Free Speech, Citizens, and Twitter, Or: How Andrew Sullivan Misses the Point

Isn’t it awkward when professional bloggers don’t understand how social media works?
A few days ago, widely read conservative white-but-not-straight blogger  Andrew Sullivan railed against the new cooperation between Women Action Media and Twitter. The micro-blogging platform and the non-profit will work together to better report, track, understand, and work against cyber harassment of users, primarily women. That this harassment is omnipresent should be common (bipartisan!) knowledge to anyone actively engaged with the net these days, at least since #gamergate. Sullivan sort of supports #gamergate, so it’s no surprise he now fears full-blown censorship at the hands of a radical leftist feminism. But still, this article is problematic and full of terrible arguments: 

Sullivan so royally (and probably willfully) misses the point, I almost feel embarrassed for him. The action WAM and Twitter takes isn’t censorship at all, even if you expand the concept from its actual constitutional definition (relationship State – citizen) to the more colloquial use (individual/organisation hindering other individual/organisation from expressing something) It’s not even really censorship in a discursive/Bourdieuian sense in which a field governs itself and has certain rules (explicit and implicit) about what can be said within that field/space, etc.

At least at the start, no one is actually prevented from exercising free speech – it’s just a method of protecting yourself from harassment. The harassment that is supposed to be reported through this new cooperation certainly is “low-level” speech, if not true threats or hate speech, i.e. forms of speech that are usually not protected by even the very wide scope of the U.S. First Amendment.  It’s also not about coddling weak women from improper words or from abolishing unpleasentness or dissent or any nonsense like that. 
This move by WAM with the support or twitter and numerous other feminists and their allies certainly doesn’t mean that the activists think that women aren’t strong. Women are strong: Most women deal with street, cyber, sexual harassment and sexism on a daily basis and still work and prosper. This is especially true for non-straight, non-cis, non-white women in the USA, online, and around the world. This initiative by WAM and others is actually an example of the resourcefulness of women online: They are creating apps and strategies themselves that allow them to better experience and use the “vast vistas” of the web, that allow them to build their brands and that give them the space to express their ideas “with wit and energy and passion and freedom” and to have constructive discussions with people who disagree with them. Because that is the free speech problem that is pressing here: A constant, daily barrage of hate and harassment like amazing blogger Imani Gandy describes it not only leads to personal harms (e.g. mental health issues, constant insecurity, further abuse) but also amounts to a “white noise” that drowns out reasonable interaction. Twitter isn’t technically rigged against women, but it is more difficult to interact when part of the interaction is people yelling abuse at you. 
Another point: Isn’t finding strategies and technological solutions to enhance your communication possibilities what social media, what the digital revolution is supposed to be about? Reducing the white noise of hate allows women to fully participate as “citizens in our digital age.” (Yang in Citron 2014
Sullivan (of course) invokes the “culture wars.” There is a cultural conflict at play here, but it is not a new one. It is the decades, century-old debate about who is a/the “citizen.” The core problem is this: The individual citizen whose freedom of speech must be protected from the “censorship” of WAM, Block Together, or ordinary comment moderators, is still very much the citizen the 18th centruy. Those being silenced (or, if you buy in to the other side, doing the censoring) are people not considered citizen (i.e. civil right holders) by the authors of the constitution: Women, people of color. (Even LGBT people, in the present case Sullivan ignores that.)  Of course, free speech debates aren’t limited to the U.S., and in the case of speech on the Internet, many of the nation-state based elements of “citizen”-subjects don’t apply. Many individuals arguing the “censorship!” position in this debate aren’t U.S. citizens. But the same hierarchy of “citizen”/subject/individual/user applies: White cis-heterosexual man is the default, it is he who comes to mind when talking about censorship™. 

Both the hierarchization of white-male subjectivity and the attack that feminists are policing the speech of white straight males angers me on a personal level, too. I am a white male speaking on the Internet, but I am also a white male that sees and abhors the abuse others on the Internet face. Women and others protecting themselves from abusive people who share certain labels with me does not quell my free speech possibilities. As far as I can tell Block Together and the new WAM/Twitter tool aren’t even limited to women/poc/lgbtqia people – they just need it the most. 

TL;DR: This isn’t about speech, it’s about harassment. Even white dudes can get that.
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