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Against Xkcd 1357 (defmacro.substack.com)
64 points by dmvinson 5 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments



This seems like a terrible article to me. The author makes sweeping generalizations about his audience, he doesn't clearly explain why the comic is bad (he makes accusations but they're never really deduced), and it's so hyperbolic it's just ridiculous but it's clearly not satire. And as far as I can tell he doesn't even understand the comic he's criticizing so harshly.

It feels like something an enthusiastic redditor would cobble together in 30 minutes to win an argument against someone.


I think he summarizes his point very clearly...

> Freedom of speech isn't just a legal assurance that congress shall make no law abridging it. It is also a set of cultural norms rooted deeply in a long lineage of hard won ideas. It is Friedrich Nietzsche's dictum that only insecure societies are threatened by quirky characters with weird ideas. It is Evelyn Hall's principle "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". It is my friend Daniel's observation that tolerance is the experience of suffering through unpleasant ideas.


Yup, it's not a bad point of view, but it totally misses the point of the contested xkcd comic, which doesn't fight with the freedom of speech and doesn't reduce it to the dead law.


To me, the author is trying to express a feeling that I've also experienced before. It happens when someone in a discussion appeals to the spirit of freedom of speech, and the other guy shuts it down using the argument in the Xkcd comic.

I hate seeing that happen because it shows how little people value their ability to freely express their minds on a public forum. Or if they do value this, it shows how they're willing to disconnect that notion from the one that gave rise to encoding the freedom of speech into our constitution.


There are so many things wrong with that article, but let's start with this one:

> Yet in many other countries— perhaps still in most of them— mob justice, unethical businesses behavior without complaint, and complete disregard for any rights of criminals is a normal daily occurrence. Their citizens know that far away silly Americans bother with fair trials and non-ironically litigating the temperature of coffee, but it would never occur to them that it may be a reasonable thing to try in their own society.

I hate to break it to you, but the rest of the world does not view the US as some bastion of liberty. Most of the rest of the world has much the same set of rights and protections that US citizens enjoy.

What's truly amazing is that the author fundamentally misses the point of the article, that while you can say whatever you like, you are not shielded from the consequences of saying that.

If you are the public representative of company x, and you post something awful on twitter, then people are allowed use their free speech to say they no longer wish to do business with company x while you are the representative.


> What's truly amazing is that the author fundamentally misses the point of the article, that while you can say whatever you like, you are not shielded from the consequences of saying that.

It's appropriate to share one of those memes just as stupid, harmful and widespread as that xkcd comic here. Maybe even more so, maybe this really does refute the author's premise. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would justify any kind of punishment for speech. The consequence for critizizing Kim Jong Un in Noth Korea is that you get thrown into a labor camp. Freedom of speech, after all, does not mean freedom from consequences.

The fundamental error here is to speak of consequences as if they are things that just happen, like a law of nature, and not a conscious attempt to punish people.


I think you are over-focusing on the word "consequences" here. Nobody is saying all consequences are fair play.

"you get thrown into a labor camp" seems to be a different kind of consequence than "others use their free speech to disagree with you."

I don't like it when my bad ideas or ignorant statements or heck, even my true but unpleasant statements are criticized by people who either know better than I do or worse, don't, but nobody is actually throwing me in a labor camp. I can continue to speak back to my critics and either accept their correction or continue to disagree with them.


The consequences frequently are an attempt to punish people and often justifiably so.

If someone says something racist, homophobic or sexist, then yeah, maybe I want to punish them by not buying their product or not voting for them or whatever.

But we can judge the response on its merits too.

Being thrown in jail for criticism of the government? Not ok. (Reductio ad absurdum, btw... no one has suggested that what someone says gives you carte blanche)

Boycotting homophobic sandwich restaurant? Totally fine.

Firing your employee for something they said on their own time? Exceptionally murky and very much case by case.


>Taken to its logical conclusion, it would justify any kind of punishment for speech.

The trajectory of the argument doesn't point anywhere near that conclusion.


And if you're accused of murder, Facebook can use their free speech to censor anyone fundraising money for your defense, and crowdfunding sites and payment processors can use their free speech and freedom of association, and refuse to process any donations you receive: https://reclaimthenet.org/facebook-blocks-givesendgo-kyle-ri...

And if you're black, a business can use their freedom of association and refuse- oh, no, wait, no they can't. That would be a problem. Even though the constitution allows it. But this, this isn't.


Yes, because race is a protected class. Being a murderer... isn't.


I thought we were discussing what the law should be, not what it is. Or more broadly, how companies and people should act, not what they can get away with under the law.

As for the murderer bit... well, if we already know it was murder, why are we bothering with a trial? Lets just ask Facebook, and sentence him accordingly.


You are right, there is a distinction between a murderer and bring accused of it. Still the point of the grandparent stands: being accused of a crime is not a protected class. People are ostracized when not even having to face court, or being judged not guilty. And I bet, there are cases were you feel entitled to do so too.

Point is, those are individual judgements and I kind of doubt that you really want to advocate being mandated by law not to do so.


> individual judgements

There's a difference between an individual making a judgement, a payment processor making a judgement, and a communications platform with over 2 billion users making a judgement.

Perhaps not (yet) legally, but we should at least be able to admit the effects on society are very different. In fact, we do, when it suits us. Talk about Facebook "allowing hate to spread", and all those "private company they can do what they want" arguments disappear (or get made by an entirely different set of people), as some people miraculously become able to understand the difference in kind between a single individual and one of the largest companies on Earth.


Civil rights are protected under law, specifically. Regarding race, if a business receives public benefits e.g roads, grants, tax breaks. Then the entire public is allowed access to that business (products/services) or they should not receive said benefits.

TL;DR of the article is... “Freedom of speech isn't just a legal assurance that congress shall make no law abridging it. It is also a set of cultural norms rooted deeply in a long lineage of hard won ideas.”

What about the freedom of those stating they don’t want your speech on their platforms?

Freedom of speech goes both ways. Beautiful thing is, if the author doesn’t like it then he can write an amendment to the constitution and request a vote.


I think this is a poorly written article devoid of substantiative argument. The author's substack earned a unsubscribe based on it.

It has become fashionable to argue the "I might disagree with you but I will defend to death your right to express it" to which is appended "in the NY Times, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Youtube and every private channel that exists."

First, the disagreeable opinion part is wrong since every open+democratic society has a section of speech that is curtailed - sedition, libel, incitement to riot, etc. These extents of censorship vary by country. The USA is relatively liberal but the UK has stricter limits on libel. The author demonstrates a poor to no understanding of these limits.

Second he/she conflates the limits on government prohibition on free speech rights to the right on the property of others - i.e. the right to free speech is the the right to publish on privately owned media channels. The Sulzberger family which owns significant equity in the NY Times (>$1B) and controls it has the right to decide what gets published in the NY Times, which you might agree/disagree with. Similarly for Twitter which is privately owned.

However I don't think it should be flagged ;)


"in the NY Times, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Youtube"

One of these things is not like the others.


The NY Times prints the views of paid employees rather than every rando off the street (usually), but it is a private non-governmental organization, so it both is and is not like the others.


> The author's substack earned a unsubscribe based on it.

Stretching the author’s argument, you’re not abiding by the culture that the First Amendment and other laws have wanted to create, and you’re as guilty as xkcd in unsubscribing (re-emphasizing that it’s according to the author).


You are putting words in the author's mouth. What you are describing is a kind of "right to an audience", where in the article is there a demand for this?

If the comment were demanding that substack remove the article, or if the commenter was trying to get the author fired from his job for this article, I would consider it against the idea of free speech. Note that this does not equate to a demand for any legislative change or government action.

The view expressed in XKCD 1357 is that there would be no free speech issue since it isn't the government trying to prevent the author from making his article available to those who wish to read it (again, no one is asking for a right to an audience or right to be protected from disagreement) or threatening his livelihood as retaliation for publishing the article.


Demanding people read things against their will is a hell of a stretch of the original argument :)


This literally has nothing to do with "free speech." It is about using other people's private property to express your speech.

Consider these in degrees:

* Allowing anyone to write any message they please on someone else's face.

* Allowing anyone at any time to drive through public streets with a megaphone announcing any message they would like.

* Allowing anyone to burn a cross on someone else's private yard.

* Allowing anyone to post any political advertisement they want on your front door.

* Allowing anyone 10 minutes of airtime on a privately owned, closed circuit television station.

* Allowing anyone to post any image they please on the front page of Google.com.

Until you recognize that

1) there are other rights beyond free speech, 2) those rights often come directly into conflict with free speech, and 3) those rights are not simply superseded by free speech

We can now have a fair discussion of whose rights matter.

I don't see how anyone can argue it's not okay to be able to write any message you want on someone's face or front door without consequence, but that their website is fair game.


If you read down, you'll see that he views Freedom of Speech as a cultural norm, not merely a law that restricts congress.

...and that unpopular speech, should be broadly tolerated even on private platforms, as a matter of culture - not law.


Using "cultural norms" seems .. odd, those are waaaay more restrictive than pure legalistic viewpoints.

I mean, when we're talking about competing cultural norms, now you're including "fire in a theater", "think of the children", "I know it when I see it", "fighting words", taboos, morals, indecency, fighting words, Popper's intolerance of intolerance, "slippery slopes", and all kinds of restrictions on speech that aren't seated in anything but "cultural norms."

Better to stick with the legal arguments.


Setting aside the fact that this one comic probably did not have some giant causative effect on Internet culture — it just encapsulated the zeitgeist of a moment, as comics often do — the author is going to have to get more way specific to make a good counterpoint, I think. The argument could be made, for example, that more and more as the years go on, being kicked off a “platform” or “community” is like being kicked off the Internet. However, I think the point in the comic stands.

Calling people out for calling people out on grounds that it’s un-American seems to be what this article is trying to do. There’s still no right to have a TV show or right to not be yelled at.


The comic was probably chosen as the representative of the enemy idea because xkcd had a reputation among some people of being condescending or contrived, which pre-frames the idea in an already negative context for those people and makes it easier to demonize.


The main error in this comic and that I see repeated many times is that because it is not illegal for Facebook, Reddit, or anyone else to censor their communication channels, that it is therefore a good idea that they do so.

You have to ask the question why we think restrictions on speech for the government are a bad idea. Is it a fundamentally better idea that we have de facto restrictions on free speech because our communication channels happen to be controlled by private companies?

What happens when your preferred political party is no longer in charge of those private communication channels? You've already established the norm that these private channels will censor speech that they don't agree with. Imagine in the future Facebook, and the vast censorship apparatus they're now building at everyone's insistence, is now in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, or the Koch Brothers or someone else you all hate even more than Mark Zuckerberg.


So when malls started displacing downtowns, the courts recognized that malls needed to create free speech areas.

I can imagine a court saying that FB has enough of the population on it to force it to follow similar laws. Sure, it might have some indication of “free speech”, like a red box, but it would still be viewable, like it or not.

The comic also does two things. First, it implies that the canceled person is indeed an asshole, providing justification to the cancelers. It might be better to just say “they don’t like what you say”. The second, it gives the impression people are all individually canceling someone on their own judgement. This really isn’t what happens. What happens is someone says / does something, it’s presented in a certain way to maximize hatred of the person, the effects of the “crime” are often greatly exaggerated, even questioning the event and asking for details gets one branded a Nazi, all the past accomplishments are tainted, and all the while, many others are doing far more, but are lucky enough not to get enough attention to form a mob.

There is a reason we have libel and slander laws. Many people would be guilty if it weren’t so expensive to bring charges and so cheap to tweet.


> So when malls started displacing downtowns, the courts recognized that malls needed to create free speech areas.

This. This is the crux of the issue. If the "public square" has moved to Facebook and Reddit, then the Constitution should apply there.


Both the premise and the conclusion here are poorly reasoned.

We are told multiple times that the Constitution was intended to be socially normative, yet no historical evidence for this is provided.

then we are told that Munroe’s comic has been hugely damaging because it doesn’t acknowledge the premise, which again, is unsubstantiated.

But what we aren’t told is what damage is done or how discourse has been affected.

Nice theories. No evidence.


I couldn’t find the core of an argument in this piece. Could someone paraphrase?

Defending to the death someone’s right to not be imprisoned for objectionable opinions is quite different from enshrining a right to be free from social isolation.

I don’t understand what part of internet culture is being missed.


There is a big difference between safeguarding and fighting for peoples rights to free expression and being willing to stand and listen to the lies, misinformation and hate that some can spew.

And none of this has anything to do with a piece of paper. The world is not some chaotic place (like the author describes) where mob law still applies.

This is just idiotic to be honest.


I agree with the author. I think it's important for a country to have a set of shared beliefs, and that the idea that the Bill of Rights is more than just a legal document is a very good starting place for the US. This appears to be an unpopular opinion on HN, though.


While I think the author is very unreasonable, I think your framing of the argument is reasonable (though I disagree strongly that it would be good for society to extend the Bill of Rights beyond the legal realm, rather than addressing the problem via some other avenue). However, I think you should avoid couching your opinion in the passive aggressive armor of the brave underdog (your last sentence).


The intended audience for the "PSA" in the comic is exactly the author of the post. But apparently the message did not land.

> It’s wrong because it contains a profound misunderstanding— that America’s founding documents are nothing more than legal tools.

The constitution _is_ the foundation of the law in the US. That is its purpose. It may imply social norms or inspire other connotations, but fundamentally it is a legal document.

> Whenever I think about what did the most damage to internet culture over the past ten years, this comic comes out on top

This comic did not affect internet culture -- it just conveys a truth that conflicts with the author's understanding.

Yes, it is good to seek contrasting points of view and empathizing with earnest people who disagree with you. But no, we do not have the _right_ to use privately owned platforms like facebook and twitter as our stage, just as we don't have the _right_ to pen editorial articles in our local newspapers.

And this is where I think where maybe lies some of the confusion? It seems that the generation who never knew a world without massive social media platforms -- they seem to think of them as public utilities. Less like newspapers, and more like phone companies. So maybe from that perspective, there could be an argument that they should be regulated and/or broken into smaller entities. But in the present, that is only a dream and not much to do with reality.


I agree the article isn't well written but I do share some of the author's concerns about the right to free speech vs. the cultural norms of public discourse, private disagreements among friends, friendly debates, etc.

I read the book The Coddling of the American Mind [1] a while back and think I can sum it up with that modern American equate disagreeing with someone opinions as a personal attack and that we need to avoid touchy subject for the sake of tolerance.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Coddling-American-Mind-Intentions-Gen...


Your right to free speech doesn't necessarily mean that I have to listen to you. If I am the ,edia platform you want to shout on top of, well, what you sy better be something that my audience wants to hear. Otherwise, I am not obligated to give you the time of day. That time is costing me money as a media broadcaster. If your half baked ideas is going to cause me a drop in audience following, hence advertising revenue, you can go find yourself another sympathetic ear. It ain't here. Second and fourth squares are saying exactly this and I could not agree with it any more. One of the best Xkcd strips. Good thing it was hashed out. I have forgotten about it.


Context:

This comic was written after Brendan Eich (creator of JavaScript) was appointed, and then stepped down 11 days layer, as CEO of Mozilla. He previously donated $1000 to Prop 8 which enraged a lot of people (who called for his removal). A lot of other people were enraged that his free speech was being infringed, and Randall Monroe made xkcd 1357 two weeks after Eich stepped down in response.

All that said, I tend to agree with the general premise of this article, which is that for a healthy society, free speech ought to extend far beyond the bare minimum government limits imposed by the Constitution.


This comic does not lambast free speech.

It simply shows it's disdain for the selfish idiots who use it as an excuse to showcase their personal ideas and refuse to allow you your own human rights.


This "article" is an example either of:

- ignorance: as the author doesn't understand what they are writing about;

- straw man argument, as the author creates a fictional opponent unrelated to the referenced xkcd comic...

Anyhow, please "stop making stupid articles famous" and do not upvote this post.


Most comments against the article and in defense of the comics boil down to the argument, that if you own the channel/media/room you can control what is said in/on it. Fair enough! That's private property, another sacred right in the US constitution.

Where does it lead? If one has "dissident" ideas, he can only express it on channels that allow it. In the end, one can always express it in its own home, without public, or in front of a complacent public. That's technically free-speech, but severely constrained.

Look at the situation. First there is no dialog. Second, it is no different to a dictatorship - bear with me a minute -. In a dictatorship, you can always express your own ideas in your own home in front of a complacent public. At that micro-level, the situations are stunningly similar.

Of course the outcome is different if you try to broadcast dissident or uncommon ideas in a dictatorship, or let's say in the US. In the first case, you risk for your life, in the second, you risk being cancelled. The US government, in most cases, will not limit your speech but powerful groups will do.

At the macro level, the situation is different too. In the US, powerful (understand rich) people control the medias and what is broadcast on them: e.g. Facebook (allows violence but no woman breast), the NY Times (can't find the ref: a conservative journalist who joined then left). Ultimately this leads to the formation of blocks. Of course Facebook in itself is made of several blocks of influence, or blocks of common ideas. I believe all major blocks are created around lobbyists with big money, or influence groups already trained to mute dissidents and shout louder than opposing groups. One or the other, any group of importance defends its territory by showing the door to dissidents. This is free-speech according to XKCD.

In a dictatorship there is only one group. In the US there are several of them. Still no dialog, no nuance, no complexity. Complexity is the devil for a group of influence, because complexity will dissolve the group. There a physical parallel here with ferromagnetism. That's the reason why complex problems cannot find a solution in the US (and maybe in the world). Complexity will usually not tried being understood, and will soon be interpreted as borderline or altogether dissident, or will be dismissed as pedantry.

There is free-speech, but most of it is shouting and territorial behavior.


Honestly, how many people outside of the college educated and software development set read XKCD? How would it even be possible for it to be as influential as claimed?


His "What if?" book reached the top of the NYT best seller list, so I'd say he has quite a large audience.


Forgot about that, good point.


Talk about missing the point.


Is there a relevant XKCD or long German word for the feeling of "I get that this is a legitimate grievance but it's not a priority to me"? I've found myself wanting for something like that with these kinds of posts and the ones about Apple in-app payments.


I've had nearly this exact same thought. Usually when I feel that way, it's because the issue is being used as a stand-in for more general cultural fights, so the issue gets amplified beyond what its practical impact actually calls for.


To be honest, I used to kinda like xkcd, but I've grown to dislike it due to its overuse.

I hate when this one is used as a response https://xkcd.com/927/. Same with the Bobby Tables one.


I am not sure what he was smoking when he wrote this blog post but he definitely was not thinking straight. Xkcd has hit the nail right on its head. Nobody is obligated to listen to you and agree with your half baked brain farts. It actually hits too close to home today, with this inclusion, BLM, etc. BS. If you suck at what you are doing, I do not care what your skin color is, what your political beliefs are, you deserve to be put out to pasture. Period.

Perfect example of a millennial snowflake, who thinks what he says is important no matter what.


This topic hits a number of beliefs I hold and I disagree with many parts of this post.

> Not Twitter. Not Facebook. This simple comic.

If we removed this comic and kept Facebook and Twitter, our problems w/ understanding Free Speech are largely solved? Hardly. Not to mention social media has become the beast we as a group don't know how to handle yet it ravages our landscape.

> It’s wrong because it contains a profound misunderstanding— that America’s founding documents are nothing more than legal tools.

Also vehemently disagree - it is exactly because it is a set of "legal tools" that it boils up into society. Through the interpretation of the Supreme Court and other judges.

The author is basically stating this is a belief system and that belief system is so much more than a legal document. But lest we forget, legal documents - especially the legal founding of our country - is rooted in beliefs.

I'll admit, Hamilton the musical helped me connect to the founding fathers like I never had as a highschool student studying the material. That the beliefs of a bunch of 20-40 year olds (who are insanely smarter than me), wrote essays based on beliefs and philosophy, to form our country - legally.

By legally, I mean an agreement which we start from and enforce. The enforcement is key and XKCD rightly touches on where that line is drawn.

There is a reason why, legally, the Bill of Rights for Freedom of Speech does not reach further into society. You run the danger of telling people how to live which is extremely against the founding ideals.

Please, go live in a country where the legal precedence of free speech does not allow you to speak against its leaders.


I'm having trouble understanding the point of the article. I can't connect how the XKCD comic has acted for or against the points the author is trying to make.

This comic is reactionary to an existing situation, it hasn't created the situation. Same as the comic that adamnemecek calls out.

quoting the last line of the article: > It is my friend Daniel's observation that tolerance is the experience of suffering through unpleasant ideas. We endure that suffering because the world is dramatically better on balance when we do.

There are limits to this. Unpleasant ideas continually raised by very few people adds nothing. If an idea or point needs to be continually brought up by a small group of individuals then it probably doesn't have much value. Hell, even QAnon has 'caught on', so the bar is low enough that I'd argue there's not much of a problem with the stuff that's getting filtered out. 'Proud Boys' exist, QED.

If you don't like that you're censored on someone else's platform, then build your own. If you're getting jeered while proselytising on your soapbox in public place X, keep moving until you find a more receptive audience.

Having said that, even non-public platform (FB, twitter, etc.) censorship is a situation that requires on-going re-evaluation.

Unless I'm missing the point of the article.


The post well describes my own concerns about that comic. Facebook/Twitter/Google censoring one's viewpoint at some point effectively become the equivalent of government censorship in its all-encompassing nature.

Forget computers. What if in 1950 every newspaper, every book publisher, every typewriter manufacturer, every mimeograph machine maker refuses to do business with you? Yes, you can still buy pen and paper, and no one is stopping you from putting up a modern 95 Theses on your front door. But aren't you effectively silenced as much as if the government explicitly acted against you?

This doesn't mean that every single website has to let anyone who wants to use it as a billboard for his thoughts to do so. But at some scale, Facebook/Twitter/Google are public forums as much as Hyde Park or Times Square, and those running those sites have the moral obligation to let the spirit of the First Amendment govern their actions as they moderate.




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