Eight billion hogs, screaming
Freedom to speak; freedom to groan; freedom to whimper
Heavenbanning is one of the nastiest and most brilliant ideas of the internet age. It works like this. Say you’re an annoying and unpleasant person who spends too much time online—which, if you’re reading this, is probably true. You waste your life posting your preferred brand of nonsense, rambling about vaccines or the shadow state or other things the mainstream media doesn’t want anyone to know about, until eventually your outbursts reach the attention of someone important. Suddenly, your experience of the internet is transformed. At first you get a handful of new followers a day, then dozens, then hundreds. They leave comments fulsomely agreeing with you, laughing at all your jokes, praising you as the greatest and most fearless mind of your generation. Sometimes people pop up who dare to question your wisdom, but their arguments fall apart like wet paper, and eventually they’re forced to grudgingly accept that you were right all along. The world revolves around you and your brilliant opinions. Maybe you should run for office. Maybe you should run for king. The only problem is that none of your new admirers actually exist. The heavenbanned are totally invisible to all other users on their chosen platform; no human being will read anything they post ever again. Instead, you live in a little virtual internet populated entirely by AIs, who exist only to give you the most narcissistically satisfying online experience possible. At the moment, heavenbanning is just a concept—supposedly. Maybe it already exists. Maybe you’ve been heavenbanned yourself. If you were—how could you tell?
Another question: would being heavenbanned count as an infringement of your free speech?
On the face of it, no. The heavenbanned can still say absolutely anything they want. If anything, they have more latitude than the rest of us—they don’t have to worry about any of the social sanctions that punish everyone else for saying things that are too cruel or stupid or unhinged. They can churn out as many death threats and racial slurs as they want, and receive only praise. But at the same time, this is obviously not enough. Imagine the grey, rainy, totalitarian society of your nightmares; let’s call it Belgium. In this ‘Belgium,’ the all-encompassing coalition government graciously allows you to say whatever you like about its Supreme Leader, Alexander De Croo—but only as long as you do it in a special soundproofed room in your drab concrete apartment block, and only if no one sees you enter or leave. You can even write an impassioned denunciation of his Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten party, just so long as you make sure to burn it afterwards. Are the Belgians enjoying their freedom?
Borges’ short story The Secret Miracle concerns Jaromir Hladik, a Czech writer struggling to complete his masterwork, a drama in verse called The Enemies. Unfortunately for Hladik, time is running out: the year is 1939, the Nazis have just taken Prague, and Hladik is Jewish. The occupying army arrest him, and alone and desperate in his cell Hladik prays to God to let him live just one more year so he can finish his play. But the next day the soldiers lead him out behind the prison and give him a cigarette. The soldiers raise their guns, their commander gives the order to fire, and time freezes. God, or something like God, has granted Hladik’s prayer: one year of subjective time. In that year, he arranges and rearranges the lines in his head, memorising them all. Finally the play is complete, and it’s perfect, even if it exists only in his mind. Then time resumes, the German soldiers shoot, and that mind is suddenly extinguished. This is enough for Hladik. Would it be enough for you?
People like to talk a lot about this thing, free speech, but without giving too much thought to what it actually is. Instead, what we usually get are a few warmed-over little phrases. Free speech is not hate speech. Free speech is not free reach. Free speech is not freedom from consequences. Fine—but what is it, then? Sometimes you get a glimpse of what it might be through the opposing terms: free speech has to be weighted against the potential for harm, or offence, or disinformation, or sometimes even Nazism. But since a hundred years ago, the dangers of free speech were different—revolt, or Bolshevism—I’m not sure how much this teaches us. I don’t like to talk too much about him or his platform, but Elon Musk is a useful example: when he first took over Twitter, he announced that his new version of the website would be the shield of freedom against tyranny—before eventually clarifying that free speech obviously didn’t include such outrages as parody, impersonation, links to competing platforms, statements that Mr Musk happened to dislike, and, finally, statements made by people who hadn’t paid him an appropriate fee.1 In 1994, Stanley Fish wrote that free speech ‘is not an independent value but a political prize.’ Ideological factions invoke some hazy principle of free speech when they want to spread their particular brand of propaganda and other people don’t want to listen. As soon as the situation changes, they discard it. The argument seems to be that freedom of speech doesn’t really exist, because people will sometimes disregard it; I’m not sure this holds.2 But a lot of people seem intent on proving him right.3
I think that most of the time when we talk about freedom of speech, what we really mean is the right to be heard. Anyone can say anything; they always could. There has never been any society so authoritarian that it could effectively prevent people speaking or writing the things it disliked. What repressive forces can do is limit the safe distribution of certain kinds of speech.4 But if you want to uphold this particular right, things get very tricky. Once, the right to be heard would mean that you could wander into the village square and start ranting to anyone in earshot without being molested. The people who might potentially hear you were the people who were physically near you; if you can reach them, then you are free. Today, with digital communications, the number of people who might potentially hear you is everyone, or as close to everyone as makes no difference. If your little insights don’t go out to absolutely every human being on the planet, then your rights are being infringed. This is why it’s held to be a potential free speech issue when a TV show is cancelled or a social media account is banned, even though you can still technically speak without either. Totally free speech, therefore, would mean everyone being permanently plugged in to the nightmare cacophony of eight billion chattering mouths, all talking at the same time, overlapping idiocies at a pitch and modulation that would very rapidly turn all our brains into a brief gush of goo escaping through our nostrils. We can do this! The technology exists. The results might not be desirable. But anything less puts us on the dangerous slope to heavenbanning.
Except, of course, that even then we would still not be fully free. If your individual freedom of speech is only realised in being heard by other people, you’re faced with quite a serious problem. You can’t, in fact, speak however you like; you have to speak in a particular way that will allow other people to understand you. You have to use language—and language is, in the end, something you submit yourself to.5 Psychoanalysis is pretty clear on this point: when we come into language, it’s because we have been defeated and castrated; we have finally given up our dreams of full phallic potency and the joyful immediacy of the object. Afterwards, you learn to speak in words you did not choose; you accept a symbolic order that structures your life on all sides. Using words means accepting the greater power of the father and accepting that you are not free. The only truly free speech belongs to babies. So in fact, a regime of total freedom would be a planet in which everyone is communicating the inner contents of their minds with perfect and immediate urgency—which would mean constantly screaming, at the top of your lungs, all the time. In which all of existence consists of hearing and joining the universal wail. A planet of animal-men, pigs on their hind legs, grunting and squealing, maybe building huge radio arrays to broadcast our agony into every corner of outer space.
But this isn’t too different from where we started. It’s hard to imagine that on hogworld, there would be anyone really listening.
All this might sound like I’m trying to trash the notion of free speech altogether: like I’m slowly leading you to the argument that we really do need some kind of censorship, we need sensible restrictions on what you can and can’t say, to avoid descending into hogworld. I am not. In fact, I am a free speech absolutist. But if we’re going to take free speech seriously, we have to start thinking about it outside the forms given to us by people like Elon Musk.