reedom of speech and freedom of the press are tricky concepts. In absolute terms they refer to the right to speak out in public unfettered. In social terms their meaning was once filtered through such phrases as “All the news that’s fit to print” — the motto of The New York Times — with “fitness” framing the difference between what one can say and what one should say, as well as recommending tone and gradation.
Verbal framing was a constant if inconsistent process in the rough early decades of 20th-century communications. Mediators intervened between events and their portrayal to filter tone and emotion. Emotional restraint was gradually sewn into the tissue of broadsheet newspapers to put adult detachment ahead of adolescent finger pointing. Hyperbole was the mined by the so-called tabloid press, and “message” radio, both eager to profit from emotionalism. Badgering evangelists — so called Holy Rollers — prowled the radio waves of the gullible American 1920s and 30s, while tabloids embroidered sensational crime and upped the ante of scandals.
Yet even sensationalism submitted to adult responsibility. Populism was loud but rarely crude. Casual personal insults were few since public slander carried consequences. Even extremism sought not to sound childish. Rhetoric and hyperbole remained in the keep of editors and publishers eager to enrage and provoke without lapsing into slur.
In less than a decade of existence Twitter — a champion of unfiltered speech — has mostly undone this century-old protocol, something its passionate defenders insist was a long time coming and works in favor of the true goals of freedom of speech and expression.
“Direct speech” journalism is by definition raw and without any organizational or gate-keeping dimension. People communicate as they feel, and most immediacy is a kind of sobbing that is both passionate and childish. Twitter and text messaging also emphasize brevity, which wordy restraint slows.
But this new directness has also had the unintended consequence of encouraging all communicators to renter the youthful den of easy insults and quick judgment that the passage from adolescence into adulthood was specifically engineered to blunt in both work and play. Restraint was considered a vital social imposition whose absence might make unthinking outbursts into a customary occurrence and thus erode the sensibility on which civics rests.
Free expression without an adult compass is an inch removed from a brawling realm of babble that proudly objects to “fit to print” manacles. The Twitter holocaust is a predictable stream of nearly contemporaneous insults and apologies as well as a constant venue for “crying wolf”-style false alarms once seen as both childish and punishable.
The reckless utterances of otherwise intelligent men and women can be ruinous to behold. A middle-aged American sports journalist recently posted a typically rude Tweet only to apologize later for “stupid and childish” behavior. This systematic daily flow of offensive and attention-getting attention remarks followed by contrition cheapens contrition itself and encourages an alarming pattern of adults mimicking children.
The social mechanisms created to govern adult restraint were not intended to bar truth but to reduce such childish irresponsibility. The civics behind that governance arose from the many propaganda monstrosities of the 1930s and the war into which they fed. Passionate hatred was ostracized to keep ideological demagoguery at bay.
Twitter has bypassed this by pioneering individual demagoguery as a form of definitive personal democracy. But it is democracy ironically stripped of applied decency, since decency arises from restraint and restraint from shame.
We have entered an unfiltered or non-filtered realm, “immediate, graspable and gigantically gripping,” as author Philip Roth puts it, a shameless online cabaret of showing, telling and often accusing. It is a show and tell stuck in the hormonal prime of youth with adults now issuing as they would at age 12, sensitive only to selfish act of sudden self-promotion at any cost, which they may or may not regret.
Slowly but surely, a childish blurting is coming to dominate what people say, defended by free speech norms while not remotely in their spirit. Communication increasingly does without restraint, the verbal gallantry of adult self-censorship now not only cut adrift but also forgotten.