinformation”, but turned out to have substance. Both Left and Right do this—remember Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction” disinformation?

But now, according to Time Magazine, we have yet another reason to ban free speech: it’s a tool of white technocratic males (Musk, Zuckerberg) who are insensitive to the “nuances” of free speech and are pushing it so they can use their platforms to broadcast disinformation and suppress minorities.

This is a new combination of the “hate speech” and “disinformation” arguments, but with opprobrium towards white males tacked on.  But this argument fares no better than the previous ones. Sure, any commercial platform need not abide by the First Amendment, which is about the government censoring speech, but I am pretty much a free speech hard-liner, and think that the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment (and its exceptions) should hold pretty much everywhere, including colleges and social media.

Time seems not to agree, though its op-ed is confusing and a bit incoherent. Click to read: I”ll give a few quotes:

Here’s the male-bashing:

“Freedom of speech” has become a paramount concern of the techno-moral universe. The issue has anchored nearly every digital media debate for the last two years, from the dustup over Joe Rogan at Spotify to vaccine misinformation on Facebook. Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a major speech at Georgetown in 2019 about the importance of “free expression” and has consistently relied on the theme when explaining why Facebook has struggled to curb disinformation on the platform.

“It does seem to be a dominant obsession with the most elite, the most driven Elon Musks of the world,” says Fred Turner, professor of communication at Stanford University and author of several books about Silicon Valley culture, who argues that “free speech seems to be much more of an obsession among men.” Turner says the drive to harness and define the culture around online speech is related to “the entrepreneurial push: I did it in business, I did it in space, and now I’m going to do it in the world.”

And here’s the implicit accusation of racism in the “tech bros” favoring free speech:

Jason Goldman, who was on the founding team at Twitter and served on the company’s board from 2007 to 2010 before joining the Obama Administration, says the tech rhetoric around free speech has become an obsession of the mostly white, male members of the tech elite, who made their billions in the decades before a rapidly diversifying workforce changed the culture at many of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.

They “would rather go back to the way things were,” Goldman says, “and are couching that in terms of ‘free speech’ or ‘we’re not going to allow politics to be part of the conversation.’”

The “going back to the way things were,” to me at least, implies the good old days when white men ruled the world. And so white supremacy becomes another motivation for pushing free speech. This is underscored when author Charlotte Alter argues this:

Tech titans often have a different understanding of speech than the rest of the world because most trained as engineers, not as writers or readers, and a lack of a humanities education might make them less attuned to the social and political nuances of speech.

“Tech culture is grounded in engineering culture, which imagines itself as apolitical,” says Turner. Engineers, he adds, often see the world in terms of problems and solutions, and in that context, speech becomes a series of data points that get circulated through a data system, rather than expressions of social or political ideas.

Again, this sounds like an accusation that the white tech-bros’ construal of free speech allows them to offend people more freely. Either that or they’re oblivious to “hate speech” and thus don’t oppose it.

Well, I can’t say that nobody has these motivations, but you have to be pretty much steeped in wokeism to argue that these are the reasons that people like Musk want more free speech. In fact, Alter argues that free speech is no longer what it used to be:

But “free speech” in the 21st century means something very different than it did in the 18th, when the Founders enshrined it in the Constitution. The right to say what you want without being imprisoned is not the same as the right to broadcast disinformation to millions of people on a corporate platform. This nuance seems to be lost on some techno-wizards who see any restriction as the enemy of innovation.

The question, though, is not one of “rights” but of “benefits”. And the benefits of First Amendment free speech devolve widely, not just in speech that the government can’t censor, but in speech that private colleges like mine can’t censor. This is why over 80 colleges, many of them private, have signed on to the Chicago Principles of Free Expression.

To oppose free speech because Elon Musk favors it is stupid; it’s not an argument at all. To oppose free speech because it causes offense or “hate speech” is misguided. And to oppose free speech because it could promote “disinformation” raises the unanswerable question “who will watch the watchmen?” (See Zobenica and Schwarz’s essay.)

Finally, to oppose free speech because it applies only to government censorship is to completely overlook the reasons why America wrote it into the constitution: largely because of Mill’s idea that it’s the best way to test your own arguments and find the truth. What other way is there?

Or do you want to go the censorship route? If so, and I suspect a few readers will, then tell us, please, who is going to monitor speech for “offense” and “disinformation”? Do you want the people at Twitter doing it, whose double standards about acceptable speech are well known?

As Jonathan Turley wrote:

Alter is confusing free speech values with the rationale for the First Amendment. For years, anti-free-speech figures have dismissed free speech objections to social media censorship by stressing that the First Amendment applies only to the government, not private companies. The distinction was always a dishonest effort to evade the implications of speech controls, whether implemented by the government or corporations.

The First Amendment was never the exclusive definition of free speech. Free speech is viewed by many of us as a human right; the First Amendment only deals with one source for limiting it. Free speech can be undermined by private corporations as well as government agencies. This threat is even greater when politicians openly use corporations to achieve indirectly what they cannot achieve directly.

Amen!

38 thoughts on “Time Magazine goes full stupid: “free speech has become an obsession of the mostly white, male members of the tech elite”

  1. One of my heroes, Carl Sagan, gave a speech at a naturalization ceremony held at Monticello. (It’s reprinted as the last chapter in The Demon-Haunted World. He quotes John Stuart Mill as saying that “silencing an opinion is a ‘peculiar evil.’ If the opinion is right, we are robbed of the ‘opportunity of exchanging error for truth’; and if it’s wrong, we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth ‘in collision with error.'”

    He gives an example of speech protected by the First Amendment from Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue: “Let a wave of intolerance wash over you…Yes, hate is good…Our goal is a Christian nation…We are called by God to conquer this country…We don’t want pluralism.”

    Sagan notes that “The expression of such views is protected, and properly so, under the Bill of Rights, even if those protected would abolish the Bill of Rights if they got the chance. The protection for the rest of us is t use that same Bill of Rights to get across to every citizen the indispensability of the Bill of Rights.”

    1. I’m a free-speech believer, but the above has problems as a free-speech argument. It doesn’t engage with the anti-free-speech argument that it’s incorrect to view the effects of speech as if it were an abstract debate. That’s what the Woke keep saying over and over in various ways – they don’t consider it as an academic truth-seeking matter, they view it as a practical struggle against the negative effects of speech they already know is false.

      1. Here is where the Second Amendment comes in. (We don’t have such a thing and I understand the issue is somewhat controversial still in America despite being settled law.) My friend Viminitz, also Canadian, proposes that the cancelled simply shoot her cancellers, if they can be identified. Lots of people are prepared to die for the right to speak their minds (as they are in Ukraine right now). But very very few are willing to die to keep others from speaking theirs, even if they “know” the speech is false. Cancellation by private non-state actors thrives only because it is viewed as a low-cost activity. Up the price and you will have less of it.

        (Viminitz is a philosopher. Not all of his formulations need to be practical. But he does highlight the difference in moral agency between speaker and censor.)

      2. Think of all the things we accept today that at one time or another the majority “already knew” were false.

        1. I was giving Seth the befit of the doubt. I heard scare quotes around his “already know” even though he didn’t put them in. He calls them The Woke which I take as a pejorative meaning he disagrees with them. But maybe he doesn’t deserve the benefit after all because he says “I’m a free-speech believer, but . . .”

          When we’re giving feedback to trainees, we’re told this is the negatory “but”: the listener won’t really believe what preceded it, now that you’ve changed tack. You know, like, “I have nothing against immigrants, but . . .”

          Seth, can you clarify, please?

          1. There needs to be a way to indicate “Do not expect me to try to defend this overall position as it’s not mine, but this particular argument opposing it is quite weak and easily countered”. I am on the free-speech side. I also (this would be a “but” otherwise) think about the arguments which have been made by the anti-free-speech side. My language was indeed somewhat pejorative, yet I was attempting to still be reasonably intellectually fair to the ideas involved. Assuming the value of debate begs the question; many opponents of free speech are loudly clear that they don’t grant such a value.

            1. Thanks, appreciate your comment.
              If the opponents don’t grant a value of debate their efforts have to be resisted with force if we are to preserve those important values. If they try to duct-tape our mouths we have to grab their wrists so they can’t do it. If they try to storm a stage to silence a speaker, the police must arrest them.

            2. Assuming the value of debate begs the question; many opponents of free speech are loudly clear that they don’t grant such a value.

              The flaw in their position is that they assume any stop in debate will be dictated by them, not their opponents. One reason free speech protections are so important is that – for everyone – “your side” is not always in charge of dictating that. So minimizing the power of anyone to stop debate is to defend ones’ own ability to speak truth to power. To to put it in practical terms: the right doesn’t see the value in your debate either, lefties, and if shutting down speech for ‘dangerous ideas’ becomes a thing, they would shut down your speech for dangerousness just as quickly as you would shut down their speech for dangerousness.

              It’s why I promote a “cut the cake”-like exercise with folks who support censorship. We will play the cut the cake game, only instead of “you cut the cake, I choose the piece,” our speech game will be “you decide on the censorship powers of government, and then I decide what speech to use them on.” And guess what – I don’t like your sort of speech.

              Underneath the ‘censorship good’ position is almost always the implicit assumption that the person defending that position, or their allies, will be the only ones getting to censor things. And politically, that is an extremely foolish and naive assumption.

              1. I don’t think we need censorship on Twitter anyway. Instead, we need labeling of tweets as containing true or false information according to a set of authorities chosen by the reader. The reader can suppress the labelling, suppress tweets with certain labels, etc. Some conspiracy theorists won’t like that, of course, but their only recourse will be to present evidence as to why the authority is wrong. In other words, free speech begetting rational discussion.

  2. Author Charlotte Alter’s article is incoherent, and demonstrably so. The first few paragraphs establish Elon Musk as concerned with “free speech”, now that he bought Twitter. Why would that be? She makes this seem suspicious, asking “[w]hy does Musk care so much about this?”. I don’t know, perhaps because he pays a good sum for a major communication platform and such questions might come up?

    Mr Alter however answers with a different assertion, free speech has “become a paramount concern of the techno-moral universe”. We do not learn what a “techno-moral universe” is, but it is — of course — not the cancel culture of the histrionic blue checkmark crowd that rules on Twitter. As the hegemon, they hate to be a subject of observation and critique. They want to be invisible commissars hidden away behind the mirrored window, doing their thing: parading on a moral high ground all day, or getting someone fired, on a slow day denounce JK Rowling as a “TERF” once again, or faint into a couch in exhaustion when someone politely asks them how, exactly, their decade-long “activism” on social media has helped poor and marginalised people.

    The “White Male” “obsession” with free-speech is elaborated on as suspicious. Old trope right there. The word “obsession” is another marker of the hegemonial faux left wokerati cancel culture. Whatever other people care about they don’t approve of is “obsessive”. People like that can and will emit upwards of 223 TPW (tweets per second) on somebody they dislike, all around the clock. But DARE YOU to say one negative thing about somebody they approve of, or have a different opinion. That’s “obsessive” then, at least (if not outright harassment and violence). Of course, they like to get people fired and doxed, harassed and hounded; that’s “consequences”. And thus being against such activity is redefined as suspicious. I think Mr Charlotte Alter should be honest here and just admit they want to decide who gets fired, harassed and doxed and they wish not to be criticised.

    Charlotte Alter then throws in a Stanford professor with an incoherent line about entrepeneurs, but fails to explain what exactly is boundary, or even taboo breaking about wanting to stick to old fashioned free speech laws. This becomes even more incoherent when taken into account that the internet, historically, was much more of a Wild West. Regulation and new political correctness grew out of the narcissism on social media.

    After that incomprehensible pivot, the real motivation is explained: they’re all bigots, and “white males” on the internet are anyway autistic nerds who think like engineers, or robots. This too, is a familiar trope of the blue checkmark Twitter elites (this broke through with the flame war against “gamers”).

    I think social media/internet sub-culture is divided by two active tribes: one is the “white guy” freespeech edge-lord. That’s also the STEM side. The opposing tribe, and ruling on social media are ex-Tumbler addicts, histrionic dark-triad personalities who have a degree in some “study”. This is responsible also for the shade of “science wars” and “postmodernism” in this perpetual flame war. Tumblr fandoms, I suspect, the breeding ground of many today’s commentary and culture writers, have a proximity to actual academic literay theory and suchlike.

    I don’t know if anyone cares about “Time” these days, but such pieces are often written as trollish clickbait. It might seem as if the author is unfit to write for a major outlet, but the rules of outrage and tribalism have changed the rules. I always hope that such rubbish would backfire.

    1. Spot on, as always Aneris. As the anti-free speech crowd usually do, Alter identifies the real problem that completely free speech will allow publication of disinformation, misinformation and hatred. Examples are easy to find. The problem is that the analysis must not stop at that – we need to decide what to do about it. The facile answer is to ban those kinds of speech, but this brings other problems and consequences, and in particular the growth of a dominant point of view and the shouting down of other viewpoints. So what? say the un-rigorous, if we are right why do we need other viewpoints? Simply put, you don’t know you are right unless you can test your view against others with debate and discussion. Allowing fully free speech is self-correcting, and more likely to result in actually correct opinions in the long run, even with some hiccups along the way.

  3. They “would rather go back to the way things were,” Goldman says, “and are couching that in terms of ‘free speech’ or ‘we’re not going to allow politics to be part of the conversation.’”

    I read the article and this still doesn’t make sense. Exactly who is saying that we need more “free speech” — but no discussing politics?

    Aside from people hosting Thanksgiving dinner.

  4. Speaking of free speech, I see that an eight-foot non-scalable fence has been erected around the Supreme Court building, in anticipation of protests over SCOTUS’s leaked decision overruling Roe v. Wade.

    This was presumably done on the orders (or at least with the approval) of Chief Justice John Roberts — the author, as some may recall, of the majority opinion in McCullen v. Coakley, the decision that struck down, on First Amendment free speech grounds, the 35-foot buffer zone that some state laws had established around abortion clinics (a result with which I agree as a matter of law).

    I would have thought that the grounds around the United States Supreme Court building would qualify as a “public forum” for First Amendment purposes. But I guess an abortion-rights protestor doesn’t enjoy the same free speech rights as an anti-abortion zealot who wants to harangue a woman on her way to a Planned Parenthood clinic for a paps smear.

    Free speech for me, but not for thee starts at the top of the legal food chain.

    1. CNN covered the new fence. If they are to be believed, it was erected because of the risk of right wing groups attacking the court over the potential Roe decision.

      1. That position seems illogical; right-wing groups will get precisely what they’ve long sought if Alito’s draft opinion is adopted by the Court’s majority.

        But whether the protestors are from the Right or Left, the set back created by the fence strikes me as an abridgement of free speech (unless there is good cause, supported by articulable facts, to believe the protests will turn violent).

        1. It is not logical, it is propaganda, exactly the sort of thing we expected from state media in the USSR. The left is peaceful, the right is violent. Putting up fences prior to a protest from the left has uncomfortable implications.
          Anyway, the way it seems to work is that the court facility includes parts of the grounds. This is also the case at the Capital, where on 1/6 some were apparently prosecuted for having entered an exclusion zone around the building, even without having entered the building itself. I suppose the specifics are in the realm of those working at the office of the Architect of the Capital. Obviously, they need to establish some sort of secure perimeter when large protests are expected, violent or not. They seem to have decided to include the fountains within their perimeter, which more or less corresponds to the existing vehicle barriers, and allows normal access for those with official business there.

          In 2018, after the Kavanaugh confirmation, protesters broke through police lines, and were beating on the doors when the police regained control. The building itself is more defensible than the Capital, which made it much harder to actually breach.
          I do not think it can be argued that passions or levels of violence at protests have been moderating of late.

        2. While I’m pretty absolutest in terms of free speech, I’m going to disagree with you here. Free speech is about being able to promote ones views in the public domain. It is not a right to have particular people be your audience. The request to protest immediately outside abortion clinics or the Supreme Court building seems to me to be a demand for a particular audience, or, worse, an intention to harass people.

          I see nothing wrong with buffer zones or barriers closing off access to particular buildings, where such buffer zones are of order 10 meters or so in size. That really does leave you plenty of space to hold your protest.

          I would, though, not agree with excluding protest marches from much wider spaces, such as the entire suburb of Skokie.

          1. McCullen v. Coakley was a unanimous opinion (although the Court split as to the precise rationale for the outcome). US streets constitute traditional public fora. One of the problems with the buffer zones around abortion clinics was that they were not viewpoint-neutral — they applied to anti-abortion protestors, but not to companions accompanying women to the clinic.

            I’ve got no truck with anti-abortion zealots, but free speech is free speech, whether I agree with the viewpoint expressed or not.

  5. This is a really bad article. My favorite bad bit:

    “In a culture that places a premium on achieving the impossible, some tech titans may also see the liberal consensus on acceptable speech as yet another boundary to break. In Silicon Valley, bucking the liberal conventions about harmful speech can seem like the maverick move.”

    What “liberal consensus”? She should have said “woke consensus” or at least “radical left consensus”.

    1. Yup. Very bad thinking, especially that the consensus is supposed to apply to undefined acceptable and harmful speech.

      Good pick-up, Paul.

  6. The Saudi royal family owns 5.2% of Twitter, has a seat on the board, and directs Twitter policy and practice. Musk can’t be a worse owner than the Saudis (e.g., he doesn’t lure his critics into a back office and have them chopped up into little pieces).

    1. Guess what. The Saudi Royal family is part of Musk’s consortium. After Musk has bought Twitter, they will still own 5.2% – perhaps more.

      Musk doesn’t really care about free speech. If he did, he wouldn’t be taking money from Saudi Arabia.

      1. Thank you for saying Musk doesn’t care about free speech. That is also my opinion. He has reasons to own Twitter, but caring about a bedrock Enlightenment value is not one of them. He is a man wealthy beyond my imagination making investments that will serve his own ends.

      2. Sure they’re part of his group. I don’t understand why you want to imply (“Guess what”) that this is a surprise to me or anyone else, but if that’s your style then sure whatever. He’s a terrible person if you like. But him owning more shares with the Saudis won’t make Twitter (or anything else) worse. Or better of course. It just won’t matter. Which is why people losing their minds over the free speech implications is hard to understand.

  7. Since Musk is a big part of the free speech conversation now, it is interesting to note that Walter Isaacson is writing a biography of Elon Musk. No release date has been set but it sounds like much of the interviewing is already done. Like me, Isaacson appears to regard Musk favorably.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/28/books/elon-musk-books-biography.html

    Although Musk is like a big kid, as far as I can tell his take on free speech is probably like most of ours. He wants the free exchange of ideas. He has tweeted (or perhaps retweeted) that sunlight is the best disinfectant.

      1. When I borrowed money to buy a house long ago, I didn’t enquire as to the bank’s politics. I know that Musk’s situation is not completely analogous but it still applies. He wants to buy Twitter and needs funds to do so. I doubt he’s in a position to be super picky about who’s money he’s taking. It’s also really doubtful the Saudis get much control over Twitter. People have suggested that their investment might give them control over any stories that involve the Saudis. That’s just crazy.

    1. He has at least experienced what life is like in a country with heavy speech restrictions, which is not a claim most of his critics here can make.

  8. It is always interesting to try to look into who these people are that have views so very foreign to those I hold.
    Fred Turner, professor of communication at Stanford, quoted in the article is one such interesting person. He also published “Millenarian Tinkering: The Puritan Roots of the Maker
    Movement”, where he draws conclusions that the facts do not seem to suggest.

    It is interesting that Ms. Alter sees contrarianism as a key motivator of her enemies, when she seems to be a member of a growing group of people who themselves take positions on topics primarily by choosing views opposite those of the people on their enemies list, a fact already pointed out here.

    It is like they are both unable to understand how principled or driven people are motivated. So they ascribe to them characteristics to mock them or paint them in a negative light. Of course, it might be a coping mechanism to avoid concluding that their team, at least for now, is the ones with skulls on their caps.

  9. according to Time Magazine, we have yet another reason to ban free speech: it’s a tool of white technocratic males (Musk, Zuckerberg) who are insensitive to the “nuances” of free speech and are pushing it so they can use their platforms to broadcast disinformation and suppress minorities.

    If they really think that, they aren’t thinking critically at all. Mark Zuckerberg’s only concern with respect to Facebook is to increase shareholder value. He wants to do what’s best to increase the number of users and therefore advertising revenue. He allows disinformation and suppression of minorities only insofar as it’s too expensive to stop it.

  10. > And who is going to parse the First Amendment so that it no longer allows “hate speech”?

    Eventually the same people who parsed it so that it did not allow seditious speech. The Sedition Act was passed by Congress within a decade of the Constitution and Bill of Rights taking effect. The Federal Government has been ignoring the Bill of Rights from the very beginning.

    I know, I know, it was a rhetorical question – with a very depressing answer. We have more than enough signs that none of the three branches of government are true proponents of free speech.

  11. I don’t see a difference in various forms of dogmatism. It is an ongoing drama between atavistic caned heads and open mind. Irony is that both can be wrong, but only one side would be able to learn…

    Best regards

  12. It’s darned myopic of journalists to put ‘free speech’ in sneer quotes. When people start putting ‘free press’ in sneer quotes, what will they do then?

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