How not to pay for free speech

Mark is blogging about nastiness in the blogs – specifically, blog comments – and has pointed his readers to an article about the downside of free speech, meaning, the downside of using the First Amendment in the US consitution to justify saying what you want about another person. You know: Gossip. Lie. Which is wrong.

But what got me writing, was this in the editorial:

[…]a Web site of postings for law schools prestigious and otherwise, where students blab about whatever. An awful lot of it is about other students, most of it mean-spirited. This is all extremely weird for those of us born before the Carter administration[…]

I was born before the Carter administration. I don’t think people’s morals are worse today than ever before; even Socrates complained about the young people of his day, so older generations have always eyed younger ones with a bit of skepticism. I am now (unfortunately? unnecessarily?) in that boat, because I can’t help but wonder at the lack of boundaries exhibited by the current crop of adolescents.

There are rules about how to get along with people. Not laws, but codes of conduct – morals and manners. Some have made it into religions, like the classic one about treating others as you would like them to treat you. It’s one thing to get caught up in a discussion and maybe say/write something in the heat of the moment. It’s something else not to realize that someone could be hurt by it, and not just emotionally right then and there, but later, because others also heard/read the comments – and believed them.

Intelligent law studens displaying an utter lack of empathy – or even the gift of foresight (looking ahead at possible effects)… I don’t believe for one second that young people today have no heart, so where did they get the idea that this is somehow not mean or harmful?

Since I have seen people of far more advanced years practically have a mental meltdown in Usenet discussions and spew the most incredible accusations, I have a theory that this is a direct effect of the computer era: Typed words on a screen do not let you see the “victim’s” reaction, nor the reaction of silent readers (lurkers). There’s little or no feedback, unless someone actually writes a response. You can spew umpteen times a day and get ten responses, but they are not representative of the other 10 or 10,000 who have also read you. If you stood in the college quad and yelled, you’d see your audience and have an idea of how many heard your yell. Silence in the face-to-face world doesn’t always mean agreement; it can mean stunned disagreement, but we can tell which thanks to facial expression. In writing, facial expressions and tone of voice are missing, and only partially compensated for by using emoticons. So we find ourselves reading or writing vicious words and personal attacks that we would never have heard or said in real life – and we find ourselves too often reacting wrongly because of lack of other cues that can clarify intent.

First amendment rights, sure. But that amendment was never about deliberately hurting people or lying about them. We need to remember the difference. The right to free speech is about the right to share information and opinions about public matters. That’s not the same as sharing confidences about a person’s private life. We need to remind everyone that behind every keyboard is a real, live human being – however faceless – and stuff that gets put in writing lives for a very, very long time.

The world of blog comments, web forums and chat groups, is an odd mix of instant intimacy and friendship, and anonymity and physical distance. This blurs boundaries and makes us sometimes forget that we are, after all and nevertheless, communicating with other people, and that our actual audience – witnesses to our exchanges – is largely unknown to us.

I am actually more even-tempered and diplomatic in writing than in real life, since writing affords me both opportunity to wait (and calm down) before responding, and the delete key. That’s a huge advantage to writing. I wish more would see and use that advantage.

UPDATE: PJ wrote an excellent survival guide to cybercommunication here. It’s a must!

By Keera Ann Fox

I am a bi-lingual American who has lived most of my life in Norway.
Jeg er en tospråklig amerikaner som har bodd mesteparten av mitt liv i Norge.

7 replies on “How not to pay for free speech”

I admire you, Keera. I used to enjoy the combat prose on Usenet, but got tired of it; in Blogland peeps seem to try to have actual discussions. Some peeps anyway. There are also the ones who keep claiming victim status even though they are continually nasty to others. If someone insults me just for having an opinion on a subject, I will smack them back harder. I just don\’t see an upside to ignoring it. When they stop, I stop.


Nice post, Keera. I believe that people are nastier online than they are in real life, but who knows? Maybe the people who find it fun to call people names act just like that in person too. I doubt it, though. I agree that it\’s easier for these weasels to be nasty while hiding behind the anonymity of a worldwide network.


I usually just avoid commenting on anything controversial. I guess I\’d rather be the fool who remains silent than the bumbling idiot. 🙂 And when blogs cover serious topics often, I don\’t enjoy them much anyway.


Paula, you and I have completely different approaches. If someone insults me, I either respond nicely (depends on the insult), or I just remove them from my life. I don\’t see the advantage in defending myself with nastiness. (I sure have been using that word \”advantage\” a lot, lately.)PJ, thanks. I do wonder what some folks are like in real life, considering their web personas. Probably better not to know, huh. :-)Dawn, sometimes I can\’t contain myself and jump in where I\’m not smart enough to know better or discuss. Oh, well.


Freedom of speech doesn\’t always go along with kindness. A lot of people online make vicious, or at the very least insensitive comments, just because they can.


Freedom of speech doesn\’t always go along with kindness. A lot of people online make vicious, or at the very least insensitive comments, just because they can.


Freedom of speech is not the same as the freedom to fling insults. Freedom of speech is meant to protect the free exchange of ideas, also those that run contrary to the ideas of those in power. Which, again, is not the same as flinging insults (or death threats).I\’ve been reading some more about this lately, about the call (by some) for a code of ethics for bloggers, and I\’ve yet to see someone state that flinging insults is not the same as freedom of speech.


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