“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”
- Oscar Wilde
It is one of the most treasured tenets in the United States, but free speech has never meant consequence-free speech. While you won’t likely be imprisoned for your words, you can be sued for slander or libel and pay damages. Words can lead to pushback or even public uproar. A place of employment can determine that you are too big of a liability to continue being associated with because of the free speech you exercise; verbal abuse can lead to divorce. It isn’t a matter of suppression or censorship. Freedom of speech carries not only consequences to it but should be understood as a two-way street: Just as you can speak your words, people can receive and respond to those words within the framework of their legal rights, too, which includes satirizing, journalism, protests, boycotts and, well, there are nearly 200 forms of nonviolent activism that are recognized by the Albert Einstein Institution as options to the aggrieved. You have your right to free speech but that doesn’t mean it is free of repercussions.
As vegans, we know that freedom of speech cuts both ways and that we can promote veganism but expect that lawful recrimination is always on the table, especially in the era of social media. We know this. It is also a given – I think, at least – that if we spread exaggerations or misinformation, it is not only going to make people skeptical of us as trusted sources, it could result in retractions, removal of content and more. That is part of the responsibility we bear as part of this two-way street of communication. If there’s anything we should understand at this point of the pandemic, it’s that we don’t live in isolated bubbles. Our words and actions exist within a larger community and thus affects more than us as individuals.
This isn’t exactly news. You’d think it was, though.
Two incidents are popping up in my mind as recent examples of speech being free, yes, but not without consequences. One was pretty small in scope: The pushback I was happy to see about a meme that reinforces shaming (and misinformed) attitudes about disease and “healthy” vegan diets making you essentially bulletproof. Yes, they are free to post memes that promote such notions and critics are free to, among others things, call it out in the comments, unlike the page, or, heh, write critically about it. Them’s the breaks, as the phrase does.
Spotify and Joe Rogan’s recent controversy is another example. I won’t describe it because most people have already heard about it and if not, it’s easy enough to research, but I will say that I consistently saw people misunderstand and/or misconstrue the basic principles of free speech, censorship and the right to maintain standards. No one is owed a platform. If I submit an article to a publication and an editor finds that it is riddled with wrong conclusions and misinformation, the publication rejecting it is not an example of them censoring me. It is an example of the publication maintaining certain professional and ethical standards for what they put on their platform. In the example of Rogan, amplifying disinformation slingers and cultivating confusion to his massive listenership during a public health crisis the likes of which no one alive has ever experienced before, it is beyond simply differences of opinion or shutting down those who have a different point of view. Sowing confusion and spreading disinformation is demonstrably adding strain to our already overwhelmed front line workers and killing people. What Neil Young and now other artists are doing is leveraging the power they have on the same platform as Rogan to try to force their hand. Some, like Young, are more “Rogan or me,” and others, like Brené Brown, are asking Spotify to come up with a disinformation policy that is respectful of free speech, transparent and consistently applied before they will be available on the platform again. As consumers, we can decide to cancel a Spotify membership. As people in the world, we can get the word out and educate. Again, these are among the panoply of lawful and reasonable responses available to those disaffected by Rogan’s content. None of this is censorship.
There are a range of consequences to speech; unlike the disinformation spread by Rogan and company, it is not deadly. The fact that consequences exist to speech is not silencing or suppressing. It is simply reality to anyone who is older than a toddler.
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