Back in the early 1990s, Nat Hentoff wrote a book titled “Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee.” I loved it.
Hentoff’s point was a popularized version of Law 101: liberty is indivisible. If the government gets to decide who has a right, it isn’t a right at all–it’s a privilege that can be withdrawn. We all have freedom of speech–even despicable people voicing horrible opinions–or no one really does. (Someone should mention this to Ron DeSantis...)
Hentoff pointed out that those on the political Right–rabid as they are– aren’t the only would-be censors. He pointed to the anti-porn feminists who were active at the time, gays who supported blacklisting Anita Bryant, and various other enforcers of political correctness. When it came to college campuses, he endorsed a comment made by Clark Kerr when he was president of the University of California; Kerr said “The purpose of a university is to make students safe for ideas–not ideas safe for students.”
What triggered my recollection of Hentoff’s rigorous and intellectually-honest approach to free speech was the recent (mis)behavior of Elon Musk. Musk, a strikingly un-self-aware narcissist who likes to style himself a free speech purist, has demonstrated an understanding of free speech principles roughly on par with his understanding of how to manage a social network–that is to say, very little.
Self-described free speech maven Elon Musk discovered a new limit to his principles this week, after a Twitter employee publicly rebutted the billionaire’s explanation for slow app performance in many countries.
“He’s fired,” Musk declared on Monday morning.
Mr. Musk’s team was asked to comb through messages in Twitter’s internal chat platform and make a list of employees who were insubordinate, people briefed on the plan said. They also sorted through employees’ tweets, looking for criticism. Those deemed rule breakers received emails around 1:30 a.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, notifying them that they were fired, according to emails viewed by The Times…
Elon Musk says he wants free speech, but his track record suggests otherwise
Musk’s free speech advocacy seems to apply mostly to his own speech or that of his fans and promoters.
The firings of critics who made the mistake of exercising what they believed to be their freedom of speech followed significant cuts to Twitter’s contract work force–cuts that followed the wholesale firings upon completion of Musks 44 Billion dollar acquisition of Twitter, and preceded the recent mass resignations. Many of the contractors who were terminated over the weekend worked on content moderation and data science and were let go without notice.
Pass the popcorn…
The obvious hypocrisy of a thin-skinned, self-styled free speech protector’s devotion to the First Amendment evaporating when someone dares to criticize him prompts a lot of schadenfreude as yet another narcissistic buffoon discovers that he doesn’t know half as much as he thinks he does.
Clearly, some men believe that being rich means they are smarter than everyone else about everything. (America watched for four years while Donald Trump–who has a lot in common with Elon Musk–demonstrated daily that he didn’t know diddly-squat about government and how it worked. ) Now we are watching Musk create chaos with his new toy–for which he vastly overpaid–as he learns the hard way that management of a social media platform involves skills beyond those needed to compose and send a tweet–not to mention compliance with legal regulations of which he was obviously unaware.
I don’t know how Musk came up with an offer of 44 Billion dollars for a platform that had rarely been profitable, but under his management, its finances have already gotten appreciably worse. Thanks to his boneheaded “blue check charge,” imposters have had a field day, and important advertisers have “paused” their spending. (That includes local giant Eli Lilly, after phony Lilly tweets promising free insulin were left up for hours.) Others who aren’t currently advertising on the platform include Macy’s and General Motors. Omnicom Media Group, composed of agencies representing companies like PepsiCo and McDonald’s, urged its clients to halt activity on Twitter. Omicron warns that risks have “risen sharply to a level most would find unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, Musk’s increasingly frantic efforts to avoid bankruptcy and the effective destruction of Twitter are all playing out in public–and it is the public humiliation he is trying to avoid (or at least moderate) by firing employees who dare to criticize or disagree with him.
Too bad Nat Hentoff died in 2017. He’d have had some pretty pithy observations about Elon Musk’s version of free speech. He’d probably even share my popcorn.