Media Ecological Perspective on Free Speech

Rhetoric in oral cultures tends to be, in Walter Ong’s phrasing, “agonistically toned.” Ong noted that speech in oral societies was more like an event or action than it was a label or sign. Words did things (curses, blessings, incantations, etc.), and irrevocably so.

This was so, in part, because speech in oral societies was uttered in the dynamic and always potentially fraught context of face-to-face encounters. The audience in oral societies is always present and visible. It is literally an audience, it hears you. Writing, by contrast, creates the possibility of addressing an audience that is neither visible nor present. The audience becomes an abstraction. Cool detachment can prevail in writing because there is no one to immediately challenge you.

It was also so because in oral societies one couldn’t conceive of a word visually, as a thing; it was an auditory event. In literate societies one can’t help but conceive of a word as a thing. As Ong says at one point, a literate person inevitably thinks of the image of letters when he thinks about a word. (Try it for yourself: close your eyes and think of a word, not the thing that word represents but of the word itself.) This thing-like quality is reinforced by the fixity of print. A word conceived of as an inert thing can also be conceived of as a harmless thing, its there, lifeless, on the page. Words conceived of as an active, dynamic force will not so easily be experienced as harmless in themselves.

A maximalist doctrine of freedom of speech, then, may be most plausible when speech is imagined primarily as inert words-as-things. It is not surprising then that freedom of speech is historically correlated with the appearance of print.

The psychodynamics of digital media, however, are more akin to those of orality than literacy.

Discourse on digital media platforms, from comment boxes to social media, is infamously combative. On digital platforms, words takes on a more active quality. They can no longer be imagined as inert and lifeless things.

This is so, in part, because digital media reintegrates the word into a dynamic situation. The audience in digital media is not always visible, but it can be present with a degree of immediacy that is more like a face-to-face encounter than writing or print. Moreover, the pixelated word is more ephemeral and less-thing like than the printed word. It is both more ephemeral and more likely to initiate action.

Digital media, thus, reanimates the inert printed word, and the living word is experienced as both more powerful and more dangerous.

Under these circumstances a maximalist account of freedom of speech loses a measure of plausibility; it loses its status as a taken for granted and unalloyed good.

4 thoughts on “Media Ecological Perspective on Free Speech

  1. good post.. To what degree do people take more seriously oral/audible news via TV, youtube, radio and podcast, than they take written news on paper and digital words?

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