Speech was never free. Those of us on this side of the divide know this instinctively. It’s why most of us refuse to divulge our real names and home addresses openly. When I opened up comments here, I intended to create a place where we could all practice free speech, in a bubble where you can’t be secretly reported by someone you’ve never met, and subsequently punished by your boss for something you typed out.
Expression has always involved consequences. In a more sensible era, these were generally limited to social sanction in one’s immediate area. If your great-grandfather repeatedly called the mayor a faggot, the mayor’s friends would probably quit talking to him. No one likes to hang out with the dude with the impulsive anger problem. He’s depressing. He probably wouldn’t have been fired or driven from his home, unless he was so uncontrollable that he caused a problem at work. People would just quit taking him seriously, and life would go on.
As the internet has changed, its rules have changed. By this we don’t merely mean that the customs we use on the internet have changed with the times. As time increases, we edge more toward self-censorship. History repudiates Orwell, who dreamt of free people, stifled under the yoke of a brutal legal system. The status-quo invites any group of people, anywhere, to target and annoy users that fall afoul of an ever evolving series of complex speech rules, that are nowhere consistently laid down.
While the internet has changed, society has also devolved. Campus speech codes, workplace anti-harassment policy, organized boycotts and the centralization of mass media conspire to wrest popular control of information from local communities, giving it over to corporate figureheads. The potential of the community to develop strong, shared values — culture itself — has vanished along with aggressive enforcement of “tolerance”. At the same time, the potential for free and open debate has collapsed.
What we are left with is a mass of disaffected, largely powerless atoms, screaming in anonymous space, each wishing that his neighbor would pay him some attention.