Kalefa Sanneh has an interesting piece in the current New Yorker about the "new battles over freedom of speech." These battles aren't really fought by or against the state, he notes, but within civil society or social media. We hear people crying "censorship" and "political correctness" all the time, but Sanneh asks who's really censoring whom? He gives an example: a DJ lost a gig at a Chapel Hill NC pub because a female patron felt the song "Blurred Lines" was suggestive of rape. The DJ presumably moved on to other gigs, but as Sanneh notes, the student who complained about the song has been identified and targeted for attack all over the Internet. It may seem bad to some people that the DJ lost a gig, but if there's something wrong in a world where that can happen, what about "a world where an undergraduate who protests at her local bar can find herself vilified around the world, achieving the sort of Internet infamy that will eventually fade but never entirely dissipate." Sanneh invites us to ask who's suffered more. He observes that "Mostly what prohibits speech is the fear of being spoken about." He clearly believes that those who rock the boat, those who raise issues about respect, are more vulnerable to "being spoken about" than those they purportedly persecute.
Sanneh isn't a First-Amendment absolutist, but as a good liberal he isn't really an absolutist of any sort."Just as good-faith gun-rights advocates need not pretend that every gun owner is a third-generation hunter," he writes, "free-speech advocates need not pretend that every provocative utterance is a valuable contribution to robust debate, or that it is impossible to make any distinctions between various kinds of speech." He finds the U.S. exceptional -- and, implicitly, deplorably so -- in its constitutional resistance to laws against the dissemination of racist opinion, and he sympathizes with the school of thought that finds certain kinds of speech actionably "exclusive" toward women and minorities. But while the First Amendment inhibits government from addressing these perceived injustices, Sanneh observes that "we are outsourcing some of our most important free-speech decisions" to the leaders of social media. He envisions a time when losing your Twitter account might be a more intimidating prospect than going to jail as social media becomes still more pervasive and your place in it more important for all your prospects. He also fears that the social-media sector may grow too heavy-handed in efforts to purge any controversial content.
These are the dilemmas of a world without honor. However we feel about the Constitution in relation to speech, we should recall that one of the principal authors of our founding charter -- though not of the First Amendment itself -- was killed in a duel by the Vice President of the United States, who had taken offense at comments on his character attributed to his antagonist, who refused to apologize. Neither man, nor many of their contemporaries, would have tolerated the kind of vituperation common today. Yet it probably would be impossible for an Aaron Burr of today to demand satisfaction of everyone who'd insult him online. Even in his own time dueling was frowned upon formally, even if the establishment often looked the other way, and we should neither be able nor have to kill people to get the sort of satisfaction Burr sought. Yet codes of honor reject the idea of impunity for speech, just as a sense of honor prevalent among many Muslims today requires reprisal against alleged slanderers of their religion. At one extreme we find the bloodstained office of Charlie Hebdo; at another, the free-for-all idealized by many civil and ideological libertarians, in which speech is risk-free and the level of discourse is not noticeably elevated. There ought to be a middle ground that isn't necessarily defined by the state but may be maintained by it in the old manner. We can't look the other way at killing any more, but perhaps there are things still to be done while the state does look the other way. What's happening now is a kind of democratization of honor in the insistence upon respect and reticence by people once assumed unentitled to such deference. This mass (and sometimes collective) honor can't be enforced by the old code duello without the country becoming even more the Wild West of the NRA's fantasies. The old honor code was aristocratic; a democratic honor code must be something else -- and as we see reactionaries apparently more determined than ever to insult their anatagonists, we shall probably see that something else very soon. We can hope it won't be violent, but it depends on what it takes to satisfy the honor of multitudes.