The Turmoil of Speech About Us

The promise of the Internet is that we can speak with anybody; the peril is that we are speaking to everybody. What is said privately can be made public instantaneously, and the temptation to use public fora to say what you intend only for sympathetic audiences is due not only to narcissism and susceptibility to self-aggrandizement but because you don’t know who would be interested in what you have to say until you say it. “The things I say, I say to you alone- what need have I for any larger audience?” wrote Seneca to his friend; but of course we can quote that statement because it was not, in the end, destined for his friend alone.

The problems of political correctness and “call out culture” are not really problems of culture but problems of technology; the reason public shaming has become such a routine aspect of online life is not, ultimately, because of a shift in morals but because it is easy and fun for those who are doing it, with easy being the dominant variable. Equally, the opportunity to feel offended and victimized by what someone or other is saying is universal- someone or other is no doubt saying you, and people like you, are the worst sort of people, in the worst sort of way. It is well enough to say that people should shake it off- say, “Christ, what an asshole,” and move along without greater retaliation or energy spent, or that people should simply watch what they damn well say. But as we are often reminded, speech is an instrument of power, and so online culture is often reduced to an endless ad absurdum  about who is really empowered by a given situation and who can rightfully consider themselves victimizer or victim.

The story of the moment is Russia’s purported hacks of the DNC and Podesta and what it says about the integrity and legitimacy of the election. But like almost everything else about the last eighteen months, this is in large part a story about public and private speech: Hillary’s tragic error was her decision to keep a private server for her work and then to hide its contents, Trump continuously throughout the campaign transgressed shared norms of appropriate public speech, and so on. The Podesta/Wikileaks emails themselves I found mostly a bore, but the sense of a “public and a private face” was perhaps especially poisonous to a candidate who had trouble convincing the electorate to trust her, and who had at least in some important ways sought previously to evade    public trust. To a surprising extent, on the other hand, my otherwise well-informed Clinton-supporting friends would lump together disclosures from her FOIA’d emails with disclosures from Wikileaks, under the heading of “hacks,” even though the sources were of very different types. This is the respect in which I’m uncertain how damaging Wikileaks really was, if it discredited or distracted from rather than compounded other weaknesses in Hillary’s campaign.

The probable outcome is that a technological problem will eventually lead to a technological solution: we are headed not to unmediated transparency for public figures but public figures who are more careful not to get caught. And the rest of us should, like Ezra Pound’s Francesca, probably come out of the turmoil of speech about us, and find ourselves once again alone.

You came in out of the night
And there were flowers in your hands,
Now you will come out of a confusion of people,
Out of a turmoil of speech about you

I who have seen you amid the primal things
Was angry when they spoke your name
In ordinary places.
I would that the cool waves might flow over my mind,
And that the world should dry as a dead leaf,
Or as a dandelion seed-pod and be swept away,
So that I might find you again,
Alone.

-Ezra Pound, Francesca

One thought on “The Turmoil of Speech About Us

  1. In almost all of human history, we have more privacy than every before, if you consider that until the rise of large cities and the market economy, there was no anonymity in the small settlements and groups people lived in. Even in Shakespeare’s London, where there was a teeming crowd one could get lost in, the majority of humanity lived in places like Stratford on Avon, where everybody knew just about everything about everybody in the area. No offense, but I bet spotted toad doesn’t know the names of his neighbors, nor they you. I agree with your point, though, that the danger today, then, is the possibility of a piranha attack for saying some impolitic thing publicly online. If we resist that temptation, even the corporations tracking us to sell us stuff (which most people don’t like but tolerate) isn’t as bad as everyone in your community knowing all about you on a personal level.

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