digital rhetoric

speech: the good, the free, the more, and the chatbot

The University at Buffalo has been in the news (and social media) over an upcoming event involving a controversial speaker invited by a conservative student group on campus. I’m not here to discuss the particulars of this case or how to respond to it. I’m sure Google can help you learn more. My interest is the in underlying principles.

Specifically, UB explains that as a public university it cannot legally stop a student group from inviting a controversial speaker except in very narrow circumstances. As the ACLU would explain it, one of the principles of free speech is that more speech is good speech. So they defend the rights of Nazis to march in Illinois. The public can see them and hear them and form their own opinions (as the Blues Brothers do). The best way to deal with bad ideas in a democracy is to expose them to public debate. Repressing or silencing speech will only lead to further problems.

It is a rational, Enlightenment concept of public speech. It fundamentally relies upon the principle that the public will make rational decisions through debate. That happens sometimes. In my experience it tends to work best in conditions that most approximate the 19th century: small groups of people who live/work with one another. “More speech is good speech” wouldn’t seem to apply to propaganda. It wouldn’t seem to apply to online conspiracy theories and fake news like Qanon. And it is increasingly difficult to separate an in-person event from an online event given mobile social media. An event like the one at UB doesn’t just happen on campus. It happens online. In fact it is already happening online even though the actual event isn’t until tomorrow. As Godwin’s Law more broadly implies, the more social media speech there is, the more likely it will tend toward the extremist views and antagonism among the participants that leads to someone being compared to Hitler.

In looking at online conversations it would be fair to ask of this adage exactly how much more speech do we need before it starts becoming “good”?

And now we have to add chatbots into the equation. Chatbots are capable of producing a tremendous amount of text that is not easily distinguished from “human-authored” speech. We can argue that’s not “speech.” That’s semantics. But it’s not an argument that changes much in our experience of media. Setting aside any technological solutions to making chatbots better (which of course we should try to do), inevitably the result of chatbots is that there will be more speech, quite likely orders of magnitude of more speech.

At that rate surely we’ll be getting to good speech any day now.

More likely we need to rethink the role that rhetoric plays in public life. In my view, we are discussing a fundamental ideological-ontological error. Our society is based upon an implicit notion that we must be free to “speak our mind,” but that’s just an inaccurate model of rhetorical practice. And there are a lot of ways to account for why that’s the case, but our public discourse is surely coming apart at the seams under this outdated notion. I’m not saying I have a solution, but I do have a way of investigating what is happening when we say that we are speaking our minds.

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