Free Speech and The New Moral Vocabulary

Book Review: Antisocial by Andrew Marantz

Free speech is that funny sort of thing that is universally defended in principle and universally contested in practice. What can be said and, more contentiously, who decides? Does free speech mean consequence free, or do shame, outrage, and excommunication play a legitimate role in policing what is up for debate? When does that policing go too far? Antisocial offers a witness statement from the modern frontiers of this age old debate by Andrew Marantz, a writer at The New Yorker. Based on impressive access to leading members of the “alt-right” and “alt-light” as they shatter the boundaries of acceptable speech, decorum, and politics, Marantz helps explain the fall of gatekeepers, shifting of the Overton window, and the battle for a new “moral, social and political vocabulary”.

While Marantz does not use the term, Antisocial is perhaps the best reported journey through the “Fifth Estate”, which has been described by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as “a new kind of force in the world” defined by “[p]eople having the power to express themselves at scale”. In contrast to the Fourth Estate — the media — which is defined by its role as a gatekeeper, the Fifth Estate is defined by a lack of gatekeepers. In this new information environment, the barriers to expression and marginal cost of distribution approach zero, while scale is achieved through savvy exploitation of social media algorithms and production of sensational content that drives user engagement. This technological shift eroded the economic structure of legacy media, predicated on integrating production and distribution, while simultaneously undermining its authority and ability to define the boundaries of debate. Now, enterprising individuals, ranging from the obscure and perceptive, to the idiosyncratic, to the extreme fringes are battling for attention share in a market that incentivises the sensational, emotional and outrageous. We are just beginning to grapple with the consequences.

As a member of the media, Marantz laments this shift and defends the merits of the halcyon days in which expression at scale required convincing an editor of The New Yorker to publish your work. But he is not delusional: the gatekeepers are not returning. In their absence, the individuals Marantz profiles are leveraging digital platforms to actively unsettle consensus on some of the most contentious and hard fought debates of the past, from individual rights, to racial and gender equality. These profiles show, in the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, that there is a battle over a new “vocabulary” of moral, social, and political discourse being forged within the crucible of the Internet attention economy. Marantz’s central and urgent message is that the content of this new vocabulary is contingent; a sensible, respectful, and rational vocabulary must be won — and the fragile centre is currently losing.

There is a literal parallel of this technology-enabled fight over vocabulary in the history of the printing press, which Marantz thoughtfully considers without cliched paeans. The economics of book production benefitted from scale, incentivising printing in the most widely understood dialect so as to maximise the addressable market. Over decades and centuries, this incentive had a self reinforcing standardising effect on European languages themselves. The vocabulary in which books were printed changed the way in which people communicated in form and substance by smoothing over regional differences in dialect. The economics of the Internet attention economy are ruthlessly shaping our modern vocabulary in a structurally similar but directionally opposite way. Outrage, “curiosity gaps”, and wild exaggeration drive user engagement more successfully in a highly competitive environment for consumer attention on digital platforms. But, unlike the printing press, which required large markets for economic viability, the long tail of Internet markets enables lucrative niches, even for opinions deemed beyond the pale by a large majority. These incentives create space for speech entrepreneurs to profitably cultivate and push the boundaries of our shared vocabulary with small but highly engaged audiences, resulting in a fracturing of previously stable consensus and a thrusting forward of views from the fringe.

Vocal critics of tech platform moderation and the “PC” campus culture wars argue that our discourse is warped by 1984-style persecution of brave “crimethinkers”. Marantz demonstrates that the actual threat today is different. “Crimethink”, used as a catchall reference to a set of subversive beliefs and arguments ranging from insightful but unpopular to rank bigotry, has never been easier — or more profitable. The power of information markets is now on the demand side and it is easier than ever for niche ideas to find a big and lucrative market. The fact that many people find those niche ideas obnoxious is not a free speech issue, but a specific instance of a broader battle over what type of society we will live in. If the antidote to speech is more speech, then the modern Internet more closely approximates a free speech paradise than anything that has come before and the pearl-clutchers deriding “cancel culture” don’t seem to have the facts on their side. Based on my argument elsewhere that we should “push towards the margins of diversity of perspective and expect to be uncomfortable in the process”, that is a good thing. Yet, Antisocial probes and tests the limits of that approach. Some ideas and arguments are simply too incompatible with background beliefs, reflected in our shared vocabulary, to allow constructive engagement. Marantz shows the messy reality of how the shifting boundary of what those ideas are is currently being fought.

Most of what students of modern history learn — from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, the French and American Revolutions, and up through the onset of the mass media age in the 20th Century, would not have been possible in the absence of the information dissemination tools originating with the printing press. Nor would those events have been foreseeable to the early printers seeking markets for their books. Wise readers should pay attention to the phenomenon Marantz describes, because we are living through a similar moment and the results are likely to be as unexpected.

Writing about things that interest me. Views are entirely my own.