Tropes v Atheism+: Free Speech and Censorship

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.

In the absence of moderation, the voices that reach the official forums, reddit, or the facebook page possess equal weight. This is fundamentally different from writing an excoriating blog entry or publishing a hostile YouTube video, where dissenting opinions must be voiced from an inherently inferior platform by virtue of being responses to things said by the content owner. If YouTube user SubjunctiveMoralitySucks creates a video detailing why I hate kittens*, I cannot reply with my own video on SubjunctiveMoralitySucks’s own channel. Thus, charges of “free speech is being violated!” are patently hypocritical, as these skeptics would insist that Atheism+ supporters offer them more opportunity to speak than they are prepared to themselves offer Atheism+ supporters.

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!

*I don’t hate kittens. Relax.
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11 responses to “Tropes v Atheism+: Free Speech and Censorship

  1. I think your commenter understands ethical principles far more than you do. Yes, you have created your own fiefdom, and within it you’re just another Internet bully. You’re not actually fighting against injustice or for equality, or any of that. I doubt you actually care a less about any of it except in as far as pathetic cockless dweebs like you adopt ideologies so you can form camps, create “spaces” for yourself and make yourself feel important because you are able to spew dogma more accurately than others. I suppose in a way it’s an only slightly negative thing about the internet. The only harm you do is to hurt people who are sensitive to the shit you sling. What you care about is you have empowered yourself as a bully. If you had belief in what you have to say, and the balls to try to stand it up to challenge, which you don’t and don’t, you would not need a corner of the internet that you control to put those beliefs forward in. Like all bullies, you’re a coward.

    Feel free to delete my comment or hey, why not spew a post mindlessly attacking it? I don’t read your blog, just stumbled on it, am not subscribing to your comments (don’t care what you have to say) and don’t care that you “ban” me from a blog I will never look at again.

    I just disempowered you. I moderated you. You have no right of reply with me. You only have power in as far as anyone gives a shit, and all anyone has to do to disempower you is not care about you.

    Still, you could try to self examine a little, and repurpose yourself towards doing good. All you really need is a good heart. The mind will follow. That’s what you guys don’t want to allow, but you should. It’s liberating to realise we are mostly good people. Have a great day/night.

  2. That is the most hyperbolic, reality-divorced twaddle that has ever graced my blog, which gives you the dubious honor of ousting the previous champion: a barely coherent creationist forced-birther. So congrats for that!

    Why would I need to delete your comment? It’s a shining example of the utter lack of critical thinking exercised by the anti-A+ crowd. Not a single specific criticism anywhere–nothing but the dullest rhetoric. In addition to having the most superficial understanding of free speech possible, you clearly don’t have much of an understanding of most of the other words you’ve used.

    But of course you’ll never look at this blog again because you totally don’t care. That’s why you commented, after all, to tell me how much you don’t care. Very convincing.

  3. Free speech is for everyone not just minorities : That is not how a democracy functions : Everyone has the same rights : Why some should be granted more is fundamentally undemocratic : Doing so only amplifies inequality rather than reduce it

  4. Free speech is for everyone not just minorities

    And water is wet.

    Why do you believe such a blatantly obvious triviality needed to be said?

    I trust you’re not trying to say that giving more of something to people who have less of it “only amplifies inequality” because that would be a pretty absurd thing to claim as a general rule, so how does it apply to any relevant real-world situation?

  5. I am not in favour of giving more rights to anyone . I am instead in favour of everyone having equal rights which negates the need to prioritise in the first place . Society unfortunately has to be ruled as a hierarchal pyramid structure and this is true no matter what the system : democratic or totalitarian . And even a meritocracy which is argubaly the fairest system there is can be unfair since not everone has equal capability even if they have equal opportunity . But the notion of free speech is one where minority voices can have access as much as majority ones . And that is because of the internet . Anyone with basic communication and computer skills can now speak to the entire world through the web . It is not just the rich and pwerful who control opinion anymore . So the ideaof giving greater free speech to minorities is a tad flawed as a concept as the minority already has a voice

  6. I am not in favour of giving more rights to anyone

    Is there a particular reason you’re saying this? I still don’t see how it’s related to anything that’s been said here.

    I am instead in favour of everyone having equal rights which negates the need to prioritise in the first place .

    Not really, no. If everyone has equal rights, you need to prioritize the people whose rights are being violated.

    Society unfortunately has to be ruled as a hierarchal pyramid structure and this is true no matter what the system

    I don’t think you can make a case for this.

    And even a meritocracy which is argubaly the fairest system there is…

    What standard are you using to gauge “fair?”

    I reject the claim that meritocracy as we see it in the world today can be called fair. Giving more resources to the people who are already doing better causes fewer resources to go to those who are disadvantaged. This creates a self-perpetuating oppressive cycle, justified by a flawed conception of “merit.”

    But the notion of free speech is one where minority voices can have access as much as majority ones . And that is because of the internet .

    Having the ability to speak is not the same thing as having your words matter. Yes, the internet is a useful tool, and yes, it can give a bigger voice to minority groups that might not otherwise have one, but “access,” in terms of social capital, does not work that way.

    Of course, I still don’t see what this has to do with the post you are commenting on.

    So the ideaof giving greater free speech to minorities is a tad flawed as a concept as the minority already has a voice

    This is not coherent. Perhaps it would help if you spelled out exactly what you think I’m saying that gives you the idea that “greater free speech to minorities” is a concept that’s worth the keystrokes necessary to type it?

  7. A meritocracy is the fairest system there is because it focuses exclusively on ability : It therefore completely eliminates any discrimination or prejudice on the part of those in the position of recruitment : Any other system would be open to abuse : There would be no disadvantaged as everyone would be employed according to their capability and rewarded accordingly : It does sound rather Utopian but in principle there is no reason why it should not be standard : A totally productive society would negate disadvantage also : I agree that the model of meritocracy as it currently exists is not ideal but that is not a flaw of the system itself rather the way it is implemented

    Regarding hierarchal structures : All human societies have been so : It is the one absolute throughout history : It is a wonderful ideal that everyone should fundamentally be equal in every way but that is neither true nor realistic unfortunately : Everyone should have the same rights and be treated the same however : And that is as close as one can ever get to a truly egalitarian society : No system is ever going to be perfect even if the will for it to be exits : Human beings are not perfect themselves and consequently any means of rule will not be either : There is no denying that

    And unfortunately because all systems are flawed either in concept or execution there will be inequality both intentional and unintentional : One can minimise it as much as possible but the nature of imperfect systems is that they remain so : No matter how many checks and balances are referenced there will always be abuse or neglect : This is a simple universal truth : One can only strive both as a society and as individuals to be as fair as possible and avoid discrimination and prejudice : But it will always exist regardless

    Universal equality will only come with the complete extinction of the human race : That may be a sad indictment on us as a species but it is also true : If we were hardwired to think collectively rather than individually and absolutely so then we could conceivably attain Utopia : But pontificating on what is never going to be is not much use in dealing with reality as it is unfortunately

    On free speech : You appear to be suggesting that it is not merely the right of minorities to have it but that their voice should be heard too and that the majority has less need for this because their voice is already being heard as it is the dominant one : I agree with the first part but not the second : If you truly belive in an egalitarian society you cannot achieve that by giving more rights to one section over another : Instead of denying the majority free speech simply make it available to all : Not only as a tool of communication but as a channel for change too : But as I have previously mentioned do not start imagining Utopia : That is never going to happen unless or until humans become hardwired for altruism : Reality is a far better indicator of what is possible than ideology no matter how well meaning : All systems are flawed so it is therefore a question of finding the one that is least so : And that is a liberal meritocratic democracy : If you have a better real world model than that I would be more than happy to see it

  8. A meritocracy is the fairest system there is because it focuses exclusively on ability

    I’ve already touched on why this is not a true claim, but I’ll try to put it another way. Most variation in aptitude between people is the result of training, not any sort of inherent ability. As a result, a pure meritocracy is the least fair system possible because it rewards those people who already have superior training with even better outcomes. This is unsustainable. The strong get stronger and the weak get weaker.

    If you mean meritocracy to be some fantasy ideal wherein all individuals are fully trained to the extent of whatever biologically-determined natural aptitudes may exist and then rewarded according to their merits, then that wouldn’t be as bad, but such a situation is likely impossible in the real world given our finite resources. As you say, “pontificating on what is never going to be is not much use in dealing with reality.”

    Regarding hierarchal structures : All human societies have been so

    1) I’m not moved by appeals to tradition.
    2) This is argument by assertion. I am highly skeptical of the claim that no human society has broken free of hierarchy. It may be the case that all societies over a certain size have defaulted to some sort of hierarchy, but that’s a different claim. It wouldn’t establish that non-hierarchical societies are impossible. (This is kind of irrelevant, really, since I’m not arguing for a non-hierarchical society.)

    No system is ever going to be perfect even if the will for it to be exits

    I agree, but the inability to achieve perfection should never be an excuse for not trying to get as close as possible.

    Everyone should have the same rights and be treated the same however

    If I agree to this, I fear we risk equivocation. Treating everyone the same is not an acceptable general policy when there are salient differences. Refusing to take those differences into account is unacceptable. In terms of laws and rights, I agree that justice demands everyone be subject to the same set of laws, but an absolute one-size-fits-all standard is unjust if it whitewashes those differences away.

    For a potentially relevant example, I think of hate crimes. Hate crimes are more dangerous than equivalent non-hate crimes because they pose a more potent threat to the social fabric through the addition of what is essentially terrorism. So ultimately, if you mean “treat everyone the same” to mean something like “hate crime laws that increase the penalties for an action are morally wrong,” then I disagree with you.

    Universal equality will only come with the complete extinction of the human race

    Again we risk equivocation. If you mean equality as “identicalness,” then this is true, but I don’t know of anyone who wants to see that version of equality come about. If you mean something like social/legal equality in terms of rights and social acceptance, I reject this assertion.

    the majority has less need for this because their voice is already being heard as it is the dominant one

    Not quite. What I would say is instead this:
    the majority has less need for legal protections to safeguard their rights because their voice is already being heard as it is the dominant one
    Those with political power are not threatened by the politically powerless. As a result, the system needs to compensate for this to make sure the powerful do not exploit or invalidate the rights of the powerless.

    Instead of denying the majority free speech simply make it available to all

    I am not advocating denying anyone free speech or any other right. What I am saying is that if you do not protect the rights of minorities, they can be trampled by the majority. This is why we don’t govern by pure democracy; a constitution protects rights so that they cannot be removed by vote. A “right” without such protections cannot be called a right.

    If you still believe I am suggesting stripping rights from anyone, please quote me directly where I have given you that impression so that I can clarify.

  9. I do not accept your assertion on meritocracy for it fails to accept that those with particular abilities can improve the quality of life for those without : It is not just about them advancing themselves in other words : Those who enter the medical profession for example do not do it for purely financial reasons but for humanitarian ones as well : So while doctors or surgeons may have a better standard of living than others it is obvious that their abilities benefit society as a whole and not just them : I would accept however that there are other professions where personal advancement may be a more significant factor but the nurturing of any talent should not be discouraged merely because others do not have the same ability or opportunity : How is denying that in any way morally acceptable : Surely all ability should be nutured regardless of other factors

    You state that you are not arguing for a non hierarchical society in which case there has to be some pyramid structure involved : So what would be the basis for advancement in your scenario : You have rejected meritocracy which I believe to be the fairest so what would your alternative be

    I do not accept that everyone is the same but that the law should treat them as such : The example you gave regarding hate crimes is something I agree with you on : They should of course be treated differently to non hate crimes : I am not absolutely certain on them threatening the fabric of society any more however : It is not so much the crime itself but the extent to which it is being committed that does that

    I am not entirely convinced by this notion of the politically powerless : In a democracy everyone has the right to vote for their elected representatives : Those representatives have fixed terms and are subject to the law to so there are checks and balances in place : I accept that the rich and powerful have more influence but to suggest that some are powerless is to imply that they have no say whatsoever : But anyone eligible to vote has some power nonetheless : The truly powerless are those with no legal or political rights at all

  10. I do not accept your assertion on meritocracy for it fails to accept that those with particular abilities can improve the quality of life for those without

    Perhaps we have different interpretations of what “meritocracy” entails. You seem to be conflating meritocracy with other political ideologies. I do think people should look out for each other, but that isn’t an inherent attribute to meritocracy.

    I find it very strange that you point to doctors in the context of meritocracy. If nothing else, the exclusivity of the field clearly demonstrates that doctors are not chosen on the basis of their aptitudinal merits but rather because of their ability to attend medical school. I’m unfamiliar with how that process operates in the UK, but in the US, medical school is prohibitively expensive for large swaths of people. Are we to include “financial means” as a “merit,” then? If not, what meritocratic standard do we apply to determine how people can become doctors?

    Doctors and lawyers at the top of their class probably tend to achieve success at a higher than average rate when compared to their peers, but even that isn’t so simple as “they succeed because of their aptitude.” Social and professional contacts factor in. Discrimination and privilege factor in. Individual personalities and preferences factor in.

    Has there ever been a society with meritocracy as a core principle? What do you imagine such a society would look like?

    You have rejected meritocracy which I believe to be the fairest so what would your alternative be

    Nonsense. I rejected “pure” meritocracy because it’s untenable in reality. I agree that meritocracy is an idea worth thinking about, but I don’t see how its execution is possible on a large scale. It might even be worth striving for, but not at the expense of real people’s real well-being. If meritocracy is taken to mean “social Darwinism for the people at the bottom,” I reject that mentality entirely. I think you don’t actually disagree, if I read your reference to a “liberal meritocratic democracy” properly. I suspect this discussion of labels instead of actual ideas is impeding our communication.

    I am not entirely convinced by this notion of the politically powerless : In a democracy everyone has the right to vote for their elected representatives

    Tell that to the US’s Republican party. Gerrymandering is a thing. Corruption is a thing. Making it illegal for “criminals” to vote is a thing. All of this even in ostensibly democratic societies. Having the “right” to put your ballot into a box is not the same thing as having your vote matter.

    The truly powerless are those with no legal or political rights at all

    Your No True Scotsman aside, there comes a point at which “nonzero but ineffectual voting power” is intistinguishable from “no legal right to vote.”

  11. One fundamental truth to be realised is that no political system is absolutely fair : At least not in reality ; It therefore is not so much a case of referencing the most perfect but the least imperfect : Human beings are imperfect themselves so anything that follows on from that is bound to be so too

    I do not know what the figure is for America but here in England half the school leaving population go to university : That is more than ever before : It means that the future generation will be the most educated to date : Not all of these students are from middle class backgrounds : I do not know what percentage are going to become doctors but irrespective it means for a more educated population which benefits the individuals themselves and society too : Of course it is not perfect but improvement is being referenced and that is a more practical goal than some unachievable notion of Utopia : So not all those who get their medical degree will have had all the right connections : But anyway that alone would not guarantee success ; It takes seven years to become a doctor here : And what is most necessary is the ability one possesses not whether one has rich parents or not although I am not suggesting that is not a contributory factor : But it is not the main one

    No one ever said democracy was perfect : Again this notion of Utopia : But it is a hell of a lot better than the alternatives : Of course corruption exists : It always has and always will unless there is a fundamental shift in human psychology : But the way to comnbat that is to have checks and balances and accountability and where necessary appropriate action to punish the irresponsible

    The bottom line is this : To create a society in which everyone is treated as an equal to everyone else ; Where everyone has every available opportunity for self advancement : Where those in positions of power and influence are monitored : Where the natural default position is collective altruism : Now you can call that whatever you like : Democracy : Meritocracy : Socialism : Humanism : The label does not reallly matter : And the way to ultimately achieve that is by focusing exclusively on oneself : Because I am the only one who can change myself : No one else : And by changing myself and becoming a better human being I can make the world a better place in my own insignificant way : And that journey takes a lifetime : But even a lifetime is not enough to get to where one should be : But that is no reason for not trying : I do not possess a monopoly on wisdom : Far from it : But I try my best : And that is all any of us can aspire to at the end of the day : To try our best

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