Thursday, April 7, 2011

Please oppose JP Barlow's attacks on free speech

I follow some people on Twitter because I have respect for them, such as @declanm. I follow others because they are idiots -- but iconic idiots. That's why I follow @JPBarlow: he keeps me up to date with the idiocy in the world. A good example is a recent retweet of his:

That links to this "petition" at

I'm bemused by this, because it's a petition against free speech, not for free speech. The petition says "Stop Attacking People Online". They think I should not be able to insult @JPBarlow by (rightly) calling him an idiot.

Like most people, I'm against physical threats, those things that make reasonable people afraid for their lives, but that's not what this petition is about. It against making people "threatened with being the target of abuse, harassment or lies". It's about making discourse "civil".

But healthy discourse isn't civil.

Indeed, making discourse civil is how despotic countries suppress it. China, like many governments in the world, claims to support speech, but it outlaws speech that would "disrupt the public order". It also doesn't allow "insults" of politicians. The thing is, if you have a corrupt government ruthlessly clinging to power, there is no way to challenge it that doesn't insult politicians and disrupt the public order.

Even in our otherwise "free" country, much speech is suppressed due to uncivil "political correctness", especially on college campuses. An excellent example of this was the recent "Asians in the Library" video controversy. This video by a UCLA student criticized, among other things, Asians talking on their phones in the library. It was a bit racist and a bit offensive -- but that doesn't mean it was invalid speech. It is indeed irritating when foreigners are ignorant of native social conventions, like when I go to Japan and jabber on my phone while on the subway (they really really hate that). The student got death threats. UCLA investigated -- not the death threats, but whether they could kick her out of school for the content of her speech.

I dislike a lot about former US presidential candidate John McCain, but I admired him in the last election. One reason was his staking his career on an unpopular "surge". But a second reason was his uncivil speech. George Bush had said of Putin "I looked the man in the eye; I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy", but McCain said "I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and I saw three things -- a K and a G and a B". Putin is a despot and there is no civil way of saying so.

I work in an industry (cybersecurity) where groupthink and flawed critical thinking are pervasive. A lot of beliefs in our industry have no rational basis. When the opposing side is just a bunch of inane platitudes ("You can't have too much security"), you can't rationally debate them. The best way is to mock them.

So, in conclusion, I urge you to oppose the attacks on free speech by @JPBarlow and his friends. We need vigorous, healthy, and free speech, not "civil" speech.

@JPBarlow responds:
Defending the rights of jerks is not a defense of free speech. We defend the right of Nazi's to march in the United States only because they aren't a political force, then pat ourselves on the back for how how high-minded we are. If neo-Nazi's became a potent political force in America, that would change, and we (as a country) would start banning them like they do in Europe. If your defense of the speaker isn't unpopular, then you really aren't being all that high-minded. Today in a America, it means defending the rights of the Koch brothers or George Soros when so many hate them, not defending the right of Westboro Baptist (who are even more disliked, but nobody is threatened by them). Laws against cyberbullying are coming, and they are going to have a chilling effect on free speech.

To be fair, JPBarlow isn't an idiot -- it's just that sometimes he says idiotic things because nobody challenges him.


  1. I think John Perry Barlow has forgotten more about free speech than you ever knew. Get a grip.

  2. i think the petition was more aimed at issues like online bullying and abuse. it's not about silencing detractors.

    for instance rebecca black, the star of that crappy viral video "friday" was definitely bullied and ganged up on by the internets. she's 13 and the internet rose up and told her she was fat and that she should die.

    from what it looks like to me, the petition isn't so much a free speech thing so much as a support for civil exchange. supporting civil exchange isn't supporting censorship.

    I don't think that you writing a blog in which you "insult @JPBarlow by (rightly) calling him an idiot" is going to instill "fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment, or lies." [the mandate of CiviliNation]

    IMHO you went kneejerk, jerk. : P

  3. @QuantumG

    That's kinda my point: he's forgotten about free speech.

  4. @Anonymous

    People can't "gang up on you" if you ignore them. The message for her is "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me" -- while she's rolling around in the money she's earned from the video.

  5. Umm, taking advantage of my free speech and all that, you seriously need to re-read that petition. It's against *silencing* people. You look like a decently English-literate person, certainly you remember how "silencing" is the opposite of free speech, and is something you should be in favor of?
    Or maybe there are layers and layers of Newspeak here that I can't decipher well enough.

    Honestly. This looks like you missed a word or three in that petition.

  6. @meme

    I'm not sure how insulting people silences them. If it does, it's a problem with the insultee not the insulter. We need to teach them "sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me".

  7. first -

    but that's not the point [of course]

    if you want to ignore that people can be harmed not only by physical violence but also by words, i really have no interest in discoursing further. it appears you have taken that mantra to heart into your adult life. i'm surprised you belive it represents things as they are.

    the message for you is people committing themselves to civil discourse is not an attack on free speech.


  8. I am against censorship of individuals, but not against stopping large companies from attacking and censoring individuals. I agree with you that this petition is misleading.

    I'm not sure why you felt the need to put the word "petition" in quotes, perhaps since it's not targeted as a specific entity. It's not as if you could walk to anonymous' doorstep and say "Hey guys, quit being all pissed off about injustices and shit, and stop hacking all the bad guys, we hate that!"

    Also some of the comments on the petitions page are a little ridiculous, such as "Oh my friend quit blogging because of all the hate responses." -- Why didn't they just make responses approval based? And if even reading them was too much for those women, well, no wonder they got so much hate, I feel like sending it right now -- that's a simple maturity issue. People are going to disagree with you, sometimes adamantly. That's called life.

    Even as a strong anti-censorship advocate, I have no problem with an individual censoring their own blog -- mostly because of the prevalence of spam, but also because it's your own personal content publishing mechanism (as opposed to something resembling a common carrier service.)

    FYI, also an IT worker (developer) and those same industry problems exist on my side of the table too. I'm sure it spans the entire IT industry. I think our similarities may end there though, as I am left-leaning. Not that at matters. It's good to find bipartisan issues that we can all support though.

    As for the political correctness/over-politeness/"I am afraid to express my own opinions" problem, I too am troubled. As there are issues that legitimately matter, where political correctness has helped but once political correctness leaves the realms where civility is required, it becomes a useless and annoying tool, and people begin to hate it as a whole.

    When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail.

  9. The fact someone graduated from an ivy league school doesn't nessessairly right all the time...

    Written from "Davos Switzerland"....

  10. Nice link bait.
    Got to it via @JPBarlow, btw.

  11. Nothing more than link bait here. Barlow is an icon, is right WAY more than he's wrong, and you Robert are...nobody. The fact that you lured me to your blog only to see what a fool you are is galling. What a long strange trip it's been, indeed.

  12. @Daniel you Robert are...nobody

    Thank you!