Hello, religious beliefs.
Back in the olden days, when the internet was still new, the finest minds in Silicon Valley had a collective brainwave: Social media.
Part chat-room, part photo gallery, all novelty; who could have predicted this harmless new medium would eventually become such a major bone of contention for the powerful and influential.
We should have guessed it: With humanity, everything’s an arms race.
Who is allowed to say what; what messages are allowed to propagate and which ones are shadow banned; who’s got a billion followers and who needs to delete their account: The newest powerbrokers in American society are, unexpectedly, the people choosing who gets to sit at the cool table in the school cafeteria lunchroom.
They should needlepoint it onto a pillow at Twitter headquarters: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, please say it in 280 characters or less.”
“I thought once people could freely express their ideas, the world would automatically become a better place,” one idealistic Twitter founder wistfully told the New York Times some years ago, Dr. Frankenstein lamenting the destruction wrought by his hideous creation: “I was wrong about that.”
Any ER medical professional, beat cop, or social worker could have given the cloistered, upper-class computer programmers and coders of Silicon Valley the truth about humanity long before Apple was a gleam in the eye of Steve Jobs.
Human beings can be truly terrible; and not just the terrible ones, either.
Call it man’s inhumanity to man. Call it our 10,000 year arms race. Think what human beings do to the environment and other animals is bad? Consider what we do to each other.
With the rise of social media, we’ve all become a bit like hardened beat cops: We’ve seen what some people are really like, we’ve met our anathemas, our bete noirs, our moral and ethical antitheses. It’s all been a bit horrifying to be honest.
“To know all is to forgive all,” opined Aristotle, but he too was wrong about social media: We haven’t found more people to love and more reasons to love them in the Information Age; we’ve found more people to despise and more reasons to detest them.
We’ve discovered normal people from every walk of life- even our neighbors, co-workers, our nearest and dearest- believe all sorts of things we don’t happen to agree with. They even believe things we believe to be untrue, disgusting, even potentially dangerous and vice versa.
Having these age-old disagreements about who is allowed to speak in public and on what topics in the age of social media is proving a special kind of challenge. There are in modern society, as there have been since the beginning, some people who want other people to go away and shut up.
Religious beliefs, always a bitter bone of contention, were bound to show up sooner or later in this debate. Religion is the elephant in any room where the censorship of “dangerous” speech is being discussed.
An inescapable fact remains: Some people believe the world was created by a godlike deity, some don’t, and both groups have been willing to kill and be killed for the right to believe as they do throughout recorded history to this very day.
The persecution of religious minorities continues around the world apace. Such has existed probably as long as religion itself.
But human society isn’t anywhere near as simple as good versus evil. That comforting false dichotomy is Oliver Stone’s over-simplified version of history; a nice, neat, narrative with a satisfying ending, a clear beginning, and an obvious protagonist fighting the Big Bad.
Two people, with otherwise very much in common, can consider a moral question carefully and come to two completely different answers, neither of them evil.
During jury selection for a drunk-driving trial several years ago, two potential jurors were both dismissed for expressing biased sentiments with regards to the charges as follows:
“My brother was sent to jail for drunk driving,” said the first potential juror when asked about any prejudices pertaining to the case. “It ruined his life. He was 18; he needed treatment, not punishment.”
“My brother was sent to jail for drunk driving,” said the second potential juror, only moments later. “It was the best thing that ever happened to him: He stopped drinking.”
Who is right?
It’s a question with a hundred answers, a thousand. Right according to whom? Right according to which moral values system?
“Right” as in, “What’s best for the individual in question?” or; “Right” as in, “What’s best for society?”
“Right” according to the law?
It gets pretty sticky.
The question isn’t who 330 million people would trust to make perfect, unerring distinctions between right and wrong, truth and lies, gospel and heresy. The question is if 330 million people could ever trust any one person, company, industry, or even religious authority to make such a judgement.
And the answer, unfortunately for the censorious, is no.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)