Our War on Free Speech

Traditionally, the government was seen as the biggest threat to free speech. But well-established constitutional protections and case law in the US largely protect us from direct censorship.

The bigger threat today is from ourselves – from fellow-citizens and maybe us personally who seek to silence opinion they/we don’t like. We see this in everything from the “no platforming” movements on campus, to various activists looking for any tweet they can use to get you fired from your job. (See the famous case of Justine Sacco as one example). In this environment, too many of us are even silencing ourselves, afraid to speak out for fear of retribution.

In light of the times we are in, a new documentary called Silenced: Our War on Free Speech is timely.

I have backed films on Kickstarter before. That’s always a risky endeavor because you don’t know if the final product will be any good or not.

There was another risk in backing this particular film. It was produced by Mike Cernovich, a controversial figure who has been called every name in the book. Merely interacting with him on Twitter can generate blowback. So despite the fact that this film is completely anodyne and includes such mainstream figures as Alan Dershowitz, it’s definitely risky to be associated with it.

But that’s the point. Free speech is worth nothing if it can’t be used to say risky and dangerous things. That’s why I’m proud to have supported this film and have my name in the credits as a backer.

Mike’s goal was for Silenced to be the Pumping Iron of free speech. Pumping Iron was the 1977 documentary about bodybuilding that helped make bodybuilding cool – and not incidentally helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno into stars. Cernovich hired film maker Loren Feldman, himself the victim of a Gawker attack that left him semi-unemployable, as the director.

Cernovich and Feldman wanted to make free speech cool again. Part of that, as with Pumping Iron, meant using people who are largely not (yet) household names. So anyone watching this expecting a lot of mainstream famous talking heads will be disappointed. While it does include folks like Dershowitz, Scott Adams, and Jason Pontin, it’s mostly edgier and lesser known people, and even some ordinary citizens. So we will perhaps only know in retrospect if, like Pumping Iron, it helps create the free speech stars of the future.

Silenced is a collection of people talking about their perspectives on free speech. It’s divided into a number of topical segments, including the Law, Science, Journalism, Broadcasting, Religion, and Comedy, with practitioners in their fields talking about the relevance of free speech to them. Here’s a teaser segment. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to watch on You Tube.

The biggest weakness in this film is one I’ve noted in reviews of other documentaries. There isn’t a narrative spine that holds these disparate segments together, so while it’s all about free speech, there isn’t a strong sense of coherence. I’ve used Helvetica, which uses that font as a lens to explore typography, before as an example of doing something similar that coheres well. This one unfortunately does not, but despite that is still very watchable.

There were two segments I found especially compelling. The first is the one the legal aspects of free speech, which features a number of free speech lawyers, including Dershowitz. What makes this very effective is the alternating cuts between Dershowitz, giving his fairly absolutist take on free speech that included the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois specifically because it was home to many Holocaust survivors, with Andrew Auernheimer, the infamous internet troll known as weev, who is a bona fide white nationalist with the swastika tattoo to prove it.

This takes Dershowitz’s talk about free speech and makes the stakes very real. Auernheimer comes across as a very scary guy and forces us to confront emotionally what it means to have a society with free speech. He may indeed be odious, but as Dershowitz points out, censorship inevitably spreads like a virus, citing the case of a man who was prosecuted for coming to court the courthouse with a jacket emblazoned with “F— the Draft.” (The Supreme Court let him off).

I’ve never been to a Dershowitz lecture, but I’ve seen him on TV many times. This was Dershowitz at his most compelling, giving an articulate, full-throated defense of free speech.

The segment on science was also excellent. It juxtaposed Jason Pontin, editor in chief of MIT Technology Review, and scientist Melissa Chen, with Dr. Michael Goldberg, a pediatrician with alternative views about the rising numbers of children being diagnosed with autism. Pontin talks about the criticality of free speech to the enterprise of science, noting that even the most firmly believed of scientific findings are subject to being contested by new evidence. Chen also stresses that, while also pointing out that most non-mainstream views turn out to be bunk. Between them Goldberg lays out a bit of his case for thinking of autism differently. What makes this interesting is that he’s compelling, but you’re not really sure if he’s legit or a crackpot. It generates tension that’s very effective.

The other segments largely don’t have the juxtaposition structure of these two and so are weaker, but still often solid.

Another standout element of the film is its diversity. It’s a bit heavy on alt-right figures like Pax Dickinson, Vox Day, and Ricky Vaughn. Apparently several social justice advocates on the left were asked to participate, but all declined. Still, there’s a variety of people such as the liberal gay Jewish free speech activist David Rubin, liberal criminal defense attorney Miriam Seddiq (a Muslim originally from Afghanistan), Mexican immigrant Nestor Mendoza, Emmy-nominated rapper T.O.N.E.-z, and software engineer and activist Justine Tunney. A vast array of people and views are represented here.

Many of these folks, like Sacco, lost their jobs or otherwise were attacked for something they said. We get the gist of many of their stories, but not all. One in particular whose backstory we don’t hear is Candace Owens. She was raising funds on Kickstarter to build a tool called Social Autopsy to combat internet bullying. Kickstarter ended up pulling her entry after a campaign from various activists. Some claimed it was a gigantic doxxing tool whose purpose was to reveal the real identity of people behind online accounts. Whether that’s true or not, Owens strongly endorses the real identity concept in the film.

I bring this up because I strongly disagree with requiring real identities on Twitter and such, and I’m stunned so many people seem to like it. In foreign countries people are literally risking their lives by some of what they post online, such as democracy activists in various dictatorships. The right to be anonymous is critical.

There’s a lot more in there, but I’ll leave it for you to discover. I’ll just close by noting the quality of the film making is solid. This is a very professionally done film, not an amateur project. Feldman knows what he’s doing. While somewhat compromised by the lack of narrative spine or other organizing structure, it’s still definitely worth a watch when it comes out.

Speaking of which, there are going to be various screenings in major cities forthcoming, so watch for them. I expect Silenced will also be released online in some form.

I want to append an observation that struck me during the film. A significant percentage of key alt-right figures seem to have been victims of various purges over the years. This includes two major strands: a number of people purged from mainstream conservatism by the National Review (not included in this film) and the indie strain of alt-righters (some of whom are featured).

These include Pax Dickinson, fired in 2013 as CTO of Business Insider after – surprise! – a hit piece from Gawker. And Vox Day, who was kicked out of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

By booting these people out of polite society or their previous communities, those doing the booting lost all leverage over them and inculcated a sense of personal grievance that seems to underly much of their activism. These folks are angry and have been looking for revenge. Donald Trump’s campaign gave them a vector to pursue that.

Here is Pax Dickinson now, in a photo that was published in many European newspapers the day after the election.


“Who’s laughing now?” he might say.

Vox Day has likewise managed to inflict significant damage on his erstwhile friends in science fiction. He started his own publishing company and also launched the Rabid Puppies campaign, which has severely disrupted the Hugo Awards, science fiction’s top honor, two years running.

Day says, “Give a man a platform and he will speak his mind. Deny him a platform, and he will build his own…and you will never silence him again.”

These are wise words. Many of these folks would have no doubt pushed the edge in their former communities, but those communities would have exerted a moderating influence on them. Once exiled, there were no more restraints.

This perhaps is another reason for us to so value free speech. It channels outlier beliefs and rhetoric into a moderated form. As Dershowitz would no doubt note, suppressing free speech always comes with a price.

If the alt-right was one of the factors that made it possible for Trump to win the presidency, then the fact that so many of its core members had previously been attacked so severely for what they said must also have played a role in making his win possible. As is obvious from the above, Gawker looms large in many of these cases. It is a great irony then that Trump may well owe a debt of gratitude to bankrupt Gawker for creating so many of his most fearsome shock troops.


from Aaron M. Renn


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