Perhaps more than any other rights afforded to US citizens, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is broadly regarded in the public imagination as an axiom synonymous with the very definition of democracy. However, as the excerpted scene from the sitcom Parks and Recreation demonstrates, free speech is also a right that tends to destabilize the democratic process. This criticism is certainly not new. As Foucault observed of the ancient Greek word parrhesia, or fearless/frank speech, the ability to speak truthfully without reserve is not always a net positive act. Instead, he offers an example of the problems of speaking freely in the citizens of Plato’s Republic who enjoy the right to say anything, “even the most stupid or dangerous things for the city.” While the character of Mel certainly does not speak in a way construed as dangerous, his heckling of 5-year-old girls over their lack of athletic or technical ability in basketball is certainly thoughtless and surely does little to engage the public in any kind of meaningful dialogue.
This scene in particular directed my attention to how one’s sense of place enables or encourages directionless free speech. However, unlike the physical town hall and meeting rooms in Parks and Recreation, the modes of online communication offer an especially variegated range of forums to use, in Foucault’s terms, “bad” parrhesia. Specifically, I look to one of the more primitive forms of online communication in Internet Relay Chats [IRC] as an example of how the perception of (digital) place serves to maintain a culture of speech that is deliberately insulting, offensive, irrelevant, obnoxious, and every so often, dangerous. As seen in the second clip, a number of games have built-in IRC client software that allows players to converse in real time. As any gamer knows intuitively, most conversations between competing players tend to flow in one direction: in making fun at someone else’s expense. In this video, AceShooter is practicing the longstanding tradition of trolling, or to cause irritation or emotional distress through sustained taunting. While in most settings AceShooter’s behavior would be considered unacceptable, here it is normalized. The seeming acceptance of his behavior by other members in the IRC (including his victim!) leaves me puzzled over the rhetorical purpose in designating certain modes of communication as places where profane free speech and free democratic expression are understood as the same thing.