The freedom to listen…

“Free Speech” is a hot topic. Can you say what you want, when you want, to whom you want? If you’re in somebody else’s house can they kick you out if you represent an opinion they don’t like?

Well known link aggregation site Reddit has answered that question with a resounding yes. Somewhat surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with them, however with the caveat that if you do that sort of thing I won’t (nor should anyone else) come to your house anymore, and you’re welcome to live a long, happy, and friendless life all alone in that house.

So the question is: Should they?

It’s long been known that certain subreddits (user defined areas of the site) have a variety of opinions about this issue. Some are a free-for-all, and some are well known to remove any comment or content that the subreddit mod team doesn’t approve of. This is an extremely dangerous line to tread however. When the “technology” subreddit decides to ban any content with the word “tesla” in it, it happens in such a way that nobody knows that the topic is banned, it just… vanishes.

If you kick me out of your house, the rest of the guests get to see it happen, and then get to make their own decisions about what sort of person you are. This is the step that is vital. Controls can be put in place and exercised, but it has to be done transparently. Removed content should have a placeholder left that says “Removed due to references to banned word ‘Tesla'”.

How can people make informed choices otherwise? How can behavior deemed negative by the community be corrected? Shadowbanning, the practice of “banning” a user in such a way that they believe they’re not banned, but their content never appears to any other user, is a vile practice as it prevents both the user being banned from understanding that they did something wrong, and from the rest of the users understanding what the rules of the space are. The way the term “safe space” has been co-opted is worthy of an entire discussion on it’s own, but suffice to say that I define a “safe space” as one in which people who have a problem with me are able to talk to me about it rather than arbitrarily punishing me as they see fit. I will not willing place myself into the hands of a capricious wannabe deity.

One thing I know about control, it either has to be exercised fully and completely, or it is utterly useless. Reddit acts as a landlord for individuals, who can throw parties in their apartments in whatever manner they please. To then come to these parties, kick out individual users, and even shut down some parties entirely, after allowing the illusion that the renters have autonomy, is simply pathetic bullying and an abuse of power. If you want to run a “safe space” you must run that space. You must set individual rules at each party, be constantly present in ALL the parties to enforce the rules, and make sure everyone understands your application of justice in the space. You cannot choose to enforce some of the rules, some of the time, or descend from the digital heavens whenever your messiah complex demands; that isn’t control or justice, it’s terrorism.

A lot of people will talk about “free speech”, but that’s not what this is about. I do NOT have the freedom to walk in to your house and demand that you allow me to spew hatred about your family. However, if your neighbor is having an open-door party about a topic that you disapprove of I absolutely have the freedom to listen. Attempting to control my freedom to listen is far worse than attempting to control my freedom to speak. Controlling somebody’s freedom to listen is an attempt to control their freedom of thought. Preventing information from reaching me is preventing me from thinking about something, and that is an intolerable evil.

Creating an echo chamber where differing opinions are simply banished, rather than discussed and debated, is one of the most dangerous things that a community can do, and yet it is something that every community tries to do. The ones that succeed with near complete success are usually labeled “cult”.

Any tool, institution, or community that is attempting to control your freedom of thought should be banished from your life without delay or regret. Protect your freedom to listen.