Disclaimer: What follows is an article discussing Atheism+. If you are not interested in the arcane inner workings of the atheism movement, I won’t hold any grudges if you decide to skip this one.
On to the trope, then.
Free speech is important. It’s absolutely vital to the functioning of a healthy society. If you want to understand why that is, you need look no further than the consequences that befall journalists who publish representations of Muhammad. Free speech is one of those things we tend to take for granted in the West, and the Internet in particular has latched onto the concept in a manner not entirely unlike a lamprey—it recognizes the importance of its host, but it doesn’t necessarily possess anything more than a superficial understanding its host.
(Perhaps I should subtitle this article: Attention Internet! “Free Speech” Does Not Mean What You Think It Means … But let’s carry on.)
According to Cornell University Law School,
The most basic component of freedom of expression is the right of freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves without interference or constraint by the government.
Did you notice that last word? Government? I think we can all agree that government suppression of individual ideas is a terrible, horrible, dangerous, reprehensible idea. Thus, when the Atheism+ detractors and skeptics (whom I will hereafter charitably refer to collectively as “skeptics”) profess their undying support for the principles of free speech, it seems there is no threat of a disagreement with Atheism+. That said, free speech does not apply to private spaces. In either case, it also does not constitute a right to be listened to. These are both “rights” that must be earned.
Alas, like the lamprey, the majority of the skeptics who repeat the Atheism+ is against free speech trope do not have even a superficial understanding of their host. They loudly profess their affection for the fish to whom they are attached, entirely unaware that their “fish” is, in truth, a rusty lifeboat.
The observation that there is no disagreement regarding the importance of free speech will likely be unpersuasive to such skeptics, so allow me to elaborate.
The purpose of free speech is explicitly to protect minority voices—the majority needs no special protection to ensure that its voice is heard. The skeptics who cry “violation of free speech!” when someone is kicked out of a private space are arguing in favor of inverting this protection; instead of protecting minority voices, these skeptics would marginalize them by introducing majority voices under a banner of freedom. They want to use the letter of the law—no, as we’ve seen, that’s not quite right—they want to use their erroneous interpretation of the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law. This is an immoral action. Why? By virtue of being a minority voice, one is almost guaranteed to have one’s voice outweighed by the more populous majority. In a “no restrictions” environment, it is significantly more difficult for minority voices to be heard.
What’s more, this insistence upon having “free speech” (read: unmoderated) conversations is flatly hypocritical.
The skeptics who demand to be let into Atheism+ spaces and given an “equal voice” with supporters are not offering the same courtesy in return. Take the skeptic YouTube vloggers, for example. How many of these people are offering to host videos by Atheism+ supporters on their own channels? None so far as I’ve seen. But why not? This is precisely what they’re asking from Atheism+ supporters: “Give me an equal voice in your house.”
I anticipate a critical response to this claim: “But you can start your own YouTube channel to respond!” This does not even begin address the point I have made here. It certainly does not rebut it. Rather than establishing a reciprocal relationship by allowing Atheism+ supporters into one’s own home, this is the skeptic saying “I wish to come into your house to preach at you, but you may only build your house next to mine—you may not enter my house.”
Ah, but what about comments? YouTube does allow commenting, right? This is no concession because it still is not an equal voice. “You may leave your thoughts at my doorstep, but you may not enter. I am the ultimate arbiter of which of your thoughts I share with my followers. Now let me into your house.”
Isn’t this exactly the behavior these skeptics are attacking by alluding to “challenges against free speech?”
This blog is mine. I am not The Government™, and as such, this is a private space. If you come into my space, I am free to delete your submissions and/or ban you for any reason—or no reason—at all. Furthermore, I require absolutely no justification in legalese for silencing your voice here because this blog is mine, and I am the sole arbiter of its content standards. (The fact that I choose not to do this does not constitute an abdication of my ability to do so.) This is not censorship. If I eject you from the premises of my house, you are free to build your own. If you decide that what I write is terribly offensive, WordPress will allow you to create your own blog to tell the world about what a bad man I am. Thus, you have not been censored.
Detractors cannot have it both ways. If they want free rein to criticize Atheism+ inside Atheism+’s own house, they must also be willing to invite rebuttals inside their own spaces.
If these skeptics wish to be intellectually consistent, they must also offer to host unmoderated pro-Atheism+ content through the same medium in which they host their own content. If these skeptics wish unfettered access to Atheism+ spaces, they must also give Atheism+ supporters unfettered access to their personal blogs, YouTube channels, podcasts, and so on.
I rather doubt, however, that many will consent to this. Nor should they, as this would be an absurd way to manage a civil society. Free speech does not and should not require us to give a platform to our detractors. For our voices to reach our intended audience, we must build our own platforms. We must build our audiences through the strength of our message, and “free speech” is not a meal ticket to skipping this requirement. It is not an open invitation to project one’s voice onto an audience whose respect you haven’t earned. Free speech is the right to be able to speak—it is not the right to be heard.
Ultimately, these cries of censorship are disingenuous at best. No one is stopping you from shouting all day long about the alleged evils of Atheism+; you just can’t do it in Atheism+’s house. Is that really so offensive? If I decide your fashion sense is appalling, would you permit me to follow you into your house after work, screaming about your choice of footwear? Would you permit me to invite myself to dinner with you every night so that I might rail against your shirt? Should we, as reasonable people, demand the “right” to deny our potential adversaries private spaces? Of course not. This is not a free speech issue. It is a matter of personal decency. If you hate New Jersey, don’t expect the Official Tourism Website of New Jersey to give you a platform to talk about how awful New Jersey is.
I truly do not understand where these cries come from in the first place. Is there any evidence of even a single person engaging in a good-faith argument with an Atheism+ supporter being forbidden from participating over their disagreement? Even a cursory glance at the official forums reveals a plethora of active detractors, skeptics, “I like the values but don’t call myself that” participants, and ardent supporters regularly engaging in discussions—regularly having disagreements. Yes, there is a code of conduct, but it certainly does not forbid dissent.
I am forced to wonder, for a group that purportedly prides itself on being practiced skeptics, from where does this trope originate? It is both unfounded and apparently unevidenced, yet the trope is maintained. In light of this, I can only conclude that we still have much work to do in furthering the cause of skepticism.
Addendum: Not 48 hours after writing this, I came across this claim:
Free speech laws only apply to the government. The ethical principle of free speech applies everywhere.
I can’t help but wonder if this person actually believes this. If so, I can’t wait to join them for dinner. I bet their pants are uuuuugly!