The end of free speech will not necessarily come when there are soldiers in the streets, secret police in the alleyways and a mustachioed man screaming at you on a television set that can't be turned off no matter how hard you turn the knob or click the buttons.
Some of these things certainly existed in totalitarian countries. But they were there to sweep up the hardened dissenters who refused to be silenced. The vast majority of citizens did not have bugged phones or men in trench-coats following them around.
That was what their friends and neighbors were for.
The first line of offense by a totalitarian society against freedom of speech is crowdsourced to the people in the streets. It begins with the imposition of a social norm, escalates to punishments for violating that norm and concludes with gulags and firing squads.
No secret police force is large enough to spy on everyone all the time. Nor does it need to. That is what informers are for. Some of the informers are committed fanatics. Others do it because they accept whatever they are told. And the worst do it for the pleasure of destroying someone else using the power of the law.
Whatever their varying motives, ideology or malice, such people become even more dangerous in groups where they become a morality mob.
The Two Minutes Hate in George Orwell's 1984 is repeated on a regular basis in our society today with hysterical lynchings like those of of Justine Sacco; one of a long list of disposable victims of opportunity. The Two Minutes Hate was a Pavlovian exercise to stimulate the hate reflex. Modern counterparts like #hasjustinelandedyet with its overt malice are the genuine thing.
The process by which these ugly events happen has a good deal in common with any other form of mob violence. There are familiar elements from Shirley Jackson's disturbing story, "The Lottery". There is a ritual aspect to the whole thing. The crowd knows what is coming. Like many rapists and murderers, it derives pleasure from a victim who does not yet know what is about to happen and eagerly anticipates the moment of shocked revelation when that will change.
"When is Justine landing?" they whisper eagerly to each other. Sadism is no good if the victim doesn't know what is being done to her. The anticipation sharpens their appetite for the revelation.
Behind it all is a moral structure. The crowd in the Two Minutes Hate does not randomly lash out. The very name with its time limit is a demonstration of civilization. For two minutes they will become hateful animals in reaction to a profound ideological offense. And then they will turn the outrage machine off.
Anyone can be a mob, but they are a morality mob. They do horrible
things because the ends, such as fighting racism, justify the means.
They hate for two minutes and then go back to their daily lives.
Structure maintains the illusion of morality. Like The Lottery, it has to pretend that it isn't random so that the participants can make believe that they are doing this for some nobler reason than the primal joy of bashing another human being's head in with a rock.
Modern social media is The Lottery. You type things into it. You type them in when you're sober or drunk. When you're on top of the world or miserably depressed. You tweet and get retweeted. You like and are liked in turn. The sentiments you express move beyond your close circles of family and friends.
Each time you participate in the global mass of the internet, you are pulling a ticket out of the lottery. And even if you don't participate, a crazy lesbian waitress can tell the world that you refused to give her a tip, a former friend or lover can make your letter, stripped of context, go viral and what passes for reporters in the new media looking for pageviews can make you a target to fill a daily quota.
The Internet is going crazy for, the headlines on the same sites that create the frenzy say. The Internet is exploding. The Internet lashed out. The Internet lynched someone. But it's not the internet. It's the cowardly individuals in the morality mob hiding behind their collective malice in a hashtag who want to hurt someone from the physical and moral safety of the mob.
The morality mob is attracted to pettiness. It rarely takes on big things because it knows its own weakness. A morality mob is a bully without the courage and it needs easy targets that it knows it can hurt. It attacks individuals for minor social offenses. It targets them for perceived sins against their social consensus, but it is truly animated by the perception that its targets violate these norms because they are elitist, because they view themselves as special and above the rules that apply to everyone.
The modern internet morality mob began in China. A country that is not only Communist, but a place where sticking your head out is its own crime. The Chinese version of the Ugly Duckling story doesn't end with the duckling turning into a swan, but being eaten because he was only a foolish duck who had the ridiculous idea that he was a swan.
"It was just the latest example of a growing phenomenon the Chinese call Internet hunting, in which morality lessons are administered by online throngs and where anonymous Web users come together to investigate others and mete out punishment for offenses real and imagined." That is how the New York Times described it in 2006.
The phenomenon has since spread to America, but it predictably enough began in a collectivist society ruled by the iron hand of the Communist Party.
Totalitarianism relies on harnessing the darker emotions in the human catalog; fear, sadism, hate, contempt and the sense of power that derives from causing harm to another beneath the mask of the self-righteous inquistioner whose moral authority allows him to both inflict and enjoy the torment.
Beneath these responses is a deeper sense of helplessness and insecurity. The anonymous mass of society has become even more chokingly cramped and anonymous on the internet than in the biggest twentieth century cities. For some of the uglier faces in the crowd, the only way to feel real is to hurt someone. And their leftist ringleaders know exactly how the game is played.
The morality mobs on the internet are mostly of the left. That is because the left is better at organization and rhetoric. It also holds the commanding heights of social morality dictating what behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
Morality mobs crowdsource the left's values enforcement. While its activist groups concern themselves with Phil Robertson, its morality mobs band together to target ordinary people. The organized left can make examples out of famous people while the ad-hoc left can make examples out of ordinary people by making their morality mob lynchings go viral.
The left responded to criticism of its actions in the Phil Robertson case by arguing that they are not violating the First Amendment. And they aren't. Directly. Though indirectly their entire culture of activism and the promotion of their values is funded by the government. But free speech can be structurally suppressed without ever officially involving the authorities in the dirty work.
If the outcome is the end of free speech, then the details of how it got that way become academic. If instead of a top-down solution, the actual death of free speech involves a mid-level intervention by an oligarchy of media and new media outlets, activist groups and fearful businesses banding together to make free speech impossible while the authorities go on smiling and insisting that speech is still free; then the destination is the same. Only the road we took to get there will have changed.
The First Amendment was not just a legal safeguard against government abuses, but a statement that an open society is best. The letter of the law protects the people from government intervention, but the spirit of the law is an argument for an open society in which the freedom to worship, to speak and to protest against the government make all our freedoms possible.
The left aspires to a society in which dissent is suppressed. And a society without dissent is totalitarian whether it is ruled by the hateful mob of the Two Minutes Hate or by Big Brother.