What is the brutal truth about philosophy

Freedom always means the freedom to hurt others. In the age of social networks, it is being replaced by an ethic of gentle censorship

Our societies would no longer function without social networks, and are no longer conceivable without them. But how do they change our coexistence beyond hate speech in a quiet, barely noticeable way?

Like others, I love to sit in front of my PC and surf the net freely. It seems as if everything out there is at my free disposal. However, appearances are deceptive. We have long known (or should know): The network is subject to control. And those who control it also set the limits of my freedom.

The most brutal form of this control is of course direct exclusion. Individuals or entire media companies are being banned from social networks and are disappearing even from the old channels - just try once to get al-Jazeera on the TV screen of an American hotel!

No sensible explanations for the exile are given, mostly some technical problems are mentioned. While censorship is justified in exceptional cases (let's say: when it comes to calling for violence), it still remains problematic that the censorship is done in an opaque, i.e. incomprehensible manner. The minimum democratic standard here should be that such restrictions on freedom are made in a transparent manner and with a public justification. But even that doesn't always help - the reasons often remain ambiguous or obscure the real reasons.

From Russia to the USA

In Russia, for example, you can go to jail if you publish content that you reject yourself. Just think of the case of the kindergarten teacher Yevgenia Chudnovets, who was sentenced to six months in a penal colony for posting a 3-second video. It showed a small child who was nakedly abused by those responsible in a summer camp. The reason: You publicly distribute pictures of an underage child with sexual content.

Tschudnovets herself stated that she could not possibly have omitted the heinous incident. She wanted to indict - and she was right about that. It just didn't help. Because the real reason for their conviction may not have been to protect society from images of naked, abused children, but to conceal the child abuse that takes place in state institutions.

It could of course be said that such sham trials are only conceivable in authoritarian states like Putin's Russia. Not even close! It is enough to recall the first known case of media censorship, which was briefly discussed in September 2016. Facebook then decided to remove a historical photograph with a naked nine-year-old child. It was about the Vietnamese Kim Phuc, who is fleeing from a napalm attack - the picture is part of the collective memory.

After an outcry in public beyond the social networks, the picture was reactivated. Facebook's reasoning for why the picture was blocked first remains interesting: "While we recognize that photography is iconic, it is difficult to make a distinction and sometimes allow a photograph with a naked child and other times not."

Ethics of censorship

The effect of the posture is clear: a general neutral principle (the naked child) is evoked - the memory of the horror caused by the napalm bombs in Vietnam is censored. If we take this logic to extremes, it would also be possible to prohibit the films that were made immediately after the liberation of Auschwitz. Because what we see there is simply too terrible, we cannot expect that from anyone - the perfect reason to misrepresent history.

Facebook's reasoning makes perfect sense for the company: The social media giant doesn't want to offend anyone, and doesn't want to lose any friends or followers. In this way the medium in the free world is voluntarily transformed into a censorship agency that operates both subtly and efficiently.

However, this thinking has long spilled over from the digital world into the analog one. Not long ago, this is what happened to me. In my conferences I described the curious case of Bradley Barton from Ontario, Canada. In March 2016, the truck driver was acquitted of the murder of indigenous prostitute Cindy Gladue after initially found guilty in the first instance. The defense argued that the death was the unintended result of very rough sex that was mutually agreed - Gladue bled to death from a severe wound in her vaginal wall. The judgment contradicts our ethical feelings and caused a lot of fuss at the time.

I have been repeatedly harshly criticized for detailing this case. And the accusation directed against me was always the same: by describing the case, I would reproduce it, that is, symbolically repeat it and, to that extent, approve it - although I express my rejection, I would enable my listeners to satisfy their perverse lust.

The attacks on me very nicely show the politically correct need to protect people from any disturbing pictures and news. Like Yevgenia Chudnovets, I used to defend myself by pointing out that the best way to combat such crimes is by naming them. My argument went nowhere.

The freedom to hurt

In his introduction to Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote: If freedom means something, then it is the right (I would add: the duty) to tell people what they do not want to hear. And that is precisely the freedom that seems to me to be threatened more than ever - and paradoxically, the threat comes from the social networks, the forces that once promised great freedom of expression.

We are trapped in the ongoing digitization of our lives. Most of our activities (and passivities) are registered in some digital cloud, which constantly evaluates us by tracking not only our actions but also our emotional states. If we continue to perceive ourselves as free (and surf the web where the whole world seems available), we are completely alienating ourselves and are being subtly manipulated. In other words, the digital network gives the good old slogan “The private is political” a completely new meaning.

It is not just our intimate life that is at stake. Everything is controlled by digital networks, from transport to health, from electricity to water supply. That is why the web is our most important commons today, and the struggle for the web today is the ultimate struggle. Two parties face each other: on the one hand the users and citizens, on the other hand a combination of private, quasi-monopoly companies such as Facebook and Google and state actors such as governments and security services.

The digital network, which ensures the functionality of our society as well as its control, is the greatest power factor today. Censorship is taking hold, the private is dissolving, secrets become mere memories, the individual as we have known it up to now disappears. Except - we don't let ourselves be lulled. In this respect, we should be happy about every data theft, every data scandal, every hacker attack. Wikileaks was just the beginning - let a hundred Wikileaks bloom!

Slavoj Žižek is one of the well-known philosophers of the present. - Translated from English by rs.