Social Media’s Sad Passions

Social Media’s Sad Passions

The more acceptable it is to denounce people because of their speech, the more likely it is that it will eventually happen to you.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This article is one in a series of arguments on free speech in our summer issue.


Because of our religious reverence for the U.S. Constitution, Americans often take it for granted that free speech is good in and of itself. But the original arguments for free speech had to explain why it was good.

In his 1644 Areopagitica, John Milton argued that bad speech, unlike bad meat, wasn’t inherently harmful and could even be useful: “Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”

Bad meat, in other words, will give you a stomachache, but bad books are different. By giving us the opportunity to refute falsehoods, they help us pursue the truth.

As the Milton scholar Stanley Fish has pointed out, Milton wasn’t entirely consistent. “After having celebrated the virtues of toleration and unregulated publication in passages that find their way into every discussion of free speech and the First Amendment,” Fish wrote, “Milton catches himself up short and says, of course I didn’t mean Catholics.” Catholicism, Milton argued, is suppressive of speech, so it should itself be suppressed.

For Fish, this isn’t just Milton’s inconsistency. All arguments for free speech depend on an “exception,” because “without restriction, without an inbuilt sense of what it would be meaningless to say or wrong to say, there could be no assertion and no reason for asserting it.”

These restrictions mean there’s no such thing as free speech: there are only the norms, conventions, and institutions that determine whether speech is intelligible and acceptable. From Fish’s perspective, we’re always regulating speech to meet the goals of our institutions—newspapers prohibit journalists from making up sources, for example, and courtrooms prohibit people from threatening witnesses—so it isn’t a question of whether to restrict speech, but how much speech we’re going to restrict.

What’s missing from this skeptical argument is that we might not agree with existing norms and conventions, to the point of demanding radical institutional change. In that case it’s likely that existing institutions will deem our speech unintelligible and unacceptable, and when that institution is the state, it can back its judgment up with armed force. For anyone who advocates a different kind of society, limiting state control by opposing censorship and defending civil liberties is a matter of survival. If you need the First Amendment to stay out of jail, it’s not the time for a close reading of Milton.

But most debates about free speech today aren’t about the state. They’re about cultures of conformism and orthodoxy, and social practices of denouncing and ostracizing people whose speech has violated an unwritten moral code.

Anyone who thinks these are just right-wing talking points is ignoring our history. Conformism and orthodoxy, denunciation and ostracism, have appeared with disheartening frequency on the left, and they’ve prevented people from proposing new ideas about how to build a different kind of society. In one of her reflections on 1960s social movements, feminist scholar Jo Freeman called this “trashing”: a “vicious form of character assassination,” through denunciations, insults, and rumors, which made people feel worthless and isolated. “Trashing,” Freeman pointed out, “is not only destructive to the individuals involved, but serves as a very powerful tool of social control.”

Our political discourse—focused as it is on free speech—doesn’t give us a good framework for understanding trashing, because these are informal cultural and social practices rather than state repression. We won’t be able to counteract them by more loudly demanding formal legal rights we already enjoy.

When people invoke classical liberalism to criticize conformism and cancel culture, this is a non sequitur, because their actual claim is that one kind of speech—trashing—is limiting their speech. Even people who advocate restrictions on hate speech usually end up arguing that it limits the speech of the people it harms. It’s an endless argument about good and bad speech, subjectively determined by whoever happens to be speaking.

This doesn’t mean that all we can ever do is make relativist claims about whose speech is better. Arguments for free speech began with the pursuit of truth: an open-ended inquiry into the greater social good and the just society. We have to pose those questions again and judge which answers are true and which are false. To do so, we have to be able to speak freely. Milton explained why: our eyes are “bleared and dimmed by prejudice and custom”; at first glance, the truth will appear “more unsightly and unplausible than many errors.”

Does today’s culture of trashing represent a regression to prejudice and custom? To answer this question, we can turn to Spinoza, whose Theological-Political Treatise was the most influential and anomalous Enlightenment argument for free speech.

Spinoza explained that people are susceptible to superstition because they’re governed by the “sad passions”—fear, hate, envy, shame—that we experience when our powers of acting are diminished. To explain how this happens, Gilles Deleuze extracted a different gastronomical argument from Spinoza’s letters: Superstition leads us to believe that something is evil because God prohibited it, like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But the people who wrote the Bible just used this story to show us that some foods are poisonous. Things are good and bad not because of some heavenly morality, but because they either increase our powers, like nourishing foods, or cause sickness and indigestion, like poisons.

Spinoza’s metaphor allows us to modify Milton’s comparison of speech and meat. Good speech allows us to increase our collective powers. But just as bad food wrecks our stomachs, bad speech causes us to hate each other, to destroy ourselves with guilt and others with resentment.

Spinoza couldn’t have anticipated that human beings would invent technologies for generating sad passions. Social media disseminates superstition at a speed and scale unimaginable in the world of the printing press and facilitates decentralized yet relentless forms of persecution.

Some people will reply that it’s an overreaction to call online denunciation campaigns persecution, because they’re actually empowering for marginalized people. But such denunciations can be made by anybody and about anybody, and when they take the form of trashing, they have universally destructive social and psychological consequences: the more acceptable it is to denounce people because of their speech, the more likely it is that it will eventually happen to you. And it becomes much less likely that anyone, especially the marginalized people these campaigns supposedly defend, will be willing to express new ideas, because they know they might get trashed.

While we have to prevent the capitalist state and private monopolies from controlling our speech, we also have to confront a seemingly infinite proliferation of bad speech. What happens if our prevailing forms of speech prevent us from speaking freely, because they fill us with fear and suspicion? What happens if we get stuck in disempowering speech that causes us to hate and mistrust each other? In other words: what happens when you eat too much bad meat? We can’t achieve a good society without good speech—without free and open discussion that increases our collective power.

Asad Haider is a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine and the author of Mistaken Identity. His writing can be found in the Baffler, n+1, the Point, Salon, and elsewhere.