Even in the worst tyrannies,
speech is free where nobody’s listening.
Unlike many of the middle-class professionals I know, I’ve never been compelled to publicly endorse something that I privately loathed. Nor have I ever felt the need to keep my political views to myself. Haven’t had to engage in self-censorship of any kind. It’s a beautiful thing, really it is: tenured teachers are free to be outspoken political animals (in the Aristotelian sense), and fully engaged citizens (in the ancient Athenian sense). We can attack what we hate and praise what we love (with impunity). And this makes us free, truly free, in a way that fewer and fewer people are these days. Am I thankful for these freedoms? Yes, I am. Very much so. What a life! What a charmed and blessèd life I lead! But I can’t help but notice that freedom of this stamp—the freedom to live a fully human life—is already so rare that it elicits wonder, longing, envy, and desire.
An increasingly long list of people (e.g., police officers, border guards, nurses, government officials, etc.) are being told what they can and cannot say on social media. Policies are being put in place with clearly stipulated sanctions for those who violate them. To some extent this is little more than a codification of commonsense (e.g., obviously you shouldn’t be posting half-naked pictures of yourself if you teach my kid’s kindergarten class). But these policies invariably go far beyond the realm of commonsense. Indeed, I fear that we’re moving, with startling rapidity, towards a world that looks a whole lot like the world of ancient Athens, wherein the freedom to speak your mind in public about important political matters was the exclusive privilege of a tiny percentage of the population. It’s important to remember that, in the 19th century, one of the central arguments against the extension of the franchise to workers—an argument which was repeated ad nauseam by reactionary conservatives (the enemies of democracy)—was that “wage slaves” couldn’t be trusted with the vote because their employers had far too much power over them. Only the independently wealthy were free to follow the virtuous voice of conscience. Only those of sufficient means could speak and act like free men in the public sphere. If we acquiesce to these new social media policies, are we not proving these reactionaries right?
Be that as it may, I’m especially troubled by the following three questions: (1) What’s to become of democracy and the open society when the freedom to be a political animal is critically endangered, like the Iberian Lynx? (2) If much of political life happens on social media these days, and your boss doesn’t allow you to use social media (even when you’re not at work), is this not an infringement upon your ability to live a fully human life? (3) If your boss can tell you what you can and cannot do when you’re not at work, how free are you? As Aristotle rightly observed long ago, participating in the political life of your community is central to what it means to live a fully human life. The free man who can’t (or won’t) take part in the on-going public conversation about the common good is, he maintained, no better than a child, an idiot, or a well-to-do slave. Machiavelli would surely add, with a sardonic smile, that the free man who can’t (or won’t) participate in politics won’t be free for long. If the Florentine’s ghost could speak and we were willing to listen, I suspect he’d leave us with this question: “How free are you now if you’re not even free to use Facebook?”
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)