Lexical Liberty and Conceptual Freedom
I can't believe I have to write this
When Substack opened the new Notes feature, I knew where it was going to go.
Substack has so far been an oasis of calm, open-minded discussion in the wasteland of acrimony that the Internet has become. The interactions in the comments of this blog and so many others that I follow have been remarkable for their civility and thoughtfulness. Oh, sure, there would be the occasional troll – nothing that the proprietor’s moderate button couldn’t take care of, however. Writers have the freedom to set the parameters of discourse in their own comments. By and large, however, I haven’t found myself resorting to that very often. Long-form content allows for a depth of conceptual development that inhibits misunderstandings; it also acts as a kind of filter, as people will generally want to read the entire essay before commenting, and most people don’t want to wade through 2000 words they know they’re going to hate just so they can leave a snarky comment underneath ... especially when they know full well that the author has the power to simply delete it. So for the most part I haven’t had to moderate anyone off, and when I have done so it’s generally been because they were being a jerk to my readers.
The contrast with the open-air food fight of Twitter couldn’t be stronger.
So when Notes was rolled out, I was very nervous.
The great strength of microblogging is that short, easily shareable posts enable virality and high-duty cycle interaction. The curse of microblogging is that short, easily shareable posts enable rage-bait to go viral, with the high-duty cycle interaction quickly degenerating into trench warfare. It seemed inevitable that Notes would follow this path, and indeed it seems to have fallen into this trap immediately.
So when I started seeing Notes I disagreed with, ice cold takes on the bad orange man or Budweiser’s new spokesabomination, I told myself not to engage. I really did. And I was good. I ignored them, and tried to direct my attention towards posts that I actually enjoyed. Sure, I could chase that adrenaline rush from mixing it up with the marxcissist mob, but I’ve learned to hate doing this. It just leaves me feeling drained, the irreplaceable moments of my life sucked into the pointless quicksand of bickering with the latest impenetrable firmware update that’s been pushed out to the NPCs.
And then, inevitably, the one thing – the one thing – that I cannot abide, began to happen.
It took one lousy week.
The usual suspects, wielding the usual arguments, started to demand that Substack censor its platform.
Someone had used a no-no word. There was hate. There were not-sees on the platform. People were doing racisms. They were committing sexisms. There had been misogynies. Maybe even misogynoirs.
Hate speech, you see, isn’t free speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of reach. We all know what this means in practice: speech leftists hate must be silenced, so that leftists can be free to speak without being contradicted, so that only leftist talking points can reach people’s ears.
Besides which, Substack is a private company, you know. Muh Constitution doesn’t apply to them, chuds. They can censor whoever they like on their platform, so they should censor everyone leftists don’t like. Besides, it’s in their interests to do so. It’s a nice place you’ve got here, Substack, sure would be a shame if people started avoiding your platform because it turns into a nest of racist 4chan trolls. And didn’t you see what happened to Alex Jones?
I find it immensely annoying that I feel compelled to write this at all. Having to speak in defence of freedom of speech, on Substack, seems so 2018. It makes me feel like Jordan Peterson. I’m deeply disinterested in talking about free speech. I want to use it to write about the things that actually interest me.
I’m not the first to pile onto this topic, because it’s a very important topic. It is absolutely existential to the viability of Substack as an engine of culture.weighed in with an excellent open letter to the Substack team, which you really should read, and should most certainly share:
Now, I’m not actually that worried that Substack is going to start bending to pressure from the professionally aggrieved. Chris Best et al. have been very solid and principled on this from the very beginning. If they didn’t buckle to the ADL, they’re not going to cave in because some writers are throwing a hissy fit. Nevertheless, the more of us who raise our voices to praise them for doing God’s work as they are, the more moral support we provide to them, the stiffer their spines will be.
So, first, the cynical tactical libertarianism of ‘it isn’t censorship if the government isn’t doing it, because free speech is just a Constitutional thing’.
Leaving aside the obvious dishonesty of this argument (‘It’s only oppression if it’s the government’s boot stomping on your face’)....
Look. The foundation of freedom of speech isn’t the American Constitution. Glorious and inspired as the First Amendment is, it is not the origin but the recognition of something quite fundamental not only to human nature, but to reality itself. We are each of us free beings, endowed with our own perspectives on and thoughts about the world. No two of us will experience reality in exactly the same fashion. Only by communicating to one another what we see in and think about the world can we begin to assemble something resembling an accurate picture of it. You might not always enjoy what you hear, because true things can be ugly when they conflict with your own model of reality. Not everything people say will be true or useful, either; people can lie, they can be crazy, and they can simply be honestly mistaken. But when you inhibit what people are allowed to say, you limit your access to reality, because you will interrupt the flow of their thoughts about the world through their mouths and into your ears. The more successful you are, the more you’ll only hear what you want to hear, and not what you need to hear in order to correct your model of reality ... which is, I assure you, quite flawed. You blind yourself, and one day you will walk off a cliff.
Which, you may have noticed, is what our society has been doing for years now, ever since we started letting the crybully auxillaries of corporate and state power censor the Internet.
Wise men understood this a very long time ago. Only when everyone, no matter how pig-ignorant, rude, or unpleasant, is allowed to speak their piece, can society test the ideas that constitute its conceptual toolset, and via a process of continual refinement and correction keep those ideas in something approaching alignment with reality.
There are all kinds of things that start to go wrong if everyone is constantly biting their tongues. Elites lose touch with the sentiments of the people, leading to friction between the classes and castes as the acts of officialdom become increasingly unpopular. Bad ideas can spread without check, leading to self-destructive behaviours or counterproductive policies.
Then there’s violence. One of the arguments the left absolutely adores making is that unfettered free speech enables bad actors to gin up hate against defenseless minority groups. This is absurd. Just look around. Since the Great Shuttening of the Internet over the last several years, has society become less violent, or more? Now, unfettered speech doesn’t necessarily prevent violence ... but it doesn’t hurt. So long as people are talking, they aren’t sticking sharp objects in each other’s bellies. On the other hand, when one side uses its political power to silence the speech of the other side, the side doing the silencing feels increasingly emboldened to demonize its perceived enemies – outcast cockroach Tutsis! Racist white cismales! – while the side being silenced becomes increasingly desperate and embittered. The inevitable result is an escalation of violence, with one side emboldening itself into attacking its demonized enemies while the other feels like it has no option but to strike back. This is how civil disagreement spirals into civil war.
The people agitating for Substack to start implementing a more aggressive moderation policy will of course say that they don’t want censorship, exactly. No, they just want certain, specific, bad words to be banned. Which is totally different.
We all know how that goes. First it’s one word. Then it’s another word. Then it’s a certain idea that is ruled out of bounds. And before you know it....
Real as the slippery slope has proven to be on every other platform and in every other institution in which this form of censorship has been applied, it isn’t just that banning bad words is the thin end of the wedge which ideological commissars jam into the discourse in order to assume control over it. When you start policing the words that people are allowed to use, they begin to censor themselves. The free flow of ideas from their minds to their mouths is interrupted. They begin thinking, is this okay to say, maybe I shouldn’t say it. And they don’t. Or maybe they find a way to say it, but they phrase it in such a way as to talk around the bad word, leading to euphemistic speech that occults their plain meaning, thereby making it that much harder to understand them.
In order to be able to say what they mean, people must be able to say things they way they want to say them.
You need lexical liberty to grease the skids for conceptual freedom, and without conceptual freedom, your society goes off the rails.
By anathematizing an ever-widening swath of the dictionary, the left has restricted the ability of people to clearly communicate their thoughts, leading to a public discourse that is ever more leaden and impenetrable, where it takes more syllables every day to say the same thing ... while many simply choose not to speak at all, for fear that today’s mandatory terminology may be taboo tomorrow.
The lexical lockdown has been a catastrophe for the human conversation. But it sure has increased the power of the left.
And make no mistake, that’s what all of this is about.
It isn’t about good manners, or being kind, or avoiding harm, or inclusivity, or any of the other warm fuzzies the left likes to wrap its word salad in.
It’s about power, and their desire for more of it.
No one who wants to prevent others from speaking ever has a benign reason for doing so. Liars want you to shut up because they don’t want you explaining how they’re lying. Censors want to silence you because they know that their ideas cannot survive open challenge by better ideas. They are hothouse flowers that wither when taken out of the greenhouse.
I haven’t exactly hidden my disdain for the contemporary lickspittle left in this piece. But here’s the funny thing: I think they should be allowed to speak their minds, to say whatever they want, however they want to say it. I think they should be allowed to defame my people, denigrate my history, despise my nation, and indulge in whatever other potato-brained, hate-filled nonsense they feel like gibbering about. I have no desire to read their ramblings. I can’t imagine why I’d subject myself to such torture. But I’m perfectly happy to share this platform with them. They have their blogs, me and my friends have ours, and we can all get along so long as one simple rule is observed:
Everyone is allowed to say what they want, however they want to say it.
That is the sole, necessary, and sufficient condition for peaceful coexistence as respectful frenemies.
Now, it’s easy for me to adopt this position, because I’m quite confident that we have better ideas. I also think we’re more interesting thinkers, and frankly better writers, and therefore likely to amass a larger audience over time.
Perhaps the left is not so confident about this?
I wonder why that might be?
But here’s the other thing. Our ideas aren’t perfect. No model of reality is. I want those ideas to improve over time. That means I need to be able to read what others think, and I need them to write that as clearly and honestly as they can. Yes, even the left, because who knows, maybe they’ll say something sensible eventually. It isn’t impossible. Which is yet one more reason why Substack’s speech must remain unfettered by any particular dogma.
So, to the left. Stop trying to silence people. It’s rude, it’s antisocial, and it’s in your own worst interests because your own ideas will only improve over time when they’re tested by those of others ... and they’ll degenerate just as quickly when artificially protected from competition. I mean, just look at how intellectually flabby and verbally flaccid you’ve all become. I want you to come back to your old, fun, irreverent, creative, clever selves. You were so much more interesting to talk to before you became wokescolds.
And to Chris Best and the rest of the Substack team: keep the course. I meant it when I said you’re doing the Lord’s work.