If you have Nothing Nice to Say, Save it for Here: “Bad” Parrhesia, Democracy, and Digital Culture

Curator's Note

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.


Alan - you too have said too many good things for one piece! Both examples here first made me think of the increasing attention in American public culture to the nature of public discourse following, arguably, the tragic gun violence perpetrated by Jared Loughner in 2011. In that incident, 6 people were killed, and many injured, including former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. That event seemed to prompt numerous scholarly, mediated, and interpersonal conversations about incivility in the public sphere. Notably, Loughner's online posts from prior to the event were hostile rants that commentators pointed to as evidence of growing intolerance in America and proof that the internet contributes to a hostile political climate. For me it is interesting to think of the connection between parrhesia and our contemporary understanding of incivility. It is difficult to see how either mode of engagement is productive for the public sphere.

It's quite coincidental that you mention Loughner as the shooting took place several miles north from my campus at the University of Arizona. The shooting, which was horrific in all senses of the word, did in fact result in some positive initiatives at the U of A, many of which aimed to direct the conversation from senseless murder, mental illness, and, as you mention, incivility to something more positive for the community. One thing that your comment jarred open in relation to my post are the Isla Vista killings around UC Santa Barbara. Elliot Rodger, the killer, actively participated on an online forum dedicated towards the promotion of misogyny, strange sexual prejudices, and the like. What is unfortunate about Rodger and the scores of other sexually frustrated/alienated young men who shoot people as a indirect form of retribution are the online spaces to serve and defend these killers. We know these dark corners on the internet exist and we protect these sites' right to exist on the basis of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. These civil rights are essential (and I am certainly not arguing to remove or make illegal spaces where conversations are not to my taste), but it also protects an activity that threatens citizens in a democracy. Ultimately, what I find most fascinating is how democracy ends up eating itself like the proverbial ouroboros--the alchemical snake or dragon eating its own tail.

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