Monday, August 14, 2017

Free speech, right?

One of the arguments that keep popping up in Twitter and Facebook feeds is a discussion around free speech, and how the feminist agenda is limiting it. Of course, occasionally other agendas are killing free speech, such as those who fight for ethnic equality, economic equality or just plain human rights. With the claim that the feminist (or other equality based) agenda is accused of limiting free speech, there tends to be one think they all have in common. The threatened speech can be seen as supporting discrimination.

The most recent discussion is concerned with the engineer who circulated a memo at Google. In this document he argued for why male characteristics are better for engineers than female, and why that discussion should be permitted. Going through and arguing with the entire document is a time-consuming and painful thing to do, but luckily it has already been done pretty well. Suzanne Sadedin over at Quora has a pretty well articulated walk-through of the arguments concernine biological differences between men and women, for instance. Cynthia Lee ladysplains the computer science side of the argument over at Vox. I am not even going to go into the discussion as to whether Google had the right to fire an engineer who went against their diversity policy, because of course they do. That is actually how a free market, which libertarians love, works.

So what am I going to talk about?

I want to talk about the idea that all free speech should be without consequence. Because that is what is argued in the case of the Google engineer. He has, after all, not been refused his right to speak, quite the opposite, he has been asked to speak quite a lot since he was fired. What he wants is to speak without any negative consequences to himself. When he then claims it is a free speech matter, he commits a logical fallacy. Dissent of a woman made a pretty good list of logical fallacies concerning free speech back in 2012, long before this, and at least one is directly relevant:

4) An edict that states that an employer, school or club cannot form or enforce policies on speech that happens within its own environment and boundaries. 
Citizen G: You’re a stupid bitch! 
The boss: You’re fired. 
Citizen G (to the lawyer he or she hopes to hire): That stupid bitch violated my right to free speech. 
Clarifying the fallacy: The lawyer will not be taking Citizen G’s case because employee discipline is not legal censorship. Citizen G’s right to curse about his or her boss is protected, but will not receive safeguards from anything except arrest or government assassination. Firing Citizen G did not nullify his or her ability to call his or her boss a stupid bitch.

Google is huge, and if Google really does practice censorship of free speech, we'd be in trouble. I would probably be in trouble personally, since Google owns this blog platform. Now there are ways in which Google regulates speech, and while I don't think it's with malicious intent, it's really annoying to borderline problematic. For instance: if you're a scholar and use Google scholar, you really should make sure to do your searches while you are abroad on conferences as well as from home. The algorithm that makes sure that your search for "same day car repairs", or "pizza takeaway" gives you the local hits high up on your list, apparently messes with Google scholar hits. After a year of travels and writing from different countries, it has become pretty obvious - articles which are not frequently used in local searches and libraries come far down the list. This kind of censorship causes a bias in academic writing and publishing which makes it almost impossible for dissenting voices from remote locations to be heard, as it strengthens the centrally positioned scholars' tendency to only cite each other, making it less and less likely that others will be heard.

But even this isn't a violation of free speech. That would be if Google stopped displaying hits outside of our geographic area, suppressing them in specific searches, and is exactly the kind of censorship that comes into play in the Google vs China discussion:

Google vs. China 
Google has had a rocky relationship with the Chinese authorities since January 2010, when the company said it might shut down Chinese operations due to a "sophisticated and targeted" cyber attack. Google said at the time that it was no longer willing to censor its Chinese search engine. The forced blockage of Google's service and Google's subsequent threat to pull out highlight concerns of cyberspace security within China. While Jiang Yu, a spokesperson of the China's Foreign Ministry, promoted the Chinese government's "development of the internet", Wang Chen of China's State Council Information Office defended online censorship: "Maintaining the safe operation of the Internet and the secure flow of information is a fundamental requirement for guaranteeing state security and people's fundamental interests, promoting economic development and cultural prosperity and maintaining a harmonious and stable society."[56] In 2014, in response to a series of terrorist attacks, China made all Google services almost unusable by tightening its Internet censorship, often called the "Great Firewall of China". In 2009, one-third of all searches in China were on Google. As of 2013 the US company has only 1.7% market share.
Now, this is actual censorship in action, and this is a threat to free speech. What we are looking at here is how Google controls what I guess we can all agree is an asset to freedom of speech, and they refuse to adjust it to facilitate the kind of censorship practiced in mainland China.

But why fight for the right of women, coloured or low-income individuals to speak, and not the right of all, specifically educated, well situated white men? Aren't they allowed to start discussions about their working conditions?

Of course they are. But here's the thing with freedom of speech - for it to work, we all need to agree that all are equal first. Otherwise it won't be free speech, it will be a mutual silencing attempt. And this is where supremacy-groups come in. Whether it's gender supremacy (all directions), ethnic, colour, educational, or based on weight or muscle strength, supremacy groups that try to silence others because they for some reason "do not fit" have already waived their right to free speech. If you claim that being somehow "better" gives you the right to shut others up, you have to accept that others, who might be "better" than you, have the right to shut you up. And since in cases like this right = might, we are not looking at a society with free speech any more, and you can't use the argument. This is also where I have a problem with some of the more extreme aspects of identity politics - silencing the opposition is never OK. However, most advocates of identity politics don't try to silence the opposition. They just want them to be polite.

So, what does this have to do with the poor engineer, who just wanted the right to not having to be so sensitive all the time? Well, he has the right to be insensitive. However, he can't force others to like him for it. Or to return to the list of things free speech is not at Dissent of a woman:

1) A guarantee that in any particular interaction between individuals, people will like you, respect your opinion or even listen to you. 
Illustrative dramatization:
Citizen A: We shouldn’t be arguing about gender equality and pay when women don’t belong in the workforce in the first place. Working women are ruining families everywhere.
Citizen B: Citizen A, you are an idiot and I do not deem your supposition as worthy of a response.
Citizen C: I agree with Citizen B.
Citizen D: What the fuck, Citizen A? I want no piece of this protosexist fundamentalist nightmare. Take that shit elsewhere.
Citizen A: I have the right to express my opinion without all you fascists ganging up on me and trying to shut me up. Freedom of speech, bitches. 
Clarifying the fallacy: Actually, Citizens B-D have the right to call Citizen A names, as well as contradict and devalue Citizen A’s stupid opinion for the exact same reason that Citizen A is free to express a stupid opinion. Both the stupid opinion and the entirely appropriate return volley of criticism are protected by the first amendment.
I sympathize with the people who are angry that they can't speak their minds and still be popular for it, I really do. But getting feedback to what we say is how we learn.

And that engineer? He is now planning to sue Google, although it's not really yet clear on which grounds. (Also, he doesn't have a Ph. D., Businessinsider, even if his linkedin page said so for a while.) If he wins, it will probably be seen as a victory for people everywhere to speak up against company regulations. And in some cases, such as with particularly stupid dress codes, perhaps that's a good thing.

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