Musk raises the free speech debate with the Twitter acquisition

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Jonathan Ayling
Wellington, May 12, 2022

Why do we constantly insist free speech isn’t a Left-Right political issue?

It is not just so that we don’t get branded extremists, one way or the other.

Surprisingly enough, it is actually because it is true. And unless Elon Musk accepts that, his acquisition of Twitter is no great victory for free speech.

It will simply be the same play, in a different theatre.

Thankfully, Musk seems to appreciate that, but now we need action on his words (and by action, I mostly mean no action. Tolerate those who disagree with you and let them be.)

Not a side issue

The belief that free speech is a Right-wing conservative ideal reveals a very limited knowledge of history. In different generations, the Left and the Right have both advocated for and opposed free speech. That is why free speech is not a Left-Right issue; it is a liberty-orientated vs authoritarian issue. Look beyond the past ten years of woke lunacy (which fair enough, has come from liberal progressives on the Left) and you see that the Right has more frequently suppressed speech than the Left (I say this as someone who comes from the conservative Right).

So, what does this mean for Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter? While woke progressivism and speech moderation on Twitter have gone hand-in-hand, that does not mean the Right is the natural champion of the freedom to raise unconventional or provocative views.

Jonathan Ayling

Hypocritical and counter-productive

Ultimately, it is hypocritical (and counter-productive) to only care about free speech when it is ours being silenced. Tragically, many who fight for free speech today would be only too pleased to silence those that they disagree with tomorrow (coming back to that authoritarian thing again). For these individuals, it is not the principled arguments for free speech that hold water, it is simply their specific opinions being allowed. If these are the rules we play by, ‘free speech’ will only ever be the cry of those out of power, because those in power are silencing them- not because they actually believe that dialogue and discussion have the capacity to elevate our ability to address society’s toughest questions.

It is crucial that those shutting down speech today (like the censorious transgender lobby at AUT) understand this- you will not always be in charge.

Twitter is a cesspit- we all know it.

It is a simplistic, caption-limited wrestling ring that has much to answer for as we consider the polarisation and divisions that continue to emerge across the West. All of that remains true if it’s controlled by an authoritarian Right instead of the progressive Left.

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will only be a victory for free speech if he resists the calls of the ‘free speech champions’ who are ready to extract utu by firing progressives from the company and banning their tweets.

Disproportionate influence

It is no surprise that I disagree with progressives. But to silence them is not only to engage in a tit-for-tat that sees us both poorer, but it also gives us a false sense of our own correctness.

As the proverb says, ‘The first person to speak in court always seems right until his opponent begins to question him.”

For a small platform with relatively few users, Twitter has a disproportionate influence on public conversations. Because of its predominant users and moderation tendencies, it has had a major role in enabling progressive perspectives (again, disproportionately representing them as la pensée du jour.) If Musk takes up his newfound power as a chance to push a cultural battle by silencing his opponent, he will lose; we all will lose.

Yet, if he reinvents this as a platform of open discussion (I am not saying that we all stand in a circle and sing Kom-by-ya, but just that we are able to make our case), then who knows, maybe it is a victory for free speech. But not because the Right is in charge, but because we can all use our speech to tell our story and move discussions forward.

Jonathan Ayling is Chief Executive of Free Speech Union based in Wellington.

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