Blog-mob mentality punishes freedom of speech

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Take a stroll down Main Street USA and you’ll find people of all ages and persuasions putting on a veritable fashion parade of freedom. We don’t just practice free speech, we wear it.

T-shirts, caps, shoes, jackets, designer labels and the occasional tattoo boldly announce in word, design and color our choice, our message, our cause, our team – our Statement.

And when we take to the road, we do so in rolling billboards, vehicles festooned with bumper stickers, vanity plates and ribbons of every hue embracing every cause. We drive what we say.

Then there’s the Internet, where we really speak our minds. We have e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, personal Web pages and, now, our own newspaper/radio-TV station, the Web log or “blog.”

Full-throated expression is our style. We are America. Hear us roar!

Funny thing. For all of that celebration of free and fulsome speech for ourselves, many of us waste a lot of that precious commodity denying it to others. “America,” we say, “shut up!”

There was a time before America when the mob spoke for the village. Anyone who thought differently was quickly driven out – or worse. America and the First Amendment were supposed to be a rebuke to that sort of churlishness.

Nevertheless, civil discourse today is in short supply, regularly savaged by talk radio and cable punditry. On the Internet, flame wars have given way to the blog-mob mentality, where a small but vocal number of vigilantes, armed with virtual pitchforks, rakes and cudgels, prowl the ether world in search of offense and offenders. Without much discrimination, they march on both rant and reason and flay both the unworthy and the brave.

The rather clear message for anyone who attracts the attention of the blog-mob: Never, ever get into a shouting match with someone who buys bytes by the giga.

The vast majority of bloggers, of course, prove the value of democratic freedoms. They produce a prodigious flow of vital information and ideas and serve as a check on traditional media.

But there are a few who are not content to disagree with or to criticize the speech. They must punish the speaker. Lynch a reputation. Lop off a job. The major media flock to the spectacle, their massive wing beats fanning the furor.

Blogging, it must be pointed out, is only the latest technique applied to an old tradition. We’ve seen the distrust and destruction fostered in our society by the McCarthyites, the white supremacists, the religious zealots and others who have exploited fear and ignorance for power and punishment – or a cheap thrill.

But no matter the technique or target, when controversial speakers are shouted down or denied a forum, a democratic compact is disturbed. An opportunity for the speakers to clarify, refine, put in context or even disavow their remarks is lost. So is the opportunity for the opponents to engage and rebut the disfavored speech.

A recent example is Hamilton College’s bitter experience with a controversial speaker. The private New York college offered a speaking engagement to Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado professor. Critics soon latched onto the fact that Churchill had said some outrageous and hurtful things about 9/11 and its victims three years earlier. Besieged with calls to rescind the invitation or else — the “or else” including death threats — college officials backed down and canceled the event.

Further demonstrating that sometimes on campus freedom is academic, University of Colorado officials and political leaders launched a campaign to fire Churchill. And at Harvard University, President Lawrence Summers faces intensifying demands for his resignation after he made a remark interpreted as being sexist.

Off campus, a blog-mob targeted CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan. Questions about Eason’s questionable remarks about journalists’ deaths in Iraq were raised in the “blogosphere” and refused to go away until Jordan did. He resigned from CNN on Feb. 11.

Whether any of the principals in these examples deserve what they got, we must take care not to supplant the high value of free speech in America with a high cost.

Everyone has a right – indeed, a duty – to disagree, to dissent, to rise up against an affront, an injustice or an injury. But for the fragile freedom of speech to survive, we must carry out that task with a firm attachment to fairness, principle and tolerance. When we give in to hostility, self-righteousness and vengefulness, we eventually find ourselves snapping and snarling at a shrinking number of inhabitants of the public square.

Giving in to the speech mob means that discourse is diverted from the real issues to a sideshow on who is punished for uttering the “wrong” ideas or words. Dissent is dead if it can be hounded out of the marketplace so effortlessly. Democracy is no match for demagoguery if good people won’t stand up to mob rule.

We must get past the idea that expression has no value unless it mirrors our own. We must learn to recognize ourselves not just in the faces but in the voices of others. We must find a way to see our own rights reflected in other people’s freedom.

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