Dissecting that silly XKCD strip on free speech.


If you have been onto the internet in any comment section with inflammatory discussions, there’s a considerable chance that at some point your path might have crossed with a particular comic strip, from the often intelligent, always pretentious, poorly drawn XKCD webcomic. This little gem:

source: https://xkcd.com/1357/

You might be one of those who ask “Well, what’s wrong with that?” if so, this short article might be for you. I’ll try to explain why I consider this strip silly and how it makes people that use it as an argument and a reaction seem ignorant.

“Public service announcement: The right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say”

First square claims a particularly small definition of free speech, this is the place where the rest of the comic follows from and it’s already fishy. A definition that by most dictionaries would be wrong, and unuseful on its own. Let’s see what Merriam-Webster has to say about it:

Definition of freedom of speech
: the legal right to express one’s opinions freely
Law Dictionary
Freedom of speech

: the right to express information, ideas, and opinions free of government restrictions based on content and subject only to reasonable limitations (as the power of the government to avoid a clear and present danger) especially as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution — see also free speech — compare censorship, prior restraint

source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/freedom%20of%20speech

First of all, notice how “government restriction” becomes “government can’t arrest you”. We can assume this is just a dramatic exaggeration for the purpose of comedy, some artistic liberty to deliver a punchline, but that doesn’t make the definition correct.

By XKCD definition, government could restrict your problem speech in several ways and still not breaching your rights, which is wrong.

“It doesn’t mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it”

There are few cases where this comic would actually make sense: When replying to a person that believes certain party, for example, a private business owner, should behave like government and shouldn’t be able to simply show people out of his property. However, there are many times where this comic is used as a reply when talking about government funded organizations. Other times arguments like the comic’s is used when talking about censorship.

Definition of censorship
1a : the institution, system, or practice of censoring They oppose government censorship.
1b : the actions or practices of censors; especially : censorial control exercised repressively censorship that has … permitted a very limited dispersion of facts — Philip Wylie
2: the office, power, or term of a Roman censor
3: exclusion from consciousness by the psychic censor

source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/censorship

While there’s still strong emphasis on government censorship in the examples, breaches of freedom of speech do not necessarily require government action to happen. A company with too much power, a group powerful enough to impose itself whether they’re right or wrong, or simply threats and intimidation are enough to practice censorship. Some of those might not be illegal, but that still doesn’t make them non-censorship. When talking about censorship, sometimes people tend to go to “first amendment doesn’t cover that” as if that was the subject of the conversation, or as if someone implied that all censorship was illegal.

“The 1st amendment doesn’t shield you from criticism or consequences”

Let’s start with this: Harassment, Intimidation and violence are not good “consequences”, and are probably most of the time actually illegal.

While criticism ( for example, explaining publicly the faults of some speaker, some article, some product, etcetera) and consequences (being fired because of allegations about your character thanks to the things you said) are perfectly legal, people engaging in “criticism and consequences” are equally not shielded by the first amendment.

It is not as if criticism is the end of it. When you perform your feminist diatribe calling out the harmful stereotypes of the patriarchy embedded in some piece of entertainment, you and your claims are subject to criticism. Basically, there’s no right to “having the last word”. And your critics can be further criticized, and those who criticized them too… and so on.

When you fire someone that said something “problematic” (a.k.a. an obstacle to your ideological objectives) It’s perfectly reasonable that you and your company, publication, group is fired too (a boycott to starve you out, people contacting your advertisers, etc).

Both, would be acts of censorship, a label that you might not want in the first place, because you know censors are subject to consequences, try to not be the one that starts it.

American Civil Liberties Union speaks about this matter in an enlightening manner:

“[…]when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period. But these private censorship campaigns are best countered by groups and individuals speaking out and organizing in defense of the threatened expression.[…]” (emphasis mine)

source: https://www.aclu.org/other/what-censorship

This comic, often comes as a counter against people complaining about censorship. It is used with the intent of painting them as loonies, misrepresenting the argument people complaining as if they are talking about the government.

“If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated”

This is true, none of those things are a matter of free speech, at least not legally. However, what happens when you’re boycotted because someone libeled you? Or, how about when someone abuses their own power on an internet community to eject you on the basis of false claims, tarnishing your reputation?

Indeed, being heckled, boycotted, having your show cancelled doesn’t mean that the state has punished you for your speech. But is that not something to complain about? The people using this comic as a reply pretend that some people can punish you for your thoughts and you’re not supposed to say a word. They are deliberately misrepresenting your words, when you are just responding in kind. It is not mysterious that those who would resort to censorship fear that their arguments cannot withstand criticism, which would undermine their authority within their community.

“It’s just that the people listening think you’re an asshole,”

And this might be true. But, what happens when not everyone thinks you’re an asshole. Should that people be subject to this intellectual purge too?
What happens if there’s more people thinking you’re not an asshole than people thinking you’re?
What happens if the people hosting an event don’t think you should be ejected? Should they be subject to punishment too?

“And they’re showing you the door.”

This article point is not to say that XKCD is bad, or that the comic on its own shouldn’t exist. This article is rather meant for people that love to use this comic strip as a reaction image, a reply, a counter to claims of censorship. I can imagine how some people would love an easy argument for them to copy paste and instantly think they’re entitled to feel right, that the censorship THEY support is right. And well, they might be right, and that comic has that right level of snark to be infuriating, and the right level of misrepresentation, enough to derail conversations where the censors could be finally identified for what they’re.

I know this will fall on deaf ears, I know that right now you’ll blind yourself, however I still feel it’s my duty to explain to you this, again, as several others have probably done again and again.

One day, someone will silence [something or someone you hold dear], and you will complain. You will not like it. You’ll think it’s unfair. You’ll think the accusations being levied against [your important subject] will be preposterous. You’ll think that there’s space to discuss the validity of [your inflammatory subject].

All your appeals will be misrepresented. You’ll be a literal Nazi, a toxic individual, a problematic actor. Someone will say that you’re a harasser, or that it’s simply not about what YOU think.

At that time, you’ll be the one being shown the door. You’ll be scorned and not allowed to complain. Sometimes even pressured to say you’re sorry for [something you didn’t do]. The normalization of the bullying behavior you supported now, will facilitate your future censors.

edit: some grammar corrections.


Written by


GameDev, Freedom of expression pursuer, Artist and Romantic soul.

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