Participating in democracy “takes a certain amount of civic courage.” Although I never expected to say this, I found the words of Justice Scalia (in Doe v. Reed) coming to mind these past few weeks. In the Internet era, it takes more civic courage then ever: more of our speech is public, and much of it has global reach. Billions are capable of seeing your tweet, reading your email to the editor, or perusing your voter registration data.
We’re used to the good side of global visibility, because the good side is what we always attend to first: a band breaks out because of their video on YouTube; a kid in Bangladesh crowdsources money for an operation; a proposed law withers under the heat of criticism. But as always, the silver lining is in the shape of a cloud: trolls bully a middle schooler in another state into suicide; scams and malware trip across continents; seeds of hatred find fertile soil.
The Internet is also the biggest mob of all time. Split it into a dozen or a hundred wildly different factions, and each still dwarfs the slaves of Rome or the peasantry of 18th-century France. More than enough, in other words, to take up a cause.
What this ensures is that no matter what position you take, however enlightened, ignorant, hurtful, helpful, or anything else, there are a million people ready to side with you and just as many taking dead aim.
Life in a glass house
Consider too that your life is public; you have made it public, and it has been made public for you. Some things remain sacred by default: your vote, for instance, or the thoughts that only you know, or the words you write in your journal before you go to bed. Sharing these is left to your discretion.
But that is not the case for other things. Your appearance and position in the world are not something you may choose whether you disclose; when you step outside, you have surrendered both. And when you exercise your right to free speech, you are by definition making that speech publicly — if it wasn’t public, how could anyone prevent you from speaking?.
Another thing you cannot fail to disclose is your ethics. Like Hugo’s guillotine, an ethical question “does not permit you to be neutral.” You cannot fail to answer, because that is what defines an ethical choice: to do one thing or another. To remain silent on an ethical question is a show of civic cowardice, a choice which must be scorned.
So when it comes to an issue that is both political and ethical, the Internet has raised the stakes higher than ever. It’s a simple equation: your ethics must be spoken, your political speech must be public, and your public speech may be seen, judged, and responded to by countless people. If you want your ideas to be heard by as many people as possible, you’re in luck. If you want your ideas to be known by as few people as possible, I’m sorry, but you are living in the wrong era.
On the other hand, to speak out on an issue in today’s broadcast culture is often to take part in a movement larger (in headcount, at least) than many of those famous in history for their size and effectiveness. Slacktivism may not be particularly inspiring, but you can’t beat it for scale.
Yet it’s scale that has given rise over the last week or so (this Mozilla business) to some interesting allegations. “Lynch mob,” I believe, was a common reference. Leaving aside the irony of this outrageous perversion of that phrase, I find it interesting that Internet protests, almost universally a laughing stock for years now, have suddenly been determined to be deadly effective. When millions tweeted, phoned their representatives, and signed petitions a few weeks back for “The Day We Fight Back,” everyone seemed convinced that such armchair activism was pure folly! But now a man has been “bullied” out of his job by people doing the same thing. Which is it, effective or ineffective?
As this is not an ethical question, we may land somewhere in the middle. When the tools of nonviolent resistance — boycotts, public speech, civil disobedience — overlap with the domain in which they are applied, they are effective. Gandhi could never have tweeted up a free India. But when it comes to a web-native company that offers its most valuable services online, what better form of nonviolent resistance is there than speaking out online, showing your numbers online, boycotting the company online, making those who support the offender unwelcome online? Call it The Million Man Ban. (As this is was an issue of civil rights, I think this play on the original is permissible; otherwise, I should not have attempted it.)
Your speech is free. But to speak is to invite response — and many will answer the call. More than ever, in fact, which is as heartening in one case as it is daunting in another. Combine this with the fact that many things we once considered private are simply no longer so, and it’s clear that your civic courage is sure to be tried before long.
The web is a global democracy like the democracies of old: the voice of one person may be heard by all, and on any issue. It may be exhorted, protested, denied, or prosecuted, but it will never be silenced. Just don’t expect the billions you’re addressing to be silent, either.