Friday, December 26, 2014

All I Want for Christmas Is Some Free Speech

Lots in the headlines the past week about Sony Pictures' giving in to North Korean hacking, and then the U.S. response (if no comment either way from either regime), and now supposedly Sony's release of "The Interview" anyway, making some wonder if this was all a great publicity stunt for a mediocre movie. My older son watched it and was indifferent, despite his devotion to Seth Rogan and crew, a coterie for another generation, surely. Recently, before the latest spin, Ross Douthat began his essay "North Korea and the Speech Police":
Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and C.E.O.s defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

He continues by comparing the self-censorship demanded more and more by the left, who fear any dissenting voices against views that progressives do not agree with (or I might add conservatives!): 
Nor is it all that different from the arguments used in the United States to justify canceling an increasing number of commencement speakers--including Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christine Lagarde — when some hothouse-flower campus activists decided they couldn’t bear to sit and hear them. Or the mentality that forced out the C.E.O. and co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, when it was revealed that he had once donated money to a ballot initiative that opposed same-sex marriage. Or the free-floating, shape-shifting outrage that now pervades the Internet, always looking for some offensive or un-P.C. remark to fasten on and furiously attack--whether the perpetrator is a TV personality or some unlucky political staffer, hapless and heretofore obscure.
What caught my eye here was "free-floating, shape-shifting outrage." This sums up well the increasing tone of any comments or opinions transmitted online. If not for this, Salon would be out of business, and likely both Fox News and Jon Stewart's show and whatever else supplants Colbert. Douthat tries to link lots of floating material we are bombarded with in Facebook and news feeds: "The common thread in all these cases, whether the angry parties are Hermit Kingdom satraps or random social-justice warriors on Twitter, is a belief that the most important power is the power to silence, and that the perfect community is one in which nothing uncongenial to your own worldview is ever tweeted, stated, supported or screened." Now, Douthat writes as one of the most conservative critics at the New York Times, but one of the most liberal, Frank Bruni, agrees about dangers ahead.

Bruni warns of what the rush to put it all up as a file, an e-mail, a document, a phone call, a cloud means for us who have no alternative now if we wish to communicate as we are now mandated at work and increasingly, for whatever occupies the rest of our time itself blurring pay and pleasure. 

"If it isn’t a foreign nemesis monitoring and meddling with you, then it’s potentially a merchant examining your buying patterns, an employer trawling for signs of disloyalty or indolence, an acquaintance turned enemy, a random hacker with an amorphous grudge — or of course the federal government." Does this mean you and I start to delete, to hesitate before posting and sharing? Yes. 

"We’re all naked. The methods by which we communicate today--the advances meant to liberate us--are robbing us of control. Smartphones take photos and record audio. Voice mail is violable. Texts wind up in untrustworthy hands (just ask Anthony Weiner). Hard drives and even the cloud have memories that resist erasure. And the Internet can circulate any purloined secret fast and infinitely far." So Bruni argues in "Sony, Security, and the End of Privacy" in the same issue of the NY Times.

"The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths." I wrote recently about Ray Bradbury's prediction that not Big Brother, but Little Sister would erode our individual freedom, and our ability to express ourselves in depth, distracted as we are by media. The loss of privacy, for him, lay more in our choice not to pay attention more than a few minutes to anything, in turn a twist lamented in a clever analogy by Daniel Akst to the "Snackification of Everything". Akst applies a word I never heard of, but apparently a trend that spreads beyond what we may munch at desk, in the car, or at home to replace a real meal (and perhaps real conversation).

He mentions the obvious, but he tries to expand his analysis (if in the snackable limits of an op-ed piece): "We gravitate toward snacks because they're fast, easy and require little commitment. They also taste good. Online, snackable items are easily digested by grazing readers, and just as easily shared — the way we once shared meals. In keeping with our demand for flexibility and immediate gratification, snacks are always available, require little investment and can be consumed without the time and consideration that used to go into more primitive forms of nourishment, such as sit-down dinners or books."
Akst applies this to meals. I reflect on this with a bit of the self-censorship Bruni laments, for this will soon be my reality on the job, when I leave one location to teach at another during rush hour, and whatever food I consume must come either earlier in the day by snacks, or in the car with the same. "It's been said that you are what you eat, and in some sense we Americans are becoming snacks, at least to the businesses that consume our labor. Companies that once had lasting relationships with workers nowadays often prefer outside contractors, or employees who can be rescheduled — or terminated — at the whim of management. Firms, in other words, prefer to snack on labor, a practice that makes it all the more difficult for workers to schedule (or pay for) meals."

This tangles: the withdrawal from free expression for fear of offending a hothouse flower when communal inclusion demands particular suppression of an idea or opinion deemed touchy, the social fear of one's secrets becoming public knowledge, which discourages honest, frank talk, and the reduction of nourishment, by diet or of wisdom, to what can be digested without complaint. At least to, it seems, the corporations, nations, and entities that govern us more and more on and offline.


Layne said...

What a nimble piece and a wonderful and wildly creative amalgam of ideas that succinctly nails the zeitgeist. Maybe send to LA Times Op Ed...what the hell. xxoo me.

Layne said...

What a nimble piece and a wonderful and wildly creative amalgam of ideas
that succinctly nails the zeitgeist. Maybe send to LA Times Op Ed...what
the hell. xxoo me.