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Science & Tech

In His Defense of Free Expression, Mark Zuckerberg Spoke an Important Truth

Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit in Paris, France, May 24, 2018. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

As Jim Geraghty points out in today’s Morning Jolt newsletter, Mark Zuckerberg took to a stage at Georgetown University and delivered a rousing defense of freedom of expression online. Facebook has more direct influence over American (and international) free speech culture than virtually any corporation in the world, and when an American company and an American CEO stands against censorship, it deserves applause. In his speech, Zuckerberg traced a brief history of free expression in the United States and — critically — rightly tied the expansion of free expression to American social reforms (like the civil rights movement) that have steadily expanded the reach of American liberty and prosperity to historically marginalized groups.

Perhaps the best part of the speech was this excerpt, which specifically condemned the impulse to suppress speech in the face of unfavorable political outcomes and properly outlined the right source of true tolerance:

Increasingly, we’re seeing people try to define more speech as dangerous because it may lead to political outcomes they see as unacceptable. Some hold the view that since the stakes are so high, they can no longer trust their fellow citizens with the power to communicate and decide what to believe for themselves.

I personally believe this is more dangerous for democracy over the long term than almost any speech. Democracy depends on the idea that we hold each others’ right to express ourselves and be heard above our own desire to always get the outcomes we want. You can’t impose tolerance top-down. It has to come from people opening up, sharing experiences, and developing a shared story for society that we all feel we’re a part of. That’s how we make progress together.

As negative polarization increases, respect for liberty decreases. Conservatives have long fought against the illiberal intolerance of the speech-code campus left, but now a distressing number of conservative intellectuals are willing (eager, even) to jettison longstanding First Amendment doctrines because the other side’s speech is perceived as just too toxic to tolerate. Yet top-down censorship — whether in the name of “tolerance” (from the Left) or the “common good” (from the Right) — serves only to further fracture an already fractious society.

In the next paragraph, Zuckerberg says, “Someone once told me our founding fathers thought free expression was like air.” Indeed, in Federalist No. 10, James Madison used that very analogy when he addressed the “violence of faction.” He recognized America was a nation of many creeds, and he knew that there would be a temptation to attempt to ameliorate the effects of “faction” by limiting liberty. Madison warned against this approach:

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

Madison was prescient. The temptation to destroy liberty arises because liberty can, in fact, breed division. It presents an argument, and the argument can and will divide Americans into opposing political and religious camps. But the suppression of that same liberty would smother the American experiment. It would present an unsustainable and destructive effort to artificially promote order and consensus when consensus is both impossible (and often undesirable.) As Madison notes, the proper counter to impossible consensus is a republican pluralism that not only protects citizens against majoritarian tyranny, it expands public participation by bringing more people and more voices into the public square:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.

Zuckerberg’s approach is fundamentally pluralistic. It reflects a desire to “extend the sphere” of public participation, and by extending the sphere, one ultimately protects against tyranny in many forms. No, that doesn’t mean that Facebook’s speech policies are perfect. No, it doesn’t mean that Facebook will get every answer right (Zuckerberg forthrightly admitted that the company makes mistakes). But I’ve spoken to Facebook officials about free speech and have found that they have a genuine desire to foster and protect a marketplace of ideas — and a willingness to hear from ideologically diverse voices. This means that the world’s largest social media company is staking out a distinctly American presence on the global stage, and it means that if our culture of free speech falters, it won’t be because one of the biggest players in all of “Big Tech” suppressed national debate.


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