Monday, February 24, 2003

The Right to be Heard?

Commonly heard from creationists: "We don't want to harm science education! We just want our science given 'equal time' with evolution. Stop censoring us!"

From school prayerists: "You people just want to stifle our freedom of speech by telling our kids that they are not ALLOWED to pray."

Welcome to the information age, where "freedom of speech" has taken on whole new dimensions. It wasn't until recently that these people started angling for the free speech sympathy ploy.

The internet has created a whole new way to express ourselves. Anybody, ANYBODY can create a web site, contribute to a message board, or spam 20 million people at a piddling cost and with almost no effort at all.

But we're still getting used to this new power, and lots of people are still very unclear on the concept. They believe that since they have the ability and the right to say anything to anyone, that also translates into the right to make people listen.

So people will sign up for a special interest group and demand that you read and discuss their 200 page thesis. They'll send ads by the millions for viagra, mortgage rates, shady "business opportunities", and porn to people who have no interest in any of the above. And they'll scream "censorship!" at any hint of criticism.

Meanwhile, in the offline world, creationists have had to subtly switch their tactics from "Only the Christian creation myth may be taught" to "Don't you want to be open minded about what you teach?" The school prayer advocates have tried to reframe the debate into saying "Well, don't we have the RIGHT to pray wherever we want to?" Judge Roy Moore is fighting a campaign against imaginary oppression, acting like his right to free speech is being suppressed because he can't use his government position as a pulpit to inflict his biblical puritanism on everyone who walks through his court doors.

I think that spammers and religious "free speech" advocates share the same misconception. They both think that their right to free speech is the same as their right to strap you to a chair and make you listen.

No one has that right. What newcomers to the internet age still have to understand is that with their new freedom comes an obligation to be interesting, compelling and polite. Nobody has to listen to anybody unless they are interesting. That's nothing new; it's always been the case that people who are arrogant, obnoxious, and downright rude will get you disliked and ignored by most people. But people think those rules of etiquette have been, or should be, thrown away so they can use their power of expression as a weapon.

Gentle reader, Mister Manners here can see right through it.