An Open Letter to Elon Musk

Dear Mr. Musk:

News of your purchase of Twitter has elicited numerous reactions, both positive and negative. I am responding positively, with some qualifications.

I applaud your commitment to foster “free speech” that will give voice to the expression of any belief about any contentious issue. My applause is prompted by a very painful experience I had a number of years ago when a great injustice was done to me and I was silenced. No one wanted to hear my side of the story. No one should be silenced in a conversation about anything.

I also wish to applaud your assertion that “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” and your aspiration that Twitter become “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” I wish to take you at your word. Therefore, at the end of this letter, I will reflect on what may be required to make this assertion reality.

But I would first like to think along with you about the viability of being a “free speech absolutist,” a claim that you have made. My starting point is for us to reflect on the very familiar question of whether someone should be “free” to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. I am not asking if that is “legal.” I am asking if that is “morally acceptable.”

Now, if your answer to my question is that anyone should be “free” to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, then you may indeed be a “free speech absolutist,” and you can stop reading this letter, since you will find little that could be helpful.

But, if your answer is that no one should be “free” to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, then you are not a “free speech absolutist,” since you believe that it is acceptable to place some kind of restraint on free speech.

Of course, once one admits to the need for some kind of restraint on “free speech,” there will be strong disagreements as to the nature of such restraints. Assuming you do accept the need for some kind of restraint on “free speech,” which could become operative when you start running Twitter, I will now suggest that you consider three restraints that have been proposed by Dr. Mark Douglas, professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

  • Where speech is used to incite, encourage, or valorize violence, it can be restricted or prohibited.
  • Where speech is used to end conversations, to silence critics, to shout down unpopular positions, to harm through deception, or to reject the diversity of voices, it can be restricted or prohibited.
  • Where speech is used to categorize people, to generalize and then demean people, to reject and then dehumanize people, it can be restricted or prohibited.

Although these three criteria have been proposed by someone who is committed to the Christian faith, I suggest that they are “universal” criteria, since they reflect a commitment to human dignity. The use of these criteria would seem to fit well with your stated desire to make Twittter a vehicle for “authenticating all humans.”

If you establish some methodology for content moderation that will screen out what you consider to be inappropriate postings for Twitter, I recommend that you consider using these three criteria and that you publish these criteria for all Twitter readers to see. Of course, if you do so, you will be roundly criticized for “censorship.” So be it! A commitment to preserving human dignity trumps any such censorship concerns.

My second area of reflection flows from my hearing one TV political pundit express hope that Twitter, under your leadership, will not tolerate “hate speech and disinformation.” It is my hope that using these three criteria will eliminate hate speech. But it will not eliminate disinformation (or misinformation). Let me explain.

I believe that a good statement of purpose for your rendition of Twitter would be “To Seek After Truth.” Such a purpose statement will lead to much scoffing by those many in our culture who believe that there is no such thing as “truth.” So be it!

But, proceeding with that purpose statement, each Twitter user is a finite and fallible human being who, on the basis of his/her social location, “personal story” and “particularities” (e.g., race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation), may have a partial glimpse of the “truth” about the issue under consideration. Twitter should then be a vehicle for users to have the freedom to express their respective understandings of the “truth” about the issue at hand; the hope being that a respectful conversation, within the bounds of the three restraints previously proposed, will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the “truth” of the matter.

If that is how you can get Twitter to work, then you will be posting some beliefs about the issue at hand that are simply “untrue.” In other words, you will be posting “misinformation.” That is to be expected. That is just the inherent nature of “getting all beliefs out on the table” so that conversation can, hopefully, uncover some common ground as to the “truth” of the matter.

But what about “disinformation,” which is a type of “misinformation” that is created with the intention of being deliberatively deceptive. There is no way to screen that out, since one cannot uncover the “intentions” of those who choose to post on Twitter. So, it is inevitable that some “disinformation” will continue to be propagated during your rendition of Twitter. However, if the three criteria proposed above are operative, I believe that the posting of “disinformation” will be minimal.

The above few paragraphs provide a context for me to conclude with reflections on your stated desire to make “free speech the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” with Twitter becoming a site where “matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

That laudable stated goal is certainly not operative in any social media platform that I know of, including renditions of Twitter to date. My past experience, primarily with Facebook, is that social media platforms have succumbed to the “addiction to speed” in our culture and the desire to present simple answers to complex problems. This presents a problem if limitations are placed on the number of characters for a given posting (280 for Twitter postings). What results from such limitations is that postings too often become vitriolic venting or an expression of a dogmatic belief about a particular issue without acknowledging the possibility that the person submitting the post may be “wrong” and could benefit from an authentic conversation with someone who disagrees.

Your stated desire to promote a functioning democracy and to debate matters vital to the future of humanity will be impossible to achieve if the vehicle for “free speech” that you shape does not allow for authentic conversations among those who disagree about the “truth” regarding the matter at hand. For a democracy to thrive, there must be conversations about competing ideas.

I agree that some limits need to be placed on the tendency to be verbose, especially on the part of scholars. But if you want to see your stated desire realized, you need to relax your stringent limits on the number of characters for a posting for at least one segment of your Twitter operation.

I wish you well as you seek to promote “free speech” on Twitter; hopefully taking into account the qualifications I have expressed above.

Sincerely,

Harold Heie

ADDENDUM: I point readers of this website to two resources for elaboration on the three restraints on free speech proposed by Mark Douglas. The first is chapter 3 (Are There Limits to Civil Discourse and Free Speech?) in my book Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation. Canton, MI: Front edge Publishing, 2019, 58-97. The second is the online conversation (eCircle) on this topic that I hosted on this website, which can be accesses under the menu item “Reforming Political Discourse” under the “Previous” icon. Under “Topic #11, you will find three essays from Mark Douglas as part of a conversation with Tony Carnes, Editor and Publisher of A Journey Through NYC Religions, the first of which (Starting Points) contains his argument for the three restraints presented above.

 

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