Big Tech and the Deep History of Free Speech

The speed at which many conservatives have unified in calling for a governmental response to Silicon Valley’s censorship may be surprising to some. After all, many of those calling for an intervention are the same ones who have spent their political lives preaching the gospel of laisse faire government. This seeming about-face is easily explained: the tech world’s frequent attempts to control the public dialogue have been so aggressive, so democratically unprecedented, so blatant, and so nakedly ideological, that conservatives recognize that the continued existence of open deliberation will likely depend on some regulation.

The purging of conservative Twitter accounts. Facebook’s algorithmic “tweaks,” designed to obscure and conceal news and ideas that challenge the narrative of the cultural left. Google’s routine manipulations of search results, aimed at ensuring that wrongthink and inconvenient events for progressives are shoved down the digital memory hole. When Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe recently released a shocking video that documents Google’s deliberate subversion of the electoral process in this country, Google went so far as to remove the video from YouTube. After all, Google owns YouTube.  Their platform, their choice, right?

As James D. Miller argues in a recent Quillette essay, there are compelling reasons to restrict Big Tech’s viewpoint discrimination on economic grounds. But there is also ample evidence that we are dealing with a situation that is historically singular and uniquely threatening to the idea of democracy. Throughout western history, political philosophers have consistently reaffirmed the essential roles of free speech and open deliberation in democratic governance. Because democracy empowers “the people” -- a class of non-experts -- there is a myriad of competing ideas for how to best pursue the public good.

This is why earlier thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Old Oligarch were skeptical of democracy: if you empower everyone (regardless of merit or education) to speak, you are bound to hear a lot of stupid and dangerous ideas.  A free space for discussion and deliberation of ideas becomes an absolute precondition for effective governance. Thus, healthy democracies deliberately create a public sphere that is contentious, an environment where even the best ideas are subjected to harsh scrutiny. It is precisely the ability of an idea to weather critique and attack that proves it is a good one. Big Tech’s attempt to silence a constellation of voices that could be said to represent roughly half of the nation’s political outlook is nothing short of an active attempt to eliminate this space of rhetorical contestation. If they succeed, America will have lost the very means by which we determine the course of the country.

The argument from Silicon Valley is that these voices can’t be heard because they marginalize historically oppressed groups, or that they create an “unsafe” climate for community-building. Of course, this is nonsense. Given that Big Tech, the culture industry, and academia form a trio that ensures the political left has carte blanche to reshape society as they see fit, it is the conservatives in digital space that represent the embattled minority. It is conservative ideas that are “unsafe” to speak. Ask Andy Ngo. One wonders: if so much effort must be mobilized to ensure that the pieties of secular progressivism are never challenged, could they even withstand the test?

Many who concede the danger of viewpoint discrimination shrug their shoulders when it comes to how we might address the threat.  Facebook, Google, and Twitter are businesses -- businesses who offer a free service.  As such, the line goes, they have the right to dictate the terms that the public must accept if they are to make use of these platforms. If you have ideas and beliefs that do not conform to the “community guidelines” (which conservative members of the “community” clearly have no say in), then there are other places to voice those ideas. Start your own website. If Google removes it from its search results… well, you can go yell in the street.

Of course, those arguments are silly. Further, those arguments reflect an ignorance of the history of speech in democracies. Free speech is only half of the equation. The ancient Greek democracy had two complementary ideas that undergirded political life: parrhesia and isologia. Parrhesia shares much in common with our idea of free speech. Etymologically, parrhesia means “saying everything.” This concept is developed in much of the writing from the ancient world, but in Fearless Speech, Michel Foucault (a hero of the academic left!) sums it up nicely: parrhesia means plainly speaking one’s own notion of the truth (not Politico’s fact checkers’ notion of it). Further, parrhesia usually refers to a truth that is critical of dominant notions of truth and institutional exercises of power. Finally, the person who engages in parrhesia speaks these truths at some personal risk. Understood in this way, it is clear that Big Tech is hellbent on disabling parrhesiastic speech: the fact-checkers will arbitrate the truth, and the truths that are critical of the elite vision of society will be silenced. By silencing these voices, the Masters of the Universe ensure that you cannot even choose to undertake a personal risk in voicing a heterodox opinion – unless that risk is losing your Twitter account.

Which brings us back to the exhausted refrain: “You are not entitled to a Twitter account!” But the people who insist upon that idea are ignorant of parrhesia’s sibling: isologia. Isologia means “equal speech,” and in the Greek democracy it meant what we might call “equal access to the dialogue.” Although Greece’s requirements for citizenship were far more exclusive than Americans prefer, all citizens had the right to speak in the assembly, and the assembly was the locus of democratic deliberation. Because the Greeks lived in a society where oral discourse was more prevalent than written texts, the right to speak in the assembly was the most vital part of political participation.

Since text displaced speech as the privileged medium for democratic deliberation, most of the few democracies in the world have ignored the concept of isologia. Historically speaking, many nations had populations that were largely illiterate. Only some citizens had the access and expertise required to publish writing that could influence the public dialogue, and the circulation of meaningful publications was necessarily limited. But the advent of the internet changed that.  We live in a nation with a high rate of literacy. New technology ensured that all people (even non-citizens!) could participate in democratic deliberation (if allowed). A capitalist economy has made it so that the vast majority of people have access to the machines that enable participation. In short, we have the means to reinstate an isologia -- one that would ensure a broader access to the public debate than any other society in the history of the world. But the acolytes of Inclusion remain curiously silent.

Those insisting that you don’t have a right to a Facebook account are pushing a corrupt notion of parrhesia, and pretending that parrhesia defines the whole scope of free speech -- as if isologia isn’t a consideration. But parrhesia (the right to voice critical truths in a blunt style) is meaningless if the only place you are allowed to speak your notion of truth is in your closet. By ignoring both parrhesia and isologia, Big Tech and their apologists justify not only their supposed ownership of the space of public dialogue -- they are asserting a right to dictate which ideas can be voiced in that space, which is functionally no different than decreeing who can and cannot participate in democratic life.

Big Tech has usurped what is a primary role for any democratic government: securing the conditions that allow for an equitable exchange of ideas as to how best to proceed as a society. Time is of the essence. The longer that these corporate entities are allowed to curate and control the expression of ideas, the more progress they will make in undermining other foundational principles of democratic society. The government needs to remind Big Tech: the people dictate the “community standards.”

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown, where he teaches rhetoric and writing. He is a member of Heterodox Academy. Contact him at ellwangera@uhd.edu

The speed at which many conservatives have unified in calling for a governmental response to Silicon Valley’s censorship may be surprising to some. After all, many of those calling for an intervention are the same ones who have spent their political lives preaching the gospel of laisse faire government. This seeming about-face is easily explained: the tech world’s frequent attempts to control the public dialogue have been so aggressive, so democratically unprecedented, so blatant, and so nakedly ideological, that conservatives recognize that the continued existence of open deliberation will likely depend on some regulation.

The purging of conservative Twitter accounts. Facebook’s algorithmic “tweaks,” designed to obscure and conceal news and ideas that challenge the narrative of the cultural left. Google’s routine manipulations of search results, aimed at ensuring that wrongthink and inconvenient events for progressives are shoved down the digital memory hole. When Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe recently released a shocking video that documents Google’s deliberate subversion of the electoral process in this country, Google went so far as to remove the video from YouTube. After all, Google owns YouTube.  Their platform, their choice, right?

As James D. Miller argues in a recent Quillette essay, there are compelling reasons to restrict Big Tech’s viewpoint discrimination on economic grounds. But there is also ample evidence that we are dealing with a situation that is historically singular and uniquely threatening to the idea of democracy. Throughout western history, political philosophers have consistently reaffirmed the essential roles of free speech and open deliberation in democratic governance. Because democracy empowers “the people” -- a class of non-experts -- there is a myriad of competing ideas for how to best pursue the public good.

This is why earlier thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Old Oligarch were skeptical of democracy: if you empower everyone (regardless of merit or education) to speak, you are bound to hear a lot of stupid and dangerous ideas.  A free space for discussion and deliberation of ideas becomes an absolute precondition for effective governance. Thus, healthy democracies deliberately create a public sphere that is contentious, an environment where even the best ideas are subjected to harsh scrutiny. It is precisely the ability of an idea to weather critique and attack that proves it is a good one. Big Tech’s attempt to silence a constellation of voices that could be said to represent roughly half of the nation’s political outlook is nothing short of an active attempt to eliminate this space of rhetorical contestation. If they succeed, America will have lost the very means by which we determine the course of the country.

The argument from Silicon Valley is that these voices can’t be heard because they marginalize historically oppressed groups, or that they create an “unsafe” climate for community-building. Of course, this is nonsense. Given that Big Tech, the culture industry, and academia form a trio that ensures the political left has carte blanche to reshape society as they see fit, it is the conservatives in digital space that represent the embattled minority. It is conservative ideas that are “unsafe” to speak. Ask Andy Ngo. One wonders: if so much effort must be mobilized to ensure that the pieties of secular progressivism are never challenged, could they even withstand the test?

Many who concede the danger of viewpoint discrimination shrug their shoulders when it comes to how we might address the threat.  Facebook, Google, and Twitter are businesses -- businesses who offer a free service.  As such, the line goes, they have the right to dictate the terms that the public must accept if they are to make use of these platforms. If you have ideas and beliefs that do not conform to the “community guidelines” (which conservative members of the “community” clearly have no say in), then there are other places to voice those ideas. Start your own website. If Google removes it from its search results… well, you can go yell in the street.

Of course, those arguments are silly. Further, those arguments reflect an ignorance of the history of speech in democracies. Free speech is only half of the equation. The ancient Greek democracy had two complementary ideas that undergirded political life: parrhesia and isologia. Parrhesia shares much in common with our idea of free speech. Etymologically, parrhesia means “saying everything.” This concept is developed in much of the writing from the ancient world, but in Fearless Speech, Michel Foucault (a hero of the academic left!) sums it up nicely: parrhesia means plainly speaking one’s own notion of the truth (not Politico’s fact checkers’ notion of it). Further, parrhesia usually refers to a truth that is critical of dominant notions of truth and institutional exercises of power. Finally, the person who engages in parrhesia speaks these truths at some personal risk. Understood in this way, it is clear that Big Tech is hellbent on disabling parrhesiastic speech: the fact-checkers will arbitrate the truth, and the truths that are critical of the elite vision of society will be silenced. By silencing these voices, the Masters of the Universe ensure that you cannot even choose to undertake a personal risk in voicing a heterodox opinion – unless that risk is losing your Twitter account.

Which brings us back to the exhausted refrain: “You are not entitled to a Twitter account!” But the people who insist upon that idea are ignorant of parrhesia’s sibling: isologia. Isologia means “equal speech,” and in the Greek democracy it meant what we might call “equal access to the dialogue.” Although Greece’s requirements for citizenship were far more exclusive than Americans prefer, all citizens had the right to speak in the assembly, and the assembly was the locus of democratic deliberation. Because the Greeks lived in a society where oral discourse was more prevalent than written texts, the right to speak in the assembly was the most vital part of political participation.

Since text displaced speech as the privileged medium for democratic deliberation, most of the few democracies in the world have ignored the concept of isologia. Historically speaking, many nations had populations that were largely illiterate. Only some citizens had the access and expertise required to publish writing that could influence the public dialogue, and the circulation of meaningful publications was necessarily limited. But the advent of the internet changed that.  We live in a nation with a high rate of literacy. New technology ensured that all people (even non-citizens!) could participate in democratic deliberation (if allowed). A capitalist economy has made it so that the vast majority of people have access to the machines that enable participation. In short, we have the means to reinstate an isologia -- one that would ensure a broader access to the public debate than any other society in the history of the world. But the acolytes of Inclusion remain curiously silent.

Those insisting that you don’t have a right to a Facebook account are pushing a corrupt notion of parrhesia, and pretending that parrhesia defines the whole scope of free speech -- as if isologia isn’t a consideration. But parrhesia (the right to voice critical truths in a blunt style) is meaningless if the only place you are allowed to speak your notion of truth is in your closet. By ignoring both parrhesia and isologia, Big Tech and their apologists justify not only their supposed ownership of the space of public dialogue -- they are asserting a right to dictate which ideas can be voiced in that space, which is functionally no different than decreeing who can and cannot participate in democratic life.

Big Tech has usurped what is a primary role for any democratic government: securing the conditions that allow for an equitable exchange of ideas as to how best to proceed as a society. Time is of the essence. The longer that these corporate entities are allowed to curate and control the expression of ideas, the more progress they will make in undermining other foundational principles of democratic society. The government needs to remind Big Tech: the people dictate the “community standards.”

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown, where he teaches rhetoric and writing. He is a member of Heterodox Academy. Contact him at ellwangera@uhd.edu